Having only one previous dose of Olympics under my belt, 2012 allowed me the chance to shoot my first ever Summer Games. Knowing most of my Olympic experience would be spent on swimming duty, I had the early treat, before it all kicked off, of being able to shoot the opening ceremony.

Being one of the lucky few in blue vests (which allows extra access opportunities for the major agencies), I had the chance to watch two run throughs of the show, in the days running up to the big night. It can’t be stressed enough how helpful this was and according to colleagues who’ve shot previous opening ceremonies, was totally unprecedented. Having seen the show twice, we could sit down with the organisers and explain to them exactly where we needed to be at each point of the show. Unfortunately, this often involved being on one side of the stadium immediately after a moment on the opposite side. If we’d been able to use the track itself, we’d have given Bolt a run for his money.

When the night finally arrived, the six photographers chosen for the in-field position gathered in the media room, decked out in head-to-toe unbranded black clothing like a particularly ill-attended mime convention. Even though I knew what to expect, it still didn’t stop me, and the other photographers, from suffering some serious nerves. As the time got closer, conversation dropped off to silence, cards were formatted and re-formatted, batteries were checked and final toilet runs made.

When the cue came, we were all ushered out onto the infield and it was time to get to work. As I shot various parts of the show over three nights, I thought I’d just show my favourite shots from it all, including some behind the scenes and rehearsal pictures.

One aspect of the job that I’d never had to deal with before was Non-disclosure contracts, or NDCs. With certain elements of the show remaining secret and not included in the two dress rehearsals, all of the photographers who got to see previews had to sign legal documents forbidding them from spilling the secrets. The secrecy was so paramount that for the second run-through, the whole stadium was cleared of non-authorised people with even the security guards taken out of view so the cauldron rehearsal could take place. As it was, I was more than happy to keep it a secret anyway and was so impressed that the thousands of invited guests who made it to the rehearsals managed to “#savethesurprise” so successfully.

On the night itself, in a wonderful salute to British understatement, the crowds all applauded and cheered for the arrival and departure of the geese. Coming after Beijing’s display of dominance to the world, I do believe we couldn’t have done it better. Yay to livestock!

Between the scenes of idyllic life and the arrival of the industrial revolution, the set had to change completely, so hundreds of extras flooded the stage to lift giant props and rolls of turf onto the off-stage area. Unfortunately, that was the area that we were working in, so from this point on, the night became a bit more of a Krypton Factor style assault course.

One of the very few issues with the show as far as photography went was that from the Queen’s view point, the Olympic rings that hovered over the stadium were actually upside down. Thinking it may look better from the far side, we positioned ourselves there on the night itself, only to find the rings looked more like an Audi advert.

A hard lesson to teach yourself in this position is that you don’t have to cover it all. That might sound dumb but when you’ve seen the show a few times and you’re in the thick of it, it’s very easy to begin to believe it’s vital that you get the shot, forgetting that there are actually a bunch of your colleagues in various positions that are more than capable of capturing the moment from a much clearer angle. There were a good few moments of the show that we decided to just ignore, but on the night itself, it did feel like such a waste!

With this in mind, it worked better to focus on the angles and the details that weren’t available to those who were shooting from the top of the stadium. While “the picture” the next day would inevitably be one of the big set piece moments, it was down to the handful of photographers on the infield to document the small moments that made up the larger picture.

One of the only parts of the show that I hadn’t been warned about was what ended up being to me, and to many others, the highlight of the evening. When Brenda turned round and it was actually her, there, on screen with James Bond, I nearly cried I was so giddy. Just awesomeness on every level. The Queen. James Bond. Corgis. A parachute jump. I can genuinely watch that clip over and over without getting bored. Without even seeing this section, I’d tweeted earlier in the week that the ceremony made me proud to be British. With this section included, it was just simply genius. Sadly, the Queen’s moment in the sky was one of the moments that we had to forfeit as we moved between spots. Oh, the inhumanity… *sob* Still, at least AFP’s Olivier Morin could catch a great frame from his position at the 100m finish line.

