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Sports Photography FuelTip for Beginning Photographers: Shooting Gymnastics

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In this excerpt from Photographing Indoor Sports: The Right Settings, Gear, and Tips for Shooting Basketball, Martial Arts, and Other Low-light Sports, Alan Hess shows you that, even though each gymnastics event presents its own challenge, a few basics can really help you capture the best shots.

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Gymnastics covers a wide range of events, ranging from floor exercises to the balance beam to the high-flying uneven bars. Each event presents its own challenge, but a few basics can really help you capture the best shots. The two most import things are to (1) shoot at a shutter speed that freezes the action and (2) make sure you are always focused on the athlete moving through the routine. The key word in that last sentence is “routine.” Gymnastics consists of a set of movements performed over and over again, so there is little surprise in the action as in football or boxing. You have a very good idea of what the gymnast will do and exactly where he or she will do it. The hardest part might just be getting close enough to photograph the event without a very long lens. Because gymnastics takes a lot of concentration and can be quite dangerous to the athlete, access is usually very restricted.

1/500 second, f/2.8, ISO 6400
I shot this during a demonstration rather than competition and added smoke to add drama to the scene. The gymnast is captured at the peak of the balance beam move. I used a longer lens from farther back to stay out of the way and minimize the background.

1/500 second, f/2.8, ISO 3200
I shot this uneven bars routine from the audience perspective during a gymnastics exhibition. The timing needed to be just right to capture the gymnast in the air between the bars.

Here are some tips for photographing gymnastics:

  • 1/500 second shutter speed or faster. Gymnasts move pretty fast, especially when flying through the air, so a shutter speed of 1/500 second is needed to freeze the action. If you see blurry arms and legs at 1/500 second, try 1/1000 or higher. A lot will depend on the skill level of the athlete. The higher the skill level, the faster they tend to move.
  • Pick your event. At gymnastic events, multiple events are often taking place at the same time. Pick one and work on it until you are happy with your photos, then try something else. If you are there to photograph a specific person, try to practice photographing the people before them so you get the hang of the event before it really counts.
  • Set a custom white balance if possible. Gym lighting is notoriously bad, so try to set a custom white balance before the event starts. This will save you a lot of time when editing your images.
  • Shoot wide open. Shoot at the widest possible aperture, not just to let in the most light but also to blur the backgrounds as much as possible, particularly if many different events are going on in the same room.
  • Shoot through the action. Start taking photos as the gymnast starts the move and keep shooting all the way through. This is where a high frames-per-second rate on a camera comes in very useful. You want to make sure that you capture the whole landing, for example, and having more than one photo in the sequence gives you more to choose from.
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