How to Take High Quality Photos for CrossFit – Part II: Settings and Technique

The problem with most “sports photography” advice is that it applies to field sports where long zoom lenses are the norm and outdoor light is abundant. In the early days of taking photos, I couldn’t find much for fast action, indoor photography, so much of what I learned was trial and error.
In part I of this series, I talked about the equipment for taking great CrossFit photos. In part II, I’m going to talk about the settings and techniques you can use to optimize your equipment whether it’s a high-end DSLR or a mobile phone. Note: most of these settings can also be applied to point-and-shoot cameras and Micro 4/3rd cameras. I chose the two extremes simply to keep it simple, but you can usually play around with settings on any camera.

As you read along, I’ll include photos I’ve taken over the years with as much information as I can in the caption to give you a sense of the settings I used. I hope you find it useful.

Screen Shot 2013-12-29 at 10.14.46 AM

Photo featured on CrossFit.com’s Affiliate page for a number of years Camera body: Canon T2i Lens: Canon 28mm f/1.8 Setting: Aperture Priority Aperture: f/2.0 Shutter speed: 1/200 (calculated by camera) ISO: 6400 Processed in Lightroom

CAMERA SETTINGS
DSLR – A DSLR is preferred so you can dial in specific settings. The three main options will be Aperture Priority (Av for Canon, A for Nikon), Shutter Priority (Tv for Canon, S for Nikon), or Manual (M for both). If I’m in a setting that is consistent with lighting, I will use Manual and set my shutter speed (1/250 or higher), aperture (anywhere between f/1.4-2.0), and ISO (usually high – 3200). If I’m in a spot where lighting is inconsistent (bright vs. dark areas) then I’ll go either aperture or shutter priority. For aperture priority I’ll usually set it to the brightest setting (f/1.4 for my Sigma 35mm) If I’m using shutter priority I’ll set it to at least 1/250 up to 1/500. For both I will set my ISO to 3200 or higher. Setting my ISO higher will mean slightly grainy photos, but I’m ok with this because 1. I’m not taking typical portraits where noise is the devil and 2. I’d rather get an unblurred photo that’s a little grainy than a blurry photo with no grain. As to why I would use Aperture or Shutter Priority – out of habit, I start in Aperture Priority, but if I find the camera is misreading the scene and has a slower shutter speed than I want, I’ll move it over to Shutter Priority. For weddings and landscape photography I care very much about aperture (how blurry the background is) but for CrossFit it’s usually more about the shutter speed.

Mobile phone – there are apps out there where you can control the camera on a mobile phone, but I don’t have enough experience to recommend one over another. However, if you’re using the regular camera app on the iPhone, my recommendation is to slide your finger up on the screen to raise the exposure compensation. This will make the scene brighter than the phone thinks it needs and usually this is a good tweak for photos taken on a phone. If you forget to do this, then just edit it afterwards by raising the exposure a bit.

high res-2014-12-20-CF Thermal 1st Anniversary-124120-IMG_9612-2

Photo featured on CrossFit.com on 01/23/2015  Camera body: Canon 6D Lens: Canon 35mm f/1.4 Setting: Shutter Priority Aperture: f/2.8 (calculated by camera) Shutter speed: 1/250 ISO: 3200 Processed in Lightroom

LIGHTING (FLASH)
Lighting conditions are going to be determined by the space you’re in. If you have more control over lighting or your subject (e.g. you need to take headshots of your coaches or you’re taking a nicer photo of a member for a testimonial) then the ideal lighting is “soft” bright light. In real life this looks like going to a bay door or window and having your subject stand in the shadow/shade closest to the bright light. You don’t want them to stand in the bright light because it will blow out the picture, but you want enough light to not make the picture underexposed or grainy. To any photographer, shade is a better friend than overhead direct sunlight, so keep that in mind.

If you’re taking pictures of your athletes working out, then you’re at the mercy of the light available in the box. Open as many doors/windows as you can to get as much natural light as possible in. Shooting during the day is obviously going to be better than night, but you might have enough artificial light to be adequate. I personally hate using flash if I can avoid it – not only does it usually create a washed out tone to photos, it’s also distracting to athletes working out. This is another reason I recommended bright prime lenses with big apertures – you’ll have less of a need for flash.

