Sports Photography: My Favorite Olympic Moments

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

United States Olympic Gymnast Tim Daggett flips during the dismount from the Rings competition at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics photographed by Brian SmithWhen 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. This left us free to do what we did best – improvise. Simply pick the spots your gut told you might pay off or in the words of my former boss Ron Mann, “Swing for the fences.”

There is a lot to be said for standing away from the pack, in fact a couple of my favorite shots from the games weren’t taken from the photo pit, but from the grandstands.

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.

Swimmers leave the blocks at the start of a backstroke race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. This image was part of an enry that was awarded the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography

Turn on the Crowd

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.

Olympic Pole Vault Trials sports photography by Brian Smith

Go Wide

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.

1984 Olympic Steeplechase Trials sports photography by Brian Smith

Get Lucky

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 11 frames-per-second for under 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

Greg Louganis hits his head on the diving board 1988 Seoul Olympics photographed by Brian Smith

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.

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10 thoughts on “Sports Photography: My Favorite Olympic Moments”

  1. I loved looking at these photos after listening to your webinar that you did earlier in the week on “Quit Waiting for Your Big Break.” It’s so fun to pair the images with the stories you told. Beautiful, iconic photography of a Games I will always remember.

  2. I did see the Louganis head wack, but I would really have liked it better had I been in your position. I shoot HS sports ‘for the kids’, and a good seat. Do you know of any way that I could get associated with some media outlet so I could get creds for college and pro sports. The local newspapers here are all filled and I would have no chance at latching on with them.

    Stuart Sundby

    1. Hi Stuart, I too, got my start shooting high school sports. The key is to build a great portfolio of images that you can use to advance you to the next level. Newspapers are tough as they’re all cutting back. You might want to approach the sports information department at the college with your work to see if you can get in that way.

  3. Lucius Annaeus Seneca said so rightly: “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity” and Brian Smith has worked tirelessly, preparing to catch the split of a second shots that he has caught so many times. His pictures stop the time still while moving the soul. What he calls luck is an extraordinary talent which gives him the status of being a star photographer and a Pulitzer Price winner!

  4. Hi Brian. I really admire your work and I always stop by your site from time to time to get inspired by your work. This is the first time I have visited your blog and I am surprised to find out you started out in sports photography. I think I am still trying to find my niche as a photography. I look forward to visiting your blog more often. Also I really like how you respond to those who comment. I think your a real class act.

    1. Thanks Calvin, I’ve enjoyed being able to shoot a lot of different types of work over the years. I think that’s a great way to keep photography fresh and continue to improve. In time, I think that over time, your niche actually finds you. Sometimes more than once…

  5. Pingback: Depth of Field: Brian Smith | The Digital Trekker Blog

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