Being a picture editor for a wire agency at the London 2012 Olympics is like being a referee at a title-deciding football match. If everything goes well no one really notices you; but one big mistake and you are the most hated person in the stadium. If you call it wrong and miss the picture that captures the vivid moment of sporting agony or ecstasy you risk the jeers and frustrations of the whole team. The reward? A good picture editor has the chance to select that defining picture, the shot that the photographer doesn’t even know he or she has taken, or to crop a frame that changes a good picture into a great one.
At the London Games, Reuters has more than 55 photographers, 17 picture editors and 25 processors. My role is to edit the Gymnastics and Athletics. Below is a picture of my screen for the men’s 200m final.
Photographers have to lug pounds of gear in sweltering sunshine or heavy rain, arrive early at the venue, fight for a position or an angle, argue with anyone that they feel is in their way, prepare themselves mentally to capture a fleeting moment and all the while competing alongside the world’s best shooters who are doing the same. A fraction of a second miss and their mistake will stare out at them from papers, websites and books. They must also be technically astute enough to stream their pictures from their cameras or laptops to the editor.
An editor sits in a temporary workspace at the venue and can be bombarded with hundreds of images, often at the same time, of the same moment taken by different photographers, each believing they have shot the iconic image. Managing expectations is one of an editor’s people skills, saying “well your shot wasn’t as good as his or hers…” just doesn’t cut the mustard when thrashing it out in the bar afterwards, even though that might be the ugly truth. At any given moment an editor could be looking at a multitude of images and so needs to understand how the story is unfolding. This same editor could be looking at three different events simultaneously, communicating with photographers who are shooting at different venues at the same time, understanding the context of events that they are shooting.
Once the editor is satisfied the picture is the right one, the image is then sent to a processor. The word “processor” falls short when describing someone who has a skill set that I can only dream of. An uncaptioned picture appears on the processor’s screen, and then another and then another – and this bombardment continues for up to ten hours. The processor identifies the athletes in the image (often using the competitor number if the face is obscured) and writes a caption which answers the questions: Who? What? Why? When? Where? Processors need to add technical details that allow the image to be sent to our global clients. They are also responsible for ensuring the picture is color balanced, and for finessing a crop, for example cutting out unwanted lines from the picture’s edges and spiking slightly unfocussed images. If there is a caption mistake the buck stops with the processor.
Covering gymnastics is like choreography. Up to four photographers need to be at the right apparatus at the right time to anticipate the climax before it happens. The trouble is that key moment for one national team is not the key moment for another. As one team wins, another loses, and we need pictures of both celebration and dejection. Both sets of clients want their image first and both photographers believe they have the special moment and want the right picture moved first. The technology we use allows photographers to see when editors are pulling images from their laptops so they are well aware if I am slow, which goes against the ethos of being first with the news.
The latest cameras shoot over 10 frames a second – good you might think. We have technology and fast communications that allow these pictures to be streamed to the editor almost immediately. Imagine a 90-second gymnastic routine, followed by a perfect dismount, a roar of applause, tears of joy and a big smile and victorious wave to the crowd. Another gymnast slumps into their seat, more tears, this time of disappointment, realizing they have just lost a medal position. Such moments of raw feeling can unleash a torrent of hundreds of images. Which photographer could resist taking his or her finger off the shutter button during maybe four torrid minutes of emotional turmoil? I let you do the maths on the number of frames that are potentially transmitted. Even the best photographers who conscientiously edit their bad pictures, known as “chimping” in the trade as they huddle over the camera screen, can’t chimp when it’s all happening.
Within these hundreds of frames sits the key moment – which I must select, crop and send before our competitors find it in their file. If I fail in my task our competitor’s pictures will be published. If our photographer has a better frame in their raw file they will let me know in no uncertain terms later in the bar. I will let you imagine how this conversation would go – but needless to say my intelligence, the existence of my father and ability to see at all will all be addressed during this dynamic exchange. If I choose the right pictures then the photographers will congratulate one another on their great pictures – some are gracious enough to take a few seconds to acknowledge the efforts of the edit team. The ref was okay…
One last point on the subject of editing is the difficult balance between sausage factory picture editing and creative packages of pictures to illustrate an event. Let’s look at gymnastics again. A team of five athletes competing on four pieces of apparatus; floor, asymmetric bars, balance bar and vault. Darling of the U.S. team Gabby Douglas on the balance bar – how would you shoot it? Too tight and you miss the fall, too loose and you miss the power and grace of the routine. The photographer decides to go wide and nail it – a perfect frame. You go tighter, a nice frame too and now tight, yep, great, all in the bag. Now for the next 60 seconds and that photographer can do it all again as the athlete flips, turn and twirls. A quick “chimp” produces a perfect set of about 30 images. The card is plugged into the laptop and the picture moved to the editor. Wait for the next athlete to do it all again, and again and again – hopefully every time successfully.
The editor has to choose – tight upside down or wide upside down? Mid-frame right way up, or wide or tight – her expression is great after all? Do I crop the bar out so she looks like she’s flying, or do I leave it in so the viewer knows it is the balance beam routine? If I send them all I will edit like a sausage factory produces sausages, my processor will melt and die, and our clients will be bombarded with hundreds more pictures.
Now factor in the decision-making process of cropping a wide picture tighter – as the moment is better. Or how about leaving space for a tight picture to breathe? If I chose not to send the wide one and the opposition picture publishes I will be in the bar again getting an ear-bashing. Same goes if I crop a wide picture tight or leave too much space on an image that was intended to be cropped tight. And what about shape? Do Internet sites use vertical pictures? Often no, but sometimes yes. Are front page pictures on magazine and tabloid horizontal? Often no, but sometimes yes.
Do I crop the key moment different ways to serve different clients? Buy me a beer and let’s talk about it. You’ll be able to spot me, I’ll be wearing my virtual referee strip.
Do I feel I work in a picture sausage factory – never. I love editing and feel I am part of the dynamic creative process of news and sports photography.
Thanks to Dylan Martinez, Mike Blake, Brian Snyder and Phil Noble for shooting the gymnastics right and keeping it tight.
As a footnote you might be interested that the technicians estimate that editors would have looked at over 1.5 million pictures by the end of the London 2012 Olympics.