How Top Getty Images Sports Photographer Got Best Shots Tokyo Olympics

  • Getty Images’ Patrick Smith is one of the foremost sports photographers in the industry.
  • He spent weeks in Tokyo capturing photos of various events at the Tokyo Olympics.
  • Insider spoke to Smith about how he gets the perfect shot and his favorite photos from the games.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Patrick Smith is one of the most esteemed sports photographers on the planet.

The iconic Getty Images staff photographer and has captured legendary shots all across the sports world, including at events like the World Cup, The Masters, the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, NCAA March Madness, the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, the World Series, and the Pan American Games.

Most recently, Smith spent several weeks in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics, where he covered everything from skateboarding and canoe slalom to track and field, fencing, and tennis. Unsurprisingly, the former “Sports Photographer of the Year” produced some of the most stunning images of this summer’s games — all while observing strict COVID-19 protocols to protect himself and the athletes around him.

Two athletes prepare to compete in the 100m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics.

Two athletes prepare to compete in the 100m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Insider spoke with Smith about his experience at the Tokyo Olympics, setting up for each event, capturing emotion from athletes, and how COVID-19 impacted his ability to do it all. Check out our interview with Smith below:

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

What was your arrival in Tokyo like? How long did it take before you were able to get out to venues and snap some photos?

Prior to arrival, myself and all Getty Images team members had to fill out questionnaires, download health apps, and be tested twice for Covid-19 within 72 hours. After a 14-hour flight to Haneda, we were promptly greeted by Tokyo officials. We were required to social distance and wear a protective face covering as we went through about 10-15 checkpoints. These checkpoints verified our prior testing, checked our applications, and required us to be tested again at the airport.

After being cleared, we then received our accreditation. This process took exactly two hours, which did not factor a short bus ride and private taxi to the hotel. I was very fortunate as there were reports of this process lasting more than seven hours for some members of the media.

Once settled, I photographed my first event capturing some skateboarding previews the following day. Although this was a long process, we were extremely well prepared with instructions on what to do and bring prior to Tokyo as our health and well-being was top priority at these Olympic Games.

I imagine this may have been different for each sport you photographed, but what additional measures did you have to take before / while setting up your equipment and while on the job?

That’s absolutely correct. The overall game plan for Getty Images and Tokyo 2020 was to facilitate a COVID-safe operation. Each venue had strict rules in place and enforced them to keep the athletes, volunteers, and media safe. There were instances where we normally would have access to a gold medal winner, but because of the health protocols, we pooled it with other agencies and rotated our turn to limit the number of photographers socially distancing themselves from a winner. Overall, we were able to do what we do best and adapt to the new challenges. Each day was very similar.

A photo team member holds Mask Off and Mask On signage at the Tokyo Olympics.

A photo team member holds Mask Off and Mask On signage at the Tokyo Olympics.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

First, we were required to be tested every day for Covid-19. With a daily alarm of 5:15 a.m., I would spit into a vial, attach a barcode and register it online. The next step was filling out OCHA, a certified health application, which asked personal standard health questions. We were out of the door at 6:15 a.m. and on-site for Athletics at 7:00 a.m.

Once there, we would drop off our test tubes, clear security, and begin setting up 10-15 remote cameras (which did not include our robotic and static cameras in the catwalks of the stadium), as well as test our technology. The first session began at 9 a.m. and went to about 1 p.m. We would repeat the same morning process for the evening session that began at 7 p.m. and be back home around 12 a.m.

How does your approach shift when you go from photographing Canoe Slalom one day to Fencing and Athletics the next?

While this may sound daunting, this is a very exciting shift in schedule. Many on our team were confined to one event the entire duration of the games, which some prefer. This can be an extremely challenging assignment trying to “see” the venue and action differently every day, but our expert team of photographers knew exactly what was needed to show variety. So for me being able to float around a few days before Athletics started, I was able to find a rhythm in Tokyo, especially getting to work alongside so many talented photographers who are subject matter experts in many of these sports.

For the Olympics, many of these sports are only photographed every four years and aren’t sports we typically cover on a daily basis in the U.S. Since there was a team of us covering Athletics each day, it helped with getting deeper, well-balanced coverage which gave me confidence throughout the final 10 days.

Patrick Smith sets up his camera.

Patrick Smith sets up his camera.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

You manage to capture brilliant action shots and stunning displays of emotion within the same event and, presumably, within moments of one another. How do you manage both simultaneously?

