How do I Photograph a Gymnastics Event? - DPS Community Workshop

How do I Photograph a Gymnastics Event? – DPS Community Workshop

Image by Raphael Goetter

Image by Raphael Goetter

We used to do ‘DPS community workshops’ fairly regularly but it’s been a while – so lets recap on what they are.

  1. A reader asks a question about a photographic challenge that they have – I share it here on the blog.
  2. Readers are invited to read the question and give some advice to the reader asking it.
  3. Together we learn something about a particular aspect of photography by reading all the answers.

See some previous ones on the topics of photographing funerals, travel, cricket, Grandma in hospital and Fashion Shows.

Got the idea? OK – lets do one.

How do I Photograph a Gymnastics Event?

This workshop’s question comes from a reader by the name of Brent who asks:

“I’ve just been approached to photograph a regional gymnastics finals event – next week! I’ve taken shots of my daughter at gymnastics before but this time I’m THE official photographer for the whole event. The previous Pro that they had lined up got sick and had to withdraw so it’s all very last minute.

OK – it is no Olympics trial or anything – it’s just a regional event for kids – but I want to do my best and need some help. Do you have any advice?”

Brent tells me that he’ll be shooting with a Canon 5D (Mark II) and a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS lens as his primary lens (he has a few others that he’ll take but that’s what he’s planning on using primarily.

What would you advise Brent?

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Mark Hamilton March 10, 2011 02:48 am

    Having a been a gymnast and a coach, and having photographed gymnastics for the past 3-years I can tell you that while you'll get great results from the 5D, the enhanced speed of the 7D will allow more creativity and some better shots. Shoot and burst mode, however use the single shot focusing. This will allow you to catch some of the best shots. Depending on the location the white balance and ISO requirements will change based on the event your shooting and time of day, just be aware of that. I've found that keeping the aperature as wide open as possible (I typically shoot the 70-200 f2.8) with a shutter speed of around 1/500 or greater you can get some great shots. Your best bet is to do some post shoot corrections so you can shoot a little faster with a lower ISO.

    Finally, don't just shoot the competition, shoot the warm-ups as well. This will 1) give you some practice and help finalize some of your settings, and 2) there are also some key shots here of the coaches and gymnast interactions and you can typically get some decent group shots....

  • Stiles March 1, 2011 02:56 am

    DON'T SHOOT IN BURST MODE!!!! If you're on a 5D than you only have 3fps, which isn't enough to rely on getting the shot. Have your finger on the trigger and wait for the gymnast to hit his/her peak in flight or the one "wow" moment and snap the picture. I'm on a 7D and I still try to avoid the temptation of burst mode.

  • Rachel Farquhar November 29, 2009 11:14 am

    One thing no one seems to be mentioning is make sure you have enough memory cards. If you are shooting in burst mode, and are planning on every single gymnast, plus the odd side line moment, you are going to go through memory like crazy. It would be a shame to get 1/2 way through the event and find you have no space left. You may want 2 or 3 memory cards or more. This isn't something I have done but maybe someone who has can say how many you will likely need

  • Mark November 27, 2009 11:41 am

    As a former international gymnast I'd suggest a few things:
    1. Work out who the top 5 contendars are in each event and watch them practice - they'll have at least one 'spectacular' signature move in each routine which they love. Talk to the goupies if you don't know each person's signture moves.
    2. Shoot from below, eye level and from above - makes for interest
    3. Go for the anguish in the eyes and face
    4. Get in close - don't worry, the gymnasts are concentrating so hard, plus they love to show off - a photographer is like a great crowd - it makes them feel special
    5. Most complex moves have 3 parts, a) the start, b) the guts of the move, and c) the end or landing. From the warmups work out what is the most spectacular bit
    6. Most aerial moves have a point of stopping - you go up, stop, and then decend. That stopping or hanging point has less motion than the other two sections. Practice during the warmups.
    7. Shoot lots of frames on the key moves - one will stand out
    8. The equipment doesn't have to be in focus - so drop that aperture way down. (also give the impression of flying)
    9. Remember, gymnastics is a team sport. Get the coach, the judges, the team camerarderie, that fanatical parent in the crowd etc
    10. Take the great shots to the gymnast - I'd love to have copies of me in my old competing days. Your carrer is so short.

  • Richard Cooper November 27, 2009 05:55 am

    Knowing routines and positioning yourself is primary. I was intimately involved with the former USGF back in the 80's and 90's and was fortunate to know Dave Black, now a Nikon photographer. I sat with him on the main floor of some events where he had 2 or 3 cameras with him and all we'd do is sit and rotate to cover different events. "sit' is important because you don't want to distract the gymnast by standing up. Keep out of their line of sight. I shot then with a Nikon FM2 with a Soligor 135mm, f2.0 monster..., but I got great shots.

