Maine Academy of Gymnastics Team @ the Frostbite Meet

For a photographer, gymnastics is one of the tougher disciplines to shoot.  Light is often abysmal and inconsistent, and movement is erratic (often circular) challenging the best auto-focus systems you can use, flash is forbidden .... and to top it off, some gyms are not conducive to finding good vantage points.  The Dudziak's gym in Biddeford, Maine is a bit better than most. The lights are new and relatively bright (and consistent), the walls are white and reflective and it's relatively easy too get a good viewpoint.  

For the photo techies, I usually shoot these with a Nikon DSLR and 70-200 f2.8 zoom (VRII) at ISO 5000 (or as high as 12,800) in order to get 1/1000th shutter. You can survive with 1/500th or so but blur creeps in a lot on the floor shots and the flying dismounts.  Some gyms are a stop or two darker which makes me reach for a relevant prime (if I have one), but overall I live with the zoom and prefer it.  This is one of the disciplines of photography where equipment actually does matter.   Full frame sensors that can push the ISO into the 5000 plus range are a huge help. I shot one gym at ISO 12,800 in order to get 1/1000 at f2.8.  Fast glass also helps. I sometimes pull out my 85mm f1.8 when I can get close enough and if the light is abysmal (I'm not fortunate enough to own a 200mm f2 at the moment). 

Exposure? If the gym has consistent light, I go 100% manual exposure after measuring a gray card for a custom white-balance and shooting some test shots around the gym. Unfortunately, many gyms are not consistent and I need different exposures depending on the area of the gym being shot.  But still , manual gets me the best results as the exposure meters often get fooled by bright walls, dark walls, or even windows.  At this particular gym, the white walls would have caused serious underexposure.  Yes, I could have used auto-exposure compensation, but I've found that manual exposure works better. (See two shots below, the window would have really thrown the meter off).

The Still Rings

First of all, they aren't still, but the Rings are my favorite.  The athletes have to fight off a tendency to sway and keep them still; failing to do so will make the dismount that much harder.. Technically, face recognition AF modes are useless most of the time since the athlete rotates so much. I tend to use a Dynamic 9-point setting and time the dismount after getting used to the routine.

When these kids are elevated, their heads are 9' off the ground...

... and their feet are above their heads before rotating for the dismount...

... and from some angles, it's hard to believe it ends with a "stuck" landing

Pommel & Mushroom

All I know is that I was NEVER that flexible at age 11 and 12. When I shoot the mushroom, the biggest challenge may be just getting a decent vantage point, after that it really helps to know the routine and when the athlete will do a "scissors" move.  AF modes vary but for this I revert to either a Dynamic 9-point or single point and focus on the gymnasts core.

The Floor

I find the floor to be the toughest to shoot: action is erratic and often running and spinning.  One of those situations where you want a camera with a really good AF system.

The Kids

The funny thing about these kids is that if you saw them in the movie theatre or at the mall, you'd have no idea how strong and flexible they are.  Their training includes a lot of "strength" and as a result, they generally win any pushup or pull-up competitions at their schools.  And they are generally REALLY GOOD KIDS.

Closing concept: Know your camera

So below is a snip from a very helpful web page Nikon created for sports shooting with a D5. They have similar pages for other cameras as do other manufacturers.  All I can say is to seek this information out as it will save you a lot of trial-and-error time.   Also note that in the multiple disciplines of gymnastics,  your settings will likely vary by event.   For me, the floor is the toughest. If they are taking their "runs" right at me, I use more of a "hurdler" setting with 9 point dynamic area AF. Otherwise I follow the chart below if they are going left to right. Rings and high bar are also very difficult as you will find focus shifting from face, to hand, to body to leg and back to face.  

Using Format