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Best Seat in the House

Photography, sports and life as seen through the lens of Seattle Times photographer Rod Mar.

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August 17, 2008 10:24 AM

Olympics: Planning for Phelps

Posted by Rod Mar

Be Prepared.

That's the Boy Scout motto, isn't it?

(I know it isn't "Be the Ball." That was the great Ty Webb's motto).

I was never a Boy Scout, but it sounds like good advice, and advice I took when planning to shoot Michael Phelps' assault on his eighth gold medal of these Olympic Games.

I'd shot each of his first seven golds -- two of them made great reaction photos, and I tried to mix in action for the others.

But eight was THE medal, and this was THE race of the Games. No longer was the men's 100-meter dash the feature event of the Olympics. Everything was coming down to one race -- the men's 400 medley relay.

The planning started the day before (Saturday), after the swimming program was done for the day. Erich Schlegal, a photographer for the Dallas Morning News, and I went back out to the pool to scout locations.

We both remembered the great reaction by Phelps after they won that dramatic 400 freestyle relay, and the upper position on the far end of the pool sounded like a good location. But we also had to keep in mind that one complication is that this race was a medley relay -- two laps of each of four strokes (breast, back, butterfly and free).

Why is that a big deal? Backstroke flags. In case you don't know, for backstroke races, the officials place a row of small pennants near each end of the pool to help swimmers know they're near the end. The flags are not up during races not involving the backstroke, and it was causing us and the few other photographers making plans a great deal of consternation.

The thinking was this: Phelps would be out of the pool by the time Jason Lezak finished his freestyle leg. Although he might be crouching low as Lezak touched, if they won, he'd go straight up with his arms in triumph. The big question -- would the backstroke pennants be at least distracting, or at worst, blocking his face at "the moment?"

We looked at other spots, both approved and, well, unapproved -- places where supposedly we're not allowed to shoot.

Of course, while we were scouting, the backstroke flags weren't up, so we couldn't really tell.

So I went to my computer and tracked back through all the backstroke races I've covered this week, trying to ascertain the relative height of the banners as to where the swimmers would be standing.

After searching through thousands of images, I decided that the high spot at the end of the pool would be fine.

Upon arriving early at the pool, I found many photographers already in place in their chosen spots. My preferred spot, at the end, up high and toward one side of the pool, was still relatively empty. Most of the shooters who chose high and opposite had chosen spots more in the center of the pool. It was a slightly better for Phelps' face because he'd be looking at the scoreboard right above them.

However, I chose to be over in the corner a bit because NBC had erected these bothersome poles with cameras in them, and they were messing with the prospect of a clean background. I did not want to make a photo with a big pole appearing to come out of the back of Phelps' head.

The women's 400 medley relay was set to go off before the men, which gave us a chance to see the position of the pennants. It was easy to see that they wouldn't be too much of a problem, unless Phelps was crouched way down at the end.

I shot some test frames, then decided that I would add a 1.4x extender to the 600mm/f4 lens I was using. With good luck, Phelps' would be celebrating in a spot where the background would be the water of the diving pool behind the starting blocks.

The race was to go off at 10:58 a.m. (Beijing time), and my deadline was a hard and fast 11:35 a.m. (that's 8:35pm in Seattle).

It'd be easy to get the race in by deadline, but we were planning on having Phelps on both the newspaper's front page and the sports cover if he won. That meant two different pictures that hopefully didn't look too similar. For example, one of his reacting at race end might lead one cover, but would we use a swim photo on the other?

The occasion seemed too special for that. The medals ceremony would be the other photo.

My thought was, the medals for A1, the race reaction for the sports cover.

One of the challenges is that the medals ceremony doesn't occur until at least 15 minutes after the race. Assuming a 10:58 a.m. start, that would put the medals at 11:20 or so, leaving precious time to edit and transmit.

It was doable, at least, as I had wireless internet poolside.

Then, a complication. The photo desk emailed, requesting horizontal photos. The deadlines were being pushed so late that they had to design the pages first, then drop the photos in.