    Getting to the event early and watching practice is very important too. And don't stand in front of a judge!!!

  • Jim News November 27, 2009 03:18 am

    You've gotten some very good tips so far. In case no one mentioned it, I'd add this. Getting low and shooting up is great, it makes the subject seem larger in the frame and can be very dramatic. Don't however discount the idea of getting up and shooting down, especially with gymnastics. Both techniques can be used to remove distractions from the background. Take whatever gear you want, but find a way to not have to carry it. Get an assistant to carry the bag with all the equipment. Typically, several events are taking place at the same time and you must be able to move around (the competitors aren't the only ones getting a workout). Most of all, plan your locations and the path you will take to reach them carefully. Pick your spots so that you will not be a distraction. Gymnastics is a sport of extreme focus on the part of the athletes. You will know you've done your job well when you make great pictures and people on the floor hardly noticed you were there.

  • Travis November 27, 2009 02:09 am

    It's very interesting to hear all of the different opinions. 5d good, 5d bad . Zoom good,zoom bad
    Whether you rent a different body or lens, shoot raw for the versatility to underexpose a bit. Set your focusing to continuous servo, use a monopod, and just make sure you have a high enough shutter speed that they aren't blurry.
    Anticpate the shot and don't kill yourself on the back end by shooting in burst mode. And I totally agree that the key to sales will be promotions-
    Iso 3200 will be your friend. Definitely shoot in manual exposure and set yourself a custom white balance or shoot in Kelvin mode
    Sorry for the typing errors- I'm typing this from my phone

  • cristiano007 November 27, 2009 01:50 am

    Very good tips so far. You already know the sport, that's very good. My little girl used to practice gymnastics too. I would add for this kind of event (kids thing) more context, parent's reaction, the kids expectation, some behind the scene takes you're know the photography boss, so you can do anything you dreamed to do before. Good luck and please try to show the results to us.

  • Giorgio November 27, 2009 01:32 am

    Visual references: Search the web for photos with the same subject of yours, analyze and guess the problems involved in doing them.
    Know the area: If you can go to explore the place in advance, find the best spot.
    Talk to the organizer: try to understand how the events work for an aid in planning your photoshooting
    Universal to particular: try to choose more than one tematics for your's photos. I mean you have to answer to the questions: who, where, when and why.
    Best wishes!

  • Cathy November 27, 2009 01:11 am

    Fast indoor sports are miserable to shoot. First thing I check for is light because guess what not all parts are lit the same. I will concentrate the majority of the photos in the area where there is light.

    You can also use Ev compensation

    If you shoot in M mode then you can just adjust the camera so that the exposures are darker to get the right shutter speed.

    Also take photos of the teams and individuals getting ready and the landings. Landings are good because they usually have a big grin and most important for you are standing still Try and take the fast pictures with them coming at you speeds appear slower then if taken from the side. If you can get on the floor take a faster shorter lens if you have one. I would also guess that you were asked because they have seen some of your photos and liked them, so think about what people like about the photos that you've taken and take shots of their kids that are similar. Sometimes for parents a slightly blurry shot of their kid doing something spectacular is better then all the clear shots of them standing still. Good Luck and have a great time.

  • gymmomto3 November 27, 2009 12:36 am

    Regionals IS a huge deal and it is usually a great chance to get known by other gyms quickly!! Bring tons of business cards or small flyers and put them everywhere....if you have a large screen you can play some of your images throughout the day to generate some excitement .... put your website info on the monitor....

    Go to a local gymnastic club and ask to practice shooting during one of their practices - look for the higher levels 9/10 and you will get mostly action to practice... each state has a listing of clubs under USAG

    You can't use ANY flash at a gymnastic meet it is too dangerous and not allowed.....the lighting usually stinks. Get a copy of the rotation sheets so you will be able to assign a number to each gymnast and keep each team seperate for your workflow after the meet.... they all look very similar when you are going through them afterward.

    It is hard to do a gymnastics meet by yourself - there are 4 events going on at the same time ... if you can get someone to help you then you only need to focus on 2 events .....

    If you can't find help ....then only shoot floor and beam ...for floor ... a monopod will come in VERY handy at this type of can shoot right on the floor using it as a tripod ...get as close as you can to the action and fill the frame with action and poses.... for beam..... it is dramatic to shoot from one end but you will have more shots from the side...

    watch the warm-ups and shoot those as well as awards at the end....

    people will only buy shots that have FACES in them unless you catch a unique pose

    Have fun and good luck!

