David Burnett’s Speed Graphic Photos of the London 2012 Olympics


Last August, we wrote about how renowned photojournalist David Burnett was spotted using a large format camera at the London Olympics. If you’ve been wondering how the photographs turned out, today’s your lucky day.

Here’s an inside look at how Burnett’s project came to be, and the beautiful images that resulted.

Burnett was spotted using his old press camera by  during a gymnastics event

TV cameras spotted Burnett using his old press camera during a gymnastics event

Burnett tells us that he was shooting as part of a team working in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee museum’s photo team. He was given the freedom to cover the Games in the style of his choice, which gave him the freedom to shoot with a 1940s Speed Graphic camera and a 1943 Aerial reconnaissance lens.


Photographer Mike King shot this photo of David Burnett at the London Olympics with his Speed Graphic camera

He ended up shooting 350 black-and-white 4×5 sheets using the camera, of which he has scanned roughly one third.

Burnett tells us that photographing sports using a Speed Graphic comes with its fair share of difficulties:

As you can imagine, shooting sports (you only get ONE frame… there is no such thing as “FPS”… its more like “FPM”) with a Speed Graphic is challenging in and of itself. Focus is always an issue. Loading the film in a timely manner and getting yourself where you need to be, while schlepping around two different systems is a constant challenge.

That said, what I hoped to do was to create a set of pictures which kind of lets the viewer know what it was like being there, more so than necessarily getting any strictly “amazing action” pictures. It’s about trying to set the tone of what it’s like, and just how you “see” the events with a fairly “normal” lens (7″ on 4×5).

Here are some of the shots Burnett captured using the camera:















Burnett has been using his Speed Graphic for photojournalism for a good number of years now. He writes,

I have included the 4×5 work in my repertoire since 2004, when I started shooting on the political campaigns for President. After 35 years of following politics, the “look” which I was getting with the big camera was what appealed to me. In the early digital days, we were all shooting with more or less the same camera body, the same couple of zoom lenses, and the chance to come up with a different “look” was something I found worth the extra work.

In addition to using the Speed Graphic, Burnett also covered the games using a Canon 5D Mark III and a Leica M9.

You can find more of Burnett’s fantastic photography over on his personal website. You can find the rest of his Olympic photographs in this gallery.

London 2012 / Olympics [David Burnett]

Image credits: Photographs ©2012 David Burnett/I.O.C./Contact and used with permission

  • Cody Myers

    They should have hired this guy to do the Olympians portraits….

  • Ariel Caudis

    underwater shot?

  • Tony Bisson

    Having used theses cameras I’m thinking there are some heavy crops going on to get these effects in some cases. It is really hard to manage the depth of field without an SLR. Great technical work.

  • dreisao

    Very Impressive! Good Job! Good Art!

  • Tony Bisson

    The lens board only tilts forward and about 1.2″ at that. I’d love a closer look at his actual rig. It must not be stock.

  • Samuel Wood

    i was thinking glass sided pool, but other then that no idea

  • Bas

    How about a digit back for this cam?

  • gabe sturdevant

    Olympic pools have windows under water that allow for viewing from underneath the pool surface. Walk down a flight of stairs off to the side and there is a viewing area. Some even have them built into the floor for looking up from underneath.

  • Bob O’Shaughnessy

    Odd that he chose not to shoot with the focal-plane shutter (the feature that makes a Speed Graphic better than a Crown or Century). Since he was going for effect or ‘look’ rather than quality the slow slit would add a lot to action shots.

    For speed, he could have easily loaded up a few Graphmatic holders for six quick shots.

  • Richard Horsfield

    Very impressive work as usual…

  • James Schooling

    This kind of work just blows my mind. I absolutely love the look he achieves with this format and technology.

  • Pavl

    well…. its a bellow operated lens, similar to tilt-shift lenses, you can achieve that look by moving the angle of focus on the film. So, its no much a matter of depth of field, but focal angle. You can do the same thing with any reflex camera.

  • Mike

    Actually easier with the larger format. Just imagine the depth found in 8×10 and 11×14 cameras..

  • rexel99

    A little surprised about the time taken to process and scan his images to digital.. surely he could get some help with that… Wonderful images and a great way to keep the memory of such an event.

  • Matthew Wagg

    and that is THE reason to shoot large format. Just look at that gorgeous shallow depth of field. That’s something that can’t be faked at all.

  • Matthew Wagg

    They’re called scanning backs and tho the mp count is n the hundreds of mp’s they are very slow. Usually taking upwards of 5 minutes to complete the picture.

  • Igor Ken

    amazing shots

  • TSY87

    pssshhh… obviously he just used willow and the blur tool on instagram…. /troll

    okay, these are pretty awesome. It’s amazing how shallow the dof is with large format cameras.

  • Eric

    Reminiscent of the early work of Vincent LaForet in some way.

  • Mark Zimmerman

    He did shoot with the focal-plane shutter. There is no other way to shoot with this lens because it does not have a shutter. The Graphmatic holders are nice, but the film holders are more reliable.

