Today we're going to be talking all about composition - specifically wide vs. tight. My basic go-to lens for all things functional fitness - and pretty much everything else - is my trusty Tamron 24-70 2.8 VC. With this lens, I can get a great head-to-toe shot of a single athlete or back up a little and get the whole scene - the athlete lifting, the crowd cheering, etc. But, I can just as easily zoom all the way to 70mm and get that tight detail shot, or the facial expression when someone nails the perfect lift, or get the war face on the way up from the bottom of a squat.
What we're really talking about here is composition and thinking about what you're framing when you take a photo. In my experience, a basic head-to-toe semi-wide shot is just boring. You have two options really: either pull out farther and get the athlete, plus the crowd around, or go tight, zoom in and really capture the details, up-close and personal. You need to separate yourself from the dozens of iPhones and point-and-shoots that will inevitably be in the crowd.
First off - talking about the benefits of the wide shot and some ways to set yourself up for that in an event situation. You need to do more than just make sure you're settings are dialed in, you need to be aware of what's going on in the room. What athlete is about to lift? Is there a crowd around them? Is a friend, loved one, coach, or judge screaming at them? If so, where should you be to capture that in one frame? Are you on the same side as the crowd? You're going to need to position yourself in such a way that you'll be able to capture the movement, but most importantly also capture the crowd in frame. This is a balancing act, because you'll need to make sure your focus is set on your subject, but often must reframe the shot to then include the crowd or other people in the action.
Here was a great opportunity for me to back up a bit and take in the whole scene: three athletes doing high level gymnastics (and a giant American flag). Capturing the full scene like this helps highlight how awesome an event was and what the scene was like.
Often times though, these ideal dramatic moments don't happen. Shooting wide (let's saying anything between 14-35mm) constantly gets dull. When you look at the images, your eye often doesn't know what to look at. The viewer isn't forced to a foreground or a specific subject in the image and that leads to a dull photo.
So then, let's take this the other way.... start zooming in. With a 24-70 (or any other mid-range zoom) zooming into 70mm will do two things: isolate the subject you're shooting, and also compress your background. Isolating your subject can be extremely useful. Let's say you're shooting in a crowded room, one of the toughest scenarios can be finding a way to separate out your subject (which should generally be your goal) from other athletes or the athlete from the crowd. If I zoom in I can now begin to pull my subject out of the background. Next step, I can now recompose my shot - perhaps focusing on the head, upper body, and barbell, or even tighter to than that.
A few things to be careful of here: once you start zooming you need to understand that you will be cutting off limbs. There is a right way to do this and a wrong way. For example, if you cut off a hand in the middle, it will look bizarre and awkward, but if you get the whole hand in, or no hand, it will look less "weird." There are guides online with some suggested places to "amputate' your subjects, but it should always be something to pay attention to on the edges of your composition.
The other concern is cropping the photo so tight that you don't have any context as to what's going on. If you crop out a barbell or a weight, now you're just left with a sweaty dude/dudette and no explanation of what's happening: is the bar going up or down? How heavy is it? If you took a photo of me deadlifting but zoomed in so tight that it was just my hands on the barbell with the weights cropped out, you wouldn't be able to have any context as to whether I'm lifting 500lbs (unlikely) or 135lbs (more likely). It's not to say you can't do this, but these are things that always need to be in the back of your head as your setting your frame.
The other benefit of zooming in is compression. Once you zoom in, the background of your image will "compress," additionally putting it out of focus and having your subject separate out from the background. On a wide angle shot (14mm, 24mm, 35mm), there is very little, if any out of focus areas (even at f.28) so your subject may not stand out, especially in even lighting. Zoom in tight onto that same subject and ta-da, compressed background and out of focus areas all over, your subject sharp and in the forefront. This effect gets exponentially better the longer the lens you use (I still have dreams about the 200-400 at the 2014 CrossFit Games).
To recap - that head-to-toe shot of a person, while nothing is necessarily "wrong" with it, is boring more times than not. It is a stock shot, something that should be used as a basic coverage image, i.e. 'this happened here." But, the far more dramatic shot that is the difference between ordinary and unique, is to zoom in.
My basic workflow on trying to compose a scene will have me take two images. The first will be a wide shot with the athlete head to toe, noticing if anyone in particular is standing out in the crowd or is on the floor and should be included in the composition. If that's not working, I'll zoom into the subjects head and wait for that moment of exertion and effort: I call it the war face, and that's the moment I'm really looking to capture.
Have at it! Post your experiences and questions to the comments below.
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