Shooting My First Gymnastics Event, Thanks to Dave Black

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.

  1. If you ever have a chance to take a workshop with Dave Black, run, don’t walk. I’ve done some. A great human being willing to share. Check his site.

  2. Way way cool! Dave is amazing – I was lucky to have him as one of the instructors at a sports workshop in CO Springs, and learned a lot from him and the others there. I love how charismatic Dave is! I can only hope to one day have someone give me an opportunity like this one.

    1. Wow… I would have written this very exact post word for word if you hadn’t beaten me to it Michelle! I’ll only add that I think that some of those shots of Scott’s are of Andrew Elkind – who was a willing subject also at the Springs workshop… and another great guy!

  3. Brilliant set of pictures. One of my favorites would be few in the beginning and the second last one. Too good. Thanks for sharing the settings. ISO – 4000 !, did you get any noise.

  4. These are nice images, Scott, but flying all the way up to Allentown while knowing Irene was on her way seems like a lot of trouble to go to for such a shoot.

    Don’t you ever get tired? I’d love to learn how you stay so motivated. I don’t think you could set your hair on fire and move any faster.

  5. Great shots SK. Dave is amazing and he is such a great guy. Every time I reached out to him for advice he is always quick to reply. Excellent post!

  6. Kudos on this one. That is indeed a difficult environment and a difficult sport to capture well. Nevertheless, for those who are willing to try, it does provide a wonderful and frustrating learning experience.

  7. Great shots, I think you did awesome for first time gymnastics. Was there any noise post processing done or is it D3 that is so darn good in low light?

      1. Derek, the D3 series is the best low noise low light camera on the planet. I also have the D3 and D3s, it only makes me wonder how Nikon will top it! I’m so spoiled that I sold all of my FX and D300 last week!

  8. I have twin grandaughters (9yrs old) that have been doing gymnastics for years. So I know about the poor lighting and everything going on at the same time. Thanks for giving your camera settings. I use a Nikon D90 so can’t get that high a ISO but I have been doing most of the other settings you used. Thanks again!

  9. Scott,
    Great shots! Question on the white balance. I just shot some ice skating for the first time this past weekend and at fast shutter speeds see BANDS of magenta and green. What technique do you use to fix variable color across the frame in post? I see it in your picture of the rings (3rd from the end) in which the strap on the left is reddish and the strap on the right on the right is whitish. This effect is much worse on ice where everything is white.

  10. OK Scott….sooooo now I’m thinking we need Dave to do a class for Kelby Training on INDOOR action photography. I bet those with kids doing some kind of indoor sport from basketball to soccer – all have a lot of out of focus or high noise images because of the challenges of shooting action indoors under (fun) lighting. Sounds like a subject begging for a class ! :-)

  11. stunning work scott. esp. for your first time shooting what sounds like a very difficult event. hope you made it back home here to florida safe and sound.

    you’ve covered a LOT of different sporting events, so this made me wonder.. what’s your absolute favorite sport to shoot? and what sport have you been dying to shoot that you haven’t yet?

    1. My favorite sport to shoot is still football, but that’s probably because I’m a football fanatic. Sports I haven’t shot yet that I want to include : speed skating, indoor track cycling, formula 1 Racing, swimming, a college track meet, pro tennis and skiing. :)

      1. If you want to shoot a college track meet you should really come to the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa. The Drake Relays are an annual event that attract not just college athletes but many professional athletes as well.

  12. 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.

    It sounds like you were pushing the limit of your equipment.

    For those of us with prosumer cameras. Could we obtain similar results shooting with a prime: a 35, 50, and/or 85. We could increase the aperture to f1.4 and bring the iso down to 2000 on my canon 50d. I would also use a tripod/monopod.

    I don’t see many/any face shots is that because you couldn’t control the shadows or put light directly on there face?

    Thanks Scott!

    1. Hi Gene: The lighting was very theatrical, with nearly all the light coming from directly above, or from the sides above, so a lot of the time their face was in shadows, so that was challenging. Also, even with a 400mm lens, depending on which apparatus they were using, and where you could shoot from, sometimes you couldn’t get in tight enough.

