Monday, August 6, 2012

Three Things Photographers Can Learn from the Olympics

The London 2012 Olympics are now half over -- one week down, one to go. The Olympics are not only the largest gathering of athletes in the world, it's also the largest gathering of photographers in the world. If you haven't noticed the throngs of photographers packed onto sidelines, stands, streets, and just about any other piece of real estate in London, you're missing out on opportunities to learn some valuable lessons about photography... Here are three things, out of many, you can learn from watching the photographers instead of the athletes at the Olympics.

Sometimes the Crowd is Wrong

Popular Photography on-line has an interesting post on an unusual photographer at the Olympics, spotted in the mass of DSLRs carrying an old 4x5 film Speed Graphic camera. Turns out the out-of-place photographer is David Burnett, a quirky, unusual photographer well-known for his amazing images produced using unusual (nowadays) equipment. Whatever he produces from these Olympics, you can bet it won't look like the same shot produced by 200 other photographers.
For me, some of the most compelling images from the games come from the photographers who found a unique vantage point, or didn't shoot with the "expected" camera or lens, or who weren't only waiting for the posed "winning athlete holds up and kisses gold medal" photograph. Sometimes, following the crowd isn't the best thing to do.

Sometimes the Crowd is Right

Next time you watch some Olympic coverage on TV, and see the big crowd of photographers, take a glance at the front of the mass of lenses pointed at the action; see any "protective UV filters" on any of the lenses? No, you don't. Not in the London rain, not along the splashy kayak courses, not on the sides of the beach volleyball courts with sand flying everywhere...not at all. Thousands of professional photographers, with some of the most expensive equipment available, and not a "protective" UV filter in sight.
The debate over whether or not to use a "protective" filter has been going on for as long as I've been taking photos (and that's over 30 years). But if you're a photographer who's been using one because some photo store owner told you that you should, or because you think you need it to "protect" your lenses, take another look at the Olympics. Those guys make their living from producing high-quality images in difficult conditions, and they certainly care about their lenses...but you won't find them using any "protective" UV filters. Why? Because they degrade image quality 100% of the time, for maybe a one in 100,000 chance (0.001% of the time) they might "protect" something.
Take a hint from the crowd this time; take your "protective" filter off, and improve your images 100% of the time. Sometimes, the crowd is right.

Don't be a Jerk

Competition at the crowded Olympics for a good vantage point to take photos is, certainly, intense. The professionals working there have tight deadlines, long hours, crowded conditions, and often only a fraction of a second to take that one special photograph. But that doesn't mean you have to be a jerk.

I've seen both some jerks and some admirable people in the photographer pool this year. In the "jerk" category:
- during one of the bicycle road races, as the TV cameras followed the cyclist you could see two photographers in the background shoving each other at one of the corners -- resulting in both of them missing the leader zip by on his bike!
- after a horrible fall in one of the womens' gymnastics routines, a crying young girl -- who knows she's just blown the chance she's worked for over many years -- heads over to her seat in the pit, sits down with her head in her hands, and cries her eyes out. Her coaches know enough to give her a few minutes of privacy...the photographers didn't. Not only did they swarm all over the barrier behind her, leaning over as far as they could, but the photographers on the floor stood, sat, and squatted around her in an ever-tightening circle...until the girl could take no more, and -- still crying -- pushed her way through the circle running to try to find someplace she could have ten seconds of private grief. Yes, those photographers are there to cover all aspects of the games, but that would have been the time to back off a bit and use a telephoto, instead of using the wide-angle lens right up in her face.

And in the "admirable" category:
- In one of the women's 400m hurdle trials yesterday, one woman tripped over the first hurdle, and fell *hard.* She didn't get up right away. While the race went on without her, a photographer on the infield of the track stopped taking photos of the other runners, and after it was clear she wasn't going to get up and finish the race, went over and helped her to her feet. That's class.

I love the Olympics...and sometimes watching the photographers is almost as fun and interesting as watching the athletes. Next time you watch an event, pay a little attention to the people with the cameras -- you might learn something interesting and useful!


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  2. This post certainly gives insight on how difficult it can be to take photographs and how hard it is for photographers to take good pictures.