Once the majority of the entertainment aspect of the show was out of the way, it was on to the athletes which takes forever. Seriously. When you’re watching it at home and you can pop to put the kettle on or practise your yoga, it’s all fine, I’m sure. However, when you’re crouched down in front of the frantic steadicam operators for what seems like an eternity, the fun soon passes. While we initially entertained ourselves by taking pictures of the athletes, panicking TV producers soon sent messages down to the stadium floor that we had to stop as we were holding up the show. This results in a bunch of excited athletes coming out onto the track, only to be greeted by a huddle of photographers who won’t take pictures of them. Whoop. Still, one of the few that I did catch was the Indian Intruder herself…

When the show reached its climax, I was lucky enough to be escorted into the centre, where we could watch the fireworks light up the stadium. With the pyros complete, I was moved into my final position of the night, inside the cauldron area itself. Decided earlier that day, only myself and one other photographer would be able to shoot the lighting from the centre of the stadium, with me being the only photographer actually inside the cordon.

As myself and the event coordinator waited for the flame to arrive, it was truly one of those moments that you sometimes get in this job. Here I was, stood in the eye of the storm, waiting for the flame to arrive and the world’s eyes to fall upon this small circle. That was definitely one for the memory banks.

Once the cauldron was lit, I scurried back over to my technician to hand him my cards, only to realise that as I did, the cards were then being handed to all of the other agencies as part of a “pool” arrangement. I had no problem with this apart from the handful of gormless self-portraits I took on a fish-eye lens from the centre. Way to go, Leon. You show them how pro you are… Sheesh…

The show wrapped up at around midnight and after packing up my gear and making it back to the hotel, it was well into the early hours. Three hours later, my alarm rang out and the real Olympic Games began.

39 Responses to “The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games”

  1. Great stuff was realy lookin forward to this
    Thanks for sharing
    (hope to see some Bmx ones in the future);)

    Posted by Stephen
  2. The shots with the fireworks and the flame look really spectacular! How many photos did you take over the whole olympics?

    Posted by Ed Tritton
  3. Absolutely brilliant. Great to see elements of the show that I didn’t see on tv. Leon, where was your gold medal? You and the others I am sure certainly deserve one. What an experience it must have been.

    Posted by James
  4. Leon – just amazing photos, as usual. Seriously incredible work you (and other colleagues) did.

    Posted by Prashant
  5. Brilliant as always Marcel…

    Posted by Eddie Mulholland
  6. Great stuff, love the shots of the kid bouncing around and the industrial scene, it was great to see that rise up.

    Posted by Miles
  7. @Stephen – Cheers Stephen! Hmmm… BMX. Not sure I got that much worth sharing from that day. Will have a look through…

    @Ed – I dread to imagine. I’ll tally up the total when I get my hands on the whole set. A batch of them are still on the AFP server.

    @James – Thanks James. Much appreciated! As for medals, I’m not quite sure standing around in Westminster and drinking too many coffees is medal-worthy just yet. Still, Team GB were on such a roll, they could have probably dished an extra bronze out at the least… 😉

    @Prashant – Thanks Captain! Yeah, the AFP team did a sterling job. :)

    @Eddie – Ha! Cheers! If only I’d been working with some Frenchmen who could loan me a beret.

    @Miles – Yup, it was a quite a breathtaking moment the first time I saw it too!

    Posted by tabascokid
  8. All in a day’s work, eh?

    (I think I’ve run out of superlatives. 😉 )

    Posted by Sandeha Lynch
  9. Love the blog as per, just wanted to say, love the captures of all the NHS large beds, with the Nightmare. I always want to see every single shot you took of the whole thing. Proper Greedy I Is. :) I know there are hundreds, I just know it…. You are a visual genius mate!

    Posted by rebecca michael
  10. Great pics Leon, and really interesting read about ‘backstage’ at this magnificent event. Your pics reveal many moments I missed, or the TV cameras missed, on the night.
    I hope they’ll be a DVD release of the Opening Ceremony, and a worthwhile extra would be a gallery or slideshow of your photos.

    Posted by Andrew H
  11. @Sandeha – Thanks bud! Sadly, lugging all the digi stuff round left me unable to take my real camera. :( I’m hoping the Paras might give me more opportunity!

    @Rebecca – Cheers, m’dears! I assure you that you wouldn’t want to see my overs. It’s like wading through tripe. I shot SO many frames that I’m amazed I didn’t wear the D4s out. I’ll be intrigued to see the final count when I gather all the files together. I fear I may be a little shocked.

    @Andrew H – Thanks very much! I still haven’t seen the tv version of it yet. I’ll get around to it someday I hope!