      That being said, I can’t see any way at f/1.4 you would walk away with in-focus shots. That’s hard enough to do at f/1.4 when shooting a bride, and they usually aren’t doing loops around a high bar 50 feet away from you or running full speed down a mat (if they are, it’s for an entirely different reason). I have a Canon 50D as well, and I wouldn’t be able to shoot it at ISO 2,000 and not have it be a giant mess of noise. You could run a noise reduction plug-in on it, but with that much noise, you’re going to lose an unacceptable amount of detail in most cases, so I honestly couldn’t look at you with a straight face and recommend it.

      I always say that the problems with sports don’t start until either it’s a night game, or its indoors. When either of those exist, that’s when you either have the right equipment, or you have a lot of disappointment with either very noisy shots, very blurry shots, or both. I wish there was a shortcut I could give you to let you use inexpensive lenses and camera bodies that will give you the results you’re after, but sadly I don’t have it. If I did—I’d be a hero, so I’d love to come up with it, but until either (a) Arena lighting gets A LOT brighter, or (b) sub-$1,000 cameras start offering really low noise in low light, this indoor and night shooting is going to be a real challenge.

  13. Hey Scott, was this a one off event or is it a touring thing? I love it when these type of sporting competitions come into town. We just had the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series come to Boston and it was great to shoot. I know what you are thinking cliff diving in Boston? Well problem solved when you put a platform off the edge of a building and jump 85 feet into Boston Harbor!

  14. Great images! As a former college gymnast (University of Michigan ’94-’97), I’m really glad to see these events going on, and really really glad you covered it and put it on your blog. Gymnastics is a really awesome sport which gets far too little exposure in this country. Men’s gymnastics is particularly hurting for popularity as colleges all across the nation drop their programs.

    Thanks for doing this great sport justice with your images.

  15. Scott, what I most impressed with (awesome images by the way!) is how candid you are about admitting you learnt something new and that even masters like yourself have photogs in turn who you admire.

    Thanks for sharing.

  16. Great images. How do you handle focussing in the low light. Do you manually focus at a particular point and wait for the gymnast to enter that zone?

  17. Great iamges! they are perfect examples of letting the light (or lack thereof) working to your advantage.
    Question: if you used “higher shutter than needed just to freeze motion”, why not lower the shutter speed to where it’s just enough and also lowering the ISO? So instead of shooting at shutter speed of 1/2000 at ISO 4000 shooting at, say, 1/1000 at ISO 2000. That would give the same exposure – and still keep the arena dark – and produce less noise. Am I missing something..?
    Suggestion: please do a tutorial on shooting indoor sports on kelbytraining. Not portraits but action. Like the one you have on concert photography – only with sports instead.

  18. Scott:

    It always amazes me how you can jump into shooting something that you’ve never shot before, and come away with amazing images. I know, I know, you have a TON of crap photos from this shoot as well, but you really nailed the ones that you show (and I know it’s not blind luck). Kudos to you!

    My favorites were the shot of the lone hand on the ring, and the full shot of the athlete two pics below that one. . My favorite competition, as it requires so much upper body strength and concentration.

    Thanks for sharing!!


  19. mmm i don’t like so much this pics, the first is great but the others have a poor definition, no sharp at all, better I had asked to dave black for his 4 speedlights + radiopopper system that is very more more effective!!!! :p

  20. Boy what an opp, definitely justified coming north during Irene to shoot w/ Dave. One of my bucket things is to attend Rich Clarkson’s sports academy, where Dave is a tutor. Or maybe Dave should run his own workshops (hint, hint)…

  21. Hey Scott,

    Just shot a USA sanctioned meet for Levels Preop and 4 – 8.  Really poor lighting in the HS gym running Canon 1D 12,800 iso, 1/1000th, f/2.8 and 3000K because of the yellow hue given off by the lights.  Nasty noise in the images but was able to get some keepers.

Leave a Reply
Previous Post

This Weekend Only Deal for Perfectly Clear 1-Click Correction to Perfection!

Next Post

Worldwide Photo Walk Update