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Photo featured on CrossFit.com on 6/21/13 Camera body: Canon 5D mark II Lens: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Setting: Manual Aperture: f/1.4 Shutter speed: 1/500 ISO: 500 Processed in Lightroom

FOCUSING
DSLR – When you half-press the shutter on a DSLR and see a red box or see the yellow box on an iPhone, that’s where the camera is focusing. I like to change my settings so I’m on center point focus, not auto-focus. This way I can control whether I want to focus on the person close to me or farther away from me. If I know I have the time, I’ll do what’s called “focus and recompose” where I put my subject in the center of the screen, half-press to lock my focus, and then slightly shift my camera to recompose the shot. Some professionals like back-button focusing so you can look that up, too. Either way, turn off the auto focus so you have control.

Mobile phone – simply tap where you want to focus. Brace your arm against your body or better, a pull-up rig or box so your arm is steady when you take the shot.

CF KoP Moms high res-3854

Photo featured on CrossFit.com on April 21, 2013 Camera body: Canon 5D mark II Lens: Canon 50mm f/1.4 Setting: Manual Aperture: f/2.8 Shutter speed: 1/160 ISO: 4000 Processed in Lightroom

COMPOSITION
If you’ve dabbled in photography, you’ve probably heard of the Rule of Thirds. Basically if you look at your camera screen and divide it in a tic-tac-toe grid, the subject of your photo “should” be at one of the four intersection points of that grid. If you can do this, great (see “focus and recompose” above). While this might be a fine way to compose a shot, this is actually not the biggest priority for my CrossFit photos (as opposed to engagement/wedding/travel photos) Why? Because I don’t want to sacrifice missing a shot just to get the “right” composition. Besides, if you really want to play around with composition, just shoot wide (stand back to get a wider scene) and crop/rotate after the fact.
With that said, having a different perspective than the normal human view (about 5-6 feet off the ground) can be useful to grab a viewer’s attention. So don’t be afraid to lie down on the ground (makes for a super stable position, but be careful of your surroundings!) or get up on a box. If it’s a competition, get behind or among the spectators for their viewpoint. Or perhaps you get them in the background cheering on a competitor as the last few seconds tick down. In general, try to frame and focus on only one athlete at a time. Whole-room shots are great, but the interesting shots are the ones that show grit, explosiveness, and victory.

Mobile phone – DON’T zoom in with your fingers and take photos. It ruins what little quality you have in that device. Instead, get as close as you can to your subject and take your photo. Then, if you really need to, crop the photo using the edit button on your phone. I repeat, do NOT zoom in with your fingers.

high res-2015-02-28-CF Thermal Open WOD 15.1-124845-IMG_9963

CrossFit Open WOD 15.1 Camera body: Canon 6D Lens: Canon Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Setting: Aperture Priority Aperture: f/1.4 Shutter speed: 1/4000 (calculated by camera) ISO: 3200 Processed in Lightroom

KNOWING THE MOVEMENTS
It helps immensely to know the movements within CrossFit. An outside photographer who does not know CrossFit will manage to grab some good shots, but the truly dramatic and awesome photos can only be captured by a CrossFitter because we know what matters and what doesn’t. I would bet that you you’ve seen and admired a shot of someone in triple extension during a clean or a snatch. Capturing that moment of weightlessness and grace requires really good equipment, but also timing of when to shoot.
When you are thinking of movements, think of them in static vs. dynamic fashion. Do you want to capture someone at the beginning/end of a movement or in the middle? There are pros and cons to either and will come down to personal preference and what you’re trying to show. If you’re shooting a dynamic action, you might want a really fast shutter speed (1/320, 1/1,000, even 1/4000 like the photo above) to freeze the action with clarity, but you could also intentionally have a slower shutter speed (1/100, 1/200) to show a slight blur that implies movement. You’ll have to play with your settings since every situation will be different.

Mobile phone – most phones don’t have the capability to capture really fast action and gather enough light in the process. You can certainly try, but this is a huge reason to pony up for a DSLR. Remember, as a CrossFit box you are a MEDIA company, so treat yourself like one and get quality equipment!

2014-09-06 CrossFit Thermal high res-3221

Rogue ad? Camera body: Canon 6D Lens: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Setting: Shutter Priority Aperture: f/1.8 (calculated by camera) Shutter: 1/320 ISO: 800 Processed in Lightroom

FINAL NOTES
There is a LOT of information out there that I haven’t even touched like post-processing (I use Lightroom), video, which lenses to use in which situations, etc. The best thing you can do is just start using your camera or go get one and learn by doing. Then revisit this blog to see if you can refine anything and then go looking for more information like editing. Don’t let all of this overwhelm you though. I remember starting out and not having a clue what aperture was or how ISO affected my photo. If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch, I’d be more than happy to help. I’m on Twitter, Instagram, or you can email me.

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