  • mlburger November 26, 2009 10:58 pm

    Hi, I got here following the link provided by Gogle Alerts ... nice!
    I have to buy a new camera , so this article goes to my favorites and I will find the time to read !!
    I'm a great fan of gymnastics, with both photo and camcorder
    Always want to improve the results , so I will check back here !

    My advice on event photography >> also make some pictures "off the court " , so not only shoot the routines on the apparatus , but also participants away from the podium.
    If there is not to much light in the hall, better a bit dark picture then less shutter time
    Try and zoom in as far as you can, putting your camera on a tripod.

    Thanks DPS for this item on gymnastics

  • Joost November 26, 2009 07:55 pm

    with all of the above tips in mind, shoot in RAW, it will allow for slight under exposure if necessary, since you don't want to go slower than 1/500th. Later on you can lighten up the images and use some noise reduction program.
    Good luck!

  • Raphael Goetter November 26, 2009 04:55 pm

    Hello, I am the autor of this image.
    First sorry for my bag english, I will try to write an understandable message ;)

    Gymnastics is a very hard sport : indoor, no light, very fast, and often much people or things around the subject.

    These are my first impressions :

    - Canon 5d ? I really don't like it's autofocus for sport. I prefer the 20D (used for this photo), or a 1D / 7D
    - High ISO ? well OK in general, but this picture was taken at 400ISO.
    - 70-200 : OK this lens is very good for sport, but be careful : the Sigma version has a very slower AF than the Canon version ! For my part, I use and love my 135mm for indoor sport and I often use it at f/2
    - An important (perhaps the most important) point is that a good sport picture is "clear" : only a subject and the apparatus. No other parasite. And that's certainely the most difficult.

  • alienlebarge November 26, 2009 04:08 pm

    As Jeff Wilson says, the 85mm f/1.8 is a great lense for indoor sport.
    When I shoot handball, I only use this one on my 450d.

  • Nic Wise November 26, 2009 09:21 am

    If noone else has said it:

    Spend some time watching gymnastics (assuming you havn't - given your kids do it, chances are you have). KNOW the sport. I'd be useless photographing american football (or even normal football - oops "soccer"), as I've never really watched or played them - but Rugby or Rugby League, Basketball or Badminton - no problems. I know where the flow of the game is likely to go :)

    Other than that: fast glass, get close, crop later. 5D has mucho megapixels, so you should be able to crop later to keep the f-stop wide open.

  • Ed V. November 26, 2009 08:58 am

    See if you can go to a few practices beforehand to learn the routines. I've found that knowing when the gymnast is in the most photogenic poses is better than leaning on the shutter and relying on burst mode. Also, you'll know where to stand for the best angles. In addition, get as close as is allowed so the background is as blurred as possible. This way the gymnasts will pop--makes a huge difference.

  • Greg Benedict November 26, 2009 08:05 am

    Rent the fastest prime lenses you can get. I shot an event last weekend with the 70-200 f/2.8 IS. I had to use ISO 2500 to get 1/100th. I really needed closer to 1/300th to get the action stopped. My 50 f/1.4 worked well, but wasn't long enough.

  • scott e. detweiler November 26, 2009 07:42 am

    You cannot use a flash (can blind someone doing a flip and cause injury), so go for aperture and ISO until you get your shutter into a place where you can stop motion (if that is the desired outcome). I often find the motion blur to be interesting for some shots.

  • Elyse November 26, 2009 07:37 am

    I had two similar situations recently. Fortunately, both were outside. The first was a children's (9-10 YO) soccer game and the second was the Blue Angels flying over San Francisco Bay. I have a Nikon D70 with a 18mm-70mm lens. I just set the camera to continuous (burst) and shot away. The soccer game was mostly short bursts, but the Blue Angels was a much longer burst. Many of the shots you won't want to use but you will get some spectacular action shots. I got one of the Blue Angels flying in formation right overhead and it is so clear you can read the inscription on the bottom of their wings. Adjust the camera for the correct exposure first and shoot away. Good luck.

  • Mike C November 26, 2009 07:25 am

    I realize he said he's shooting with a 5Dmk2, but how about renting a 7D? The 7D would give him 8 frames/sec and give him more reach -- equivalent of 320mm -- with the 7D's smaller sensor.

  • frank t November 26, 2009 07:23 am

    If this is in the US and a USAG sactioned event, then I am assuming you have a USAG pass to get on the floor (requires safety course). If not, then the 70-200 IS is definitely needed. Hopefully the venue is not a black hole. Having shot many gymnastics meets, the venues generally are poorly lit - and you are not allowed to use a flash. If you are allowed on the floor, a 24-70/f2.8 would be my choice.

    Shoot in full manual. You need to know what the kids are doing, that way you will know when they will be at a slow/stop point so that you can use a slower shutter speed. Shoot in JPEG - make sure you do white balance, otherwise shoot in RAW and take care of that in post (Small or med RAW if largest pic is 8x10).

