The phone rings on Thursday and it’s my buddy, and sports photography legend Dave Black, asking me if I want to fly up to Allentown, Pennsylvania to meet him and shoot the start of something new in Gymnastics, called “Evolution.” It’s an all-tricks competition staged like a rock concert—featuring a group of gymnastic world champions and Olympic athletes many of which competed at the Beijing Olympics and some are part will be part of the US team for the 2012 Olympics. (Just for the record, he had me at “This is Dave Black…”)

This was my first time shooting a gymnastics event, and I have to tell you—it was very challenging. Luckily, Dave was a HUGE help the entire night, and I learned just a ton from him and that made all the difference in the world. I don’t think I got a single decent shot for the first 30-minutes—it took me that long to get the hang of shooting under that lighting, and getting the pacing and focus down. Again, Dave was a big help with both (he’s been shooting gymnastics for 30 years, and was a former gymnast and teach coach himself).

As challenging as it was—I absolutely loved shooting it!!! Of course, now I want to go back and shoot it all over again, because now I can see all the things I’d like to do differently next time (i. e. shots where I should have been in tight, and others where I should have gone really wide. I can see different angles, and different types of composition, and so on).

An Evolution for Gymnastics
The Evolution event itself was pretty groundbreaking for a gymnastics event (link), because it just focused on the tricks (which was why it was so cool to shoot from a photography stand point), and it kind of reminded me (in a good way) of how medal-winning ice skating Olympians wind up touring with Ice Skating show, which mix music and stage lighting, and effects—-and it’s more of a show than a competition. However, Evolution kept the competition aspect, but just focused on the fun stuff (tricks), and added the lights, music, and effects, and the crowd on hand seemed to totally eat it up. They were cheering and chanting, and they were totally into it from the very start.

Photographic advantages over a regular competition
At regular gymnastic competitions, including the Olympics, there are multiple events going on simultaneously, all within just feet of each others, and Dave talked about the challenges of busy backgrounds, filled with judges, referees, other athletes, and other apparatuses as well. Here, it was just one event at time, and just one gymnast on stage at one time, so it was an event just about made for photography.

Camera Specs
Dave did a lot of the leg work for me (he was literally texting me settings, including white balance Kelvin) from the dress rehearsal on Friday). I shot in Manual Mode the entire time (I started shooting wide open in Aperture Priority, but the camera was over-exposing the arena, so shooting in Manual with a high shutter speed let the arena pretty much fall to black).

I shot at 4,000 ISO all night long. Had to in that light. I also shot wide open all night, at f/2.8 on my 24-70mm and f/4 on my 200-400mm f/4 lens (I used two bodies: A Nikon D3, and D3s). My shutter speed was between 1,600 and 2,000 all night, depending on the light. Again, you needed to shoot at such high shutter speeds to keep the arena going dark, and to freeze motion, but that was a higher shutter than needed just to freeze motion.

The white balance was a nightmare, because the lights were constantly changing color, so while I’d normally shoot in JPEG for a sporting event like this, I shot in Raw instead, so I could fix the white balance later. I went with 3,200k for the night (on Dave’s advice), and as it turned it, it was pretty good most of the time (that Dave guy is either really good, or really lucky). ;-)

I’m Waiting Here In Allentown
Hurricane Irene was in town, too so my 6:00 am flight on Sunday got cancelled. So did my 12:30pm flight, and my 5:30 pm flight. So, today I’m driving to NYC to fly out of JFK direct home to Tampa. At least, that’s the plan. Hope I’m home by the time you read this (and I’m hoping you’re reading this on Monday). ;-)

Dave is…well…Dave is amazing!
I’ve always wanted to shoot gymnastics, and it was even better than I thought it would be. The athletes are just truly spectacular, and what they do is superhuman. However, the reason I went all the way to Allentown during a hurricane, knowing I would probably get stuck there for a few days, is because of Dave Black. I probably learned more in that one night, that I would have learned on my own in years of shooting competitions like that. Dave was a wealth of information, and really had me thinking about angles, about composition, about timing, and even about things like focus, camera settings, and the nuts and bolts of it all.

Besides what he taught me about shooting, Dave is just a joy to be around. Not just to me. To everyone he meets. He has a beaming smile. A spring in his step. And a love of life that he passes on to everyone he meets. Everybody there loved him. He’s been there for days, working with the athletes doing portrait shoots, marketing shots, and all sorts of things surrounding the event. The AV crew knew him. They loved him. The athletes knew him. They loved him. He has a smile for everybody he meets. He’s about much more than photography.

I’m indebted to him for the opportunity. For the help. For even thinking of me in the first place. I have a lot to learn about shooting gymnastics. It’s hard work, and like anything in photography the only way to get good at it is to practice, and that’s exactly what I intend to do (Between football games, of course). :)

Thanks to the great folks at Evolution for allowing me to shoot their event. Everyone I met from their organization was incredibly friendly and very accommodating. My thanks to Dave Black, for a night I’ll never forget, and thanks to my readers for letting me share a few shots from my first time shooting gymnastics.