Taking centre court

They talk to Oliver Atwell.

EVERYONE likes a celebration. That’s particularly true when you’re faced with the borderline apocalyptic bleakness that is often characteristic of our British summers. Royal marriages and Olympic gold medals aside, nothing gets those plastic Union Jacks waving like a good old-fashioned tennis tournament. Back in July, Wimbledon was once more upon us and the cries of jubilation and anguished gnashing of teeth filled the air around south-west London. This year the sun decided to take residence in our skies throughout the entire tournament, turning Murray Mound into a sea of bare skin and sunglasses. Yet one man found himself sheltered from the sun’s rays for pretty much the duration of Wimbledon. That man was award-winning sports photographer Bob Martin, who has been Wimbledon’s official photographer for several years.

This year Bob was not just at Wimbledon in his capacity as an official photographer.

Think about the kind of footage Channel 4 shows during its Grand National coverage as the camera tracks the horse throughout the race and you’ll get a good idea of what to expect. The main difference here is that Bob is in control of three cameras, not just one.

Witnessing the system in action is an interesting sight. The operator sits in front of a small monitor with a live view of the action they are shooting. Next to the first monitor is a second one that displays the kind of graphs and software familiar only to those with a knowledge of programming. Most interestingly, two joysticks seem to be employed to control the camera movements and the live image on-screen. However, the images Bob captured at this year’s Wimbledon are quite different from what we’ve seen before. Nikon, MRMC and Bob Martin are planning to show us Wimbledon from a fresh and dynamic perspective.

GETTING TO GRIPS

The Polycam set-up is a result of a collaborative effort between camera giant Nikon and MRMC, a 40-year-old company that pioneered robotic motion-control rigs in the motion-picture industry.

While versions of this groundbreaking technology have been in use for some time, the unique angle at Wimbledon is that the Polycam is functioning with software programmed by Nikon. Of course, this technology is exciting in itself, but the real joy for Bob lies in the camera on the centre court roof. It’s a unique angle and one that currently Bob, and only Bob, has been able to achieve.

‘These are still early days,’ says Bob. ‘We’re still in the prototype stage. The equipment consists of three Nikon D4 cameras attached to robotic heads. The first was on the roof of centre court, which is looking down at the game. The second was next to me in the small room overlooking centre court. Finally, the third was in a room much like this one on the other end of the court. All three are synchronised to move together when I manipulate the joysticks.’

The whole set-up works like a video camera. You are witnessing a live image that can be zoomed in and out, panned and tilted. The control may not be quite as smooth as holding a DSLR (I nearly snapped the sensitive joysticks when Bob kindly ‘A little while ago I worked for Spoits Illustrated and did some shots of a 100m race in London,’ says Bob. ‘I had 29 remotes to handle. It’s pretty commonplace to work like that. With the Polycam I’m working from a single control hub, so I can follow the action remotely and witness it live on screen. Crucially, the live image I’m seeing on screen is fairly instantaneous.’

A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE

Currently, Bob and his team provide all the images used by Wimbledon. From their perspective, being able to achieve these unique shots offers them a chance to put images out there that no other photographer can. Bob’s images appear on everything, from ticket covers to posters. That, of course, requires a variety of looks — something that Bob and his team can now provide due the unique angles they can capture.

‘Sports photography, much like every other genre of photography, has become incredibly competitive,’ says Bob. ‘If you want to stand out in this business, you have to find an edge. This is my edge. If I can master this technology and become proficient at it, that gives me something that no one else has.’

It’s tempting to imagine that having three cameras working remotely will pretty much guarantee an image, as all you have to do is move the cameras around and hit the shutter. With so many images being produced (around 300 on a good day) you’re bound to achieve something. Yet this is the same logic that saw many decry the rise of DSLRs, and claim that anyone can take a good image. Bob is quick to correct this misconception of the Polycam system.

‘There’s a staggering amount of creative control when you’re working haven’t been tried before. I have to reconfigure my entire way of working.

‘When I first started, if I was able to get a shot of Linford Christie with his feet off the ground I was delighted,’ continues Bob. ‘Now anyone can do that. As a photographer you need to find ways to extend yourself. I have to consider what I’m bringing to the table.’

Clearly, the most fundamental principles of image-making still apply. Bob is still using the same portion of his brain that intuitively understands framing, composition and exposure. Yet sports photography is more than pressing the shutter at the right time. It also requires a thorough understanding of the sport and its participants.

Til give you a good example,’ says Bob. ‘If I’m photographing Andy Murray and he receives a serve on the backhand, he’ll take two steps forward and then lunge. So when I’m composing a shot like that I’ll put Murray on the edge of the frame because I know he’ll move forward. You have to understand your sport. A good football photographer knows how a certain player will run at the goal, so by the time the player is near the goal the photographer knows the path they’ll take. I shoot a lot of tennis, so I know more or less what each player will do’

A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT

Impressively, it was Bob who was in charge of the photo operations at the London Olympics last year. It was a role that found him co-ordinating the photographers to ensure that all angles were covered. While his job at Wimbledon is similar, there is also the pressure of learning how to operate the Polycam system. However, Bob only has himself to blame, as it was he who sparked the collaboration between Nikon and MRMC.

Nikon’s James Banfield explains: ‘Just before he set off to cover the Olympics, Bob came and saw us to voice concerns that the ExCeL centre, where some of the events were being held, didn’t have catwalks suspended from the ceiling. That meant the photographers didn’t have access to the roof. Every photographer wants to produce something unique and Bob identified this lack of access as a problem in achieving his vision.’

The ExCeL centre contained such sports as weight-lifting and fencing — events that could benefit from a unique high-positioned camera angle. Bob was eager for Nikon to assist him in finding some kind of solution. And just two years later that solution was in place.

‘We partnered with Mark Roberts Motion Control, which has been involved in just about every blockbuster motion picture you can think of,’ says James. ‘This was the first time the company’s robotic systems had been used with still cameras. Before that, it had always been used with motion pictures. Because of the company’s work with special effects, the level of precision was extraordinary It was a joy to work with them.’

Most impressively, Nikon and MRMC went way beyond the brief. Nikon’s initial request was simply to be able to place a camera in a position that no photographer could access. What they came away with was a system that could track the subject of interest. It’s a system that essentially extends the distance between the photographer and camera while still maintaining the same level of control.

THE FUTURE

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the collaboration between Polycam and Nikon is the implications it has outside of sports photography. The Polycam system can be placed into situations no photographer would find themselves in.

‘Think about any type of photography where you’d want to get an image in a challenging situation and you can begin to see the possibilities,’ says James. ‘While the notion of getting unique angles is attractive, you can also place the camera in places no photographer could go. Wildlife photographers could place this near a waterhole or a pride of lions. Another idea would be to work with NASA and set up a camera near the rocket as it launches. Not only would you get the launch, but you’d also be able to track the rocket as it goes up.’

Bob and James both point out that the real opportunities are still to be found. It’s the photographers themselves who will dictate how this technology develops and meets their needs. For now, though, it’s down to Bob Martin and the teams at MRMC and Nikon to explore the capabilities of this fledgling technology. The Polycam is an undeniable game changer and is likely to shape a portion of photography’s future. These are developments that are well worth keeping an eye on.

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