The Art of Sports Photography: From prints to images (1835-2017)

 THE HISTORY OF SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY : Nowadays, nothing is simpler than taking a picture, even quality ones, but it has not always been the case, follow the guide!  Immerse yourself in the story of the sporting photography in 15 images.

The tennis player, Mr Laine (1843) by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson / BMThe Olympic Museum

1835-1860 Reproducing movement

Image of the tennis player Mr Laine from 1843.

The athlete is posing for this action shot in a studio.

The birth of sports photography!

This was the era of the calotype, the first negative-positive process. The exposure time was long.

The positive prints were produced using silver salts and kitchen salt!

This marked the beginning of modern silver halide photography.

First image of the ascent of Mont Blanc (1860) by Auguste-Rosalie Bisson / BMThe Olympic Museum

1860-1880 Capturing exploits

First image of the ascent of Mont Blanc from 1860.

25 people // 250 kilos of large-format plates // a portable photo-lab // a tent to provide shelter from the light.

All to develop three photographs immediately after exposure!

The age of the mountaineering photography pioneers begins!


This was the era of glass plates. Initially wet plates were used, but these subsequently gave way to dry plates coated with photographic emulsion.

The technique would lead to the invention of film 20 years later.

Movement in sport (1890) by Etienne-Jules Marey / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1880-1890 Décomposer le mouvement

In 1882, movement in sport was captured via a succession of different images to give the illusion of motion.

Sports photographs were now able to convey action.

Flexible and transparent celluloid roll film was marketed for the first time by the American George Eastman in 1884.

Chronophotography was the precursor to the cinema of the Lumière brothers.

Fencing match at Zappeion Hall - Athens 1896 (1896) by Albert Meyer / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1890-1900 Immortalising the event

Fencing match at Zappeion Hall in front of the Greek royal family // Olympic Games Athens 1896.

Mid-action shots of sporting events // portable cameras // ability to take 100 photos on one roll of film.

The Olympic Games enter the photographic era!

First portable cameras equipped with a roll of negative film marketed by Kodak.

Once the 100 pictures had been taken, users would take their camera to the manufacturer to have their photos developed and get their camera loaded with a new roll of negative film.

The famous advertising slogan is still relevant today: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Dorando Pietri - London 1908 (1908) by Photographer unknown / Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

1900-1920 Populariser l’image sportive

Final push by Dorando Pietri as he crosses the finish line in the first Olympic marathon in 1908.

Their exploits immortalised,
their photos circulated in the media;
athletes had become celebrities.

The first great sports photograph!

"La Vie au Grand Air", the first sports news magazine (1908).

Seventy per cent of its content was image-based; a forerunner to the magazines that exist today.

Sports photographs were set up using close-up, overlapping and photomontage techniques.

Suzanne Lenglen - Anvers 1920 (1920) by Photographer unknown / Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

1920-1930 Révéler l’esthétisme du sport

Suzanne Lenglen – “the Goddess”– the first international tennis star and an ambassador for women’s sport.

Instant photographs in natural light. Accuracy and speed give rise to excellent camera shots.

A defining moment for sports photography with the arrival of small hand-held cameras!


The 500g small-format Leica model was mass produced and sold from 1925.

This was the first camera to use 35mm roll film, which had previously been used exclusively for cinema.

The standard 24x36 format photographs were in use until the end of the 20th century.

A ground-breaking innovation that created a new form of popular expression!

Men's Long Jump - Berlin 1936 (1936) by Rübelt Lothar / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1930-1940 Sharing emotions

At the Berlin Games in 1936, in Nazi Germany, a black American athlete beat a German athlete to win the long jump.

This image captured the bond between the two athletes and became iconic.

Freezing a moment in time.
Capturing fleeting instants that could not be seen by the naked eye.
The use of flash synchronisation revealed a more emotional side to sport.

Sports photography was no longer simply translated by action!

The first electronic flash was invented using a stroboscope in 1931.

Movement was frozen by alternating between light and dark phases, allowing film to capture action that was too fast to be seen by the human eye and producing a softer form of light.

After the light, the colour!

Men’s 100m final - London 1948 (1948) by Photo-finish / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1940-1950 Sacrer le vainqueur

Temporal representation of the finish line for the men’s 100m final at the Olympic Games in 1948 in London.

The camera, perfectly positioned on the finish line, takes hundreds or even thousands of shots per second depending on the speed of the athletes.

The space separating the competitors is in fact a time gap.

Sports photography becomes more accurate than the naked eye and the stopwatch.

Photo-finish cameras were introduced for the 100m events at the Games in Los Angeles in 1932.

