MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As the women's 400 meter final ended, an army of photographers and editors swung into action. With every event, they are the people who transmit images of the games around the world, images of triumph and images of defeat.

As NPR's Tom Goldman explains, they do it with Olympian speed.

TOM GOLDMAN: It's four and a half hours before the start of the women's 400 meters and veteran track and field photographer Michael Steele is plotting his move. In the final, he says, you need a strong picture at the finish line. So he says it sometimes helps to know how the favored athletes might celebrate a victory, like U.S. 400 meters runner Sanya Richards.

Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Track and Field Photographer): I think Richards does it upright, so, you know, it's a difficult one to assume sometimes. Sometimes they don't even celebrate, and then you're thinking, there's no picture there. Why haven't you celebrated? But generally, in an Olympic final, they do something.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: Sanya Richards, Christine Ohuruogu and the other finalists take off on their single lap around the Bird's Nest track. Michael Steele is on an elevated platform beyond the finish line waiting for the head-on view of the runners at the end.

Steely, as he's called by his workmates at Getty Images, has been a professional photographer for 22 years, an old school guy who remembers working with 36 frames on a roll of film, doing all his focusing manually, and taking 15 to 20 minutes to develop his own pictures. Now, his digital camera with auto focus can snap 700 images on a single card.

As the runners round the last turn and hit the final straightaway, Steely starts snapping. Nearby, five Getty field editors sit at a long table in a corner of the stadium.

Ms. REBECCA BUTALA HOW (Senior editor, Getty Images): They're shaking hands. Let's see. Here come the pictures now. Steely's stuff is in. Maxx, get ready.

GOLDMAN: Seventy seconds after the race ends, Steele's first photos show up on a laptop screen in front of senior editor Rebecca Butala How. Steele, the guy who used to get his hands dirty with photo processing chemicals, took his card out of his camera, loaded it into his laptop computer, and transferred the first photos. Just like everyone else in the stadium, Butala How isn't sure right away who won the race.

Ms. BUTALA HOW: Yeah. It looks like the British girl crossed first. I'm going to take this one…

Mr. STEELE: Right.

Ms. BUTALA HOW: …and I'm going to take that one. And then, I think, keep both of them wide, and then I'm going to see - no one celebrated. Well, the Jamaican girl did, but — take those two.

GOLDMAN: She passes off the photos to field editor Maxx Wolfson. He'll work quickly on the pictures' borders and colors. The photos then move down this digital assembly line to Miles Willis, who writes the photo captions. He's the end of the process, sitting at the end of the table.

Mr. MILES WILLIS (Photographer, Getty Images): Okay. Once that caption's complete, I'm ready to send that picture out on the feeds. This is going to go to every single Getty Images sports client around the world. And there it goes. That's the first image gone.

GOLDMAN: It's been about four minutes since Michael Steele focused his 300 millimeter lens on the top four finishers as they cross the line. Back at the other end of the table, the editors and photo croppers are working on the later photos of the event from Steele and seven other photographers.

A total of 23 of their images from the women's 400-meters will zip around the globe, causing some to pause and stare at the visual story of elation and dejection. Back at the Bird's Nest, no time to pause; the next event is up.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.

NORRIS: You can see those photos Steele was describing in a photo gallery of his other work from Beijing at the Olympic section of our Web site npr.org.

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