Shawn Johnson (U.S.A.) captures the silver medal in the women’s individual all-around competition at the 2008 Olympics on Friday, Aug. 15, 2008, in Beijing, China.
Like the athletes they capture, photographers have been gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Both have to be at the peak of their games to produce the desired outcomes.
Paul Kitagaki Jr. knows this as much as any other photographer working today. Tokyo will be his 10th Olympiad, and it’s a particularly special one for the Japanese-American Pulitzer Prize-winning lensman. While Kitagaki is a staffer for the Sacramento Bee, he’ll be using his vacation time to cover the epic events of the XXXII Summer Olympics for ZUMA Press.
However, whether you are shooting for the Olympics or capturing the excitement of a little league baseball game, the basic idea is the same: Get yourself into a position to capture the decisive moment from the most illustrative angle.
Digital Photo: How do you gear up to cover such an epic event as the Olympics?
Paul Kitagaki Jr.: I’m credentialed through ZUMA Press, and all my work is distributed through them. Once we get there, my colleague Scott Mc Kiernan, who’s the founder of ZUMA Press, and I figure out what we’re going to cover during the Games.
In terms of camera equipment, I use Canon gear. I used to bring a lot of remotes, but everything moves so quickly now, I don’t have time for that. A lot of the wire guys (like photographers from Getty) are in one place all the time, so they have the opportunity to put more remotes up. Getty is the official photography agency for the Olympics, so they get a lot of premium positions, as do the major wire services and major newspapers, especially for the track events.
So, as a smaller agency that still has to generate big-league coverage…
Scott and I make a plan so we can bounce around and cover a number of events a day, going from one venue to another. We don’t sleep much during the Olympics. We’re working maybe 18 to 20 hours a day.
Because we move around so much, I try and keep my equipment to a minimum. Three bodies, the Canon EOS-1D X (two of those) and one Canon 5D.
I’ll have a Canon 200-400mm f/4 with a teleconverter, a 70-200mm f/2.8, a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 16-35mm f/2.8 and my laptop. I used to use a bag with wheels and roll between venues, but this time we’re going to be on trains and different kinds of public transportation, so I’ll just put everything in a Think Tank Photo Shape Shifter backpack.
Are you shooting RAW and JPEG since you have to get the images out fast?
I’m just shooting RAW, then processing them as JPEGs for transmission. We’re not just doing U.S. athletes because ZUMA distributes worldwide. Sometimes we get requests from certain countries.
By having the RAW, you can always go back and make the highest-quality exhibition prints possible. I’ve had a number of photojournalists say that they regret not shooting both RAW and JPEGs when their papers were requiring them to shoot JPEGs. Are there go-to f/stops and shutter speeds, depending on the sport you’re covering?
I shoot almost everything wide open to soften background distractions. That also gives me enough light so I can shoot with at least 1/2000th of a second shutter speed with a telephoto, unless I’m going for a special effect to show movement, such as the pan blur shot I did of the speed skaters.
Your framing of a gymnast with the Beijing Olympics sign in the background is a good example of how you take the whole frame into consideration and have to position yourself to get the extra elements that tell a story.
One of my favorite pictures from the Beijing Olympics was of the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. Former gymnast Li Ning went around the top of the Olympic stadium suspended on cables. I think we had to be in position six hours before the event started.
That’s a good example of how there are a lot of photo ops at the Olympics beyond the mandatory tight shots of athletes in action.
Often I am trying to key in on one athlete, but other times I’m trying to give a sense of place, such as in the outdoor volleyball stadium shot in the heart of London during a gold medal match. Other times I’ll try some different techniques to try and convey an idea.
Your multi-exposure shot of the fencers might serve as a good example.
That was in Beijing, and it was the first time I used the multi-exposure function. I was handholding the camera when I was doing it. (Photographers still can’t bring a tripod to the Olympics, only a monopod.)
The venues are all lit for TV, and the color is daylight balanced. They usually tell us what the exact Kelvin temperature is. My ISO settings range from 200-6400 ISO, depending on the light, how fast the action is and if I have the converter on the 200-400mm. I’m comfortable with ISO 6400, but I still try and keep it as low as I can. The different venues are supposed to be lit to roughly the same intensity for the interiors. But the outdoor venues vary.
Your shot of a race walker in the rain is another good example of going for something unique.
There were only a few photographers out there for that because it was early in the morning, and it was not a premier event. That was in Beijing, and I shot wide enough to get the pattern of the empty lanes as well as the Olympics rings in the frame.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you must have been elbow to elbow with other photographers when you captured the unbelievably sharp image of a baton-wielding Usain Bolt coming across the finish line…
The autofocus is amazing these days. I remember covering my early Olympics and having to manually focus at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. I was shooting black-and-white film back then.
The first Olympics I covered digitally was Salt Lake in 2002. Atlanta was all color negative.
Track is always difficult because it’s hard to see who’s leading. It’s easy to miss the winner. I’m on continuous focus because they’re moving so fast. I use the front button for focus and releasing the shutter and the back button to lock the focus. So, as I’m pressing the front button halfway down, the lens will continue to track focus.
Digital has made covering sports a lot easier…
It really has. A lot of the time between shots, I’ll tag the pictures I think might work. In other words, I’ll do some quick editing. So when I download them after the event, I can go to the tagged ones quickly, caption them and move them as JPEGSs. I also add a voice tag of what just happened to the frame.
What do you do to try and capture something unique when you’re surrounded by other photographers?
Sometimes you try spots where other people aren’t shooting from. Sometimes it works, sometimes you might just get just an OK shot.
David Burnett goes to places where nobody else is, and he’ll come up with these really incredible photos.
My London volleyball shot might be a good example of going for something different. But you can be standing right next to somebody, and you both have different photographs. Maybe they’re shooting a little tighter, I’m shooting a little looser. Or we might have different shutter speeds. It really is a game of inches.
With track, there are positions around the moat. Then there are positions in the seats. So you have to get there and figure out where you’re going to be. Sometimes, you’re squeezed between other photographers, sometimes they’re in seated positions. You’re elbow to elbow with everybody.
One often thinks of a moat in relation to a castle. How does it work in the world of sports?
Often there’s a moat that goes around the whole outside of the track, below the track level for TV and photo coverage. It depends on the venue.
Sometimes you’ll be walking around the whole moat, and there are raisers in different areas that you can shoot from.
Track is really hard. You try and shoot from the side, and they have that camera that rolls around the whole track following the athletes. It can block you.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s important that Scott and I are often covering the same event from different positions.
Do the photographers from competing agencies and publications work together to try and create win-win situations for themselves and their colleagues?
You have so many photographers from all over the place often going for the same shot. But everybody tries to work together.
Let’s take gymnastics. Sometimes an athlete from a country you’re covering is on a certain apparatus. A lot of times photographers will trade off to give that photographer the key position.
I also like to capture moments of comradery between athletes of different countries—for example, in my shot of runners exchanging jerseys after a race. It’s not action, but it’s a moment that transcends nationalities.
As a professional photographer, you must get an extra shot of adrenalin covering the Olympics, and 2020 in Tokyo is sure to be epic.
All the best athletes in the world are competing at their prime. Then, you have all these amazing photographers there covering the events and trying to make the best pictures.
It’s the photography Olympics, as well. All of us will be trying to make the most iconic pictures from those games.
You never know what those iconic images are going to be. Bruce Chambers and David Burnett photographed the iconic images from the Los Angeles Olympics of Mary Decker’s fall. They were positioned at a spot around the track you would not normally be at. You have to have the skill and the awareness to capture that unexpected moment.