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Getty is using underwater robots and VR to make its Rio Olympics pictures stand out

The stock image house now has to compete with every fan and athlete with a smartphone.

In an era when nearly every Olympic athlete — and millions of fans — are all taking pictures, it is harder and harder for the professional picture takers to stand out.

So official photography agency Getty Images is relying increasingly on technology to capture new angles and views that no smartphone can compete with.

"Our challenge is to use the technology to help us capture something they didn’t see through their TV screens," said Ken Mainardis, vice president of sport for Getty Images.

In Rio, Getty is using underwater cameras for swimming, overhead robot cameras to capture gymnastics and other stadium sports, and 360-degree cameras to create immersive photography suitable for virtual reality headsets like the Gear 360.

That means Getty can offer a unique twist on the flips from Simone Biles and a different lens into how Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps are dominating in the pools.

Getty uses an overhead robot camera to capture American gymnast Simone Biles on the balance beam.
David Ramos/Getty Images

Capturing imagery for viewing in virtual reality has been a major push this year for Getty, though its work in the area started with shooters carrying inexpensive 360-degree cameras back at the 2012 London Olympics.

A Getty photographer holding the 360-degree camera being used to capture virtual reality images from the Rio Games
Courtesy of Getty Images

A higher-resolution camera, in use for Rio, creates a 108-megapixel image from 36 lenses, stitching it together on the fly.

In shooting 360-degree images, photographers face a new challenge: How to stay out of the shot, or at least blend in.

"Depending on the camera and the situation, it's sometimes hard not to be a part of your own picture with a 360 camera," Getty photographer Richard Heathcote told Recode. Sometimes, he said, you can mount the camera on a pole and delay enough time to duck behind a wall or otherwise get out of the frame. Other times, you can shoot with a traditional camera while the 360-degree image is being shot and look like a natural part of the action.

"Occasionally you just can't help it and then you have to hope people don't rotate the 360 downwards," he said.

A 360-degree view of Olympic Park at the Rio Olympics, a view which also gives a glimpse of the photographer taking the shot
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

As for the underwater photography effort, this year’s crop of robotic cameras are vastly improved from the remote cameras Getty used in London. There, the cameras were static, with photographers having to wait for the swimmers to enter the frame.

This time around the photographers can alter the vantage point and lens focal length, and swivel the camera 300 degrees. As the action moves around a venue, photographers can easily follow along and capture an image when the timing is right.

Getty’s robotic underwater camera lets photographers track the action.
Courtesy of Getty Images

One unexpected challenge in Rio, Mainardis said, has been dealing with the cost-cutting nature of the cash-strapped Brazilian games.

"The current situation means that the Games branding that we are so used to seeing at every Olympics has suffered, and this branding is important as it tends to give you a sense of place," he said in an email from Rio. "Visually it means that it is more difficult for our photographers to produce imagery that takes you into the heart of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Difficult — but not impossible."

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