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The Magic of the Games: Laci Perényi's incredible career

August 2016

As Laci Perényi prepares for his tenth summer Olympic Games, CPN writer Mark Alexander spoke with the celebrated sports photographer and Canon Explorer about his relationship with one of the greatest shows on earth...

Laci Perényi's boundless energy is matched by seemingly endless experience, giving the German photographer an unbeatable temperament that inspires confidence. He has witnessed Olympic history first-hand, capturing moments of heroic success and failure in stunning detail and beautifully timed observation. He is a staple of the sports photography industry and a character to boot.

© Laci Perényi
© Laci Perényi

Los Angeles, 1984. Germany’s Ulrike Meyfarth wins gold in the high jump event.

In a career spanning five decades, Perényi has covered nine summer Olympic Games - Rio 2016 will be his tenth. During this time he has used his own experiences of competing at the highest level to photograph the drama of the Olympic Games at a personal level that goes far beyond sport. Desire, relief and exhaustion all colour his images in a rich hue of mood and insight.

Perhaps most impressive of all is his unwavering belief which he fostered as he pushed for a place in the German Olympic swimming team during the early 1970s. At this time, when he was in his twenties, Perényi made his boldest move of all. Inspired by his best friend who worked as a portrait photographer, Perényi decided to pick up a camera and apply it to sport. A quick search in the phone directory pointed him towards an established sports photo agency and a career in imagery.


“I had never taken a picture – it was only an idea that I would be a photographer,” he remembers nostalgically. “When I went for the interview, the agency owner asked if I knew anything about sports photography. I said yes, but I had never held a camera in my life. Never.”

Fortunately, Perényi’s repute as an elite swimmer and general knowledge of sport helped him through the interview. He went on to work as a staff photographer from 1974 to 1979 before setting up his own agency. Initially he had to balance his professional commitments with his training and eventually missed out on an Olympic spot by 1/600sec. His loss was photography’s gain.

A career defining moment came for Perényi when he attended his first Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. “I was a young man,” he recalls. “It was all very new to me.” It started a run of summer and winter games that closely tracked the gathering pace of technological innovation in photography. “The work changed a lot during this time,” says Perényi. “I started with black and white films which I had to develop and make prints from and now we have the digital era. That’s like flying to the moon – it’s so different.”

© Laci Perényi
© Laci Perényi

Sydney, 2000. Tennis champion Venus Williams (USA) wins gold in the women’s final.

He continues: “Most of my images from my first Olympic Games were in black and white. I also made some colour slides but it was very difficult because at that time colour film wasn’t so fast, maybe ISO 200. Also during the first three days of the Games, the Russian police put all the colour films through X-ray machines so the images the photographers got back from Kodak were magenta green. That was my first Olympic Games. But I was so happy; I thought if I could only make the next one or two… and now I have my tenth summer Games in Rio and 19th including Winter Olympic Games. Unbelievable.”


Perényi’s introduction to the Olympics would be the first of many based around the familiar four-year cycle. The periodic reoccurrence of the greatest show on earth would provide a conveniently punctuated history of photographic developments that would shape how we view history and how Perényi honed his skills.

“Four years after Moscow, in 1984, came a new evolution in photography,” he recalls. “Los Angeles was the first time Fujifilm was at the Olympics and for me it was the first time that whites were white and reds were red. It was a new time with Velvia 50 – an unbelievable film. But there were also new lenses - the 600mm f/4 and the 1.4 extender. In 1984, I could take pictures at 840mm and they looked brilliant.”

By the time the Olympic Games went to Sydney in 2000, photography was on the cusp of going digital, and so was Perényi although sticking with what you knew still had its advantages. “Sydney was my last Olympics with film. Athens in 2004 would be my first Games with digital,” he says. “Two years before I made the change, I covered the World Cup in Korea and Japan in 2002 with film. A professional lab was in each stadium but because I was one of only five photographers shooting film, it was so easy to get the film back from the labs. It wasn’t like before.”

