When he was 15 years old, Ryan Pierse stole his Dad’s camera. That simple act of thievery started a life-long passion for photography which, eventually, led him to shooting five Olympic Games.
For the next two weeks, he will battle extreme cold, dying batteries and exhaustion to try and capture the perfect moment at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, all while carrying a mountain of gear on his back.
I catch Ryan 12 hours before the Opening Ceremony, as he’s travelling to his first event for the day. For him, the Winter Olympics have already started. He’s been filing photos for Getty Images from PyeongChang for a couple of days, acclimatising to the conditions.
Well, trying to acclimate.
PyeongChang is looking like it will be the coldest Winter Olympics on record. Pierse is running on a lot of kimchi and little sleep, so the weather isn't doing him any favours.
The biting conditions in South Korea are almost unheard of at a Winter Games. The last time it was this cold was in Lillehammer, Norway, back in 1994.
Aussie Aerial Skier David Morris poses for Pierse during a PyeongChang preview event.
For Ryan, these are the coldest games he’s ever worked in – a far cry from the t-shirts and sunscreen that photographers were wandering around in four years ago, at the Sochi Games.
“Most days you wake up and it’s at least minus 15. It can even get a bit lower and it doesn’t warm up until 2 or 3 in the afternoon and when I say ‘warm up’ it’s still minus 10, minus 5 – the absolute warmest it will get” he explains.
Being out in photo positions all day, the only barrier between Ryan and the elements are the layers of protective clothing he wears. As a Getty Images photographer, he’s provided with some of the best cold weather gear you can buy, restricting the cold from prickling his skin as he, for hours at a time, stands, lays or sits prone in the snow.
“When you’re in photo positions, you’re out in the elements, no cover. It’s only what you’re wearing on your body that’s going to protect you really.”
But that in itself provides a challenge. Have you ever tried to operate a mobile phone with gloves on? Forget the issue with touchscreens, it’s near impossible to get a good handle on the thing. That’s the issue that Ryan wrestles with.
Operating his equipment requires far more dexterity than gloved hands can provide.
“The hands are the ones hit the hardest, because you still need a certain level of freedom with your fingers to operate the camera.”
They simply MacGyver a glove fix. A DIY alteration.
“We cut out one finger of a glove to make sure we can access all the buttons on the camera.”
What of the cameras though? The body might take a beating in the arctic weather, but with enough protective gear, you can stave off the cold. What of the batteries?
Another DIY alteration.
“The batteries we use – you need to keep them warm – they do drain a lot quicker in these conditions. The spares you gotta keep in your pocket, warm, essentially with heat packs taped to them.”
With the conditions conspiring to rend human bodies and camera gear into broken, frozen pieces, how is it possible to get a good picture out here, where the temperature itself disables batteries and turns skis to garbage?
“The skies are blue, which is one positive – that definitely helps when you’re taking pictures.”
Once he’s beaten back the conditions, it’s time to go to work. Ryan may lug around three top-of-the-line Canon’s all day, but when it comes to shooting, his advice to amateurs doesn’t revolve around expensive hardware or fancy gear.
It’s about practicality.
“Learn how to use the camera on your phone because you’re going to be using that more than anything else.”
The ubiquity of smartphones gives almost everyone access to decent cameras, cameras that can take professional-looking photos with relative ease. However, Ryan suggests you get to know just how well equipped your smartphone is.
“If people ask me ‘what’s the best camera?’ I tell them it’s whatever camera you have on you at the time. 95% of the time, even in my case, it’s an iPhone. Get to know your phone. Even those little exposure settings – a lot of people don’t know you can tap the image and lock the exposure. You can make your pictures ten times better with that.”
It’s something that extends even further than the smartphone user though. Amateur photographers should take note, particularly about understanding the exposure settings.
“I would always say start on manual exposure, learn how to use manual exposure because your results will nearly always be better using manual exposure. You can be a lot more creative and you can nail the shot, basically, every time. It can look a lot more professional.”
Ryan's wheelhouse is definitely sports. He has an impressive portfolio that features some of the world's best athletes in their prime - Usain Bolt, the Australian Cricket Team, Michael Phelps, Tim Cahill - and he's staring down the lens of even more in PyeongChang.
With the pace and movement of most athletic events, getting a great, professional photo where the subject is in focus can be difficult. Curling, Ryan tells me, is like "watching grass grow" but for more high intensity sports, his advice remains simple.
It's all about shutter speed.
“You want to keep your shutter speed quite high. On professional SLR cameras at the moment you want to be shooting a minimum of 1/2000 to 1/3000, that’s sort of the general rule. That would be the minimum.”
More creative shots require a much slower shutter speed, even down to 1/6 second, which Ryan admits is super slow but helps to keep the subject sharp.
"It’s easier to get something sharper at 1/6 second than at 1/30 second. If you’ve got time to be a bit more creative and play around a bit, I’d say go slower and then hopefully you can get your subject sharp and everything else in the background moving.”
This technique is something you can see in Ryan's work across the games - and it's highlighted in events like the luge.
Beyond the photographs themselves, the most pertinent hack?
“Cameras with wireless technology, so you can transfer pictures straight from the camera to your smartphone or to your laptop – I think that saves you so much time. I’d say only buy cameras with in-built wireless technology.”
Three days after speaking to Ryan, a raft of cancellations and inclement weather have run amok with the scheduling in PyeongChang. High winds threatened the Men's downhill, the Men's Super-G was moved for safety and the Women's slopestyle had a delayed start on Day three.
When we think of the Olympic Games, the pursuit of Gold, our minds immediately jump to the superhuman feats of athleticism, determination and overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. Those athletes, full of nervous energy, bundled up in their living quarters, trying to get enough sleep so they can compete the next day.
We don't often stop to think about the other people on the ground, especially those that throw themselves into the thick of it just so we can get keep a record of what's happening.
Talking to Pierse, there's a sense that, no matter how bad the conditions get, how little he sleeps or how poor he might be dieting - there's no dulling his passion.
His experience echoes those you often hear come from the mouths of the athletes - win or lose.
"You gotta enjoy it. At the end of the day, for three to four weeks, you're working 16 to 18 hour days and running on pure adrenaline with no sleep."
"You have to push through the pain barrier."
How many times have you heard an athlete say that?
"It's just about keeping a clear head, make sure you're in the right spot... make sure you're ready, hopefully your fingers haven't frozen off and you can capture the moment."
So far, it seems like he's doing just that.