I was joking with someone yesterday about the craziness of the Olympics, and the pressures that we are all under during the Games. We were talking about how the world has different time zones and maybe they should add another just for the Olympics. For the media here, there is absolutely no consistency to our eating and sleeping patterns and time is just different. When a bus is 10 minutes late at home, it usually is no big deal, but here at the Olympics, when you are under deadlines all the time, ten minutes seems like an eternity. And those deadlines can be really daunting.
When I first photographed the Olympics, there really was no such thing as social media and the deadlines were in the hours, not the minutes. I remember being in Beijing and people were saying, take your time getting us images because it is still in the middle of the night back home. But those days are long gone, and we live in a world of immediacy. The team does not want to wait for hours to get my photos, they want them as quick as I can deliver them. And I am not alone in this. The media here are either working for entities that expect images right away, or they are freelance and competing to get their images picked up by the different news outlets around the world, therefore earning them an income.
I am in a different situation, in that I do not upload my images to any of the wire services, I am shooting for the team and to post on the blog. But the team has high demands, and I don’t want to let them down. So I crank out my images as fast as I can.
The good news is that the new cameras have incredibly fast frame rates and I can shoot at up to 30 frames per second. The bad news is that, since I am shooting at these crazy fast burst rates, I end up with a lot more images when the competition is over. In a typical one-hour-long water polo game, it is not uncommon for me to shoot more than 2000 images. And I need to go through all of them, find the best ones, retouch those and get them uploaded to the team FAST! And here is how I do it:
The cameras and memory cards
I am shooting with Canon cameras, using a combination of the pre-production Canon R3 and a Canon R5. Both of these cameras are really fast, and both cameras write to CFexpress memory cards. These are the fastest memory cards on the market. Not only do they allow the camera to write to them quickly, they also let me download the information very fast. I am currently using ProGrade Digital memory cards and ProGrade Digital memory card readers which are the fastest and highest quality on the market. The other thing I like is that the ProGrade readers attach snap onto my laptop using a small magnet, so the reader is not dangling loosely by the cord.
The download process
I am using a MacBook Pro 16″ from Apple and this laptop is really fast. I have two of the ProGrade Digital readers connected via USB-C and can usually download the 2000+ images from any event in less than 3 minutes. I download all the images into Photo Mechanic because it is just blazing fast. Unlike other programs, I don’t have to wait for the images to render, I can just start jamming through them, I have yet to see any photographer at the Olympics who is not using this software. I usually start the download process, grab another bottle of water, run to the bathroom, and then come back to start the culling process.
Culling the images
Once everything is downloaded, I have two different workflow methods, depending on the urgency of the team.
- If the team needs a couple of images immediately, I will make a pass through the photos and color code the best of the best, and get to work on those right away. I have been doing this a long time and I can spot the keeper images really fast.
- If I have a little more time, I make a really fast pass through all the images and tag the ones that are throw-aways. These images are either not sharp enough or not showing anything of value. There are times when I will fire off a burst of images because I am expecting a big play, and it never materializes. While I am going through and selecting the throw-aways, I am also color-coding the top images. To go through 2000 images and make these selections takes me about 15 minutes. I then select all the tagged images and delete them. I then rename all the images (which takes seconds in Photo Mechanic) to something like “USAWP-Men-vs-Japan-0001”. I then filter out anything that is not color-coded and this leaves me with my keepers.
Retouching the images
Now that I am looking at only the top images that I have selected in Photo Mechanic, I start to determine which ones actually need to go to the team. I may have 60 images that were ranked high, but some might be redundant or not tell the story that they need. Heck, sometimes I have a killer image of the goalie but the ball is behind them, where they got scored on, and the team probably does not want to highlight that. So, I cruise through the top images and determine which ones will be retouched. If I only highlighted 25 or 30, I will retouch them all. In Photo Mechanic, I hit the “E” key and it automatically opens the image in Adobe Photoshop. I then make adjustments to the exposure, shadows, and highlights, crop the image if need be, and I will also straighten the photo if it is slightly crooked (which is almost all the time). I then save the new Jpeg file with “Edit-” in front of the file name. The Olympic Committee does not allow us to clone or make any changes to the images, because otherwise, people might create images that do not reflect the reality of what we are seeing here.
Upload the images to the team
In the past, I created Dropbox folders for the team, and uploaded all images to those folders. This year, USA Water Polo has me uploading directly to their new image cataloging system. If they need a couple of key images immediately, I can generally have them retouched and sent to them within 5 minutes. If I am delivering all the retouched images from the game (assuming I am delivering 25 or 30 photos), this can take about 20 minutes. When they are all retouched, I select all of them, resize them to 1800 pixels and upload them to the USAWP portal. When I get home from the Olympics, at some point I will upload all the full resolution files to them as well.
Selecting images for me
Once I deliver images to the team, then I do a couple of other things with them. I take my ultimate favorites and move them to a Dropbox folder called “Best from Tokyo Olympics” so that I know they are safe in the cloud. I also take those same images and move them to my website. Lastly, I take the images I want to use for the blog and I save those to 900 pixels with my watermark (also done in Photo Mechanic) and upload those to the blog site. I usually add the text later, while on a press bus or in my hotel room.
Backing up here in Tokyo
Once I get back to my tiny little hotel room, I power up the MacBook Pro and connect a 2TB Crucial x8 SSD to the laptop to backup the day’s images. I do this to at least two SSDs before I feel comfortable reformatting the ProGrade Digital cards for the next day. This way I have all the images in at least 3 places, once on the internal SSD of the laptop and on multiple SSDs.
Permanently backing up
When I get home from Tokyo, the first thing I will do (regardless of how tired I am) is take ALL the images from the Olympics and back them up to my Drobo 8D RAID system. This is a direct attached hard drive system that is connected to my workstation. And then I will take all of those images and copy them over to my Drobo 810n NAS drive. This way they are backed up on my working drives for safekeeping. The cool thing is that my Drobo 810n remotely synchronizes every night at 11 pm to another Drobo 810n that is located hundreds of miles away at my relatives house in the Sacramento area. This way, if I ever have a fire or something bad happens at the house, I have every digital image I have ever taken that is stored off-site.
All in all, this process does take a lot of brain processing power, and to do it numerous times a day is exhausting. But it is also fun to cull through images to see what I got after each shoot. Now I need to run since I have more images to go through. :)
About the Author
Jeff Cable is a world-renowned, seven-time Olympic photographer having covered Beijing, Vancouver, London, Sochi, and Rio. He is one of the most sought-after presenters and educators in the photography space. You can find out more about Jeff on his website, follow his adventures on his blog, or reach out to him through Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.