Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The 8 challenges of an Olympic photographer in Rio

The Summer Olympics are only a little more than a week away, and no doubt you have seen the endless news reports about the lack of readiness, the Zika Virus epidemic, the financial crisis, the substandard housing, and the safety issues in Rio de Janeiro. Even with all of this going on, it is my job to travel south and photograph this worldwide event for Team USA, specifically USA Water Polo, and I am looking forward to it. With so few credentials available, it is a huge honor to photograph the Olympics. For the fifth time, I will have a chance to photograph some of the best athletes in the world in one of the biggest sports competitions there is. Along with all the excitement of photographing the Olympics, I also face many challenges every two years. Most of these are recurring at each Olympic Games (Summer or Winter), while others are unique to this year’s event. So…as I prepare for the upcoming Games in Rio, here are my 8 biggest challenges:

Planning – gear and logistics

Before flying out to my first Olympic Games, I remember losing many nights of sleep, trying to figure out how much, and what, photographic equipment to bring. Not only do I need the right cameras and lenses, but I also need all the other accessories, like memory cards, readers, mounts, monopods, wireless triggers, bags, straps, etc. I fill a large Thinktank camera backpack and a large Thinktank roller bag, both of which go on board with me on any flight. This means that I have two full bags, not including the clothing and normal luggage requirements for a month-long trip to a foreign country.

Oh - and the next blog post will be all about the equipment I am bringing to Rio. Stay tuned for that one. 

Lodging, transportation, and food

About a year before Opening Ceremonies, I have already selected and paid a deposit for my press hotel room. This can be a challenge, especially when I don’t know exactly where most of my events will be located in the city. In the case of the Olympics in Rio, they ran out of time and will not be building the water polo venue (my primary sport to shoot), so they moved all water polo to two new locations. Those happened to be in a different part of the city, making it necessary for me to change hotels at the last minute.

All of my transportation will be taken care of by the Rio Organizing Committee. At each Olympics, the organizing committee provides press buses to take us to all the venues. But it’s up to me to determine distances, travel times, and other possible issues when planning my photography schedule.

When I work the Olympics, it is probably the only time in my life where I eat strictly for fuel and not for pleasure. Time is so tight, that there is rarely ever time for me to sit down and enjoy a long meal. It is usually a matter of slamming mediocre food so that I am not over hungry when working. The Main Press Center (MPC) usually has a food court to feed all of us tired and hungry media. But I cannot rely on that food. If it is anything like the choices we had in Sochi, Russia, I will be in trouble. At least there was a McDonalds at all other prior Olympics, but they will not be at the 2016 Games.

Time and schedules

Time is probably the biggest challenge at the Olympics, with a typical day starting at 9 a.m. and ending at 3 a.m. Do that every day for three weeks and see what this does to your body and mind! If you need to get a solid eight hours of sleep every day, being an Olympic photographer is not for you. I usually come home from the Games and spend a week catching up on sleep.

A couple of months prior to my trip, I log into the Olympic Intranet site and download a venue map and schedule of events. Even though the times are not exact, they give me a rough idea of my schedule for the month. Since I have contractual obligations to be at certain events, I need to make sure I arrive at the venue well in advance of the competition in order to prepare my gear and get a good shooting location. Before or after shooting my events for USA Water Polo, I am free to go capture images of any sport I want. There are different levels of credentials for the Olympics, but my all access pass allows me the freedom to photograph anywhere, other than the Olympic Village where the athletes live.


Rio de Janeiro is proving to be a little more challenging than other Olympic locations in respect to safety. I have been to Rio numerous times in the last 10 years and it is not the safest of places. I never wear my wedding ring, and usually travel in bullet proofed cars, which are not uncommon in this region. I am taking extra steps to stay safe, especially since I will be walking around with more than $30K worth of camera gear. This means being more diligent when going from one venue to another, even in the press buses. It will also be the first Olympics where I will take a smaller camera, like the Canon G5X and Canon M3 mirrorless camera for shooting photos outside of the Olympic Park. These cameras are very small (therefore not drawing attention to myself) but take excellent quality images. I also increased my insurance policy to make sure I was covered for the excessive amount of equipment I will be carrying.

