What it’s like to shoot the Olympics
Working 18-hour days in a foreign country with little pay and hardly any free time doesn’t exactly sound like a dream job. But when it comes to the Olympics, it’s a whole different ball game. For sport and event photographer Jeff Cable, becoming an Olympic photographer was a dream come true. “I don’t do Olympics for the money. I do it for the experience and the reputation and everything else,” says Cable, who recently wrapped up his fourth Olympic game in Sochi. We asked Cable about the highs, the lows, the long hours and how shooting the world’s most popular game has affected his business.
How did you get started in the Olympics? Were you invited?
I wish (laughs). I was at the Olympics in Beijing and I was not fully credentialed. I was actually there to work in the press center for Lexar where they make memory cards—I managed all of our employees to help support the photographers if their issues were to borrow stuff or try out new gear. I (watched them) and thought, ‘I can do this.’ I pitched and got some referrals through the hockey team I shot for, and now I’m in.
How many Olympics have you shot?
Four—Beijing, Vancouver, London and Sochi. I will be doing Rio as well.
What’s your favorite city?
Probably London because, well, it’s London. It’s a cool place with great weather. Some other places are hot and humid, and London was 65-70 degrees, so I loved it. People speak the same language, and you don’t have the language barrier.
How many photographers are at the Olympics?
It’s all the same guys, almost like a club. A lot of countries don’t send them to the winter Olympics, so winter tends to be about 1,200 photographers and the summer is about 2,200.
How do you prepare before heading for the games?
For me, the planning and application process of Sochi started when we were in London at the Olympics. So literally I was in the press center in London and my contact said, ‘Hey, make sure you have your application in because you’re due in the next two weeks,’ and it was almost a year and a half away. T-minus two months are full-blown (planning). I play hockey and stop skating five to six weeks before the games so I don’t get hurt, (wouldn’t want broken ribs), and then there’s all the logistics. I shoot all Canon gear but start doing that and you need a lot of multiples. Cameras are expensive, so I contact my folks at Canon and start arranging what I need.
Describe a typical day at the Olympics.
The first thing I do in the morning is look at the schedule and say ‘OK, what time is the game I have to cover contractually?’ If the game is at 7 p.m., I have free time in the morning—do I need to delete images and clean my stuff from the previous night or am I going to shoot? I might hop on the bus and go to the mountain and go shoot snowboarding or some other sport for half the day and get back in time for the games at night. If it’s a 7 p.m. game, you have to be in position by 5. The game is from 7 to 10, and it’s a lot of pressure to get a certain number of images, so till 10 I’m at the press center to post the images, and then I don’t get out of there until 2 in the morning.
So, it’s basically like going to the Olympics for free and getting VIP treatment?
True. But the flip side is it’s the hardest three weeks of work I ever do. You’re going from 8 or 9 in the morning till 4 a.m. pretty much every day. For three weeks. It’s grueling, but it’s fun.
Does the Olympics cover your expenses?
No. We don’t do the Olympics for money. We do it for the experience and the reputation and everything else. I get paid by the team, but I cover all of my expenses. Honestly, people think I’m crazy, but it’s for the passion for photography as well as the fact that you are at the Olympics the entire time, and you have the best seats in the house.
Do you have time to go out and enjoy the city?
There’s no time to go out. It’s just working. If you’re not going to a venue, shooting a venue, shooting a sport, you’re editing the images, if you’re not editing you’re deleting the images you shot yesterday that are no good, you’re posting to Team USA, the wire service I shoot for, and you’re backing up, and then it’s finally time to eat. In Sochi there were many times I was eating at one in the morning. And it’s standard protocol. It’s kind of funny, there’s a McDonald’s on-site and I’d take 10 hamburgers and 10 fries and bring them up to the press center.
After the three weeks, do you crash?
Normally, I call if post-Olympics syndrome—you come home and you just crash. This time, I flew home from Russia on a Wednesday night and Thursday had a five-hour meeting, and I’ve never really stopped since.
Do you sell the Olympic images on your site?
You can’t. The way it’s written I own all my images I shoot at the Olympics and can show them off for promotional use, like on my website. But if someone calls me up and says ‘Hey, I want that picture of Michael Phelps swimming in Beijing,’ I can’t sell that because I restrict the usage of it to only sell for editorial use or a wire service (so they can sell to any of the publications).
What is one sport you haven’t shot but want to?
I haven’t shot downhill skiing because of the logistics of downhill—you have to be skiing in position or hike up in position, and a lot of the time you’re traversing. The slopes are really steep. I have not done that yet. I do ski but I’m not an expert skier, so I’ve always steered away from that. When you’re skiing, you’re skiing with a 200 to 400 lens that weighs 15 pounds with your camera gear and all your other stuff, so if you do fall, you’re falling with 20, 30, 40 pounds of gear on your back.
How has shooting the Olympics changed your business?
It’s affected it immensely. It’s been huge for me—it’s been very successful, but once I start doing the Olympics it really does change. You don’t do it for the money, so indirectly it helps because if someone is looking to hire for an event, and they’re looking at three different photographers and one happens to be an Olympic photographer, it definitely sets me apart from all others. The traffic to my blog doubles when I go to the Olympics. I got a quarter of a million views in about two weeks. It’s more fun to write when someone is reading it. When you have that many people reading your stuff, giving you positive feedback, it’s pretty cool.
What is your favorite sport to shoot?
Something I haven’t shot before. Like in London, my favorite was the horse jumping and I had never shot equestrian before. It was just beautiful. These horses were fantastic, and the colors and the jumps were totally cool. Also women’s weight lifting—it’s cool, it’s something different, and you get that cloud of white powder in their hands.
What is the best part about the experience?
The vibe of the Olympics. The people and the excitement when they’re there.
What was the lowest point?
In Sochi when the USA women’s hockey team had been trying to beat Canada for years, they were up two-nothing with four minutes left in the game and lost in overtime. It was like watching someone die.
“In the past I used iWeb for my website and I couldn’t update it from remote sites; I had to be on my computer where my files were. So the entire month I was at the Olympics, nothing was updated. Now I’m using Zenfolio, and it’s so cool because I literally built the Olympic page at the airport in Moscow as I was heading to Sochi. I had it all prepped and when I got there, I started getting new images and was able to put them on the site on the homepage immediately. It was just awesome!”
What was your most memorable Olympic shoot?
In Beijing, getting the ability to shoot. I got into the water cube to shoot Michael Phelps winning his third gold medal, and I remember getting a shot of Phelps swimming and walking back to the press box with a smile on my face, thinking, “Oh my God. I just got to shoot Michael Phelps making history.”
Jeff Cable is a Zenfolio Pro Team member and has been shooting the Olympics since 2008. As a sports and event shooter, Cable also photographs Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and portraits. He resides in Saratoga, CA. Read more about Jeff on his website: jeffcable.com.
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