    Posted by tabascokid
  12. Having followed your blog since the dead horse incident (still makes me laugh) this is really up at the top for me.

    I wasn’t sure what to expect when I turned the TV on that night but Danny Boyle is such a leftfield genius that I was mesmerised by the whole thing: humbled, excited and genuinely moved. Reading your blog has bought a lot of that back – can’t believe you got into the cauldron area, that was a huge wow moment, well that and the Queen of course… my actual jaw actually dropped when she turned round!

    For 2 weeks we were British and we were brilliant.

    Posted by Neil
  13. @Neil – Wow! That’s some serious commitment to the blog! Thanks, bud. It means a lot! :) Totally agreed regarding the the opening ceremony. It really was a wonderful few hours that we can all say we lived through, whether it was watching it live or being in the stadium. Knowing what Team GB went on to achieve, it only makes that first evening even more special. Arise, Sir Boyle.

    Posted by tabascokid
  14. Wonderful pictures Sir Leon. As always. And your write up is brilliant as usual. Love the self portrait story.

    Posted by Jim
  15. I
    Leon, great photos and write up, which adds a very personal touch. Thanks from a Pom, a long way from home.

    Posted by Nic
  16. @Jim – Always happy to make a fool of myself. 😉 Cheers for your kind words, as ever!
    @Nic – No. Problem. At. All. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  17. These are amazing! It is hard to pick a favorite, but I particularly love the one with the cloud and the planes flying over. That and the one of the hill with the flag and the cloud thing again. What is a “pool” arrangement?

    Posted by Courtney
  18. Smiled a lot looking at these. Great work as always!

    Posted by Alexandra Bone
  19. @Courtney – Thanks petal! A pool facility is where an event occurs that has a limited amount of space for photographers. In this situation, the agencies or newspapers (often both) agree to send in one or two photographers to take the pictures. That photographer then shares the production with everyone for free.

    @Alexandra – Cheers, m’dears!

    Posted by tabascokid
  20. Fabulous…I loved the opening ceremony and your pictures bring it all back. Thank you for sharing.

    Posted by Kim
  21. That’s good to hear. Thanks for your kind words. :)

    Posted by tabascokid
  22. Love seeing these, and whatever else you have coming. I wish I had been more ahead of the game and watched the BBC airing of the ceremony, since the American coverage was… not so good. But yes, I did find things to do during the athlete parade.

    Posted by Sara H
  23. Thank you so much for sharing these images. I arrived here after searching for “Opening Ceremony Secrets”, and as pointed out elsewhere, it’s wonderful to see it from another perspective to that captured on TV. You expect a grand spectacle like that to be all about the ‘big picture’, but clearly it’s the details and individuals that are more interesting. Can’t wait to see what else you are able to share from those two weeks.

    Posted by craigster
  24. Great read from your perspective on the ground, my liege. After seeing your outstanding shots from the Winter Games, I am really looking forward to seeing those shots. How much stuff did you have to lug around?

    Posted by pixpilgrim
  25. @Sara Cheers Sara. Yeah from what I’ve seen the NBC coverage left people a little… “divided”.

    @Craigster – No problem at all. Thanks for visiting and reading! I’m slowly putting together the “sport” aspect when I have spare moments. Keep ’em peeled! 😉

    @pixpilgrim – Way too much, as ever. Thankfully, the majority of the shots were sent down the wire remotely so at least I wasn’t carrying a laptop. Yay for the D4 network port!

    Posted by tabascokid
  26. Great work buddy. Saw you on the box a few times. Looks like a lot of hard work crammed into the two weeks. There was literally thousands of images on the wire every day, no idea how pic editors managed to choose which ones to run. Looking forward to seeing your views from the whole shebang and closing ceremony…

    Posted by Will
  27. Love the shot of the balloons popping!

    Posted by Rochelle
  28. @Will – Cheers bud. It was indeed quite an experience. Putting the sports part of the blog together is proving a right pain though. Just can’t decide what to do with it. :(

    @Rochelle – Cheers! That was one of many “hold your breath and hope you catch it” moments of the night!

    Posted by tabascokid
  29. Way to go Leon, top job as usual and I’m sure the pool images of your gormless self portraits were enjoyed by picture editors worldwide!

    Posted by Mark McLoughlin
  30. Nailed that then!! Pressure to make diamonds… You looked fine when you gave me a run down 30 mins before though. Thanks for that.

