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How to Step Up Your CrossFit Photography Game

Sports is an exciting yet intricate field of photography. CrossFit is perhaps one of the most exciting of all. I’ve been specializing in this amazing sport for over two years. I finally decided to gather my thoughts on the subject. Here is some of my top advice to get incredible athlete portraits on your next WOD-Workout Of the Day.

Three essential components

To me, a great action shot combines three essential elements: light, movement, and expression. A good action shot gets two of them. But a real jaw-dropping great picture hits all three. That seems pretty easy but trust me, it is quite a challenge! The good news is the more experienced you get, the more you are going to get all of them!

1) Light

I shoot ambient light most of the time. How could I use flash in an athlete’s eyes as he attempts to do a 140kg snatch? I have great respect for their time and training and I want to make sure I am as minimally intrusive as I can possibly be. The idea is to be FORGOTTEN, to be the quiet little mouse walking around with a camera. Even with crappy gym lights, there is always a way to work around it. Find a window. Observe how the existing lights fall on the athlete’s body. Which angle will I take? This is always the first questions I ask myself coming to a gym.

Lighting is very bad at CrossFit Quebec City. Now we have a running gag about the advantages of this very specific spot. I guess you can understand why! ;)

2) Movement

CrossFit involves a lot of movements both simple and complex based on weightlifting, gymnastics, and cardio. They are usually executed at a pretty fast pace. If you don’t know what is a “clean and jerk” or a “muscle up” are, chances are you’ll miss the important shot in the blink of an eye. Practice will help you understand three important “knows.”

  1. Know what to expect.
  2. Know exactly where to stand.
  3. Know which part of the movement is “the moment”.

Movement also means: “What is the athlete’s body language saying?” Does he/she look powerful, confident, focused, in control and proud? Does she/he look lost and completely exhausted? Don’t get me wrong, athletes that look exhausted and/or in pain gives great intensity to an image but there’s a subtle limit not to cross and it’s your job to see the difference. Learn to understand exhaustion and pain in their good ways.

The Snatch is a great movement to capture, especially at the full extension of the pull.

3) Expression

You can have great light and great movement, but if there is no emotion on the athlete’s face, the picture loses most of its interest. People want to see what they feel! Expression is the way to communicate the joy, the effort, the sadness. As in any kind of portraiture: there has to be a connexion with the subject. We need to understand what is happening in their mind.

This picture would have almost no impact – despite the great timing with the jump rope – if the athlete didn’t have this pained/exhausted expression to his face.

Be in the game

CrossFit is a sport that allows you to be close to your subject. Like, really close. I shoot Deadlifts literally lying under the weights with my Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 . If you know what the athlete’s workout is and you know where to stand, there won’t be any problem shooting a few feets away from them. There is no trick here: if you want your picture to feel in the action, be in it! Move around, try different angles and have fun. Remember: this is also your game!

Low angle for the win

99% of my sports photos are made at a low angle. Why? Because it makes the athlete look powerful. It adds to the action feeling. It is also easier to be forgotten while standing close to an athlete when you are lower than him/her than it is when you are straight in his face.

Sitting on the ground, I’m at the athlete’s level. I get the strain of the movement down to every drop of sweat.

Composition

A gym can easily get crowded. A CrossFit gym is like 3 times worse. Try – as much as it is humanly possible – to find a relatively clean, uncluttered background. That’s another benefit for the low angle approach as you mainly see the ceiling. I love to place an object in the foreground to create a rule of thirds “in depth”. It makes the image look more 3 dimensional. It helps place the athlete in her/his environment. I shoot at a really wide aperture. That allows me to detach the subject from the blurred background. That, obviously, helps with bad lighting. When the space permits and while covering events, I also enjoy using my Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 for an enhanced compression effect. (For those who were wondering, I use my good old Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 about 80% of the time.)

The position of elements in the foreground and in the background adds depth to the images.

The “Non-Action” shots

I’ve got some of my favorite pictures that come from the “Before”, “After”, and “In-Between” moments. A team getting in the zone right before their workout or cheering up their partners. An athlete chalking up or lying on the floor covered in sweat. Those are all valuable, powerful moments that also tell a story. They are easily be missed if we don’t keep our eyes open. The little breaks in between sets are a great opportunity to get a different range of emotions.

Athletes have to catch their breath once in a while. Take advantage of those moments!

The 10% rule

I found over time that there is a rule that would apply to most of my photoshoots. In pretty much any condition, I often have one very good image for 10 okay/bad images. To some, it might sound discouraging but to me, this is an exciting challenge. Nothing is staged, we have to anticipate movements and reactions, we are like hunters! All we know is when the movement starts and when it will end. And exactly like athletes, I feel a rush of adrenaline running through my veins as I hear the 3,2,1 countdown.

Post-Editing

CROP, CROP, CROP! You can never be too close. We don’t need to see the whole rig. We want PURE emotion. We want to be in it and feel the sweat. Get rid of everything that takes away the impact of your image!

Exhausted yet?

Let’s wrap it up!

Keep in mind those 5 simple tips:

  1. You want to have good lighting, good movement, and good expression – all at once for maximum impact!
  2. You want to be forgotten so get low and get close to the action!
  3. You want to detach your subject from the crazy jungle that is a CrossFit Gym!
  4. You want to be ready for “anytime” shots, including hand clappings and subtle eye looks!
  5. You want to have FUN because, at the end of the day, this is the reason why we do this amazing profession-Photography!!!

I’d love to hear about your experiences in the gym! Leave your questions/comments below and I’ll make sure to follow up!

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