GLORIOUS SUNSHINE, STRAWBERRIES and cream, and Andy Murray lifting the Gentlemen’s Singles Trophy at Wimbledon — the Great British summer is off to a fantastic start. Whether you witnessed the splendours of this year’s Wimbledon via the television coverage, or were one of the lucky fans who managed to get tickets to see the spectacle in person, there’s no denying that the tournament was a roaring success. What the thousands who watched and visited the tournament probably didn’t realise was that in small dark rooms and at lofty heights around the venue, Nikon UK, in collaboration with Mark Roberts Motion Control (MRMC) and official Wimbledon photographer Bob Martin, was testing and tweaking pioneering new photographic and robotics technology that could change the way sports are photographed forever.

As I’m ushered into a small, pitch-black and deadly quiet room overlooking Centre Court, I find Bob delicately manoeuvring what looks like a set of bicycle handlebars while intently concentrating on the screen in front of him. The display shows an enlarged view of what is instantly recognisable as a Nikon viewfinder, complete with telltale AF points. What Bob is seeing is the view through the optical viewfinder of a Nikon D4 fitted with a NIKKOR AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, perched over 50ft above the surface of Centre Court at the edge of the infamous retracting roof. He momentarily depresses a button on the control bar and the screen flickers, as the D4 captures an impressive ten frames for every second the shutter is held down.

«Bob approached us last year saying that he wanted to use robotics at Wimbledon,» explains James Banfield, Professional Services and Business Solutions Manager at Nikon UK. «After coordinating photography at the London Olympics last year and seeing robotics in action, he decided that he wanted to push the limits of the technology further, and see what could really be done. Wimbledon is one of the oldest sporting events in the world — every image and viewpoint possible had been discovered and shot two to three times over at least. But this year, using Nikon cameras and lenses, along with MRMC robotic heads, Bob has captured the first ever images from the roof of Centre Court.»

Nikon UK’sinvolvementstretches much further than simply supplying the cameras and lenses for this ambitious project, too. «After being approached, we developed bespoke software specifically for this usage, allowing Bob to control the camera itself as well as the robotics. Pretty much everything that can be changed on the camera can be adjusted via this software — shutter speed, aperture, focus, drive, ISO, Raw or JPEG and soon,» adds James. «Remotes are nothing new to sports photography, but usually the photographer has to spend a lot of time going back and forth, checking everything, tweaking the composition, adjusting the settings and so forth. They’ll tend to shoot thousands of frames in the hope of getting one or two good shots. Combining our software, cameras and lenses with the technology provided by MRMC, we have revolutionised the possibilities of remote photography.»

Key to this ambitious project’s success is the ability to react. Tennis is a fast-moving sport in which the players make sudden changes in direction and erratic movements. Nikon and MRMC were fully aware of this and this was one of the reasons why they chose to use Wimbledon to further develop their collaboration. «The aim was to recreate almost exactly the same images as if the photographer was sat there with a camera, so reaction time is key. Wimbledon offers the perfect test-bed as the site is fully networked, offering fantastic data transfer times and latency usually only seen at major Olympic venues. This makes the D4 the perfect camera, too, with its built-in Ethernet port. To allow Bob to see exactly what the camera sees, we’ve installed a video feed into the viewfinder of the camera — the delay from this is less than a tenth of a second. Combined with the speed and sensitivity of MRMC’s SFH-30 heads, the photographer is able to respond to live events immediately,» comments James.

As a round of applause resonates around Centre Court, indicating a break in play, Bob breaks from his concentration to add his hands-on experience with the robotics system. «As photographers we aspire to capture that shot or that angle that no one else has got — that’s what drives a lot of sports photographers. The angle that we’ve been able to capture here is fantastic -Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament played on grass, so being able to look down on the action and capture the ground as the backdrop means that every image I capture screams Wimbledon at you.»

Bob is clearly excited by the possibilities offered up by this technology and is keen to show me the other trick that Nikon and MRMC have up their sleeves — at the flick of a switch the feed on the monitor in front of him changes from the roof-mounted D4to a multi-screen set-up and it becomes clear that Bob isn’t just controlling one camera on Centre Court, but three! «What you’re seeing is a system we’ve developed called PolyCam, and this is the first time that it’s ever been used at a major sporting event,» Assaff Rawner, Managing Director at MRMC steps in to explain. «We’ve triangulated the point at which the primary camera is pointing. As Bob controls one of the cameras, two other D4s mounted on robotic heads track this point, allowing Bob to capture three different viewpoints of the same event happening, with a single press of the controls. This is possible with any number of cameras, too, allowing a single photographer the opportunity to cover huge events from multiple viewpoints without moving an inch.»

Seeing this technology in operation at a major event is impressive, and it’s clear from watching Bob at the controls that while such a big jump in how a photographer operates at an event is bound to take some time to adjust to, the possibilities leading on from this type of innovation are endless. «I’m slowly getting used to it,» says Bob, «we’ve tweaked and adjusted the controls to give just the right amount of resistance, allowing me to quickly but smoothly move around. Other than the fact that I’m not physically holding the camera, all of my experience in sports photography still comes into play I’m still setting the exposure, framing the shot and waiting for the right moment -the photographer’s eye is still the most important piece of technology here. Robotics and PolyCam isn’t about replacing photographers, but rather giving them the tools to be better at their job.»

So what does the future hold for Nikon, Bob and MRMC’s collaboration? «I dream of mounting a camera under the umpire’s chair — it’s a perspective that a photographer would never be able to capture,» answers Bob enthusiastically, «or onto the retracting part of the roof itself, so that when the roof closes the camera is directly overhead above the court!»

Wherever Bob’s imagination takes him in the pursuit of capturing stunning sports images, it’s the merging of minds and skill sets that allows innovations such as this to become a reality. «Nikon is a customer-driven company,» reveals James Banfield, «A lot of ideas and development for this system has come from our customers. It’s a select audience at present, but their feedback drives progression — they’ll tell us what the next step is and it’s their ingenuity and vision that pushes us forward.»

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