Photographing the Sochi Winter Olympics with Getty

How do you photograph the Winter Olympics? Getty has a custom 100Mbps fibre optic network, mountains of pro photography gear, 360-degree panoramic tools and remote cameras.

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Lexy Savvides
6 min read

As thousands of Olympic hopefuls try their luck at scoring a medal for their home country, a team of photographers look on to capture these moments for posterity.

Clement Caplain from Getty Images tests the lines in the Adler Speed Skating Arena. (Credit: Getty Images)

At the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, Getty Images has set up a state-of-the-art fibre optic network in conjunction with the AP, AFP, Reuters and EPA wire agencies to deliver these gold medal moments in record time. Consisting of 20 kilometres of cable, the 100Mbps network allows Getty to deliver images from gold medal moments direct to publications within 180 seconds.

One of the many servers at Getty's media centre during set up stage. (Credit: Getty Images)

Pushing through an image from capture to distribution in such a short period of time is a massive undertaking — and it's not just the photographer who is doing all the work. Behind the scenes, Getty has a team of editors, captioning specialists and Photoshop experts who are preparing the image for delivery in record time.

Once the images arrive from the photographer, basic metadata is already embedded in the photo. Then, there are three editors who select the best images to send through to the Photoshop experts who colour correct and crop images based on the best composition. They may also adjust saturation and contrast. From here, the images get sent through to the caption team who identify any names and send the images through to the Getty website and feeds.

Stuart Hannagan, the vice president of editorial at Getty Images ANZ, is on the ground at Sochi to oversee the delivery of these time-sensitive moments. Though the 2014 Winter Olympics have become well known for one infamous hashtag — #SochiProblems — delivering images of gold medal moments is anything but a problem for Getty.

There are, however, some challenges for photographers shooting the Winter Olympics as opposed to the summer events.

"The challenge is, without a doubt, the events that occur across the top of the mountain," said Hannagan. "That would be cross-country skiing, the biathlons and things like that where they are trekking across kilometres of snowfields. It is amazingly hard for photographers."

Stuart Hannagan in the Getty Images media centre. (Credit: Getty Images)

"I was up there the other day watching these guys. They pack their gear at 7 in the morning and they probably won't come down off the mountain until 7 or 8 at night. The challenge is to be set up with enough food, getting up the mountain and being prepared to ski a lot. The guys will obviously do a complete trek around the track to find the best spots and then obviously on top of all that is taking the photos and making sure we actually move the photos. They have to be very aware that whilst they might be in the middle of nowhere, they have to get back at some time to get the imagery off the mountain."

Mountains of gear

Though professional SLRs and lenses are generally able to cope with extreme temperatures, Getty's team of photographers still have contingency plans and equipment to make do in case conditions take a turn for the worse. "At the moment it's not freezing cold," said Hannagan, but if the temperatures start becoming intensely cold the photographers enact plan B.

"The wet weather hoods, the brackets that allow us to work in pouring rain and freezing snow," he said. "It is quite funny at the end of the day walking into a photographer's lounge room or bedroom and seeing all the gear spaced out all over the room to dry out. You've got to be really careful because of the condensation. Quite often you get up in the morning, put the camera on and the front of the lens is completely covered [in condensation] and you can't see out of it."

Both Canon and Nikon professional services are on the ground at Sochi to help out with any issues that arise from using the gear in such intense situations. Getty also has its own pool of equipment (some is pictured above), worth over AU$100,000 that's available to borrow by its photographers if needed.

The Olympic Games has traditionally been a testing ground for the latest high-end professional SLRs, with Sochi being no exception.

Nikon announced the development of the successor to its flagship D4 earlier in 2014. It appeared at CES as a prototype model in nothing more than a glass box. While the official specs and announcement look set to be made any day now, some Getty photographers may get their hands on the D4S to shoot with at the Olympics.

"We have about 20-25 per cent of our guys on the sports side here using Nikon. We will probably be using the [D4S] camera as a bit of a test at some point during the Games ... the cameras are going into a new phase and a new era. The next stage is can we get the files out of the camera direct through Wi-Fi and things like that. That's the challenge that everybody is working towards. I can't see us having fibre optic cables forever more."

Robotics, panoramas and unique perspectives

At previous large-scale sporting events such as the summer Olympics, Getty has integrated technologies such as robotic cameras into its traditional capture methodologies. At the Opening Ceremony, robotic cameras were set up in the roof of the stadium to capture a different view to what the photographers on the ground were able to see.

"The gameplan was to set up as many robotics as we could," said Hannagan. "The problem with robotics is limited a little by the stadiums. What has happened is that the guys have got in and realised a lot of the roofs are not set up for robotics and there is no way we can access up there in the roof and hang robotics off."

In the second week of the Games, the team will be investigating what else they can do with robotic cameras once the access becomes a bit easier.

Dancers perform Time Forward!/Suprematic Ballet during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

"It's been a little more difficult than a summer Games because the stadiums here are more like domes, there's nothing up in the roof to hang [the robotics] from. It's been a bit of a challenge from that sort of view, so what we've reverted to more than robotics is remote cameras. We've got a lot of remote cameras in a lot of positions all over the mountain."

These cameras are still controlled by the photographer and are set up in more tricky positions, such as the snowboarding events. The photographer can set up the camera underneath a jump and get a photo of the boarder mid-jump. "The trick to all that is making sure ... [the photographers] do something every day that is different, so it doesn't look the same day after day."

Maria Hoefl-Riesch of Germany in action during the Alpine Skiing Women's Super Combined Downhill on day 3 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Credit: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Another area that Getty is exploring is 360-degree panoramic photography. While most of the team can make these images, Hannagan emphasises that it is a real art form and is not something that the company wants to have as just an afterthought.

"What we've done is we've invested in one guy, Henry Stuart from the UK, he's our 360 expert," he said. "Henry has come in and already done a series of 360s around the venues and main press centres. His job is to do a 360 at every single venue: alpine skiing, speed skating, ice hockey."

Though companies like Getty are increasingly integrating drones and octocopters into their arsenal for aerial imagery, there won't be any of those on the ground at Sochi. "The problem with the Winter Olympics is that it's such a challenging event. We didn't want to try and get to the point where we were doing too much," Hannagan stated.

"The reality is it's one of those events where we put the fibre optic cables in place, we put the editing scheme in place. The [photographers] have enough to worry about when they are up and about in the mountains ... we briefed the guys around being creative, make sure we're doing the day-to-day stuff that people expect from Getty, but surprise the clients and take fantastic imagery. Sometimes when you're doing all the other stuff [remotes, 3D] it becomes a bit of a headache for the photographers. I think it's a fair weight off their shoulders here; it's about taking beautiful pictures and the beautiful scenery. "