LONDON: When Canada’s Ben Johnson accelerated across the 100 meters finishing line in 9.79 seconds at the 1988 Seoul Olympics it took about one-and-a-half 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 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 revolutionized the speed, quality and quantity of photos from the Olympics, with the shift to digital sparking a race among news organizations 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 Mohammad 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 sporting event.
“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 centers.
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 The 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,” he said. “It is a hard two weeks and you have to keep going.”
The logistics of organizing 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-meter-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,” Kopczynski 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 butterfly.
For state-of-the-art equipment is not enough to give a photographer an advantage over rivals – and nor is luck.
Reuters chief U.K. 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 recognizing the mother of U.S. gold medalist 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,” he said. “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 in Japan.
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, after 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 incident.
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.”
So where does it go next?
“I reckon we will see photos going straight from cameras directly to your phone,” Fine predicted.