4,478 clicks: Two days producing 26 photographs at the Olympic Games
February 23, 2014
Krasnaya Polyana, Russia — Photographing the Olympics is the easiest and hardest of assignments. Sometimes the very best photo spots were scouted out months ago, and photographers are escorted there via a red carpet. Other times, access is restricted, routes are blocked and plans are changed.
Covering the men's and women's parallel slalom events Wednesday at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, I took 2,497 photos on two cameras and using three lenses. I flagged 115, processed 32 in Photoshop and posted 13 to an online gallery with the Steamboat Pilot & Today.
A day later, covering the final Nordic combined event, I used three cameras and three lenses to take 1,981 photos that resulted in another 13-photo gallery.
Larger news organizations come with teams of photographers, Ethernet cables strung to every possible photo position so photographers can plug in, transmit thousands of photos in a few seconds and a team of editors can quickly process them.
It's an entirely different world for one person to do the job for a small Colorado publication.
Here's the story, throughout two days and 4,478 clicks, of photographing the Olympics.
It’s all about the celebration
It isn't difficult to get a great shot at the Olympics. It's easy, thanks to the mapped-out photo positions that define a photographer's existence at every venue.
What's difficult to get at the Olympics, though, is an original great shot.
That's the task I faced Wednesday at the men's and women's snowboard parallel giant slalom event at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
The great shots — the easy ones, anyway — awaited at the bottom of the course. Event staff set aside a small box for photographers right in the middle of the finish corral. But those spots almost exclusively are reserved for the big-dog media organizations such as The Associated Press, Reuters or Getty Images. There's another spot off to the side for the riffraff (the Steamboat Pilot & Today) that generally yields similar photographs.
The whole goal of setting up at the finish line is the reaction shot, and that reaction shot almost always is worth the wait.
Consider the women's moguls competition we covered on the first day of the Olympics. Justine Dufour-Lapointe won that event, and once her gold medal was secure, she ran into the middle of the finish zone, whipping her skis around and screaming for all to see.
I was at the finish, off to the side, and I got the photo. A picture of her celebrating was more valuable that night than any of the 1,000 pictures of her actually skiing. The world's best moguls skiing photo doesn't mean anything next to a photo of her celebrating.
Olympics photographers are well aware of this, so they pack into the tiny boxes at the bottom, each loaded with about $30,000 of the newest camera equipment available, and they confine themselves to a 6-by-3-foot box at the bottom of the run.
That's photographing the Olympics.
Thinking outside the box
My first decision Wednesday was to avoid that box, at least initially. Probably 80 percent of the venue's photographers that day were at the finish line, and of the 20 who strayed, a dozen stood packed in another small group for another shot that makes all the sense in the world.
The PGS course was bordered by an 8-foot-tall blue fence. Coaches, course workers, light poles, radio antennas, TV cameras and cellphone towers lined the sides of the course, adding hugely distracting clutter.
There was exactly one spot where you could see over the fence and to an area that had a clean background, and that's where almost all the non-finish line photographers were stationed.
It did make for good pictures, like the one we ran as the lead photo with the story — a photo of American/Russian Vic Wild riding his gold medal-winning run.
Even if I understood why they were standing in that particular place, I decided not to. I took a few steps to the side — literally about 8 feet — and found a view that wasn't so much better as it was different, with a nice mountain backdrop but also with some of that clutter.
I photographed several racers, then moved on.
Access is different at every venue we visit. Some have incredibly strict rules about where you can be and when you can be there. Others are pretty wide open, but it's difficult to take advantage. The moguls course, for instance, was too steep and the snow too rotten to access without full-on crampons.
The PGS course, however, was much more accessible. Once you were away from the finish line, you could go anywhere you wanted. I put that theory to the test when I decided I wanted to try to get a wide-angle shot of racers coming down underneath the dramatic, snow-capped Caucasus mountains.
I poked my head in an area with a shorter fence to facilitate TV. I hung my camera on the fence, and I even flopped on my belly and stuck my camera under the fence. I was definitely expecting to get told to stop, but that never happened.
The results were good, though I'd have needed to be closer for them to be great.
Compensating for oops
As the parallel giant slalom event wore on, it became more obvious Vic Wild was on the verge of a big day. I needed a good photo of him, and my chance at being on the finish line had come and gone.
I saddled up next to the group of photographers with the one truly clean background and made the most of it. (Actually, in checking out my competitors' photos from the day, they don't even appear to have been as interested in the clutter-free skyline as I was. I can't explain what they were doing there.)
Getting away from the finish line does have its advantages. Earlier in the Games, at the men's snowboard half-pipe, I got a very unique photo of Iouri Podladtchikov celebrating his win with a dejected Shaun White in the foreground. No one else had the shot because I alone still was up on the half-pipe.
In an example from Wednesday, I had an entirely different view of Russian Alena Zavarzina's finish-line celebration after she scored bronze. I loved how she lifted her board in front of a sea of Russian flags.
