The picture of Usain Bolt racing to first place in the 100-meter semifinal in Rio on Sunday is the work of Getty photographer Cameron Spencer. It’s a remarkable snapshot that’s since gone viral and it’s the result of a pro at the right place and the right time taking a big, but calculated, gamble.
Sydney-based Olympic veteran Spencer told Mashable over the phone how he captured the iconic picture.
It was shot on a Canon 1DX MK2, with a 70-200 mm lens set at 135 mm focal length. The shutter speed was 1/40th of a second, which meant that Spencer could follow Bolt with the lens and achieve a blurring effect that conveyed the speed of the race.
Beyond that, Spencer had several things in his favor that contributed to the epic snap. First, he wasn’t hemmed in among the hundreds of other photographers aiming for a similar shot. He was among a select few allowed onto the grass closer to the action.
Secondly, he was actually assigned field events Sunday, as opposed to track. Just before Bolt ran, Spencer was off photographing the high jump. During that event, he “ran off for four minutes” to capture the 100-meter semifinal, but he wasn’t officially assigned to get Bolt pictures from that event.
That meant he could try a different technique, opting for the blurry effect. “I was prepared to take a risk,” he said. “So I held the camera as steady as I could, holding my breath.”
“I’ve shot him enough over the years,” he added. “He runs really straight. You have to be calm and collected and keep at the right speed. Sometimes you fail.”
Thirdly, his subject matter. Bolt is the consummate showman and in this case “the grin was the added element.”
“That smile sums up his personality,” Spencer says. “Everyone knows he’s an entertainer and a showman. He’s looking at his competitors, going, ‘I’m having a good time.'”
The fun didn’t stop there. Of some 600 photographers at the track, Spencer was one of four allowed to do the victory run with Bolt. Chasing the fastest person around the planet was “a pretty awesome experience,” Spencer said. “Hundred-meter sprinters are the rock stars, super confident,” he adds. “Bolt’s the king of looking relaxed. A larger than life character.”
That particular shot was a triumph of one man and his camera, but the Getty set-up at Rio is an impressive feat of teamwork and tech. Eleven photographers took 20,925 frames at last night’s track and field events, Spencer says, with 876 images edited and the first shot from Bolt’s final race hitting the wires in 59 seconds. That’s down from 1 minute 20 seconds in London.
As well as 11 photographers roaming for the agency, there are rows of remote cameras set up on the ground. Spencer had three on the finish line offering different angles of the crucial moment. Two of them were hard-wired to another camera while the third was wireless. However, wireless set-ups are vulnerable to interference from other cameras, police walkie talkies and so on, the photographer says.
Spencer also has ethernet cables set up near the track which allow images to be sent straight up to editors who choose the best shots.
Beyond that there are also cameras housed in robotic units, high up in the walkways and roofs of the venues. The settings and directions of these can be remotely changed via laptops at ground level, which is handy as Rio and London have been more strict about allowing people up into precarious areas. Aerial shots from the pool, judo and badminton, for example, were likely shot by robot cameras.
So would Spencer, who’s now covered two winter and three summer Olympics, change anything about his photo?
The white railings in the background, apparently, which you probably didn’t even notice. “I’m a perfectionist and it distracts me,” he says. “It is what it is.”