WORK: CAPTURING THE OLYMPICS
Photographer and brand new WNW Member #2994 Mike Powell has photographed 13 Olympics, both the Summer and Winter Games, and has the scars to prove it. Mike was generous enough to let us in on some of the unforgettable experiences he and his camera have shared over the years.
How did you get into sports photography?
I started shooting local running events, mostly x-country races when I was about 13. Then started working as a darkroom and photo library apprentice at the age of 16 with Allsport photography in the UK (much later to become Getty Images Sport). I had followed sports photography for a long time mainly because my brother Steve had started as a photojournalist then sports photographer himself. Despite his pleas for me not to enter the biz, I went for it anyway.
What was your first Olympics and how did you get that break?
At the age of 19 I went to work at a new Allsport office in Los Angeles the year after the LA Olympics. I was part of a small team that built that business up and as such was shooting a lot of prime events at a very young age. Calgary was my first Games in 1988; I was 23 yrs old. Being affiliated with Allsport was the key. We had a very good relationship with Olympic sports and the IOC and became their photo agency shortly after that period.
What's your typical day shooting at the Olympics?
Winter Games can be the grinders if you are covering Alpine ski racing and want to shoot anything else. Course freeze for photogs can be up to 90mins prior to the race start. So if you want to scout the course that means waking up at 5'ish for breakie and commute, being on the hill 3hrs prior to race, skiing the course a couple of times and then getting in position, shooting the race then hustling down the mountain and editing or delivering cards to an editor. Then off to an afternoon event within striking range and probably finishing with an evening event like speed or figure skating around 10.30. Just in time for dinner and beers at the hotel before doing it all again the next day.
There are so many great photo opportunities at a Games that you feel like you are missing something important if you don't have an event in front of you and a camera in hand. I usually hit a wall around Friday of the first week, have a little lie in then push through to the end, although the walls seem to becoming a bit harder and more often these days!
What's your set up?
I really like large files and prime lenses so I shoot a lot with 2 x Nikon D800's. 24mm f1.4, 35 f1.4, 50mm f1.4, 200mm f2, 400mm f2.8. 14-24 f2.8 zoom and 70-200mm f2.8. I'll use a couple of Nikon D4's when I need a fast motor drive and quick follow focus.
A lot of guys love remote cameras and get some very good pics from them but I honestly never enjoyed that aspect of sports photography. If I didn't have the camera in my hand it didn't feel right. But that's just me, maybe I'm lazy and didn't want to deal with all the engineering.
Are there any unique challenges shooting the Olympics vs. other sporting events?
Lots, quite often you are showing up at a stadium you've never worked in before and have arrived late from another event. You have to figure it all out and find a spot to work that hasn't already been taken by photogs that are only covering that event throughout the Olympics. Sometimes you need to get there very early to request a place to work or get a limited amount of tickets that are assigned. A great assistant or office in the MPC (main press centre) can really help.
Sleep or lack thereof, trying to get yourself motivated and focused on doing your best work in the second week when coffee no longer works can be really hard. Being tired all the time is a drag. It takes me weeks to fully recover from an Olympics.
What's the most challenging event to shoot?
I still think the men’s downhill is one of the hardest. It's the blue ribbon event of the Winters and these guys are busting 80+mph down a course where the best pics usually require a very long lens and shooting a low ridge line angle that means you don't see them coming. Even the modern cameras still struggle with this and it can come down to shooting a single frame. And just to make it more exciting the winner usually takes a slightly different angle than everyone else. I'd be lying if I said I always nail it.
What are some of the most memorable events/individuals you've photographed over the years?
My first Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea was a good one, the first one always is. That was when we shot film and pulled focus, remember that? At the men's 100m final I shot it on a Nikon 200mm f2 with an F3 body I think. When Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis hit the line I started shooting hammering the shutter and pulling focus. I popped the film out and figured I either got then all sharp or all unsharp. Well 10 out 13 frames wasn't bad back in those days. Come the closing ceremony I was an emotional wreck, could hardly shoot a frame, I just wanted it to go on forever.
The L'Alpe D'Huez stage on my first Tour de France in 1995, can't remember any of the pics but the scale of that day is immense. Following the Tour into Paris on a motorbike and going up the Champs Elysee on the final day, very emotional for the riders and the photogs.
Mike Powell (my name sake) breaking the oldest record in Track & Field. He set the new WR for the long jump at the 1991 Tokyo World champs and my pic of him doing it was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It then became a Jeopardy question, so yes I really am famous.... :-)
The athletes I've met and had more than a passing relationship have been great: Michael Johnson (Olympic & World champ 200/400m), Picabo Street (Alpine ski racer, Oly and World Champ), Mike Powell ( World Long jump record holder) and more recently I've been to Jamaica to shoot Usain Bolt the worlds fastest man (Oly and World Champ + WR holder), very genuine bloke and fun to work with.
What's your favorite Olympic image you've taken?
I really don't have a favourite picture or favourite sport to shoot. I'm more into the body of work. View Mike's full Olympic gallery.
Being there live has got to be an incredible experience. What's one thing about the Olympics we could never get by watching them on TV?
I don't often cry at a sporting event, but when I do it's because I'm at the Olympics.....for all kinds of reasons.
Do you prefer shooting the Winter or Summer Games?
I love being up in the mountains for the Winter Games but I think there are always more opportunities for different and interesting work from the Summers.
Do you ever get caught up in the emotion of the moment?
Yep, see above. It's got to be pretty special these days to get me pumped, I think I burnt my adrenal glands out a long while back but I love when I get carried away by it all. I just have to try and stay present to shoot the pics.
What are your thoughts on the Sochi games?
Well for only the second time since I started shooting the Olympics I'm at home watching it on TV with my family. I've enjoyed the sport but haven't seen any iconic images yet. Sometimes they are just not there but it's early days yet and a lot of talented photographers are working their asses off to try and make one.
See you in Rio!