  • Mark Zimmerman

    Why? The 4×5 negative is amazing quality.

  • Bob O’Shaughnessy

    Whoops! Right you are.

  • Bob O’Shaughnessy

    Press cameras tend to be a little less capable in that area than most LF cameras. The ability to move the focal plane depends on the available movements of the camera. The Speed that he’s shown holding above only has rise, shift and a small amount of base (as opposed to axis) tilt only on the front standard.

    That lens also has a f3.5 max aperture, which is huge for a large format lens.

  • Bob O’Shaughnessy

    Nice. Note the Ricoh GR holster on his belt too.

  • Attila Volgyi

    Burnett wasn’t in a hurry. His artist (and not press) accreditation actually didn’t allow him to publish the pics any time sooner.

  • Barefoot1

    Windows on the side. Look at the big square on the opposite wall.

  • Chris Newhall

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would swear that MY Speed Graphic is a medium format camera, not large format…

  • Chris Newhall

    If it was large format I would be able to use the Impossible Project’s 8×10 film instead of mourning the fact that all the machines used to make medium format Polaroid film were destroyed.

  • Chris Newhall

    Isn’t it a medium format camera?

  • Leonardo Abreu

    Mother of God!!

  • Eric Omori

    He is shooting 4×5 film which is large format. The impossible projects 8×10 film would work in an 8×10 camera but not a 4×5. Both are still large format cameras just different sizes.

    You can still get “polaroids” for your medium format camera. Check out fujifilm fp-100c

  • Anthony Burokas

    I mean no offense to the man, his talent, his effort, or his achievements. I find the photos mesmerizing and I bet the prints, especially large ones, are stellar.

    But, in today’s “processed photos” world, if someone was _not_ told what went on to make these shots, what would they think?
    “Ah, that’s a 1940’s speed graphics large format camera” or “Instagram”

  • Brooks2013

    Thank you Mr. Burnett for taking the time and effort to create these shots. My 4×5 experience is limited, but I can appreciate the logistics of these shots.

  • DamianM

    No, its a 4×5 speed graphic.

  • DamianM

    There’s different models.

    4×5 speed graphics and 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 speed graphics which are the medium format version.

    4×5 has always been considered large format anything bigger then that is still Large format or ultra large format.


    these are beter than any digital photo of the Olympics ive seen

  • nikonian

    I love this! I was surprised when I saw this because I do and I get weird looks for it. Speed Graphlex on a Black rapid is what I do.

  • “Charlie”

    Dave was actually using an f2.5, (178mm) lens AFAIK. There are 3-4 similar lenses out there for that format, it doesn’t actually HAVE to be an Aero-Ektar. Also, one can modify a S-G quite easily to reverse the tilt, and with a bit of “butchery”, can even get the front carrier to allow swing. I find all of this great. A lot of people ask: Why film? – My answer would be: Why does it always have to be digital? Nothing wrong with diversity, individual expression and seeking a style/look by different means. He does it because he can.

  • quickpick

    indeed, r.e.s.p.e.c.t.!

    btw, there would be a cool surreal collage if the underwater swimming shot and equestrian landscape were ‘shopped togther properly , they almost beg for each other there.. :)

  • cheap shots for real

    the shallow DOF is gorgeous, but in some pictures almost messy.. and it can be faked too, if not totally mastered in photoscape, a freeware program… ;) never mind the photoshop programming, ‘shop is a useless tinkering tool for the nerdy programming enthusiasts!

  • Bob


  • Jake

    His camera can make great wall-sized prints that could be hung in a gallery, and even if you look at higher definition versions online, they would be a lot sharper than an iPhone’s. Besides, for most documentary photography, you are given the backstory to fully appreciate what you’re seeing.

  • Simone Lezzi

    always support different visions!

  • tertius_decimus

    He is a shaman! I respect this guy. :)

  • Mansgame

    It took talent to do this, but I like the D4 pictures better.

  • Vieux_Foque

    Using a Speed Graphic requires that you understand the decisive moment. (Cartier-Bresson didn’t say that, but he defined the decisive moment, and lived in the era of the Speed Graphic.)

  • Jake

    What about an SLR and a tilt-shift lens? Can’t that achieve the same DoF?

  • Richard Ford

    He has my setup! :-)

  • Gregg Matthews

    Reading the comments here is a chuckle. People speak of the great depth of field large format creates- instead it’s the lack of DOF that creates this look.
    Great depth-of-field means everything near-to-far is focused.
    Tilting the lens board (and thus the focus field) in the traditional manner brings more subject matter into focus to compensate the large format’s native lack of DOF.
    Burnett, and others pursuing this look, tilt the lens board in an unintended (or opposite) fashion to throw areas of the subject field even further out-of-focus, further narrowing the focus point. Shot straight, the out-of-focus areas would be less dramatic.
    If a photographer from the 40’s were standing next to Burnett as he adjusted his camera, he’d say, “you’re doing it wrong!”

  • DamianM

    4×5 is a a type of large format and so is 8×10
    N0t all large format cameras are 8 x10.
    Large format is a world in itself.