When the change to digital eventually came, it would transform the way the Olympic Games were photographed. For the photographers on the sidelines, it heralded the end of a golden era of photography. He remembers: “You could look at the screen and see if the image was good or not so good. Before, you had to make slides and then pick up the pictures from the lab after four hours, and then you could see if it was OK or not OK. If it was not OK, you made no money. If your slides were too dark or too green, you were out. That was a time when only the best of the best survived.”

© Laci Perényi
© Laci Perényi

London, 2012. Britta Heidemann (left) of Germany competes against Shin A-lam of Korea (right) in the Women's Epee Individual Fencing event.

Despite the upheaval, Perényi still includes Athens in 2004 in his top three Olympic Games. Perhaps understandably, Sydney in 2000 comes out favourite. “When we went to Bondi Beach to cover the volleyball, it was like going on holiday. It was hard work, but it was something special.”

In terms of reaching a photographic pinnacle, Perényi says London in 2012 was hard to beat. “I received three awards in Germany for my images from those Games,” he says proudly. From a stunning portfolio, he selects his favourite shot of two fencers which seamlessly marries action and art in a split second of brilliance. “This is Britta Heidemann in the semi-final, which ended controversially because she won 7-6 and this was the last point. The Korean team made a protest and the Korean girl stayed on the stage for one and a half hours,” he says. “You need luck to make this picture. It is a special moment. Nobody had this picture. In London, there was maybe 250 other photographers but only I have this pic. You can never make this picture again. You never have the chance to make a picture like this again. It’s not possible in sport.”


These days, Perényi captures his one-off images using a variety of Canon’s L-series lenses and flagship body, the EOS-1D X Mark II.“Now we have Velvia,” he says of the camera which can shoot up to 14 fps with full AF/AE tracking. To capture something special, however, needs more than a spot of luck and lightning-quick reflexes. Indeed, Perényi says that if his Olympic career has taught him anything, it is to trust his intuition to find a unique perspective.

“Many photographers take pictures of people running or swimming. But when I go to the stadium, I look for other pictures that tell the story,” he explains. This ability to observe, experiment and predict gives Perényi that crucial ingredient that separates his imagery from the chasing pack. His pictures successfully define the context as well as capturing the action. It’s a skill he says you are born with. “You can’t learn photography; you must have it,” he says conclusively. “You can learn 25 percent, but everything else is intuition.”

© Laci Perényi
© Laci Perényi

London, 2012. Athletes in the men’s 4x400-metres relay run past the Olympic flame.

In Atlanta, Perényi’s intuition served him well. Covering a key moment during the ladies shot put competition in the darkest corner of the stadium, he felt compelled to switch his attention to one of the stragglers in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase. “I was on 1/250sec at f/2.8 with a 400mm lens so it was too slow for steeplechase but perfect for the shot put because it was so dark."

"The shot put was important for me because a German competitor was in contention, but I spotted one guy 100 metres behind the leading group in the steeplechase making jokes with the crowd. I thought he might do something crazy on the last jump and he did. Because I was at 1/250 secs, the water made a wonderful fan.” The shot earned Perényi one of his many Sports Photograph of the Year awards.

It is perhaps his understanding of the significance of sport at the highest level that gives him an edge, or maybe it simply boils down to being in the right place at the right time that counts. Either way, Perényi has forged a sparkling and enduring career based on his fascination with the theatre of sport. More than anything else, it is his passion for competition that keeps him striving for the ultimate shot.

“When I get to the point when I have nothing more to learn, then I am at the end of photography,” he says sternly. “But I am 61 and I know I was better in 2012 in London than in Beijing. So I will go to Rio and make something more than I did in London. If I no longer look for something new, then it will be finished.”

Biografia: Laci Perényi

Laci Perényi

Born in Bratislava, Slovakia, and now living in Germany, Laci Perényi has amassed a wealth of experience shooting 18 summer and winter Olympic Games, as well as a host of other major sporting events. Since beginning his career in 1974, he has received numerous national and international awards with his images featuring prominently in magazines and outlets such as Stern, Bunte, Spiegel, Hörzu, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Esquire, Prisma, Color-Foto, Men’s Health and the Olympic Sports Library.


Athens, 2004. In his first event, the 400-metres individual medley, USA’s Michael Phelps won with a world record time of 4:08.26 to win his first Olympic gold medal.