Robotic Cameras Give Photographers a New Perspective – and Job?

Robotic Cameras Give Photographers a New Perspective – and Job?

Until the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the remote control camera was a static solution, meaning that once put in place, that was that – no ability to move the camera or control anything other than the shutter. All that changed this past summer when Sports Illustrated worked with some fellow innovators to install a 2.5ft long rig connected to a unit housing a Nikon D4 that’s able to pan, tilt, and roll via a joystick-like console.

Source: Sports Illustrated

If you saw coverage of AFP, Getty, Reuters or AP’s robotic rigs, then you might be saying to yourself, “So what?” But here’s the stickler: Sports Illustrated was the only publication to have a robotic rig at the Olympics. SI has always been at the forefront of developing technologies, and they’re committed to getting a unique perspective of whatever they’re covering. So the fact that they’re investing in this technology and paving the way for usage at other events is a big, big deal.

We spoke with Erick Rasco, Deputy Picture Editor/Technology at SI to get an exclusive look at how the robotic rig came together, and discuss what this approach means for photographers.

What was the motivation behind investing in the robotic rig? 

At the 2012 Summer Olympics, there’s one indoor venue – the Excel Center – that din’t have a catwalk, meaning there was no place for photographers to walk around and capture the events. The Excel Center was one of the largest indoor venues at the Games, where events like Weight Lifting, Taekwondo, and Judo took place. So we needed a robotic overhead remote that could zoom, tilt, focus, etc.

This was new territory for us and was a large undertaking.  While robotics had been used during test situations leading up to the games, the Olympics were the highest profile live event in which robotics were used.

What does this thing actually look like?

SI had four Nikon D4 cameras with 24mm-120mm f/4 and 70mm-200mm f/2.8 lenses attached to a 2.5ft long rig, built by Mark Roberts Motion Control, on the arena’s ceiling. That’s connected with Ethernet cables to a joystick-like console that allows us to move the unit around on its head – giving us not only the ability to pan, tilt, and zoom, but also an additional axis that allows us to roll. The roll capability special to our rigs really allowed us to maneuver the camera into unique positions.

Source: Sports Illustrated

Source: Sports Illustrated

The cables are also connected to the motors around the Nikon D4 lens, so we can zoom and fire the shutter. All this information is fed to a laptop containing Nikon proprietary software, allowing us to control camera settings, live view the field of play, and capture.

Source: Sports Illustrated

How different was setting up a shot with the robotic rig from being on the ground?

Well, it allows for a really unique, overhead perspective. I tended to frame the camera, pick a focus point, and wait for the action – much like with a static remote. However, with the robotic solution I was able to record and program various positions at different angles and focal lengths. All at a touch of a button, thus allowing us to quickly re-position and focus the camera as needed. So with robotics we were able to easily try out a variety of different angles with little risk or effort. If an angle didn’t work, we could quickly adjust.

Photo by Erick Rasco

Photo by Erick Rasco

Photo by Erick Rasco

I probably took about 2,000-3,000 frames over the course of all the events. We ended up publishing a few in the Sports Illustrated Olympics app for the iPad and one in the magazine. For SI at least, one shot can often say it all.

Photo by Erick Rasco

Photo by Erick Rasco

Do you think these kinds of technologies have implications for photographers?

Yes, it’s a very different way of shooting and operating a camera. You’re sitting in the stands with a laptop and joystick on your lap fully operating a camera without physically touching the camera, pressing the shutter, or looking through the view finder. It’s a totally different feeling.

We want to try working with other organizations in the U.S. to try to make use of the robotic rig and come up with different angles. Now that we have the technology, it opens the door to a lot of other possibilities.

Photo by Erick Rasco

What do you think about these new robotic technologies? Leave your opinions and questions in the comments.

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  1. Jennifer at 11:20 am

    It’s exciting! Adds room for growth and development for photographers who are interested in both composing unique imagery from otherwise unthinkable positions, and technological development. Part of me imagines it sort of like playing a video game, with being shot at!

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