I had the pleasure of shooting the CrossFit Games for the third year in a row for CrossFit HQ this summer. Shooting the SuperBowl of exercise is a huge job that requires a monstrous quiver of lenses to really capture those unique moments across a series of differing arenas. I'll try to write a few different posts about shooting the Games, but this one is going to be specifically focused on shooting with long lenses, and trying (and sometimes failing) to get good results using them.
Shooting for CrossFit Inc. has some serious perks. First off, you're not on your own, you're part of a large team - anywhere from 8-12 photographers, plus a few onsite editors, as well an incredible group of volunteers. Next you get access to an arsenal of loaned long lenses and tele convertors. To begin with, I own the Sigma 120-300 2.8 (new version). I picked it up two years ago before regionals and it quickly became my CrossFit work horse. All of my favorite images from Regionals over the last three year came from that lens. Those extra 100mm really just add so much punch and reach that I really think they create something special.
At the Games, it's a different story though. The soccer field at the Stubhub Center literally eats lenses. 70-200mm? No way. The starting point is 200 and that's only enough to get a wide shot. On the Nikon side the team had access to the following -- Nikon 200-400 f/4, Nikon 300 f2.8, Nikon 400 f/2.8, Nikon 600 f/4, and a Nikon 1.4x and 2x.
Let's talk some basics of shooting with monster lenses before I get into some of my experiences over the last few years. First off, shooting with with lens around 300 and above, a monopod becomes a must. These guys are heavy and the idea of handholding them may work for a shot or two, but not for any extended period of shooting. Without a monopod, grabbing any sort of focus is basically impossible. And longer lenses at 400 and above are basically impossible to operate without being staked into the ground. Just because you're on a monopod though, the basic rules of composition don't change. Simply standing there with a monster lens at eye level will get you just as boring images, even though it's much easier on the body to shoot that way. I'll usually work to have the mono as close to the ground as possible, or at the lowest part of the guardrail that wraps the stadium. From there I'll shoot taking a knee on the ground to help keep the camera that much more stable. When that starts getting boring, I like to get rid of the mono and just shoot from the ground in the prone position. While certainly a crapshoot, images from this angle in a huge stadium all the way zoomed can really came out incredible. Anytime in an image when you can make that stadium look huge (and crowded) wrapping around the subject really creates a better story and more impact. Shooting from the ground up angle is always a surefire way to make an athlete look huge and their accomplishments that much more impressive.
With these sorts of extreme focal lengths too, another challenge is amputations. When you're framing up a shot, it is easier than ever to cut off a limb / hand / foot. You have to take that much extra care to either make sure you frame things in such a way that you don't cut off anything, or if you have to, you do it strategically that aesthetically works.
Shooting during big field events like those at the CrossFit Games you're not allowed to simply walk wherever you want. You're required to stay off the sidelines and around the perimeter. Because of that, you're not always able to be exactly where you want to nail the shot. You also have to deal with myriad video guys, judges, and other staff on the field constantly walking across, or blocking your frame. That's simply the name of the game though. I'd love to fill my feed with the number of judges backs and videographer photos I've taken, when I thought I was about to nail the perfect shot. These sorts of restrictions though force you to always consider what type of lens you're going to bring out to shoot - fast moving events, zooms are usually easier. Slower events, primes can workout great. Action close to you? Maybe more standard lenses in the 24-200 range will work out better.
