Shooting the 2014 Winter Games, with Photographer Jeff Cable

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The Winter Games are all about the spirit of competition, endurance, focus, and tenacity—not only for the athletes, but also for the professional photographers who cover them. While prepping for his second Winter Games, photographer Jeff Cable spoke to us about his gear choices, shooting strategies, and the intense logistical preparations required for Sochi.

The scope of shooting such an event, especially in Russia, is unnerving. Cable started preparing about a year and a half ago for the 18-day event that officially opens February 7, 2014. As a seasoned photographer working in a number of disciplines, and as a hockey player and fan, Jeff is a natural fit as the official photographer for the U.S. men’s and women’s hockey teams. He will also be shooting for a wire service for the first time, and uploading hundreds of photos every day from as many events as he can attend—while still covering all the U.S. men’s and women’s hockey games.

All photographs © Jeff Cable

During our telephone conversation, Cable was busy analyzing the designated press areas for the hockey arena. He described his plans to locate a spot behind the glass with the fewest scuff marks that will be as close as possible to the press room, so he will be able to edit and upload images between periods. Having experience shooting sporting events myself, I asked if he had any tricks for claiming and maintaining the best angle. He admits that there is a bit of gamesmanship and even elbow bumping with other photographers, but the best strategy is to arrive early, use gaffer tape to seal his chosen seat shut, and then stick a business card to the chair.

In terms of gear, Cable shoots Canon, and will take full advantage of the long lenses that Canon brings to the games to loan to accredited photographers. Since that’s the case, he can pack relatively lightly, bringing with him two Canon 1D X DSLR cameras, a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II, and a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens. In addition, he will take a 24-70mm f/2.8, 16-35mm f/2.8, and a 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye, which he uses for hockey games. His 70-200mm f/2.8 will likely be permanently fixed to one camera, while he juggles lenses on the other, depending on the event. The long telephoto lenses that Canon supplies will be used for mountain games, while his 24-70mm and wide-angles will be used for behind-the-scenes shots and indoor events. He also plans to bring a Canon 5D Mark III for lower-profile shooting when he roams around the Russian cities before and during the games.

In addition to cameras and lenses, he totes a Gitzo monopod and tripod, PocketWizards to set remote shots over the hockey goals, a 15" MacBook Pro with Retina Display, several WD Passport Drives (two or three of which he has with him at all events for backup), his trusty Wacom tablets, numerous 128GB 1000x Lexar memory cards, and a drawer full of adapters for charging equipment in a different system. For transport he uses the Lowepro Pro Roller x200 Case and brings a Lowepro backpack to use when trudging through snow to get to mountain events.

If it seems like organizing gear is difficult, it’s nothing compared to the logistical challenges of arranging transportation, accreditation, insurance, and lodging. Unlike the previous Winter Games in Vancouver and the London Summer Games, both of which Cable shot, Sochi poses linguistic, cultural, monetary, and security hurdles that might normally require a full-time staff to navigate. But Cable is on his own, and this time around he decided it was best to book travel and lodging with the press corps, who are staying in the “coastal cluster,” an area close to the Main Press Center and indoor events.

Needless to say, reserving his hotel and plane took more than just a click on the Orbitz website. The hotel only accepted a reservation backed by cash, so he had to send the required amount to Russia in rubles, and it took United Airlines six months to add enough flights to accommodate the avalanche of visitors to this city of 400,000 on the Black Sea. Cable went with a business-class ticket, not just for the comfort, but mostly because there is “no way I will ever check my photo gear.”

As the official photographer for the U.S. hockey teams, he is contractually obligated to attend every match, and submit his photos within two hours of the game being over. He notes the difference between shooting an early-round women’s game, where he will most likely be one of only a handful of photographers, to the men’s medal rounds, for which he’ll be struggling to retain his favorite shooting spots with more than fifty other photographers.

Most of the photographers at the games are affiliated with major publications, but other than his role with the U.S. Hockey Team, Cable isn’t tied to anyone. His situation poses challenges, but also grants him a degree of freedom to shoot what he wants. Without an editor or a runner choosing and transferring his images, he is forced to handle these tasks himself, which, to some degree, limits his shooting time. However, other than his work at the hockey rink, and with full-level credentials, he is able to shoot whatever events he chooses, and this provides advantages.

Cable spoke of the challenges of finding a unique angle with 1,200 other photographers on site, and how he captured a great shot at a bobsled event in Vancouver by walking the length of the course, trying to find a unique perspective away from where the majority of shooters were clustered. He also likes to mix it up as much as possible with the fans from around the world, often finding wonderful photos along the way.

If past experience is a guide, he expects to shoot about 90,000 images while in Sochi, and prefers to shoot mostly in Aperture Priority mode. Although, he did note that if he’s working in a spot with consistent lighting, he’ll drop into Manual mode, and adjust from there. Sometimes he likes to experiment with motion, and will lengthen shutter speed to capture a blur of speed.

Cable retains the copyright control of all his images; however, the hockey teams have exclusive rights to those images, and he notes they are used primarily for social media in the immediate wake of the game and subsequently for publicity, media distribution, and in-house publications. He is free to send the other shots he takes to his wire service, where they may find a home with any client they serve. Since this is a new enterprise for him, he explains that he “may make $20 or $20,000 by selling images."

“It’s like shooting the Super Bowl every day for three weeks straight,” Cable notes about the amount of work he expects. But despite successive 18-hour days and “running from shuttle to event to hotel,” Cable is absolutely caught up in the spirit of the winter games. He talks about the pride everyone feels in just being there, and views it as much more than just an athletic competition. He looks forward to finding the smaller, behind-the-scenes stories within the grand event just as much as the possibility of capturing an iconic image.

I asked Cable if he researched the athletes competing in the various sports, and whether he will concentrate on trying to get potentially more lucrative shots of better-known athletes, or just go for the best photos available. He spoke first of his hockey assignment, and how he not only needs to get good shots—but also be a journalist and tell the story of that particular game. However, as he continued, he struck on what I think is his best advantage at the games. “When it comes to shooting other sports, and the balance between what’s a great shot and what will sell, most photographers are there to make money. I’m there for the love of doing it, so I’m gonna be less concerned about what will sell and more with what’s gonna make a great image.”

We look forward to speaking with Cable as he finalizes his preparations for Sochi, and will drop in on him while he’s at the games. You can also check out his coverage, since he plans to blog at the end of every long day at Sochi 2014. You can also keep up with him on Facebook.

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Great article on Jeff. His blog during the last Olympics was wonderful, very informative on what goes on behind the scenes. A great ambassador for photographers. I wish him a safe journey and a wonderful adventure. Again, great article. Chris

I hope there will be a follow-up story sometime after he gets back from Sochi about his experiences. I wish him well. We can all learn a bit from his experience.