Gymnastics was introduced in early Greek civilization to facilitate bodily development through a series of exercises that included running, jumping, swimming, throwing, wrestling, and weight lifting. The word gymnastics derives from a Greek word meaning “to exercise naked,” applied in ancient Greece to all exercises practiced in the gymnasium. Thankfully, we have progressed a bit. Women’s Olympic gymnastics competition began in 1936 and today, women’s collegiate gymnastics consists of uneven bars, floor, balance beam, and vault. The athletes are compact, fast, graceful, and powerful. For the sports photographer, it is yet another indoor sport that brings into play the relationship between shutter speed, available light, and noise, as well as background management. In addition, because an already small athlete is moving very fast and compacts herself in her jumps, tumbles and spins, focusing is a surprising challenge.
To shoot gymnastics, a number of topics addressed in prior do :: or :: diso coverage. The discussion that follows hot links to the prior issues, where applicable.
Managing shutter speed and available light: Shutter speeds of less than 1/1000 second will yield motion blur. So, in order to achieve shutter speeds of at least 1/1000 second, consider the following in-camera and post-processing strategy: (i) shoot at a wide-open aperture (for me, f / 2.8), (ii) move your ISO up, depending on the gym’s lighting, sometimes to at least ISO 4000 or more; (iii) shoot in manual mode, (iv) adjust your exposure compensation to the maximum (in a Nikon D5, 5 stops to 5.0); and (v) add some light back in post processing, discussed below. While this should allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds, there are consequences: (i) higher noise when you shoot at higher ISO. Modern cameras are amazing at managing noise as higher ISO shooting has become commonplace, and noise can be managed to some degree with post-processing software – for me Lightroom but there are many add in products that work well; and (ii) shooting wide open really scrunches down the depth of field to a challenging narrow margin of error and will exacerbate focus problems, discussed below.
Post Processing: In addition to noise reduction, post processing offers three additional quick fix options to consider. First, add some more exposure in either Lightroom or Photoshop. Second, you can selectively “add back” some light on your subject in both Photoshop by dodging your subject and in Lightroom with the radial filter tool. Third, consider gently sharpening your image selectively. I use the smart sharpen tool in the filters menu in Photoshop.
Focus challenges. Like so many sports, the idea of high-burst photography is to lock onto the athlete’s chest and shoot at the highest burst speed your camera will permit. When a gymnast folds up and spins in mid-air, there is simply much less gymnast to lock onto. In the viewfinder, she looks like she went from the size of a small human to the size of a fist in a Nano second. Moreover, if you shoot at f / 2.8, the margin of focus error is ever so narrow. This is just one of those things that requires practice and experience in getting used to how gymnasts move and when they move.
Settings: While modern cameras have added all kinds of focus modes like Nikon’s 3D focusing, I always seem to come back to single point focus (“S”) and then squeeze the shutter release button, follow the athlete in motion, keeping that single point on her middle, and do not release until she completes her move or jump.
Backgrounds: Gymnastics presents a number of opportunities for an annoying, busy, distracting image background. It might be in-focus fans in the stands, or judges, or things hanging from the roof like basketball hoops or light arrays. On one level, the distractions are what they are but on the other hand they can be managed to some extent, and even incorporated into the shot. Two suggestions for management and incorporation are (i) wide open shooting at f / 2.8 to embrace a shallow depth of field and the resulting blur, and (ii) a new vantage point to shoot – that is, make sure you move around and try different points of view. Be aware of the background, and maybe, rather than fighting it, make it work for your shot. Try below the balance beam as the athlete soars high to emphasize how high she flies. Shoot from above if there is a track or other perch above. Shoot the athlete, not from the floor below the uneven bars but even with her as she releases and is suspended in midair before she reattaches to the bars. Find the background and wait for the moment, whether a sign or a scoreboard. Scoreboards can be annoying but they are not going away so rather than curse them, use them. Here are some background examples:
Other thoughts: Gymnastics is a sport of grace and impossible athletic moves. Find the grace, find the joy,
and find the upside-down competitors.
Next up: shooting through stuff.