We've come to expect instant coverage of global sporting events, and this month's Commonwealth Games is no exception. David Braue explains how Getty Images will move more than 40,000 photographs from trackside to the Web in record time.
Digital photography and fast networking technology will allow official photographers at the Commonwealth Games to publish images online within minutes of a race's completion, but there's one technology that didn't make the cut for the big event.
Eighteen months of planning will this week culminate in a massive photographic exercise for Getty Images, which holds the enviable role of official photographer for the Games. Throughout the two weeks of the event, more than 40,000 frames will be taken and edited for distribution to news outlets worldwide.
Yet while speed is of the essence in getting images from on-track and poolside cameras to the editors' desks, the most obvious choice -- cameras linked directly to editors using wireless LANs -- didn't make the cut.
"We've been burnt by [Wi-Fi] a few times", including a 20-minute outage during a critical part of a World Cup soccer match, says Stuart Hannagan, director of photography with Getty Images. "We do use Wi-Fi when we think it's necessary, but we have an in-house policy [not to use it]; unless you put a shovel-head through it, we know cabling works no matter what."
Cabling, then, will carry the images between photographers at Commonwealth Games venues and their editors, who will be perched in tribunes high in the MCG, cycling track and Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre.
The images will start their journey care of several Sony VAIO notebooks, spaced around each venue. Each time a photographer fills up one of the more than 200 1GB, 2GB and 4GB memory cards that will be used to record the events, he will insert the card into one of the notebook PCs. Pictures will be automatically copied off the card, the card erased and made ready for reuse, and the pictures sent via Gigabit Ethernet over dedicated fibre-optic cable laid between the notebooks and the editors' tribunes.
That's a long way from the early days of digital photography -- Getty Images went fully digital only six years ago -- when digital camera memory cards were hand-carried between photographers and editors. Those kinds of delays, however, have become unacceptable in an ever more competitive market where the first-in, best-dressed pictures are the ones that will get a run.
For the first time ever, the cabling approach is even being taken to the pool, where a SCUBA diver has traditionally physically removed memory cards from the underwater camera between races. This time around, a standard FireWire cable will allow poolside staff to download pictures with no oxygen tanks involved.
Stuart Hannagan, director of photography with Getty Images.
It may sound like a simple change, but Getty Image boffins spent nearly three months figuring out how to work around that FireWire cable's 10 metre normal maximum reach so it could reach a notebook poolside. Once they hit the notebook, images will be beamed 50 metres through the air to the editors' desk, in the company's only official nod to Wi-Fi.
Facing competition from local photographers and global news agencies, Getty Images is in a race of its own to deliver high-quality, print-ready images of key events before its competitors do.
To meet this goal, the company maintains a smooth digital workflow built around a custom tool called GIFT (Getty Images Field Tool), in which images are automatically tagged with a broad range of metatags that contain information on each image, the event where it was taken, and so on. Use of pre-built templates means IPTC caption information is 99 percent complete before the event even starts -- saving considerable time for staff who only have to enter information such as a runner's name and country.
Working from their perches high above the venues, editors will quickly pick out the best seven or eight images, then transmit them via ADSL connections to the company's picture desk in Sydney. From there, images will be sent to Getty Images' primary servers in Seattle, where they instantly become available to a global audience of image-buying customers accessing 5TB of RAID 5 storage online.
Collectively, between 700 and 1,200 images -- each a RAW image file occupying around 25MB of disk space -- will be made available every day for purchase and publication by the more than 35 Australian newspapers and 150 global news outlets that rely on the company's photography.
"Newspapers often throw out special editions throughout events like this, and they have become very demanding," Hannagan explains. "Within 10 to 20 minutes of seeing someone cross a line, they will expect to see pictures from us."
As well as covering general photography for the events, Getty Images photographers will also focus on athletes from specific countries where its customers are located. Once the images are safely loaded onto the main servers, they'll also be spruiked by a secondary sales team to sporting companies and other potential buyers based on incidental product positioning: for example, athletic shoe companies are often interested in buying images of successful athletes wearing their shoes.
It's not the first time Getty Images has handled such a big event: many of the photographers and IT staff at the Commonwealth Games have only just gotten off the plane from the Torino Winter Olympics, where a similar setup helped the company post more than 2,500 pictures onto the company's Web site per day. The technology will also be used later this year at the soccer World Cup, another of the big-name sporting events that have been Getty Images mainstays since the company bought out sports photography company AllSport eight years ago.
"We've spent many years growing the business and getting what we know is a terrific system," says Hannagan. "The systems that have now been put in place by our IT guys are making us incredibly competitive."