In terms of settings, you're generally dealing with extremely bright daylight filtering into the stadium during the middle of the day. In the morning and afternoon there is a horrific split light between the rising/setting sun and shade which makes for some really tough exposures. While many shooters prefer aperture priority during an outdoor shoot like this, I always prefer manual. My issue with shooting in Aperture priority is that the camera's computer can easily be fooled by extreme differences in exposure. What do I mean? Say you're shooting straight on at an athlete coming towards you. You're lying on the ground. Those first couple frames just have the stadium behind the subject, the image comes out great. As the subject gets closer the angle gets more extreme and that super bright sky is now half the background. Depending on what metering setting you have your camera on, you may get an extremely underexposed image as the camera's meter focuses too much on the sky and not enough on the subject. Yes, there are different metering techniques to compensate for this and you could also always use exposure compensation. But now there are two extra steps you have to take and you may still get an exposure off. For me, I'd rather take a few tests shots and get a good baseline. From there, I'll slowly adjust my shutter speed up or down to compensate for changes in the ambient light while keeping my subject exposed well. While this technique may lead to a series of images that are a little overexposed or underexposed, you're not going to get extremes unless the lighting radically changes and you simply forget to compensate.
I rarely shoot at ISO 100. I'd much prefer to sit around 400-800 because I can then have a super fast shutter speed -- generally 1/1000th as a baseline. Remember, these larger lenses are usually f/4 so you're loosing a lot of light from the normally quick f 2.8 lenses. With the amazing camera bodies out there now, you can easily shoot all the way up to ISO 1600 before you even notice the slightest flicker of noise.
My first year at the Games in 2014, and really inexperienced at shooting in such large fields, I gravitated towards the 200-400 f/4. Even though it's an f/4 lens, shooting outdoors during the day means that basically doesn't matter. You're able to use that ISO range from 100-1000 to maintain fast shutter speeds and 0 noise. I like the flexibility a zoom provides and it feels much more similar to shooting with a 70-200 in a regular field. It's crazy though shooting with lenses in this range. At 400mm you're able to get so close and tight to the action in the lanes closer to your sideline that you're able to get a view almost no one else can. Regardless of what the internet says, I think 2014 was the hottest year in my time at the Stubhub Center. The added joy of working with these huge lenses in big events is you have to lug them for our media office - two plus stories up in the press box - and get them back and forth to the field. Add in some 100 degree sun and 20 minute heats, and you get the idea. I can't go on enough though about how amazing the volunteer squad that we have was (and continues to be). All with a smile, they would gladly carry the heaviest gear, run for water and snacks, sprint memory cards up and down flights of stairs, and just be otherwise awesome. Without them, handling this gear all day would be a real struggle.
Working with a larger team requires you to operate much more differently than you would if you were the sole shooter for the event. We received assignments from our manager, putting us on different sides of the field and required to cover the action from there. Some events aren't overly conducive to the money shots from some sides, but even from the worst shooting position, you're still able to occasionally capture a really unique moment. And really, you're only given this opportunity because you can count on the other shooters in their positions nailing their shots. This does a lot of things for you though. You're able to sit back and really compose your images. You don't need to take 1000 photos of the back of athletes heads if they're moving away from you. You have the time to get the right lens and work to get a unique shot that you wouldn't be able to do if you were required to cover the entire event yourself.
In 2015, I was much more comfortable working with the larger zoom lens so wanted to try my hand at some of the more exotic glass the team had, the big primes and also teles. While I absolutely love shooting with primes in the gym environment - the Sigma 35 1.4 to be specific - I find the big primes extremely restrictive and challenging in big field sports. The first issue working with them is they are gigantic and heavy. A monopod is a must, be on top of that they simply suck to lug around. Beyond that, their handling requires the fine touch of a steady hand. The slightest shakes back and forth or side to side can knock a perfectly level shot off, or knock a well composed frame into dutch angle hell. The most obvious challenge of primes though is that they aren't zooms. Once you plop that monopod in the ground, that's your position. Assuming you picked the perfect spot at that moment, the athletes will inevitably be moving closer or farther from you, requiring you to shift positions as you track the action.
