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Timing the power — how to photograph Olympic Weightlifting

I just got back from an amazing Olympic Weightlifting (O-lift) meet. Many athletes were competing to qualify for the upcoming nationals. Needless to say, it’s been an intense and exciting event! O-lift is a very challenging discipline. It is challenging to photograph as well. Everything in a lift happens in literally a matter of moments. Timing is the key between making or missing a great shot. Here’s exactly what I do to make mesmerizing pictures that the athletes and the event organizers are willing to pay for.

The athlete is catching the bar in a squat position. This is the clean portion of the clean and jerk movement. I love how female’s athlete hair floats in the air, showcasing her dynamic downward movement.

Locating the camera

In order to get an angle I really like, I make sure to wake up early and be there as soon as the doors of the event open. I need a few minutes to see how the platform has been set up, then I make choices accordingly.

I like to be at a slight angle to the athletes while lifting. This gives a view of the plates on both ends of the barbell (without one side being disproportionately large). The scene includes the athlete’s movements and some background elements. A screen behind the stage displays each participant’s name, the weight being attempted and other useful and information — which I really like to include in my frame.

Yes! I use a tripod & a low angle

Once I find my perfect spot, I place my camera on a tripod, at a low angle usually knee height. I always like to photograph from a low angle no matter what event is taking place and O-lift is no exception. The low point of view makes the athletes look more powerful. The viewer sees and feels more of the action.

Friendly tip…

I always pack bring something to eat and drink. There aren’t many pauses in the action the entire day (if any at all). I also sit on a chair or a bench to be as comfortable as possible during the many hours of the competition.

The very end of the snatch pull is a great moment to get. The athlete is in full extension with a slightly arched back. Notice that his feet are not touching the ground anymore. This means the athlete is pulling to get under the bar as fast as possible. It always amazes me how such heavyweights can just be floating in the air for a fraction of a second.

Exposure and white balance

The second step is to frame the image and find the right exposure for the scene. My Illuminati Meter comes in really handy to know the perfect white balance and exposure to set on my camera. The light in the venue is consistent so one reading sets me up for the entire day! In order to freeze the explosive movements of this sport, I like to use a shutter speed of at least 1/640th of a second. If I have plenty of light available, I go faster whenever I have the possibility. Unfortunately, O-Lift meetings are most of the time organized in poorly lit gymnasiums. So I stick to my slowest acceptable shutter speed (1/640th of a second) and get my aperture as wide as I can (which is f/2.8 on my telephoto). Then, I crank up my ISO to get to the right exposure. I was at ISO 3200 for that day. The White Balance color was at exactly 4650ºK.

Of course, the athlete holding the weights overhead shot is always a winner. It is living proof the athlete successfully completed the lift!

Expecting to win

Anticipation is the key. As I’ve seen snatches and clean and jerk lifts thousands of times, my eye and brain know exactly when the athlete will end the pull or catch the bar. These moments are measured in fractions of seconds. Either I nail it or I don’t. There is no in-between. I believe this is what makes this sport so exciting to me. I have to be in perfect sync with the lifters in order to get what I want — and ultimately what they want too. I have to expect to win as much as the athlete does in order to make the photo! I have to anticipate movements and reactions. I need the same perfect timing. I don’t use continuous mode. I work to get it right every single time. I can leave with more than 2000 pictures after a meet is finished. 2000 frames without continuous mode. Can you imagine the crazy amount I would have to edit if I used high speed continuous shooting for every lift?!

Some of the best pictures are right after a lift — whether it’s successful or not. Lifters often react to their performance, giving us powerful, unique and meaningful photographs.

Fine tuning

Keep the cream of the crop. Skip the ugly/struggling faces, the bad timing and awkward movements. As I said, I can get up to 2,300 pictures for a single day event. I make the first selection straight in my camera while photographing. There’s usually 30 seconds to 2 minutes break between each lift. I use it efficiently, tagging the best ones. I end up with something like 900 images. Then, I do a second sort back at my studio to come up with my top 450 or so. Those are my cream of the crop. Those are the photographs I want the world to see, that I am most proud of and the ones I know the athletes will be too.

Then, I create a personalized preset and run them through my favorite post-editing software. This is what gives my images a unique look and how people recognize my professional, artistic style.

Practice, practice, practice!

I wasn’t born photographing Olympic Weightlifting. This is simply a sport I deeply enjoy watching and I decided that I wanted to be a part of it. I think about how hard the athletes train every day, what makes them faster, better and stronger. I know it is no different for me. As I become more and more experienced, I feel more and more confident in my photography. I find new tools. I have new ideas and so will you!

If you feel like reading more on the topic, here a few links about O-lift photography and affordable sports photography gear. See you on the field!

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