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Sports photography master class: Classic Olympic photos, and why they're great

Updated 5:31 PM ET, Thu July 19, 2012
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Famed sports photographer Neil Leifer dreamed of getting this shot of 1976 Olympic star Nadia Comaneci. Because of his determination, planning and excellent position in the gym, he did. The photo exemplifies the 14-year-old's performance at the 1976 games -- she was the first gymnast in Olympic history to be awarded the perfect score of 10. Perpendicular to the balance beam, Leifer cut out any other distractions and focused on Comaneci during a peak moment. She's practically dancing on air, performing against the dark curtain of the audience. It captures her grace beautifully and simply, and freezes her victory in time. Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated
Olympic athletes endure a journey, and their stories either come to a brilliant finish or a crushing defeat. This shot is brilliant because it manages to encompass Seb Coe's journey and ultimate victory. Not only is it beautifully composed, with light falling on the faces of these runners as they close in on the finish, but it highlights their emotional human struggle as well. Arms outstretched and determination fighting through his entire body, Coe is forever in this moment. The frame before or after may not have encapsulated all of these factors in one shot, and that is why this one shines. Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated
Sometimes, it isn't important to showcase where an event is taking place. But because of great scouting and positioning, Bob Martin was in the right spot to capture this long, elegant, powerful line of cyclists against the backdrop of the Parthenon in Athens. The shot is well-exposed on a sunny day, making those team colors really pop. The contrast is engaging -- putting an ancient landmark against the sea of bright-colored jerseys. But it also shows where the Olympics have been, and where they're going. Bob Martin/Sports Illustrated
Photographers often cite Henri Cartier-Bresson, known for his "decisive moment" photography -- releasing the shutter at just the right time to tell a story. There was no more decisive moment that captured two athletes in their environment than Michael Phelps beating Milorad Cavic by one-hundredth of a second. People all over the world, even Phelps' mother, were asking whether his fingers touched the wall first. If he did, it would be his seventh gold medal of the games, tying Mark Spitz's record. When Heinz Kluetmeier positioned his camera underwater, he had no idea that his photograph would help determine if Phelps won. It may not be the victory shot people anticipated, but it was the most important one. Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated
The Olympics are full of great moments, and Usain Bolt's victory in 2008 was one of them. Robert Beck positioned himself by the 30-meter mark on the track. During Bolt's victory lap, he pulled his signature lightning bolt move, striking his famed gold shoes in the air with the stadium lights illuminating him perfectly -- right in front of Beck. It takes a lot of preparation to nail down the right spot, but sometimes, it really does come down to being in the right place at the right time. Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated