The biggest sporting event in the world is set to produce some picture-perfect moments.
At this year's London Olympics, plenty of iconic images will be taken in a different way. Getty Images and its team of photographers have been working on novel ways to work around some of the restrictions at this year's event, as well as pioneering some new ways of thinking about sports photography.
Mark Kolbe and Chris McGrath are two of Getty's Australian photographers who will be covering this year's Games, working with 3D imaging and robotic cameras, respectively.
Enter the third dimension
"I was at the Rugby World Cup last year, and I was working with our chief photographer from our London office, Shaun Botterill, and he was talking to me about what he'd been doing with his 3D stuff. It hooked me in straight away, I was fascinated just to see it done," said Kolbe.
The custom-made handheld rig can hold two cameras with lenses. Kolbe has two Canon 5D Mark III SLRs, which he uses most, though he also has two 1D X cameras, which are still fresh out of the box. Once the images have been taken, it's a simple process of creating the final 3D effect in StereoPhoto Maker.
Kolbe and Botterill will be trying to cover as many events as possible — not just the blue-ribbon sporting events.
"You think of those iconic pictures you get at Olympic Games; everyone wants to see Usain Bolt come across the line with his arms in the air. But seeing it in 3D, with the guys trailing behind, is going to be really exciting," he said.
"The whole thing of the Olympics is that you get a lot of really genuine dejection. People plan how they are going to win and ... you never know how they are going to respond. It's really going to lend itself beautifully to 3D, trying to incorporate both elements of the jubilation and dejection, all in one frame."
Kolbe has tested out the 3D effect at a number of previous events, including the AFL, cricket during the Australian summer and the Australian Open. Even with all this experience, learning to think in 3D has been a steep learning curve. "It's been a lot of trial and error. Some things lend themselves really beautifully to 3D and others you sort of think will work, and they don't work as well as you think," he said.
Robotics at the Olympics
Unlike previous Olympic Games, where photographers had access to the roof of stadium events, the London event has no such provisions. This means that photo agencies have had to come up with new ways of capturing all the action, without being physically behind the camera.
Enter the robotic camera rig. Getty worked with industry experts to design the system, which lets the photographer control everything remotely, from behind a laptop screen.
Photographers can adjust everything that they would normally be able to from behind the laptop screen, such as zooming the lens, focusing and changing the camera's position. The laptop receives the camera's Live View output via Ethernet as the action happens.
It wasn't all smooth sailing to get the system working right the first time. Because there is no access to the roof area where the cameras are located, there is very little margin for device failure. "We had motors that were driving the zooms on the cameras," said McGrath. "They were just too weak in the beginning; they were slipping, so we had to redesign that. We just had to think 'these things have to work for two months and we can't touch it'. So everything has to sit and work for two months, basically."
Other challenges to getting the live implementation working included latency, as well as the screen locking up when a photographer takes the shot.
"That's our biggest problem ... we might shoot 28 frames, but it locks the screen up, so you sit there and wait for it to come back on. When it does come back on, your subject has moved," said McGrath.
"We were doing the synchronised swimming event, and that's quite slow. We were looking down on them, and we'd get them all in the frame and fire the frame. Then it would lock up, and they would have swum out of the frame. You'd be searching around the pool with this camera, trying to find a ripple looking for the people. That's our biggest challenge — not to shoot too much, how long is each firing and just how to work with that delay."
It's not surprising to find that, despite all the amazing advancements in robotic camera technology, the most important part of the equation to making a great sports photo is still the photographer. With this in mind, McGrath reflected on the importance of a photographer's intuition when it comes to knowing and predicting the shot he wants.
"After a while, we were firing and just trying to get used to it, but then we started going 'OK, this isn't making a picture', so we started thinking about photography again. The novelty of the [robotic] camera started to wear off after about day two. We started going back to what we know as photographers ... so we'd actually set the camera up somewhere and wait for the picture."
"It's much the same you would do with normal photography, you still have to think about it. It's just your camera, your eyes and your ideas, you just have to sit there and think the same way you used to."
Getty photographers will not be the only ones trying to capture star shots with these new technologies at the Olympics. Reuters is another agency that has been working with its own robotic cameras.
Kolbe opined that competition in the marketplace is always a good thing to have for photographers. "It's looking at an event, a stadium, walking around it first and really getting in your mind a picture idea of what will work. It's just working out where teammates, family members or coaches are, and things like that."
"Everyone's kind of helping each other, a little bit," said McGrath. He mentioned that the community of photographers are all speaking about the challenges of shooting with robotics, and that it's not necessarily a rivalry. People are keen to get the technology working properly.
"We're all photographers, and we just want to make it work."