Preparing for the Biggest Organized Event of Them All: The Olympics

I’m not sure there’s an event I ever cover that requires as muchadvance logistics planning as the Olympics. Travel plans start up to ayear before The Games, and from there on you continue to prepare untilthe games begin. In this post, I will discuss how I did my best toprepare for these games in advance, and how I packed all of myequipment for the Olympics—something that took well over a month on itsown in the end. (You can find a gallery of how I packed my equipment,and a detailed explanations of each step here.)

This is the gear I had to choose from. ©Vincent Laforet

This is the gear I had to choose from. ©Vincent Laforet

First of all, you’ve got to understand that every Olympics is different. It’srun by a different host committee every two years, and the rulesnaturally tend to change with each Olympics. So most of the stress ofgetting ready comes from never being quite sure what you will—or willnot be—allowed to do: how many—if any—remote cameras you’ll be allowedto use and where you’ll be permitted to put them. (Not to mention whatthe venues will look like, what the lighting and background will be,and where you’ll be able to shoot from—all pretty key unknowns untilyou arrive.)

In the past – all of the Olympics have had “PhotoVenue Managers” these are volunteers who are in the photo business—andusually have many Olympics under their belts. They know who you are—youknow who they are and how to get in touch with them in advance—and youcan make special requests months in advance and work out any potentialconcerns that might arise. Basically they’re there to make sureeverything goes smoothly (no one trips on a camera or photographer onlive TV) and just as importantly to help you get the best imagespossible.

This Olympics, these veterans haven’t been invitedback. A group of local photo managers will be assigned to each venue.And truth be told—that’s nerve wrecking for all photographers headinginto Beijing—we have no idea what to expect. The rule book can bere-written, and there likely isn’t much we’ll be able to do about it. Ido hope we’ll get along just fine with the local Photo Venue Managers,even though most of them are said to be young adults detached from the“security” team with no prior photo experience. Add to that anylanguage barriers, and the fact that no advance planning waspossible—well… it could be rough (not sounding too good is it?) Soneedless to say, the stress level, and uncertainty of how successful ofan Olympics this will be is at an all time high.

Don’t forgetthat on top of all of this uncertainty. We still have to worry aboutthe following at each event we cover: We don’t know who will win/loseor become the news, where that will happen, when that will happen, orfrom where we can get the best picture from, or with what lens andexposure (nor when we can put our guard down or take a meal/bathroombreak) …. you never know this until the event happens—live—and inphotography there are no second chances; you are either the “hero orthe zero” with little in between. This is why photographers, who bynature are used to capturing what is a sometimes chaotic series ofevents, like to have at least the basics figured out before they get to the venue, so that they only have to worry about making “the” picture.

Me...loading gear. ©Vincent Laforet

Me...loading gear. ©Vincent Laforet

This is part of the Olympics the readers never see (and hopefully what these blogs will help reveal)—and while it’s frankly not their problem, it’sours, in a big way. What we have to do on our end, is to plan on doingbusiness as usual, and come prepared with all of the necessary gear(even though we may not be able to use much of it!) and we’ll need tostay on our best behaviors and stay patient, no matter how bad thingsmay initially present themselves…

Another new development withthese Olympics: You have to decide what it is that you’re going tobring far ahead of time, because the Chinese government is requiring usto get an “Equipment Confirmation Letter” to bring gear into and out ofChina (I guess they’re afraid we’ll sell it??? Normally an Olympiccredential is sufficient for any host country) It’s quite strange, asno Olympics that I’ve covered prior to this has required such a form(although it’s always best to get a list (or Carnet) of anyprofessional equipment you’re carrying in and out of a foreign countrystamped by your local customs) but it was necessary this time, and itrequired a visit to the Chinese Embassy… just one more thing to do.It makes it more difficult because you can’t decide last minute tobring an extra lens or camera… once the list is stamped by theChinese Embassy, you’re done.

One of the biggest challenge for aphotographer is knowing what to bring. If we were covering just onesport, it would be easy. Most photographers could probably bring 2-3cameras, and 2-3 lenses, max. But given that we’ll have a few dozensports to chose from, and that the equipment needed to cover each sportcan vary widely, it’s a challenge to say the least. And don’t forget:we have to carry everything, so the more you bring, the more you breakyour back. I am easily bringing more than 200 lbs of equipment with me.

This it it! All packed. ©Vincent Laforet

This it it! All packed. ©Vincent Laforet

One common trick photographers use to make “exceptional” images is the use of remote cameras. There are many fantastic angles that you cannot physically shoot from; however if you mount a remote camera there ahead of time, with a bit of luck you’ll get an amazing image. This of course requires us to bring extra cameras, lenses, radio triggers and mounting equipment, doubling the amount of gear we bring. But the pictures are almost always worth the effort. One key thing to realize: remote cameras have to be mounted far ahead of an event. Sometimes you have to leave a remote in a catwalk for the entire duration of an event (up to a week) because you won’t have access to it during the event (for security and safety purposes.) That means you have to make intelligent decisions on how you use that gear and where you put it. For the men’s 100m final in Athens, I showed up at 5 a.m. to put up remotes—for a race that didn’t start until after 10 p.m. that evening—and the race lasted less than 10 seconds…. Hopefully you now have a better idea of all of the work and time that goes into “getting the picture.” Multiply that by 2 weeks and you realize that covering The Games is a LOT of work—and requires a lot of advance planning.

What I’ve gone ahead and done is to create a separate web gallery that shows each step of the packing process for those that are interested. You’ll get an idea of what type of equipment I’m bringing and how I pack it. Writing it out in this post would make it a bit too long, so I think the gallery is the best way to go.

The next step will be to unpack everything once I arrive and to make the decision each evening (prior to the next day’s events) as to what I’ll need to bring with me to best pull off an image. The Games are challenging, exhausting and mentally trying. But it’s the “Olympics” for photographers if you will—part of “our” games—where you bring the world’s best photographers into one place and have a competition to see who can come back with the best images…. but a photographer must always keep the following in mind: it’s a marathon—not a sprint!

More to come in the upcoming days.