So your child has chosen to participate in gymnastics and now you want to take some photos. Good for you. Gymnastics offers you both advantages and disadvantages as a photographer. On the positive side, you will be photographing a beautiful sport that offers the advantage of knowing exactly where the action will happen. A gymnastics rotation gives you the luxury of knowing the precise placement for each event. Women’s events include the vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise while the men will do the floor exercise, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars and the high bar. On the flipside, gymnastics happens indoors which poses lighting challenges and it also involves maneuvers that are very difficult to capture. Let’s dive in.
To begin with, you need to deal with the 800 lb gorilla in the room: lighting. Indoor lighting in gyms and rec centers can be a huge challenge and that is why I have written a whole article just about that subject. Check out Photographing Indoor Sports for some tips of how to capture indoor sports when dealing with low light.
Before I jump into the actual tips, I want to mention the concept of planes of focus. Whenever you have the luxury of photographing action that is all happening on the same plane of focus you are lucky indeed. Now what do I mean by “plane of focus”? I mean that if I am photographing something in front of me and I can focus on one point and move my camera right and left without changing focus, I am photographing everything on that plane without changing focus. This is a much easier way to capture action and keep it in focus. Let’s use Volleyball as an example. If I am in front of the net and photographing the players at the net, they are all on the same plane. I don’t have to change the focus. As soon as I have a player running directly at or away from me, now I have to track the focus and it is changing with every step the athlete takes. This is much more difficult. That will come into play in gymnastics quite often and you have the choice which one to choose.
Vault – This can be one of the toughest of the events to capture. As you know, the athlete takes a running start then takes a leap from the springboard, taps the vault and twists in the air before landing on their feet (hopefully). Do you want to shoot this using a single plane of focus or not? If you choose to use one plane, you can get in the stands and capture the action from the side. All on one plane, right? From the time they start running until they land on their feet, you are only moving your camera from side to side. If you want more of a challenge, get at the end of the vault and shoot them as they move towards you. Much harder to keep in focus but when you get it, the results are magnificent. Whichever way you choose, shoot a lot. You will end up editing most of them but the few you do capture will be amazing. This is a tough one because the twists are fast and the facial contortions are normally pretty extreme. While you may appreciate the action, your 12 year old may be appalled at their weird expressions. Haha...shoot it anyway.
Bars – This event will depend on whether it is your son or daughter competing. Uneven bars for the girls and high bar or parallel bars for boys. Thinking planes again, the high bar or parallel bars are easier to shoot than the uneven bars. On the uneven bars, the athletes are moving quite a bit. A great shot can be the transition between bars, or once they have let go of one bar and are reaching for the next. The parallel bars are amazing as they allow you to freeze the athlete showing incredible strength. In this same realm, the rings allow you to capture the intensity and focus. The Iron Cross is the most famous of these maneuvers and can be a great shot to hang in your son or daughter’s room. Find your angle, focus on your plane and have fun.
Balance Beam and Pommel Horse – These are fun events to shoot. The obvious angle is to get to the side so that you have them on one plane and then shoot away. For a harder challenge, I like to shoot from the stands at the end of the balance beam. This is tougher because the focal plane is changing but from this angle you truly get a visual representation of how narrow that beam is and when they leap towards you the visual tension is amazing. How will they ever land on that tiny strip of wood? Fun.
Floor – This one is different depending on men and women. The men do not perform to music and the moves are extremely acrobatic. If you position yourself in a corner, you can get them coming straight at you plus capture them on an equal plane when they go across the opposite corners. For women, they perform to music and incorporate more of a dance feel. This is beautiful to capture because the moves are intentionally choreographed to look visually pleasing, so your job is just catch it. If you shoot from the floor, you get more of the crowd in the background. To give yourself a clean background, shoot from the stands up high. You lose the height of the leaps but you get a clean background for isolation.
I hope this helps. Bottom line for shooting gymnastics is to shoot heavily, try different angles and edit ruthlessly (check out my article on editing…Finding your inner photo editor)
Have a blast!
2nd Photo Credit: Heather Maynard...that's TeamSnap Web Marketing Manager Jenny Hadden, competing for Stanford!