LONDON Aug 7 When Canada's Ben Johnson
accelerated across the 100 metres finishing line in 9.79 seconds
at the 1988 Seoul Olympics it took about 1-1/2 hours to get the
shot to newspapers.
When Usain Bolt blitzed the 100m at the London Games in an
Olympic record of 9.63 seconds on Sunday, it took news agencies
less than three minutes to publish the first images of the
fastest man in the world's triumph.
Technology has revolutionised the speed, quality and
quantity of photos from the Olympics, with the shift to digital
sparking a race among news organisations to get photos online
and to iPads winning readers and advertising dollars.
With cameras getting better every Olympics, more frames can
be taken per second, and underwater cameras capture all angles
in the pool.
The type of photos on offer has expanded further at the
London Games with remote, robotic cameras in the roofs of major
venues and the use of gigapan cameras to zoom in on the crowd.
Standout images from London have ranged from underwater
shots of Michael Phelps ploughing through the pool, to
long-range images of Prince William hugging his wife Kate at the
cycling, to artistic images of the moon below Tower Bridge
rising through the Olympics rings.
Past iconic Olympic photos include the 1968 black power
salute by John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico, U.S. swimmer
Mark Spitz wearing seven gold medals at Munich 1972, and
Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996.
Technological advances have changed the game for 1,500
photographers at the 2012 Games, all of whom are chasing the
ultimate images of ecstasy and agony at the world's largest
"The challenge for photographers is now not just to get a
great position, great access and a great photo, but to get their
images on to a digital platform as quickly as possibly," said
Steve Fine, director of photography at Sports Illustrated.
"We are beating television at their own game in terms of
news and speed. It is like the athletes, the media and the fans
are in their own reality TV show ... Photos show not just the
sport but the tears, the cheers, the whole scene."
Photographers with experience covering Olympics said their
profession had changed radically since Sydney 2000 when digital
technology replaced the use of film and ended the use of runners
to ferry rolls of film to processing centres.
Photographers on site remove discs from their cameras, slot
them into laptops, and send the images to editors in seconds.
Remote, robotic cameras in the roofs of major Olympic venues
at London have also helped to increase the number of photos and
angles of events with Sports Illustrating flicking through about
10,000 cycling images to choose two photos for publication.
Photographer Andy Hooper of British newspaper Daily Mail,
who has covered four Olympics, said photographers worked on the
move constantly, eating on the run and groaning about bad backs.
"The Olympics is the sports photographer's marathon," said
Hooper. "It is a hard two weeks and you have to keep going."
The logistics of organising the army of photographers who
cover the 204 nations at the Games starts months if not years
before the event.
Pawel Kopczynski, a Reuters news pictures editor, said
planning to install the remote, robotic cameras in the roofs of
major venues at London started years ago and the cameras had to
be installed three weeks before the Games began.
In a helmet, safety jacket and harness, Kopczynski climbed
up the 60-metre (197 feet) tall light pillars at the Olympics
Stadium to install the cameras. Luckily he doesn't fear heights.
"It means we have live access to these cameras all the time
and we can get great shots as we can move them and also change
all the parameters as well," he said.
"But the key for success is not the technology but where you
put them. You have to be a photographer for this."
Photographers with diving qualifications are in charge of
installing and moving the underwater cameras every day.
It was a carefully placed underwater camera that won
plaudits for Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier at
the 2008 Beijing Games for snapping Michael Phelps touching the
wall 0.01 seconds before Serbia's Milorad Cavic to win the 100m
For state-of-the-art equipment is not enough to give a
photographer an advantage over rivals - and nor is luck.
Reuters chief UK photographer Dylan Martinez, who has
covered eight Olympics, said it was critical photographers did
their research about events and competitors before events.
He cited the example of recognising the mother of U.S. gold
medallist gymnast Gabby Douglas in the stands at London, knowing
if the so-called "Flying Squirrel" did well she would rush over
to her mother. He was right and in the ideal spot for the photo.
"The Olympics is not just a sports story. It is a news
story and research is king," said Martinez. "It is a very
stressful business. If you miss a shot it is so depressing."
A classic example of being in the right place at the right
time was Sports Illustrated photographer Carl Yarbrough who
crept past officials and stood behind a safety fence to shoot
men's downhill ski ace Hermann Maier at the 1998 Nagano Olympics
As the Austrian pelted downhill and, airborne, spun out of
control, Yarbrough got photos of him spinning through the air
before Maier almost landed on top of him.
"It is not luck, it is about planning," said Fine who has
covered 13 Olympics. "If something is going to happen and you
are in the right place then you will get the shot."
Reuters photographer Mike Segar was in a critical spot at
the London basketball when he ended up with Spanish player Rudy
Fernandez on his lap clutching a bleeding head, a f ter running
off the court out of control. Segar held the injured player
until help arrived while rival photographers took shots of him.
"It was clear that my role as a journalist had, for that
moment ended ...I was at least shown in a compassionate moment -
that I can live with," he wrote in an online blog about the
Position by a footstep or two is critical to getting the
best shot, with photographers often jostling for best positions.
A new rule at London has banned photographers from saving a
place by leaving a bag there for hours to alleviate hostility.
However tensions have risen between photographers and
greater numbers of TV cameras battling for prime shooting turf.
Reuters global sports pictures editor, Gary Hershorn, who
has covered 15 summer and winter Olympics since the 1984 Los
Angeles Games, said ultimately, even with the massive change in
technology, the goal for photographers remained the same as ever
- a great photo.
"The basic premise of being a photographer at an event like
the Olympics has always been to simply get the best shot and
that is still what it's all about," he said.
So where does it go next?
"I reckon we will see photos going straight from cameras
directly to your phone," Fine predicted.
(Editing by Jason Neely)