What does it take to photograph the Olympics? Grit, not gear

On Friday, February 9, athletes from a record-breaking 92 countries will stand in the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. But as the athletes prepare to compete in the largest global sporting event yet, the Olympics can be almost just as career-changing for another group that will be there: the photographers on the sidelines.

So what is it like to wield a camera rather than a pair of skates or a bobsled? Matt Campbell, the North American Director at the European Press Photo Agency that’s covering the events for Shutterstock, recently shared insight into the games from a photographer’s perspective.

Campbell is on the photo editing team in Korea this year but has shot at multiple Olympic events as well, including photographing luger Nodar Kumaritashvili ten seconds before a fatal crash in the 2010 Olympics. He and other EPA photographers will be sharing work to a dedicated Shutterstock page as the games unfold.

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Like the athletes, photographers put significant time into preparing for the Olympics. For each event, each photographer needs to research the possible vantage points ahead of time. Some areas are designated for photographers, but there may be good views from unofficial locations, as well, so finding out which are fair game — and safe — is important.

Taking the time to build relationships also matters. Campbell makes sure to know the photo manager and assistants, the people who are organizing the photographers before the event. Getting on a first name basis with this team is helpful.

… Photographers will find themselves crowded into the same areas, all vying for the best shot.

Any time you’re traveling internationally, there are some important essentials to make sure your gear stays up and running, like outlet converters so you can plug in your chargers and computer.

It’s also a good idea to bring plenty of extra batteries. Campbell also recommends a smartphone specifically for working overseas, one that doesn’t come with crazy high roaming charges.

Regardless of how much prep they put in, once the games are underway, photographers will find themselves crowded into the same areas, all vying for the best shot. It’s a hustle, but Campbell says the experience is invigorating. “I love the big challenges and being shoulder-to-shoulder with a whole bunch of people and trying to beat them out and make something better,” he said. “It’s one thing when you’re standing in the woods trying to take a good photo, but try doing it when you have no control over what’s happening and you have 30+ competitors standing next to you.”

As the action unfolds, understanding the nuances of the event will help a photographer predict the action, but “you never know what will happen and you have to be prepared for the unexpected,” Campbell said.

Campbell shoots with a Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, but calls the camera “a hammer for driving in a nail” — as long as you know how to use your particular camera, the label on the outside doesn’t matter.

photograph the olympics winter 2018 canada vancouver 2010 olympic games  feb
Christophe Karaba/EPA/REX/Shutterstock
Christophe Karaba/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

As for lenses, he prefers to stick with long telephotos, even for events that don’t always require so much reach. When using long glass, however, it’s important to not let your vision narrow too much. Paying attention to what’s happening around the primary action can be equally important.

“It’s often not just about covering the sports story. There are other elements going on to consider, as well,” Campbell said. “Is there a fight in the stands? There’s lots of things that can happen. I am a journalist first. Maybe you’re a sports fan or maybe your a sports photographer — I think at the core, you are a journalist first and have to be prepared for any eventuality that could happen.”