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Photography and the Olympics

by Andy Johnson

Earlier this month around 1400 professional photographers descended on Rio for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Armed with a range of high-performance cameras these pro-level sports shooters witnessed the world’s best athletes competing for gold in Brazil. 

They captured shots of Usain Bolt’s historic 3 gold medals for the third Olympic Games in a row; the treatment of French Pole Vaulter Renaud Lavillenie by local fans; and Australia’s nail biting one point loss to Spain in the basketball.

Figure 1 Usain Bolt competing in the mens 100m at the Rio Olympic Games
Photographer: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Not only did they share those moments with us in the media and on the internet but they did it all within minutes of it happening.

To ensure they are prepared for anything that might happen on and off the track, Olympic Photographers are seasoned professionals with years of experience and the industry's most cutting edge cameras and lenses at their disposal.

Autofocus speed and telephoto lens options are the main qualifiers for the equipment pro sport photographers use and pre-dominantly that translates to them using a range of high-end Nikon and Canon DSLR gear.

Figure 2 Photographers at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games
Photographer: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Both Canon and Nikon set up support facilities at the Olympics, offering professional services like sensor cleaning and camera maintenance. They also offer equipment hire to news professionals and as a result they often take a huge amount of equipment to the games. 

Canon alone stated they sent almost 1600 lenses and 900 DSLR bodies to Rio, with an estimated total value of $7.8 Million dollars. 

If you’ve ever wondered what $7.8 Million of Canon gear might look like? Check out the pictures below, but be prepared they might inspire strong feelings of gear envy.

Figure 3 The Canon Professional Service Back Room at Rio 2016
Photographer: Jeff Cable

On the surface it might look like the world’s worst documented case of GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but it is it is in fact the Canon storeroom at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

Jeff Cable, an American Photographer snapped some pictures of Canon’s Professional Services back room while he collected some rental gear. He managed to capture a mouth-watering collection of EOS 7D Mark II, 1DX Mark II, and 5DSR cameras, along with a ridiculous number of Canon telephoto lenses, tele converters and other highly desirable pieces of kit.

Figure 4 High end lenses and camera bodies fill the room
Photographer Jeff Cable

Figure 5 Not only Bodies and Lenses, the back room also stores hundreds of extenders, flashes and other accessories Photographer: Jeff Cable

Nikon was also boasting an impressive stockpile of gear and Belgium photographer Vincent Kalut was lucky/sneaky enough to take some pictures in their Olympic backroom.

Figure 6 Nikon's formidable Olympic gear room
Photographer: Vincent Kalut
Most of the camera bodies were the new Nikon D5 which is one of the first pro level DSLR’s to feature 4K Video recording and also includes lightning fast autofocus with 153 focus points.

Figure 7 Boxes of D5 DSLRs for use at the Olympics
Photographer: Vincent Kalut
Getty Images alone estimate their photographers have captured 1.5 million shots in the 18 days of the games to satisfy the demand for images, that’s almost 84,000 shots a day!

With such a high demand for captivating pictures Getty are focused on getting the best gear possible for their staff photographers and money appears to be no object.

Michal Heiman the Director of Sports events for Getty took a photo of the lenses the company shipped over for their photographers and it was an arsenal of high end glass.

Figure 8 Getty prepares for the Olympics by sending high quality Canon lenses
Photographer: Michal Heiman
As well as the high-end glass Getty also sent over Canon's latest camera bodies to match, mostly favouring the new autofocus king Canon’s 1Dx Mark II but not forgetting to grab a couple of high megapixel monster 5DSR cameras as well.

Figure 9 Getty's full armoury as tweeted by their Director of Sports Events
Photography: Michal Heiman

But don’t let this vulgar display of optical power get under your skin; these guys still have one of the hardest jobs in the industry.

With the incredible technological advancements in recent years, from quicker autofocus tracking to fast drive modes allowing up to 16 frames to be shot captured in a second, you’d be forgiven for thinking the job of professional sports photographers is getting easier.
In actual fact they have never been under more pressure in today’s cut throat world of sports photography.

Modern photographers have to work as fast as some of the athletes in getting their shots out in the media earlier than everyone else and the goal posts are constantly being moved as changes in technology make the demand for first-to-market images overwhelming.

Shooting, editing and sending off to the media outlet within 15 minutes is no longer quick enough. 

Getty claimed to have the ability to send images from camera to their media customers in as little as 59 seconds.

Figure 10 Getty photo editors prepare images for publication onsite
Photographer: Michal Heiman/Getty Images

Rio set the bar for sport shooters by using hard wired connections in the stadiums that allow pro sports shooters to be tethered onto a direct network, so as soon as the shutter slams down the image is already being copied to a network drive.

Photographers don’t even have the luxury of editing their own images anymore; the competitive nature of the industry has created an entirely whole new role of onsite photo editors who can start editing the shots as soon as they upload from the camera to the network drive.

Getty Images installed 100km of fibre optic cable to ensure that the cameras are copied over directly from the photographer’s cameras as soon as possible. Associated Press have 56km of cables connecting their photographers to their team of editors.

So what does the future hold for professional sports photogs?

Figure 11 A robotically controlled camera
More and more we’re seeing robots being used by photographers to capture scenes underwater and unique perspective overhead stadium shots. Remote robots allow photographers more control than traditional setups which only allows photographers to trigger the shutter, whereas the new system allows them to zoom in and out pan, tilt, and even follow subjects for video.

Figure 12 A remote robot camera captures Germany's Jurgen Spies during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games
Photographer: Pool/Getty Images

The media giant Reuters entered a partnership with Samsung to use video and photography technology not available to the public yet at the 2016 Games so that their photographers can capture VR and 360° footage of the games and other media agencies have followed suit as this new medium develops.

Whatever the future holds one thing is for sure and that is that we are going to see more and more high quality shots of the games and that means that in the coming years we may enjoy an even closer than front row experience  to many of the events.


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