Megapixel men of the mountain

There are few geeks as extreme as the sports photographer, and the Winter Olympics is a perfect example of why. Imagine a football stadium - in fact, the football stadium, the Stadium of Light, where Liverpool lost a Premier League match at the beginning of the 2009/10 season when a shot from Darren Bent was deflected by a beach ball in front of Reds keeper Pepe Reina and into the goal.

That was a stadium full of photographers from newspapers and agencies all over the country. They were never far from the action. They were relatively comfortable and free to move around and they could easily enough follow where the ball was and where it was going to be. Still, only one of them managed to capture the moment when the red, Liverpool FC emblazoned beach ball made its fateful entrance into Premier League history.

As it happens, that picture was taken by one of Getty Images' photographers. For those unfamiliar with the name, Getty Images is a company that supplies images and videos for the media, creative professionals, businesses and even consumers to use. They have a library of over 70 million shots and, if you look out for it, you'll see the company's signature in the corner of pictures in the press on a daily basis.

The Winter Olympics only comes round once every 4 years and it’s of little surprise that Getty Images has sent out a team of specialist photographers at the top of their game to get the goods in Vancouver, but if you thought it was all about snapping away with a long lens from the veranda of the chalet with a beer in one hand and croque-monsiouer in the other, then think again.

Harry How/Getty Images Sport
Speak to any professional winter sports snapper and they all tell you the same thing - it's the Downhill and the Super G that are by far and away the biggest test and the most unique and rewarding to shoot as well. There are some obvious reasons. These events are fast. The competitors are travelling at speeds of over 90mph. Your equipment needs to be top of the line to be able to catch it and the photographers only have a split millisecond of a window to get it right.

The framing has to be bang on. Too high and you lose the skis. Too low and you chop off the head, and the best shots of all are the ones face on with the skier hurtling straight towards the lens.

Unsurprisingly, accidents happen. It's not uncommon for a competitor to crash and send loose skis tearing into the flesh of any photographer not fast enough at getting out of the way. It's unsurprising that the sports governing body, the FIS, has strict zones where they allow the imaging press to stand, and these zones could be anywhere up and around the mountain.

Now, these being Olympic level pistes, funnily enough, they're pretty steep and rather high up too. The FIS insist that all photographers must wear crampons just to keep them stuck into the side of the slope, but before you can even get yourself set up you have to make it to your designated spot under your own steam.

There's no great snow plough bus to give these guys a lift up into position, so you have two choices. If your skiing happens to be at near professional standards, then, well, you can ski but under the slight burden of 15kg of equipment on your back. If you don't reckon you're up to the task - as the vast majority are not - then you have to walk. Even a few hundred metres is a serious hike on steep icy pistes and these courses are an average of 3 miles long.

Al Bello/Getty Images Sport
It also happens to be bloody cold up there as well. That's all very well when you've got a sweat on during your hike, but ski photographers have to be in position 2 hours before even the warm up of the race begins. Depending upon the timing, that might mean having to make the trek in the darkness and a lot of waiting around before the light conditions settle enough for you to really get set up.

If you're not happy with your shooting position, then there's not an awful lot you can do about it. Generally, you'll only find this out once the racing has begun and the time taken to move from A to B in search of a better angle could be crucial. The skill of the experienced is to stay put and learn to make the most of what you've got.

As for the kind of kit you'll need for the job, well typically, Getty Images supplies its men with 2 x Nikon D3s DSLRs, a 24-70mm lens, a 400mm lens, a 500/600mm lens, a 1.4x teleconverter just to make sure, a tonne of spare batteries and a deck full of memory cards. The photographer would also be wise to add thermal underwear and boots, an extra set of clothes to put on when in position as well as lots and lots of chocolate. The aim of the game is to have everything you could possibly need and generally at least two of them. It's a long way back down the mountain.

So, with so much discomfort, danger and difficulty, why on earth would anyone actually want to do this? Of course, the money's good. If you happen to capture a shot that gets used all over the world, then there's decent financial return, but it's not where the real rewards of this discipline lie.

Photographers are passionate about their art and if you happen to be a sports photographer, then you'll be equally passionate about sport as well. It's a privilege for these guys to be up there trying to capture the ultimate photos of the Games that they love; to be right there as it happens.

They say the best possible images you can take are the ones where the skier is usually in the air and very nearly out of control. It's this tension of being right on the edge that tells the story. Perhaps this is where the photographers like to work as well - on the edge, so close that they can taste the action; as close as they can to doing the skiing themselves.


The background for this piece was provided by sports photographer Clive Mason. Clive began taking photos at 6 years old. He turned it into a full time profession at 18 and has been working with Getty Images since 1994.