At Getty Images, we provide imagery to a lot of clients throughout the Olympic Games, being the Official Photographic Agency of the IOC. That means we have different responsibilities and shooting styles from one minute to the next when creating iconic imagery. Ideally, we are always looking to combine stock imagery and art when capturing a compelling rectangle.

For myself, it’s been a continual learning experience on how to capture sports with a dynamic range of powerful imagery from one moment to the next. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned, especially coming from Rio to Tokyo, is staying calm and keeping my emotions in check. That means focusing on not being so serious and eliminating any stress. Every photographer on our team and at the games is hand-selected for a reason — we’re all the best in the world. But to separate myself, it means to be myself — whether that’s joking around with teammates, enjoying some uplifting music in the car on the way to the venue, or even closing my eyes and taking a deep breath before a race. Any way I can try and connect myself with the moment and stay relaxed is when I’m at my best and can capture amazing action-packed or emotion-filled sports imagery.

With that, I also know what it’s like to win and lose — both in sports and life. Knowing what it’s like to be crushed by a last-second loss, score the game-winning goal, or harp on a mistake. All the aforementioned have given me the gift of knowing how to translate empathy visually so others can fully understand what’s happening in front of my lens in the moment.

Which sport or event was your favorite to cover? Were there any athletes who stood out from the pack as particularly strong subjects?

I really love covering a variety of events, so getting the opportunity to document sports I haven’t photographed since, say the Pan American Games or from prior Olympic Games, makes the event I am visually documenting my favorite for the day. However, I’ve always loved capturing Athletics. There is a real beauty to the disciplines and always lots of raw emotion both individually and with teams. Fortunately, with the Olympics, we are able to work in a large team which allows us to cover every single portion of the track and use camera technology to help with getting angles we necessarily can’t be in.

Patrick Smith positions himself behind various cameras while shooting the Tokyo Olympics.

Smith positions himself behind various cameras while shooting the Tokyo Olympics.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As for athletes that stood out, Athletics is in a “changing of guard” phase since the incredible Usain Bolt retired. There are so many talented athletes that are pushing to become the face of the sport. For Tokyo, in my mind, Allyson Felix of Team USA was the story at the track. After her performance, she is now officially the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history. So, having the opportunity to document history is always exciting, knowing our images of her will forever live on.

Which sport or event was most unique to cover compared to your past experiences?

This is an easy answer — all of them were in Tokyo. When the pandemic severely hit the U.S. in March 2020, we watched sports change drastically. We saw the removal of fans and photo positions moved from the field of play. Things like athletes wearing masks, health protocols, and empty stadiums were important storylines.

Coming into Tokyo, the U.S. was close to “normal” with the return of sports and with fans and access to the field coming back. We knew these Olympic Games would be historic and something we’d never see again, so as a team, we focused on capturing the best of the games despite the pandemic.

Can you highlight some of the main differences between your past Olympics experience and these Tokyo Games?

Comparing the Rio 2016 Games to Tokyo, a lot changed. Obviously, as aforementioned, the history of these games will always be remembered due to the pandemic and them being fanless. But what really stood out was the advancement in technology. In Tokyo, we were reaching clients with coverage in as little as 30 seconds — and at times even 16 seconds. That’s under a minute from the moment the picture is taken from our camera to it hitting our website, as well as clients and publications feeds.

Throughout the Games, our team was using Canon robotic cameras in nearly every venue, which allowed photographers to create dynamic imagery from unique angles, such as underwater and on roofs via a computer in the Main Press Centre. We were able to have remote editors from all over the world handle our imagery in real-time as we worked on the ground.

An abundance of cameras are positioned on the track at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium.

An abundance of cameras are positioned on the track at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The camera technology has also advanced quite a bit. It was quite impressive using Canon cameras that are now silent and can shoot at incredible speeds. All of this has been exciting for us at Getty Images — I cannot even imagine what we’ll be able to do in Beijing in 2022.

When you weren’t working, how did you spend your time in Tokyo?

There was little to no downtime in Tokyo. Our first 14 days in Japan, due to Covid-19 restrictions, we were confined to our hotel room, Main Press Centre, or the venue we were at for the day. This made taking advantage of any small amount of time extremely difficult.

However, once we were cleared to move, we used time between the Athletics schedule to get local cuisine for lunch and see a bit of the city. After spending two weeks limiting staff interaction and to the public, this was a huge mental boost as Japan is an incredible country with amazing food and people.

What were some of your favorite photos from the Tokyo Olympics, and how did each of those shots come to be?

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