TOUCHING LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
RICHARD MITCHELL, PHOTOGRAPHER
GYMNASTICS PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS (back)
Not long after my youngest son began gymnastics, I thought it would be fun to photograph him on some of the apparatus. My first attempts at taking photos of him failed miserably! I was embarrassed at how poorly the photos turned out, and I thought I was "doing things right"!
More recently, I have had great success photographing my son, and members of his team. Parents have started asking me "How did you do that?!"..."What settings do you use?"..."How come I can't take photos as sharp as yours?"
I am more than happy to help other folks interested in photography. I don't believe in keeping secrets. If someone wants to learn, they deserve every bit of help I can give them. So, here are a few tips on photographing gymnasts in action...
First of all, gymnastics is an extremely difficult sport to photograph. The rules of competition prohibit flash photography. For competitor safety, photographers and spectators are kept at a distance. Furthermore, gymnasiums are typically very poorly lit. The athletes are in rapid motion (more on that later). All of these factors conspire against the photographer.
Gymnastics is hard to photograph! (Read my advice - below the photo!):
Here's the quick version. Aperture: f/1.4 to f2.0; shutter speed, 1/300 - 1/800 sec.; ISO: 800 - 1000 (I'd use 1600 if I could stand the digital noise this generates...or even 3200!). I also take every picture in manual mode or in aperture priority mode (I set the aperture wide open or typically somewhere between f1.4 and f2.0)...aperture priority mode sets the aperture and allows the shutter speed to "float" for proper exposure...if you set the aperture to f1.4 or f2.0, the shutter speed will be as fast as possible for the lighting conditions. With respect to focusing...I still have some question as to the best way to get sharp images. I often pick the center focus point and use my camera's "one-shot" mode...focus on the gymnast's eyes...hold focus and recompose...wait for the right moment...and depress the shutter release all the way. Note...I don't EVER use "motor drive" or the multi-image mode. My camera, a Canon 5D, shoots at about 3 "frames" per second...and that simply isn't fast enough to "catch the moment"...you are far better served by learning the gymnastics routine, knowing the moment the gymnast will momentarily stop motion and float mid-air prior to reversing direction...and waiting to take a single exposure at just that moment.
So...a few more details may be warranted...
No getting around it...you MUST have a fast shutter speed to photograph sports like gymnastics. I would say that you need at a minimum 1/250 sec, and preferably 1/500 to 1/1000 sec. ... the faster the better. Tough to get with little light.
I have found that the judges will sometimes let an "official photographer" sit next to the judges table...close to the gymnasts. Such positioning is essential for the types of photos I've taken and posted on this website. I have obtained the best results with my "simple" 50mm f/1.4 USM Canon prime lens. This is a very bright lens (f1.4) that focuses quickly. Allowing the maximum amount of light to enter the lens, enables me to stop the motion with a fast shutter speed. Let's look at what would happen to that shot I'd taken at f1.4 at 1/500 sec. with a couple of different lenses. If I used an f2.8 "professional" lens like my Canon 100mm f/2.8 "macro" lens (a great lens!)...the reduction in light from f/1.4 (2-stops) would force me to use a shutter speed of 1/125 second, or to raise the ISO from 800 to 3200...both of which would produce unacceptable images! Worse still would be the result if I were to use my Canon 100-400 f/4.5 - 5.6 L lens...also a great lens, but at f/4.5 (100 mm) or f5.6 (>300 mm)..., the shutter speed would be reduced to 1/60 or 1/30 sec....TOTALLY unacceptable.
So, there is no substitute for a fast lens! Probably one of the best lenses to use for gymnastics is the incredible (and incredibly expensive) 200 mm f1.8L by Canon, which is unfortunately no longer available from Canon (often available through camera rental outfits, however).
I have found that there are some situations where the camera's auto-focus mechanism works well, and some where it does not. In some situations, I use "one-shot" mode (focus...hold focus and recompose then shoot).
For example, for the vault, side-shots of the vault must be pre-focused, since the gymnast will only be in the field of view for a moment. When photographing vault, both eyes are kept open so you can see the gymnast approach your prefocused point, where the picture is taken...I don't try to "track" the gymnast from the side...just pick a place where they will be in a good position, and trip the shutter as they pass through the field of view. This won't work on a point-and-shoot camera because of the shutter-release delay...this will only work on an SLR.
For the pommel, I also pre-focus, and just keep the manual focus point. I believe that the predictive autofocus might work well for this event...the biggest issue is to make sure that the gymnast stays in your primary focusing point. If you switch fields of view, the camera may focus on the back wall of the gym...not on the gymnast, ruining your shot.
DON'T FORGET THE AWARDS CEREMONY! (see below the photo...)
The easiest part of the meet to photograph is the Awards Ceremony...but you have to be ready. At my first meet, I had put all of my telephoto and flash gear back in my car, since I had to photograph with natural (fluorescent...yuck!) light, and since in the dim natural light, I couldn't use my telephotos. When the awards ceremony began...one of the parent's asked if I wasn't going to take pictures..."after all, your son might be on the podium, he did really well"...oh man did I run to my car...arriving back at the gym JUST as they announced my son's name...3rd overall...in his first event! I was fumbling switching lenses from my 50mm f/1.4 to my 100-400mm f4.5-5.6...grabbing my flash, checking my camera settings...aperture f/4.5, shutter 1/200, first curtain sync, image stabilizer on (mode 1)...he was on the stand...scrambling to take my first shots of him from the side as I ran towards the center of the gym...finally I sat down, composed a shot, and took the photo. I lucked out and caught a priceless expression on his face, as he let a bit of pride sink in. A photo I'll cherish, but not taken with any finesse...just a lot of luck.
When the awards ceremony is about to begin...remember your flash (high off-camera if possible to avoid red-eye). Remember to set your shutter to maximum sync speed (you DON'T want to mix flash with natural light...which will reduce the crispness of the shot!). If you have IS, turn it on. I used a monopod too, which I'm sure helped (I was shaking I was so excited my son was on the stand.
LASTLY...DON'T FORGET GYMNASTICS AND THE COACHES AND JUDGES!
Gymnasts and their mentors are great folks!...and they are so underpaid and under-recognized. They are great role models, and yet their sport is so poorly supported. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts! Help get the word out that gymnastics deserves our support!
Touching Light Photography
December 13, 2005
Touching Light Photography
Fine Art Photography
Studio w Landscape w Nature w Macro w Cityscape
Woodinville, Washington 98072