At the Games in London in 1948, OMEGA placed a camera on the finish line that filmed and timed continuously. Like a “magic eye”.

This became the official technique at the Games in Mexico City in 1968.

Laszlo Papp (1948) by Circa / Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

1950-1960 Turning sport into theatre

The boxer Laszlo Papp, triple Olympic champion, in an attack pose.

The enclosed space of the ring, the lighting, the set-up… Boxing was an ideal subject for sports photography.

Sports photography turns sport into a form of theatre.

The colour negative process, which produced photos that were easy to expose and develop, marked the beginning of the colour era in the mid-20th century.

Agfacolor (1935) then Kodachrome (1942) were the first colour film products.

The technique would not become popular until the 1970s.

Bob Beamon - Mexico City 1968 (1968) by Tony Duffy / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1960-1970 Fixer l’instant clé

This photo of Bob Beamon was taken by an amateur photographer, who captured the precise moment that the athlete smashed the long jump world record with a distance of 8.9m at the Games in Mexico City in 1968.

New equipment // telephoto lenses // zooms // special filters // enabled increasingly striking and dynamic shots.

Sports photos became more intense; the era of hyperrealism had arrived.

Ongoing technological evolution and optimisation from the early 1960s opened the way for amateur photographers.

The reflex camera with its interchangeable lens, telephoto lenses, zooms and special filters, wide-angle lens, etc. turned photography into a real means of expression.

The rise of the personal photo was well underway!

Medal-winners of the Men's 200m - Mexico City 1968 (1968) by John Dominis / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1970-1980 Developing the medium

Olympic Games Mexico City 1968.

Two of the three medal-winners in the celebrated 200m event raise one black-gloved fist in the air. With their eyes rooted to the ground, it was an act of defiance against their country, the United States, and the protocol of the Games, in front of the cameras of the entire world.

Sports photography became a sounding board and a record of the current events of the time.

The first patent for a digital camera was registered in 1978. Kodak refused to put it on the market, fearing that people would stop buying film…

At the time, the general wisdom was that no one would want to look at photos on a screen!

Tracey Miles - Barcelona 1992 (1992) by Bob Martin / Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

1980-1990 Exposer l’extraordinaire

Olympic Games Barcelona 1992.

The sporting performance of diver Tracey Miles is set against a magnificent backdrop of the city.

Capturing the decisive moment, waiting patiently and choosing the perfect frame to take the ultimate photo.


The first Canon D413 digital camera was a prototype designed for the Games in Los Angeles in 1984.

The images were sent to Japan via telephone lines in under 30 minutes.

The Games in Sydney in 2000 saw digital photography establish itself as the undisputed dominant form of photography.

Ice hockey final - Lillehammer 1994 (1994) by Simon Bruty / IOCThe Olympic Museum

1990-2000 Constructing the image

Ice hockey final (Finland-USA) at the Winter Games in Lillehammer in 1994.

The digital era.
Motorised and remote-control cameras gave sports photography an artistic dimension.

Taking inspiration from television, sports photography became more creative.

Digital cameras went on sale to the general public for the first time. Technical innovations which had been in development since the 60s, such as the remote control, were now readily available and easy to use.

Photography had been liberalised, ushering in the “power of photography” era.

Men’s Discus Final - London 2012 (2012) by Pavel Kopczynski-IOPP / Pool/Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

2000-2010 Offering up an experience

An unprecedented viewpoint and immersive set-up add a new dimension to this photo, taken during the final of the men’s discus at the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

Remote-controlled camera.
Computer-guided steering.
Ground-breaking 360° angles.

These techniques were a sign of things to come at the Games in Rio in 2016.

The boom in new and digital technologies, such as 360° techniques, offered a more personal and immersive experience of the action captured by the camera.

Photography, through smartphones and reflex cameras, has truly become a part of our everyday lives.

Michael Phelps - Rio 2016 (2016) by Al Bello / Getty ImagesThe Olympic Museum

2010-2017 Montrer l’invisible

A photo of Michael Phelps underwater, taken using a robot by Al Bello during the 200m butterfly final at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.

Controlled remotely and mobile.
Zoom techniques, high definition, accuracy, etc.
Innovation in the form of robots and drones.

Free from restraints, photography serves to enhance sport.

For the first time ever, a drone equipped with a miniature camera was custom designed to film the snowboarding and skiing competitions at the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014.
The best frames and viewpoints were selected to become spectacular sports images.

Photos, films, videos, clips, time-lapse footage, GIFs, MOV files and mp4… they are all images!

The next chapter in the history of sports photography will be written using new forms of expression.

Credits: Story

The Olympic Museum - Culture and Education Programmes Unit (Lausanne, Switzerland)

IOC archives

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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