Shooting in any kind of gym environment - from CrossFit to MMA - you're normally stuck in dimly lit, dark boxes that have lackluster windows and worse fluorescent lighting. At a certain point, unless you're going to add lights (we'll talk about that later), you can't push your ISO anymore or slow your shutter further. There is simply no way to get a bright enough exposure with standard zoom lens, lenses that for the most part can't shoot faster than f2.8. The only place to go from there is Prime.
Just as a refresher on the exposure triangle, you control light with three settings - shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. To generally get "sharp" photos of action, you're going to need to shoot around 1/500th of a second. So in a dark setting, you're going to shoot wide open - as close to f2.8 as your lens allows - and then start cranking up your ISO as high as your camera allows. If all these parameters are maxed out and you still have an underexposed image, there's not much you can do with your current setup. That's where prime lenses come in. A prime lens does not zoom, but the trade-off is your aperture can open wider than f2.8 - usually f1.8 on cheaper primes and f1.4 on more expensive variants. Because of this, you now have another option to get the right exposure - going from f2.8 to wider apertures - f2.2, f2.0, f1.8, f1.6, and f1.4 - and letting more light in. Each of these allow more light into the camera, hopefully getting you close to that perfect exposure.
Working with Primes
Handling prime lenses adds a couple of challenges, namely getting your shots in focus, and understanding how to zoom with your feet.
Focus: As you go to wider apertures, the plane of focus gets more and more narrow as you get that increase in light. What that means in practice is if at f2.8 you focus on an athletes chest, his eyes/face will still be in focus. At f1.4, if you focus on the exact same point, you will very likely get a tack sharp chest, but an eyeball that is completely out of focus. And to be clear, if the eye is not in focus on the subject, the image is out of focus and useless. Don't give me this "artsy/focusish" crap. If your subjects eyeballs are out of focus, the shot isn't really useable. So you've solved your first problem, the exposure is now right because you're letting in more light, but now your focus sucks.
There are a lot of ways to deal with this. First off, just because your fancy prime lens goes to f1/4 doesn't mean you should actually shoot at that. There are a lot of stops between that and f 2.8, and even shooting at f1.6 or f1.8 will give you a great deal more light, but still give you some wiggle room in your focus.
Secondly, I can't emphasize how important back button focus is when working with primes. (If you have no idea what that is, follow the link here). To nail focus I want to make sure that focus point is locked onto the subject's head. Again, because I'm all fancy and using my back button to grab focus, if the movement is say a snatch or a clean, during the setup I'm going to grab focus, and then during the lift I'm not going to refocus as long as the lifter doesn't move closer or farther away from me. If I used an "autofocus" mode and held down the focus the whole time, what would likely happen is the focus would grab onto the chest/bar/shoulder of the athlete and because of depth of field is so shallow, the end result image will be out of focus. Sticking with a back button technique and pre-focusing on where my subject will be should lead to more in-focus images at the end of the day.
Zoom/Composition: The other big challenge when working with a Prime is that you no longer have the ability to zoom in or out. But really, you still have that ability, it is just with your feet. So clearly a limitation exists when using primes at events. During big competition style events, you're not going to be able to go anywhere you want or zoom with your feet as close as you may need. That would then mean in the largest event settings you need to know where you will be and where your action will be and bring the appropriate lens.
In most applications though, you're going to be able to go wherever you need and that's where primes like a 35mm or 50mm will really shine. Again, because you can't zoom, you need to anticipate how an athlete will move through the frame while you're taking the shot. If you frame up the shot perfectly during the setup to a lift, the lifter will very likely have their head or feet cutoff if you keep shooting without reframing. Because of that, I want to think about what shot I am really looking for, because I very likely can't do both during the same lift. As a rule of thumb, give yourself a little breathing room in your frame so that you don't cut any limbs off and then crop in post.
So after all that it may seem like more challenges than it's worth, but primes have a lot of benefits beyond just letting more light in. Primes are incredibly sharp. Across the board, nearly all primes are sharper than a comparable zoom lens like a 24-70 f2.8. When you nail focus with a prime, the image quality is truly remarkable when compared to their zoom counterparts.
Now the magic really lives in the bokeh (out of focus areas). As that depth of field gets shallower, the out of focus areas turn into mush and help draw the eye into the subject. If you go wild and shoot at f1.4, you will get some really unique results when you nail focus.
My go-to lens for most shoots is a prime actually, the Sigma 35 1.4 art series I find that the 35mm is perfect for most situations to capture subjects head to toe, while still allowing me to get tighter if I just take a couple steps forward. Even in relatively dark gyms, I'll shoot at ISO 1600, 1/500th, f1.8. This starting point allows me plenty of leeway to crank up the ISO if I need to. Only once my ISO is maxed out around 6400-8000, will I move to f1.6 or f1.4. Only in the most desire situations will I play around at those super wide apertures. Unless you have a lot of time to setup and a lot of chances to nail the shot, those apertures are extremely difficult to work with on run and gun scenarios. My thought process would have me moving my ISO up several stops before I consider going to those super wide open apertures.
I've also been having so much fun with this setup over the last two years that I picked up the Sigma 50mm 1.4 art lens recently. I've really enjoyed the results and the different focal length coming from shooting with a 35mm so much. I think for most CrossFit-style shoots in the gyms, the 50mm is a little more restrictive and leads to a few more amputations than I like. But, when everything lines up right, the results are fantastic.
And primes don't have to be expensive. Nikon and Canon both make a 50mm 1.8 that you can pick up used for around $100. I've used my Nikon 50mm f1.8 for years in professional work and no one has ever asked me, or realized that the lens is in the bargain bin at most stores. If you have the cash though, I can't praise the Sigma art series enough. There 35 has been a backbone of my camera bag for over two years, and the 50 has quickly found a place in my regular rotation of lenses. They are also about half the cost of their Nikon/Canon equivalents, while also delivering better or comparable results in head to head testing.
So there you have it, the secret to shooting in extremely dark rooms: prime lenses. They come with a few challenges, but as long as you understand how to work around that, you can go from a shoot that would be a disaster to one that you can deliver great results.
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