    In my experience, the 5DmkII is a poor sports camera - the AF is slow, inaccurate and poor in low light compared with the 7D, 1D series, or even the 40/50D. Borrow a different body if you can.

    Are they expecting you got cover all pieces of equipment or one piece and every kid?

    Good luck!

  • Keith November 26, 2009 07:03 am

    By Official photographer, do you mean that you have been retained by the event coordinator to capture promotional shots?
    Or are you taking on the task of trying to capture images of every gymnast that competes in the event in the hopes of selling them online post event, or onsite printing?
    I'm going to assume it's the latter, If it is, and you are the only shooter, concentrate on one event. As one shooter trying to capture images of all of the athletes, you can only do it effectively for one event. You can get a few grab shots here and there between competitors of other areas but each shooter should concentrate on one.
    Again if you are the only shooter, choose beam or floor, they will offer the highest ratios and most ops.
    The 70-200 is the lens to use, unless you have an 85 1.4 which is great for beam.
    It's very tiring, I shoot handheld the whole time but bring a monopod for when I start to get too tired.
    Keep the camera up after the event, athletes are on their way to a high-five or hug, if you are doing the event for speculative sales, these are good sellers.
    High ISO, stop motion with noise is better than motion blur in gymnastics
    Stay on single shot, especially with the 5D, but even with a faster camera, good timing will get a better shot than burst mode, and even when burst mode gets the great shot your left with a bunch that are not great. Which is OK for scenario one above, but not scenario two where you'll need to cull through these and get them on the web fast.
    I will end with one more very important tip for a speculative sales event, (speculative sales meaning you are doing the event for no upfront cost, and pinning your hopes on making sales), Promotion is huge, getting everyone in attendace to know that you are there is the goal. Anouncements and flyers.
    If you are uploading for online sales, shoot jpeg medium fine or whatever the 5DmkII has in the 6 or 7mp range because having them online fast, like next day is very important. Space isn't the issue, upload speed is. SmugMug is the best online sales fulfilment solution for this type of photography business. My email address will save you $5
    Sorry for the long winded response.

  • Jeff Wilson November 26, 2009 07:02 am

    Gymnastics is tough, partially because of the fast motion involved in many of the events and partially because so many gymnastics venues are poorly lit -- the lighting is generally far worse than for other indoor sports, such as volleyball or basketball.

    Shoot in manual mode, use ISO 3200 (you'll need to apply some noise reduction to your shots) and open the aperture all the way. You'll need a shutter speed of at least 1/500 to effectively stop action. The 70/200 f/2.8L is a great lens, but it might just not be fast enough, depending upon the light available at the venue. If you can borrow/rent a 135mm f/2L and/or an 85mm f/1.8 it would help. If you start getting motion blur because you can't get a faster shutter speed, look for chances to shoot as the gymnasts hesitate and pause in their maneuvers.

    Get as close as you can to the action, fill the frame, and watch for distracting backgrounds. You can get good results both from the floor looking up, or from above looking down. Again, see what's available at your venue. Choose angles that show faces.

    Good luck!

  • Steve Febbraro November 26, 2009 06:59 am

    You've got the right gear. A fast lens, and a camera capable of clean ISO.

    Crank up the ISO as high as you can. You'll want a fast shutter speed to capture the action.

    Above all, watch your white balance. Take a couple test shots, experiment with the white balance settings until you see something that looks like what your eye sees.

    Pick a place where you can shoot all the events comfortably. If you're allowed floor access that's be great.

    Most likely you won't be allowed to use any speedlights/strobes so it's fluorescent lighting against you.

    If you have any faster glass, you may to bring them as well, although the 70-200 will serve you will.

  • Steven Crawford November 26, 2009 06:50 am

    First and foremost, no flash. As a former gymnastics parent and meet staffer, I can tell you that flashes are forbidden (I suspect you know that, but our fellow readers may not) by USA Gymnastics. I have had to ask parents to leave a meet because flash photography can be a distraction (and safety hazard) to the athlete.

    Most meet photographers tend to photograph only the bars or beam because it will let them stay in one spot. If you are photographing the lower levels where all routines are compulsory, then you will know consistently what elements will be best and what precedes it. The same thing can apply to floor routines.

  • jake watrous November 26, 2009 06:49 am

    I strongly recommend working with the clients (anyone you are giving images to should be considered a client) to create a list of "must-have" shots. Having created that list I would help the clients to realize your experience level and the fact that even with such a list, due to the dynamic nature of sports, no shot is guaranteed.

  • Scott November 26, 2009 06:38 am

    Just like the picture in the post. Find the angles that not everyone will see when they're sitting in the stands.