Gone in a flash: A blur of activity
February 16, 2014
Photography is all about decisions.
In a dark arena, do you accept grainy photos or the chance for some blur?
At the Olympics, do you go out on the course and get a good action shot, or hope someone you care about wins and get a gold-medal-reaction shot?
Trying to go to as many events as possible in one day demands some serious decisions, and how I made them defined a long, exciting day of Olympics action.
The first decision was about equipment.
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With so many venues and so much traveling on the schedule, do I really want to haul everything I brought to Russia?
That's a considerable amount of equipment: three camera bodies, six lenses, including a 400mm f/2.8 from Nikon that is heavy and doesn't fit in a bag.
Decision one: Drop some weight.
What good would I be at if I was a grumpy, beaten down mess anyway? I went with two camera bodies — one a super fast Nikon D4, perfect for sports, and my Nikon D800, a 36-megapixel camera ideal for more scenic shots.
I decided against the big lens as it can be a huge hassle getting on and off buses and in and out of arenas. I went with three lenses that stood out as versatile: a 24-70mm f/2.8, a decently wide lens, a 70-200mm f/2.8, the ubiquitous sports-shooting lens, and a 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6, not great for anything indoors, but flexible enough for something near or far outdoors.
Decision two: Make the most of it.
The Olympic journalist photo credential is one of the ultimate tickets in sports. It gets a photographer in the door, then escorted to some of the finest seats in the house.
For the guy bouncing between venues, showing up late and leaving early, it requires decisions.
Is it better to sit in a bad seat behind a post on the ice at a hockey game, or to stand high in the stands and photograph the game from a distance?
I ended up trying both. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't.
Short-track speed skating is a thrilling sport to photograph no matter where you are, though it's surely better from one of the few spots available on the ice than it was from the rafters, where I was stationed, just in time for the first race after arriving from the Finland-Austria men's hockey game.
Women's hockey, however, was a struggle. I actually had a good seat, on the ice, but the action just didn't come to me.
One reliable way to get a good photo is to look for the fans. The Japanese fans at that Japan-Germany game were dressed appropriately for a great photo, too. We didn't witness any goals in our time there, however, so I had to settle for a shot of some interestingly dressed fans cheering their team into the first-period locker room.
Decision three: Grin and bear it.
Russian hockey games are obviously a big deal here. The Russian fans filled the Olympic Park before their Thursday game, and Bolshoy was ringing with their chants: "RUSSS-SAAAA-EEEEE!"
Showing up from curling right as the puck dropped did not lend itself to a good photo position. The photo director for the venue — overwhelmed in the moment — met me with a frustrated look and told me only that there was no way I'd be able to take my backpack with me.
He then got in an argument with a Russian photographer about whether it was really necessary to have a 400mm lens and an 800mm lens.
I found my seat and was just happy to be in what easily was the loudest environment we've encountered at these games. There were photographers behind me in seats and a mix of Russian fans and broadcast media in front of me. Those fans would wave their arms and stand frequently, blocking my shots. Meanwhile, the photographer behind me kept patting my head. I'm not sure what he expected me to do with my head, but I opted not to lop off the top 2 inches.
The environment more than made up for those difficulties, however, and I ended up with shots I liked both on the ice and in the stands.
Decision four: Think differently.
It's not difficult to find a new way to shoot an Olympic event. It's impossible.
There are hundreds of photographers covering the Sochi Olympics, and they scour venues for the best spots and vantage points.
There weren't hundreds at curling, where the United States was facing down the British, but there were enough to get all the regular shots thoroughly photographed. So, I looked for something different and ended up with a curling shot no one else was working on that day.
I slowed the shutter speed way down, used the 24-70mm lens and panned with the U.S. team's shooter as he let loose the stone while gliding along the ice.
Panning shots can be difficult but awesome for a fast skier or mountain biker. They're a lot easier in slow-moving curling. I had my shutter speed as low as 1/40 — the shutter was open for 1/40th of a second — to get the shot I wanted.
I'm sure it's been done, but it wasn't that day, so I'll consider it a win.
Decision five: Spray and pay.
Lugers come and go so fast photographing them is a little like waking up from a dream. You blink your eyes a few times, and you wonder if what just happened actually happened.
Moving at about 90 miles per hour, I had to repeatedly check my camera to make sure a rider actually went by.
Luge is the most difficult sport I've ever photographed.
Forget panning to get a motion blur, as I did at curling. The only way I was able to successfully capture proof of lugers competing was to focus on a spot on the track, wait to hear the sounds of the crowd and the sled, then hammer the shutter button when I thought they were close.
They streaked through my viewfinder so quickly they seemed to be just a blur, and for the first photos, they were. I jacked the shutter speed up to 1/2500, however, and then, when I'd check back on my photos, sure enough, there was a luger.
The Sanki Sliding Center in Krasnaya Polyana has built a reputation among photographers for being difficult, with few quality photo positions.
There's only one spot on the track for those iconic shots with the athlete zooming around a corner beneath those iconic rings painted into the ice, and there are only five spots there for photographers.
But photographers also aren't hemmed into several very specific zones, so I took advantage of that to wander and try to find a location I really liked.
The end result isn't exactly spectacular, but I got some competitors in frame, in focus, and that wasn't guaranteed.
Our decision for the day to chase as many events as possible wasn't one that lent itself to the best photos, but my own decisions along the way were what decided the value of a venue.