I panicked. Another editor had asked me days ago about a shape for Phelps' big race. I'd said "vertical." Because I remembered his celebration after the other relay, and just didn't see how I was going to make a clean photo of a tall and lean swimmer raising his arms straight up in the air.

Sorry, I was told. We're locked in.

Okay. Locked in is locked in.

Then another complication. The racing program was running behind, and the relay didn't start until 11:03 a.m.

That's only a five-minute delay, but for what we were trying to accomplish, it was a huge chunk of time.

The race went off, and I chose to shoot Phelps' leg with a looser lens. I'd shot a zillion frames of him doing the butterfly all week, so I thought I'd show a wider perspective from the race:

(Nikon D3, VR 70-200mm/f2.8 lens @ 150mm, ISO 1600, 1/2000th sec.,f2.8)

He was behind in his first 50, but turned on the afterburners and had the lead after the second 50. It was pretty obvious that Jason Lezak wasn't going to give up the lead, so I took a deep breath and locked in on Phelps. Downloading takes a couple of minutes, as does taking a quick spin through an edit.

As we'd guessed, those worrisome backstroke flags were low enough not to be a problem from our high angle. But for some of the poolside photographers, the flags came into play.

Luck came into play when I realized the place he was standing gave a clean background of water from the diving pool. No posts, no TV cameras, no racing officals dressed like game show hosts (or cruise ship officers? Which is more apropos?)

Here's some of the frames at the end (they are uncropped).

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens + 1.4x extender = 840mm, ISO 2000, 1/640th sec., f5.6)

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens + 1.4x extender = 840mm, ISO 2000, 1/640th sec., f5.6)

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens + 1.4x extender = 840mm, ISO 2000, 1/640th sec., f5.6)

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens + 1.4x extender = 840mm, ISO 2000, 1/640th sec., f5.6)

I had to move a horizontal, so I moved this one first. It was frustrating jamming the image into a horizontal when it didn't feel right, but that's how it goes sometimes. I left them full frame for the editors to crop since they knew the exact dimensions needed:

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens + 1.4x extender = 840mm, ISO 2000, 1/640th sec., f5.6)

Followed by this one, which I later debated whether or not was a better frame than the one previous:

(Nikon D3, VR 600mm/f4.0 lens + 1.4x extender = 840mm, ISO 2000, 1/640th sec., f5.6)

I grabbed all my stuff and made my way down to poolside so I could be there for the medals.

While the bronze and silver medals were being awarded, I saw a frame I liked. It was a vertical. Again, on second look, would I have chosen this one first, or the frame following it? I do like the intensity in his eyes, however. What am I talking about? I didn't even see the other frame. I was moving pretty quickly at the time.

I cropped and moved it and planned to put it up on this blog as soon after deadline as I could.

But photos I transmit for my blog also are seen by the editors in the stream of incoming photos.

They emailed and said they saw the vertical, loved it and were going with it.

What? Yes! Okay!

I was elated.

As the gold medals were being awarded I made a quick couple of frames, then downloaded, edited and transmitted those during the playing of the national anthem.

(Nikon D3, VR 200-400mm/f4 lens @ 330mm, ISO 2000, 1/500th sec.,f4.0)
After that, I used a wide-angle as Phelps and the rest of the team came over for a photo pass and he threw a T-shirt into the crowd.

(Nikon D3, VR 24-70mm/f2.8 lens @ 24mm, ISO 1000, 1/1000th sec.,f2.8)

He wandered into the crowd to see his mom, causing a near-riot of photographers as he had to wade through the photo vests to get to her.

I was too busy transmitting the last photos to shoot the scrum -- it was 11:35 a.m., 8:35 p.m. in Seattle.

We'd made our deadlines just in the nick of time.

Actually, I think Phelps redefined "nick of time" with that dramatic touch to win the seventh gold, so let's just say we made our deadlines, no sweat, just a little planning and a little luck.

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