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The Apex of Emotion

This is Usain Bolt winning the 100-meter final in the Beijing Olympics. It’s a race that lasts less than 10 seconds, and I got there 12 hours ahead, which is insane.

What I was looking for in this image, which was shot with a 400mm lens wide open at f/2.8, was just Bolt and his pure joy at winning. The challenge as a photographer is capturing that spirit without cutting off his limbs and or having a distracting background.

To his left was a gang of photographers, and to his right was a big space-telescope–looking television camera. So I was composing as tight as possible to isolate him and make him pop right off the page.

The tricky part was I was using a fixed focal length, so I was calculating the best possible spot where he would likely react to winning. In a 100-meter final, an athlete often reacts a quarter of a second after they’ve crossed the finish line because they take a quick glimpse at the scoreboard to see their time. They might see that they’ve broken a world record, and boom, they instantly react.

On the other hand, after a 10-kilometer race they might collapse immediately or walk a few hundred feet past the finish line. And so again, you make a choice and you make a gamble, and you hope it pays off. In this case, he slowed down and started celebrating immediately.

So, that’s what you always have to be ready for—the unpredictable. Here he’s at the height of his reaction. I like the fact that the guy who is clearly 5 yards behind him is out of focus and not distracting, but you still see a big smile on his face because he has won the silver or bronze. It gives the photograph a little more context, that even winning second or third place is a momentous occasion.

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