In my first post about shooting the CrossFit Games I focused on the challenges of shooting with long lenses in the gigantic Soccer Stadium. In part two, I'll cover the complexities of shooting from fixed shooting positions and trying to create unique images that help you stand out from a crowd of other photographers.
For the third year in a row I've had the pleasure of working for CrossFit Inc. as part of their photography team. In working within that team, positions and roles are assigned. Once the action moves to the Tennis Stadium, assignments fall into two categories: assigned seats, and floater positions. With assigned seats, you're literally handed a seat ticket and have to stay locked in that position. These seats usually make for an incredible view of the action. First and foremost, I've always been a fan of the sport itself, so getting a front row seat is never something to complain about. As a floater - you're either shooting in the media lane or wandering around the stadium looking for good sight lines - I'll cover this more in the next post.
The downsides of these seats from a photography perspective is that if I found myself in a seat where the action wasn't particularly close to you, or doesn't advance towards you, I sometimes found myself at a loss for how to capture great images. The Games aren't unique in this, all major sports have assigned positions for photographers, and it's on the photographer to make the best out of those positions.
If I was in a less than optimal position for a specific WOD, I fell back on the importance of trusting in the team I was working with. Because other shooters from the team are assigned across the rest of the stadium, I count on the fact that they are in position to get the perfect shot, and it then becomes my job to see how creative you can get in unique positions.
Lens selection varies wildly once you're in the Tennis Stadium, and I think that's a great way to become creative and stand out. For the most part, I actually went back to my Regionals go-to, the Sigma 120-300 2.8. I really love working with that lens, and only at the extremes was that 300 not enough reach in the Tennis Stadium. For a few events this year, and when the action was panning across my seat in the south side, I busted out the 200-400 and tried to really get in super tight to athletes. I always love working with the extra reach these monster lenses afford, but as the action gets closer, they get more and more restrictive.
As a fun combo during the Ring Handstand Push-up event, I was stationed in the south seats (the finish line) and shot down the lane with the 200-400. On my second body, I had a 70-200, and as the athletes closed for their last reps and sprint to the finish, I switched to that, to still get nice and tight, but offer a great degree more flexibility, and ease of use.
The Tennis Stadium is an incredibly unique shooting environment with the action so close, and the conditions so easy to shoot in. When you look to your left and right there are dozens of cameras - some professional, some just part of the spectators', but you'll also notice most people are using very similar lenses. Something I always try and think about when shooting in this sort of environment is trying to get shots other people aren't. With some base level knowledge, and because high-end equipment's price has come down so dramatically, it really doesn't take all that much to get a good result when the lighting is awesome like it is in the Tennis Stadium. Even with a semi-entry level camera like a Nikon d5500 or a Canon 70d and a 24-120 f/4,($1000) you're going to be able to get sharp action photos with low ISO settings, and you're not even going to know it wasn't shot on a Nikon D5 with a 70-200 ($8000)
Because of that, I'm always thinking of how to mix up shots a bit so they don't just look identical to what everyone else shooting from similar positions are probably taking. The "easy shot" is a classic head to toe of an athlete exercising with the whole athlete in frame. Wide shots are much easier to take, and much easier to get tact-sharp focus on. What I try to do once I get some safeties - the boring classic shots that help fill out coverage - is try to shoot very tight. If I shoot super tight, my editors won't have to crop in post, and the image itself will have that amazing background compression and bokeh. This is how you can get some really unique images while shooting from the exact same position as every other shooter.
If I'm using a 70-200, I'm going to try to shoot closer to 200 and really get tight on the athletes. If I'm on the 120-300 I try to go tighter than 200 (otherwise what's the point). Yes, I miss a lot because of this. Yes, I get a lot of weird crops and amputations that aren't useable. But, when everything lines up right, the focus hits, and the crop is good, I'm able to get a really unique image that I don't think a lot of other people are going for.
For some technical details, when I'm trying to shoot really tight during fast action, I'm going to use continuous autofocus (sorry this will all be Nikon language), and actually limit it to only 9 points. On the D5 there are something like 51 focus points you can use, but I actually like to limit it. As the action moves and the camera hunts for focus, if you limit the active points, you can actually track faster. Of course, I'm using back button focusing the whole time -- read about that here if you're unfamiliar. Something else to help get focus, I might actual close down my aperture just a bit. With a 2.8 lens, I might actually shoot at 3.2 or 3.5. There will be a very minor difference in the out of focus areas (especially because I'm shooting with a lot of zoom to help get compression), but I'm able to get a little more of the athlete in focus especially if they shift forward or back. And because I'm getting a little less light, I'll just bump up the ISO more, which won't really be noticeable on pro bodies like the Nikon D4-5 / Canon 1dx mk1/2.
For example, in 2016, I was shooting from the West finish line where athletes advanced during double DT. I'll zoom all the way into the athlete's head and put my focus point on the eye. From there, I'll hold down the back button, and grab frames during those decisive moments of peak exertion. I will also try to frame up the shot in camera, but to get this in focus, I may select a focus point off to the left, right, top, or bottom so that focus point lines up best with the athlete's head and I'm able to fill the frame as much as possible. Another option is to use that middle focus point to get the subject in focus and then recompose the shoot. You have to be careful doing this though, because if the athlete moves forward or back during the time you're recomposing, the shot will be out of focus. The shot above of Jacob Heppner was snapped with the Sigma 120-300, at more than 200mm. He was relatively close to me and it was an adventure to get everything framed up right and in focus. Below is another shot, still useable, but includes a bit of a crop on Mat Fraser's hand which I'm not happy about.
The best part of the last two images - in my opinion is the out of focus areas. They are just buttery mush. It helps separate out the athlete and create what I think are really great images. By zooming in so hard and leaving so little to need to be cropped, the background fades out into just colors.
Another type of shot I've grabbed the last three years from the same finish line is the "finish" shot. After an athlete's done, I'll keep the lens zoomed in on them and keep clicking hoping for a great reaction. Yes, shooting with a 24-70 is going to be much easier to make sure I don't miss anything or crop the shot in a weird way, but shooting with a 70-200 when you nail it is so worth it. Here are a couple examples. The first is shot very close with a 70-200 and the other is with the 120-300 handheld. Yes, I try that shot a lot, and I have a ton of misses, but that zoomed in image, to me, is so much stronger than a boring wide shot.
For some takeaways - I'd always recommend trying to shoot much tighter than you normally would. Wide shots, while useful, are really easy to get and easy to duplicate. To get your images to stand out in a stack of other images from the same event, try taking the harder shots - zoomed tight and into the action. You're going to miss a whole bunch, but the hits are much better. In my next piece of the Games, I'll talk about shooting from float positions in the Tennis Stadium and working to get the best shots in those scenarios.
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