How That Now-Iconic Usain Bolt Photo Was Taken

As Usain Bolt cruised over the line at the 100-metre semi-final yesterday, a small pack of Olympic photographers snapped hundreds of images. Each millisecond of the race was captured dozens of times by multiple photographers. Two of the images have now been shared worldwide and gained critical acclaim as one of the best photographs taken during at the Rio Olympics so far.

Both versions circulated the web yesterday that were only marginally different, both showing Usain Bolt in focus smiling for the camera while everyone else is a blur of limbs. Photographer Cameron Spencer took one of them for Getty, and Kai Pfaffenbach snapped the other for Reuters.

Spencer told Mashable he took his photo on a Canon 1DX Mark II with a 70-200mm lens at 135mm, one of four he had firing for the race. The shutter speed was a slow 1/40th and Spencer tracked Bolt with the lens to give the rest of the shot motion blur. He wasn’t supposed to be photographing Bolt in the semi-finals, having been assigned field events rather than track, but he ducked away for four minutes to capture the semi-final. It was because of this he was able to try the technique rather than how he would normally shoot the event. He said “I was prepared to take a risk, so I held the camera as steady as I could, holding my breath.”

Next to Spenser, Pfaffenbach took a nearly identical image. It was shot at 1/50th of a second using the same tracking technique. Speaking to Reuters he said he had time to ‘play’ with the show shutter speed during the almost 10 second race. “As he started to smile and look left and right I actually thought I would not have a chance to get a picture like this – so it was a bit of luck also,” Pfaffenbach added.

Both images have erroneously been credited to Spencer in some places, as the differences at first glance are minimal. Here are the shots side by side.

Top: Cameron Spencer, Bottom Kai Pfaffenbach

The top image is Spencer’s, and the bottom is Pfaffenbach’s. We’ve highlighted the differences in pink. Both shots have since been converted into memes, featured on the front pages of newspapers and shared around the globe. Both were also shot on Canon cameras, and the same technique was to create the images, but they were snapped a split second apart. Once you look closely, the images are quite different and although the images are similar, both photographers deserve to be recognised for their work.

What do you think of the photos, do you like Spencer’s or Pfaffenbach’s best? Let us know on Facebook or in the comments below.