You can see all the other photographers there, snapping away. Was my shot better than theirs, a shot right in her face with her board raised? I don't know, but either way, there were dozens of people who got that shot and only me with mine, so that's worth something.
Not being at the finish is a gamble, for sure, and one I've lost while here. During the men's snowboard half-pipe semifinals, I hiked up the side of the pipe, hoping to get a great shot with a wide-angle lens of Taylor Gold arcing over me on a jump.
The shot that I needed, however, was at the bottom of the run, where Gold lost his feet on his last trick. He put his hands on his head in disbelief that he would not make the finals, that his Olympics was over. I was 200 yards up the course, utterly out of position.
Adding insult to injury, Taylor, who flew exactly where I was hoping he would, was out of focus in most of my frames.
We ran a photo of him on a clean jump from an earlier run, a nice shot but not "the shot."
Wednesday was not quite the same. Vic didn't give me that great moment his wife, Zavarzina, did when he crossed the finish line, saluting the crowd. But he didn't give those waiting in the photo box much either. He simply threw up a a single fist when he crossed the finish line.
"The shot" that day was of Wild and his bronze medalist wife wrapping a Russian flag around themselves and smiling at each other. I could have been in that position if I'd sat at the finish line all day, but it still wasn't a big "oops."
The husband-wife storyline was big for most of the writers, but there's no real connection between Zavarzina and Steamboat, and Luke Graham went a different direction.
He wrote about the friendship between Wild and Steamboat Springs rider Justin Reiter. I never saw those two together Wednesday, so while one would have been perfect, I didn’t “miss” it.
Sometimes the gamble pays off.
It paid off Thursday at the Nordic combined team competition, no question.
Like everywhere else, the premier position at Nordic combined is right at the finish line, where the jumpers skid to a stop directly in front of you, and the cross-country skiers rush toward and cross the finish line directly in front of you.
There are other options. You can stand at the bottom of the jump, or, as I did for the final two events, climb the jump hill — 400 brutal steps that get you closer to the jumpers in the air and can offer a cool shot of them flying above the stadium.
On Thursday, I got a shot from up there that I loved, tight on Billy Demong, who was wearing reflective goggles that showed the entire stadium.
As for the ski racing, you could set up in the stands looking down at the finish line, a similar vantage point to those precious few spots looking straight at it, albeit from a higher angle. You could set up beside the finish line, and there are two spots out on the course, though they offer no guarantee of making it back for the finish.
On Thursday, we had a new option. Event staff promised to lead me under the jumps to an area where we could get a straight-on shot of the relay hand-offs. That seemed like it could be a nice shot with plenty of Steamboat imagery — "Lodwick hands off the baton" type of stuff — so I opted in.
Then they changed the rules. Apparently we possibly would have been in a TV shot, and since the TV broadcast rights are what pays the bills, the plan was nixed.
Still, it worked out.
I stood still near the base of one of the jumps, looking back into the stadium, basically looking the wrong way through the finish line.
That's where I got one of my favorite shots of the Olympics.
Todd Lodwick, Steamboat's retiring six-time Olympian, finished his leg of the relay and, as all the racers do, he collapsed to his hands and knees. I was a long ways away, on the complete catty-corner side of the stadium, but I had a 400mm lens, so I was able to get OK photos.
I took a few and stopped.
Then he got up and began to walk away. End of shot, I thought. But I noticed he was walking in front of the Olympic rings, his back to me.
It's fairly easy to get the rings in shots. They are plastered on everything, almost ensuring you'll frame your photo with them whether you want to or not. It, of course, makes a great stamp for a photo, adding to the story in a big way, so I take advantage.
It worked out here. Lodwick was walking away from his final Olympic competition, his shoulders slumped, and the rings were right there.
It said everything about the moment without a word. He was finished. It wasn't his best day at the Olympics, but it was his final day at the Olympics.
I hammered away, taking about 50 frames of the moment — really just a few clicks with the D4 camera I was using on loan from Nikon. None of the 20 other photographers who had been stranded in that corner with me fired once. It was a powerful and meaningful shot for my readers, and it was mine alone.
The Denver Post ran a nice story about Lodwick's final event with a wire photo of him jumping. It was a nice photo, but the exact same shot we'd taken 1,000 times before the Olympics and that I'd taken 10 times in the past two weeks.
All the photographers waiting at the finish line, with the prime spots, didn't have an angle for the "walking away" moment and couldn't have gotten it.
It isn't a perfect photo. There's two goofballs with their heads in there, ruining the nice red wall and the leading lines. And maybe there would have been a better way to frame it, perhaps with his face. But there wasn't time to worry about that.
It was a great photo, and it was unique. At the Olympics, it's not hard to get one or the other.
"Great" and "unique" photos are available in abundance. Getting both together, however, is a very rare thing.