The Canon G5X
The Canon M3 mirrorless camera

Rules and restrictions

Being a photographer at the Olympics comes with a lot more rules and restrictions than I have when shooting almost any other event. In many venues, we are restricted to certain photo positions, and cannot move from them. Depending on the event, there might be restrictions on when we can enter and exit those shooting positions. We are not allowed to use flash or tripods in any Olympic venue due to the safety of the athletes and spectators. We are even restricted from taking live video, since we are not broadcasters. Even my photos, which I own, are restricted in how I can sell them.

Tight Deadlines for Team USA

When I photographed my first Olympics, my deadline was 12 hours. My second Olympics, the deadline was brought in to 4 hours, then 2 hours, and now I have to have images back to the team in 15 minutes. The world has changed, and there is now an immediate need to get images on social media sites as soon as possible. This is always a challenge for me, as I have to go through hundreds or even thousands of photos, find the best selection for the team, retouch them (mainly for exposure, white balance, and cropping), resize them, and get them sent back to the U.S. Since I do all of this on my own, this is always nerve wracking, but fun! For this reason, it is imperative that I use the fastest memory cards, card readers, computer, and software. This year I will be using the new Lexar Professional 3500x CFast cards in the new Canon 1DxMark II camera. These new cards used in conjunction with the Lexar ProfessionalWorkflow CFast readers will allow me to download images twice as fast as I did two years ago in Russia. That is huge!

Keeping up with the blog and social media (Behind the scenes)

Not only am I posting all the images for the team, but I usually post at least one blog entry, sharing my photos and stories from each day with all of you. This can take more than an hour per entry. My goal is to share the photos, how I took them, and even camera settings, when time allows. And I love posting photos showing what goes on behind the scenes at the Olympics. This was a huge hit when I was in Sochi. People back home were really eager to see what it was really like over there.

Workflow and Backup

With such limited time each day (for three weeks straight), it is very difficult to stay on top of my workflow. By the end of each day, I need to go through that day’s image collections and purge the duplicates and rejects to optimize drive space. I then need to back up the “keepers” to my portable SSDs and hard drives. At Rio, I plan to have no fewer than four backups of my images on different WD Passport drives, and my favorites will be remotely uploaded to my Drobo 810n at my house.

The 2016 Summer Olympics will prove to be an interesting adventure, but even with all these challenges, I am still very excited to be attending this exclusive global event. Make sure to follow along here on the blog to stay up-to-date with my photos and stories as they unfold in Rio De Janeiro. The best way to follow along is to enter your email address at the top of this blog. Then you will receive an email each time I post a story from the Games. 


If you are interested in purchasing any camera equipment, please click here to go to B&H Photo, as I get a referral from them if you enter this way. It does not change the cost to you in any way, but it helps me keep this blog up and running.

And also, remember that you and your friends can enter your email address at the top right of this blog to get an email any time I write a new blog post or send my monthly newsletter.



Jeff said...


We love your Olympic coverage. The photos are outstanding and the stories are very interesting. With all of the stress, etc. it is amazing that you can take it in stride and capture such engaging images.

Most people (especially me) probably have no idea of what it takes; Wow!

I look forward to viewing anything you care to share. I send my best wishes to you for a safe and satisfying event.

Travel Well!

Sprogz said...

Love your posts. Thank you for taking the extra time in your crazy schedule to post them.

With regard ls to offline Drobo backup; will you have the bandwidth available to upload so many large, RAW files or will you need to be selective?

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

Sprogz - We should have very good Internet since all the press rely on it. But I am only planning on uploading my favorites, not all RAW shots. That would be daunting! :)

The Shadow Productions said...

I first saw you presenting a seminar for BH photo on YouTube. You mentioned your blog and it was right around London Olympics so I was hooked. When Sochi rolled around, I noticed I was looking forward to your blogs. Your coverage was better in many regards than NBC's.

For Rio, I'm looking forward to your experiences on this blog more than most sports. And I really like the Olympics. Your photos are awesome. Your work ethic is insane and inspiring. Your workflow is a sport and you deserve a gold.

May your trip be fun, productive, and safe. Thank you for spending some extra time in your already long day to share with us a unique perspective on the Olympics. It's like being there with you.

Anonymous said...

pepe teh frig iz teh dankest meme