As the games of the XXX Olympiad roll into full gear, here’s a look at some of my favorite Olympic photographs back from the days before shooting famous faces, I made my living shooting sports action photography on the sidelines of major sporting events from Super Bowls to NBA Finals. Here’s my advice for capturing great sports action photography on the biggest stage of them all – the Olympics.
Swing for the Fences
When covering a major sporting event like the Olympics, one of the best ways to stand out from the pack to stand away from them. I was part of a three-photographer team covering the 1984 Olympics for The Orange County Register, while our competition locked up the newspaper pool rights for the games and the 28 credentials that came with that. There was really no way the three of us could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of them in all the places they’d be. It’s one of those classic David -vs- Golliath situations where it’s so much more fun to be David. While they had to be in all the expected positions like the finish line – we couldn’t possibly be in all those places which left us free to do what we did best – improvise. Simply pick the spots you gut told you might pay off or in the words of my former boss Ron Mann, “Swing for the fences.”
I got my hands on an ultra-fast pre-production 300mm/F2 lens to test out at the games. It was the perfect lens to catch fast moving action in low light and had the added benefit that it’s shallow depth-of-field really blew out the background. The lens was a bit long for the photo pit of the men’s gymnastic rings competition where everyone else was shooting with 100 or 135mm lenses, but behind me I noticed an empty isle seat a few rows up in the stands. It was just the perfect spot to shoot with the 300. Of course it’s kind of risky shooting with a manual focus lens that has such shallow depth of field, but hey, no guts – no glory.
Head For The Cheap Seats
I got my break in photography as a high school swimmer when I worked up the nerve to show my photos to the sports editor of my hometown newspaper. He hired me on the spot leading down the road to a destination I never would have gotten to in the pool – the Olympics. One thing I learned early on was that the backstroke looked much better from a high angle where you could actually see their faces. When the event rolled around, I left my spot poolside and headed to the cheap seats, the empty bleachers in the very top row of the grandstands, to shoot the swimmers hitting the water in unison. It was a shot anyone with a ticket could have taken, yet a better angle than I had with my credentials. Getting away from the pack paid off when our three-photographer team took home that year’s Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography for our coverage of the games.
Once the race is over and the medals are won, keep watching for moments that happen off the field of play and for the interaction between athletes and their fans. Huge American flags at the Los Angeles Olympics provided the perfect panorama of patriotism for photographers. Keep looking, keep shooting! In the words of one of the greatest voices in American sport, Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” and “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Pick a Great Background
A clean blown-out background is a good start for great sports photography, but it’s even better if you can find something bold and colorful. This red, white & blue staircase at the Los Angeles Colosseum paired with the view from an 800mm lens were the perfect combination to capture iconic sports action images of pole vault at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Sports photography isn’t all about long 600mm and 800mm telephoto lenses, don’t overlook what a wide angle lens can add for wide scene-setting sweeping panorama. In this shot, runners in the steeplechase are silhouetted against the backdrop of the LA Colosseum. Interesting to note that this image shot with an 18mm wide angle and the pole vault images above were shot from virtually the same vantage point.
As the saying goes, “better to be lucky than good.” The honest truth is no matter how much you study the sport and plan things out, there’s an element of luck in the best sports photographs. This shot of Greg Louganis hitting his head on the diving board at the Seoul Olympics is an example of luck of the motor drive. It was shot back in the day before you could buy a camera capable of 12 frames-per-second for a little over a grand. This was back when you were lucky to get 3 fps with a brand new set of batteries. At the moment you trip the shutter on a single-lens-reflex camera the the camera’s mirror goes up and the viewfinder goes black – making this the best sports action moment that I never actually saw…
Louganis recovered from the mishap to take home Olympic Gold and this photograph went on to win first place from World Press Photo and the Pictures of the Year competitions that year and Photo District News magazine named it as one of the Greatest Sports Photographs of 1980-2000.