    Posted by Jason
  31. @Mark – Cheers. I like to think it provided a subtle balance to all of that beauty and splendour.

    @Jason – haha! Thank! As for looking fine, that’s just because I looked damned cool in my ninja outfit… 😉

    Posted by tabascokid
  32. Love:
    the behind-the-scenes shots
    the shots you planned thanks to the rehearsal experience (NHS kids, that superb Rowan Atkinson portrait)
    the fact that even you guys get nerves!

    the fact that you’re both a stonking photographer and a witty and informative writer. [Insert swear word here]

    Looking forward to posts from the Paralympics!

    Posted by Elizabeth
  33. Awesome job as ever Leon. As someone who was going to be riding a ‘flaming stunt bike’ in the Opening Ceremony before our section was cruelly cut – and having been lucky enough to be in the audience on the night – your shots sum up the personality and colour of the show far more than the TV coverage. It was quite something, especially the Pandemonium bit. Nice work!

    Posted by Joel
  34. @Joel – Cheers! Wow, that flaming stunt bike must have been great. Shame it was cut. I did here a bike section was hacked late in the day during rehearsal meetings. Just get in touch with the Rio organising committee… 😉

    Posted by tabascokid
  35. Some excellent shots of the event Leon.
    I sympathise with the idea of getting back to get three hours sleep and faced with another long day of photography .
    Do you get to a point where the adrenalin doesn’t keep you going ?
    You can also see where the event really pushed the equipment limits on some of the shots.
    I am truly amazed at the dynamic range obtained and the ability to maintain such tight focus.
    Love the inverse fish-eye shot at the end . Clever , that will keep me guessing for some time :)

    Posted by Ray Fothergill
  36. @Ray – Cheers for the kind words. Much appreciated! Regarding the energy levels, you definitely hit the wall after a while. For me, it doesn’t necessarily show in my physical condition but the pictures start to suffer. A good picture editor learns to recognise when a photographer has reached this point and knows to ease off a bit. Thankfully at AFP, the guys on the desk are all pretty in touch with how to get the best from us. :) Having said that, the Olympics is a separate matter so you just have to grit your teeth and keep going. Thankfully, the fact that it is such a rare event means that you know that the punishment won’t last too long!

    By inverse fisheye, do you mean the 2nd to last shot?

    Posted by tabascokid
  37. I covered a five day event once which is why I asked , It was my first and so far only time.
    By the time I got to the third day of turning up at 6:30 am and getting back around 7pm my mind was mush . It doesn’t end there either with cleaning gear and recharging batteries, making sure you have repacked everything uploaded everything and making sure your cards are ready to shoot again and not format them before everything is transferred . I was still sorting shots and eating at the same time after midnight :(
    That was less than a week . I can’t imagine a month of that intensity or a year .
    Not mentioning the weight of gear as well and I don’t have that much. Second day I needed a either a personal trainer or a Chiropractor :)
    Really , whatever you earn , you deserve it .
    The photograph, yes it was the second to last shot :)

    Posted by Ray Fothergill
  38. Yup, it’s hard work alright. I recently found out that I’m shooting the Winter Games 2014 in Sochi, Russia so I’ll have the added pleasure of carrying all that crap while wearing snow boots again! :) As you may already know, the traditional sport of news photographers is whinging. We all love it really…

    As for needing a chiropractor, I regularly do go for “top-ups” to have my spine crunched back into place. All that’s improved recently though as I’ve bought a scooter so don’t have to lug all the toys on public transport all day! Regarding the money, I could always do with more but there are others who work far more than me. I just move around a lot to look busy. 😉

    The second to last shot was just shot on a regular 14mm fisheye. The reason it might look odd to you was simply because it wasn’t wide enough. If Nikon did a version of Canon 8-15mm lens, I’d have been able to get the whole stadium into that shot. It’s incredibly frustrating when you’re let down by lack of gear rather than your own personal failure. This is what that shot would have looked like on an 8mm… http://cdn.theatlantic.com/static/infocus/oly072812/s_l40_RTR35G1E.jpg Grrr….

    Posted by tabascokid
  39. I agree , for a company that boasts to have more lens choice than Canon ( Due to older compatibility mainly ) there are certainly holes in the range .
    Sounds like you have to plan your diary further ahead than a Rock Star :)
    I hope you include your breaks in with that .

    Posted by Ray Fothergill

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