Photographers Using Robotic and 3D DSLRs for Olympic Coverage

By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)

One of my favorite shots from NBCs Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games is the one to the right … from inside the Olympic Cauldron after it was lit. But some poor photographer wasn’t sweating bullets inside it trying to get that Pulitzer Prize-winning shot, it was a remotely controlled robotic camera, and they’ve popped up all over the London Games getting shots of “the human drama of athletic competition,” that regular photographers and camera operators simply can’t get.

By nature, the Olympics is an extremely competitive event, and not only for the athletes themselves, but also for the agencies that strive to deliver coverage of the event.  And this year, they’re putting cameras everywhere in order to capture what ABC Wide World of Sports called “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”  What AP and other agencies like Getty Images, are doing is taking Canon 5D MkII and Nikon cameras and placing them on remote controlled rigs which can offer pan, tilt and even zooming from their locations in rafters, at the bottom of pools, and even inside the flame of the Olympic Cauldron.   AP, for instance, has installed over 61 robotic cameras in 12 Olympics Venues (including 2 underwater cameras) in order to get shots that are not only competitive, but offer a completely different perspective on the athletes that are competing.

“Eight years ago, we were limited to a static underwater camera that we had to dive on after each event to get the SD card to transmit the images,” says AP photographer David Phillips.  “Now we can download the images in real time as competition is going on and have them up must faster.”

But fear not, we’re not going to lose the venerable sports photographer to a Honda ASIMO with a Nikon D4 around his neck.  Photographers are still manning these robotic cameras from a distance with wireless joysticks and live view monitors.  And they’re capturing stunning images, even in 3D.

“The rig which the cameras sit on has to be in perfect alignment to be able to imitate the human eye to create two files which are than overlapped in post-production to form the 3D image,” said Getty director of editorial photography, Ken Mainardi.

What’s what Getty has been doing, with twin Nikon camera rigs that are able to capture the images for overlay into a 3D image.  Getty is focusing solely on 3D photography at the games because they feel that 3D is on the cusp of exploding as not only a legitimate sports art form, but a reporting one as well.   “We wouldn’t be getting involved with this [3D] project if we didn’t see a long term use for it,” says Mainardi.  “3D will become part of our everyday sporting coverage.

And the irony is, photographic conditions that would make a traditional sports photographer cringe, become ideal for the 3D photographer.  “With 3D, it’s all about objects moving back to front so busy backgrounds, which are the enemy of 2D photography, become essential to the 3D photographer,” says Mainardis. “That’s because a messy background makes the 3D image look really interesting for viewers.”

An even Panasonic is getting into the act, broadcasting up to 240 hours of Olympic coverage in 3D.  Unfortunately though, like NBC, it’s on tape delay of up to 24 hours.   That’s a lifetime in our Twitter dominated sports universe where fans are finding out the results before they can watch them in prime time,  especially for 3D.  That is why NBC is framing their 3D coverage as giving viewers the opportunity to go back and relive their favorite events as never before.

Source: Gizmodo, MSNBC

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.


  1. John Christopher says:

    Thank you for your article, and the favorable comments regarding 3D. Two things:

    (A) Your headline implies they are using 3D DSLR cameras. Since DSLRs have no gen-lock and cannot synch their images, this is not feasible. Even high-end models specifically designed for video recording are not subpixel-synched, and that kind of precision is required for live broadcast and complex, fast-action images as you would find at the Olympics. I am told, the 3D cameras are actually Panasonic’s single-body/dual-sensor systems, using various models from high-end pro through pro-sumer and even the little consumer models with single-sensor capture. Extreme wide shots probably employ two separate cameras so they can have a wide hyper-stereo interaxial to off-set the flattening dimensions of distant horizons. Have only seen a few short samples from Olympic coverage on a friends LG 3D TV, but you will see the various rigs used visible within footage.

    (B) There is an understandable complaint about the time-delay for re-broadcast, especially since American audiences have to sit through 30% more broadcast time and receive 50% less coverage, to accommodate commercials & TV personalities’ posturing. However, this time-delay does give the 3D crew a chance to “fix it in post”, sprucing up or editting out technicall gaffes. The real test is how this 3D plays in the Euro areas that experience it real-time live, uneditted & unpolished.

    I believe, success in the home video market will dictate the standards for stereoscopic filmmaking. And achieving a viable 3D workflow for the “Eyewitness News” format — get up fast, get it up live, get it easily compatible intercutting studio-set with news-scene location — will establish 3D’s permance in the broadcast home.

    In that regard, the 2012 Olympics are embraced as a major benchmark in modern stereoscopy. And the re-marketability of a 3D Olympics highlights home video as the home 3D audience expands over the next few generations, will offer the Olympics fan unprecedented opportunities to add extensive event coverage to their home library.

    John Robert Christopher
    3D Video Task Force