When I shoot, I want to do the best I can to fill the frame in the camera and leave as little cropping as possible for post. Filling the frame in camera creates the largest possible useable file and the easiest to edit. Further, you're going to get the best possible bokeh, whereas if you crop into the image, you're not going to get any additional quality in those out of focus areas. Especially when working with editors that might not see what you're seeing, you want to leave as little to the imagination as possible. Nailing the shot in camera is that much more important. With a prime in the Soccer Stadium though, setup on the sidelines, you might only really be able to fill the frame with one or two lanes of athletes, limiting your section for that perfect shot. Because of that, you're constantly needing to reset your position as the action develops, or worse, sit idle as you watch as those critical moments are happening either too close or too far from your position.
Now that's not to say primes are all bad - or bad at all. When you set yourself in the perfect position, and the action develops just right, the moments you can capture with a prime are stunning. The sharpness and bokeh are incredible, and simply can't be reproduced with a zoom lens. It requires a lot of patience and a bit of luck, and you can nail some killer shots. Me though? Not so much. I struggled working with primes in the fast moving action on the soccer field. Looking back through my images, I found my hit rate much lower when working with primes, and even some really good shots, needed a lot of cropping in post to get the look I wanted. Again, when you're shots are being sorted and edited on the fly, shots that aren't quite right like that get passed by in place of better composed images.
Another experiment in 2015 was working with teleconvertors to try and get a reach that isn't attainable with lenses even like the 400mm. The common caution against using teleconvertors is that they "soften" the image, and in my experience I think that is partially true. The first example I can think of was during the team event that included a series of rope climbs in the middle of the massive Zeus rig. I was down in the endzone and wanted something that could reach all the way into the rig. So I created what I affectionally called the "hubble" -- the 600 f/4 with a 1.4x tele, effectively making it a 840mm lens. While the reach I got was nuts, and the background compression was incredible, a close review of the images after the fact revealed many of the shots I thought I "nailed" were actually soft and the sharp focus was just not there. I'm not saying the teles were the cause of that, I think it was a lot more operator error than anything else, but it certainly cautioned me from falling for the desire for that extra reach the next year. I had a similar experience working with the 1.4x on the 200-400. While that extra reach was great, I really found it that much harder to get that tact sharp focus in my images.
Starting in 2015, we also worked to get our edits even faster with the introduction of a private wifi network on the field, and all cameras transmitting small jpeg images over that network direct to the editors. When it worked, it was crazy to take what you think was a killer photo in the heat of a WOD, and a few minutes later notice on facebook or instagram, it was already edited on and online.
For 2016, we had a similar quiver of equipment and after reviewing my work from the previous years - what got good results and what didn't - I had a different gameplan. For the soccer stadium, I went back to the basics and stuck to the gear I knew worked for me and the way I shoot. I balanced using the 200-400 in the soccer field with just a sprinkling of the 400 and 600 during some of the slower events where I had more time to plan and compose shots.
Something I never really used much in previous years was my old standby, the Nikon 70-200. Because of the ease of handling this "small" lens, it was much quicker to get down on the ground and take some shots from the prone positions, especially on the fast and dramatic turn of the suicide sprint WOD. Ironically, the first mainsite image I got during the 2016 CrossFit Games, was taken with the 70-200 in the soccer field, not one of the $7000 prime lenses.
Regardless of the venue, the most important thing to me is getting right in the action. Sometimes you can do that with gigantic lenses, other times you just need to still be physically close to where the action is going to be, and hope everything lines up just right. My take aways from working with these big lenses is that a monopod quickly becomes your best friend, and good planning is important. On paper a 400 f2.8 might be the most magical lens ever, but if you find yourself assigned to a position where that can't catch that action, it's worthless. Point being that you want to go into a shoot - any shoot really - knowing where you're going to be and what's the best tool to help get the shot. For me, it is tough to beat the versatility of zooms like the Nikon 200-400 f/4 for shooting big field sports like this. From one position you're able to cover multiple lanes of action, and within a single lane, on one athlete you can get multiple looks depending on how much you zoom.
Stay tuned for part 2 where I take things into the Tennis Stadium where I go over a whole different slew of challenges.