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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

How to Take High Quality Photos for CrossFit – Part I: Equipment

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Besides the efficacious workouts and strong community, I believe CrossFit went viral because of the media it has put out over the years. I started CF by following mainsite (crossfit.com) and everyday a workout would go up with a picture and usually a video of some sort. At first, people scoff at the idea of taking pictures of people working out, but it has become commonplace to see everyday people squatting, deadlifting, and snatching barbells and bumpers. For affiliate owners, one of the best things you can do is to take high quality photos of your members. Not only does this serve as great retention for your member base (member: “hey look at me lifting all the weights!”) but it also serves as great marketing material for your website and social media (member’s friends: “hey look at my friend who never used to workout and now she’s lifting all the weights and looking great!”)

As a semi-professional photographer, I’ll break down the equipment and techniques that will allow you to get great shots of your members. To start, let’s go over the gear.

EQUIPMENT
There’s a saying that the best camera is the one you have on you. While there’s no denying that a better camera can produce better images, but it’s not guaranteed. Just like a Ferrari can technically go faster than a Camry, you still need to know how to use it. If you truly can’t afford a DSLR, then wait for Part II on the technique section and come back to this when you have the dough. (But really, you should budget $500 or so for a decent camera and lens!) Below I recommend several camera bodies and lenses.

Note: I don’t include flash because 1. it’s distracting to athletes 2. it usually results in washed out photos and 3. most people need to learn how to use their camera before using flash. I avoid using flash as much as possible.

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CAMERA BODY
A bigger camera is better mostly because it has a bigger light sensor. This is the “canvas” that actually sees an image coming through the lens. The bigger the sensor, the more you can get away with shooting in darker environments. If you’re looking at the two major brands (Canon and Nikon) you really can’t go wrong with either. For most people it comes down to either recommendations from other people or using the controls on the camera itself. This is why I recommend going to a Best Buy and playing with the DSLRs.

Either brand will have entry level bodies (The “Rebel” series for Canon such as the Rebel T6i and any D???? series from Nikon such as the D3300) and the prosumer level bodies (The ?D series for Canon such as the 6D or 5D and any D??? Series from Nikon such as the D610 or D750) The difference between entry level and prosumer is big – both in actual quality (better materials, more features) and price (hundreds or thousands of dollars usually) While the prosumer level WOULD be better because of typically darker conditions inside gyms, paying $1500-4000 just for a camera body is not reasonable for most box owners. And if there’s something to know about photography, it’s that you should spend your money on the lenses. Why? Because these are the “eyes” of the camera and will usually last decades compared to quicker upgrading/turnover with camera bodies. So unless you have a big bankroll, just get an entry level Canon or Nikon body and save your dough for the glass.

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LENS
The lens is everything. A standard kit lens (usually 18mm-55mm f/3.5-5.6) that comes with the body is fine if you’re outdoors and have great natural light (think typical box that has huge bay doors that are open in the summer) but that kit lens is crap if you only have artificial lighting (think any other situation – winter, night time, retail space, etc) The reason is the aperture number (eg f/3.5 to f5.6) I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole of explaining what it is, but all you need to know is that lower numbers are better. For a box that has average fluorescent lighting and it’s night time (so absolutely no natural light) you’ll want at LEAST f/2.8 and really f/1.8 or f/1.4 if you can manage. This allows way more light to come into the lens and hit that sensor. How much? Well since aperture is actually a ratio, f/1.4 lets in twice as much light as f/2 which lets in twice as much light as f/2.8 which lets in twice as much light as f/4. So f/1.4 lets in 8 times as much light as f/4! It’s the difference between trying to put out a fire with a straw or a fire hose.

Lenses I recommend in order of price are (prices as of 1/25/16):
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM – $149
Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G – $196 (entry level body only)

Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 – $509
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G ED – $526
Canon EF 35mm f/2 IS USM – $549
Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM – $899 (has Canon and Nikon versions)

Why didn’t I include any lenses like a 24-70 f/2.8?
For those that have the budget and the experience, 24-70 is a staple. But here are some reasons I’m not recommending it (or other f/2.8 zooms) to this audience:
-they’re CRAZY expensive compared to the ones I listed above
-this blog post is for the affiliate owner/coach that doesn’t know much about photography
-they don’t allow as much light as most of the lenses mentioned
-there’s argument for the better clarity, ISO performance, IQ, etc. for prime lenses
-they’re CRAZY expensive (yeah, I listed that twice)

Where’s the 50mm options?
If you are a photographer, you may notice I left off a LOT of options. One of the most popular “step-up” lenses for beginners that is frequently recommended is the Canon or Nikon 50mm f/1.8. I don’t recommend any 50mm lenses here because of the crop factor in entry level cameras. To understand crop factor, you need to know about focal length. The bigger the number, the more zoomed in the image will be. 24mm is being able to see a lot of the scene in front of you while 135mm is “zoomed in” much like you would look down a paper towel tube. If you have an entry level body, you have a smaller sensor which leads to something called a “crop factor” which messes with the perceived focal length. This means a 50mm lens on a Canon Rebel 5Ti or Nikon D5500 actually looks more like an 80mm lens because of a 1.6x crop factor. So while the Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens is SUPER cheap and great for outdoors, it’s probably too zoomed in for indoors. Aim for anywhere between 20mm to 40mm. If you go with a full frame/prosumer level camera body, then 50mm lenses are on the table.

If I had to recommend a starter setup, I would recommend the Nikon D3300 ($446) + Nikon DX 35mm f/1.8 ($196). This is going to give you the best combination of price and quality lens. You can only use that lens on an entry level body, so if you’re going to go prosumer/full frame, you’ll have to swap lenses. For a full frame option, I have to recommend the setup I have: Canon 6D ($1399) +Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM ($899). I can’t recommend the Sigma lens enough – the quality is arguably the best out there and while there are equivalent Canon and Nikon 35mm lenses, they cost $1000 more! All of the images of athletes in this post were taken with this setup.

YES, there are a lot of options out there and you may have a system that you like better. Sweet! Post in comments so readers can figure it out for themselves. But in order to avoid decision fatigue, I’ve listed one budget setup and one mid-budget setup. If you have thousands to spend, PM me separately and I’ll give you my recommendations (and ask for some of that as a commission)

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OTHER OPTIONS
There are plenty of other options out there such as mirrorless, high-end point and shoots like the Sony RX100, and other brands of DSLRS. However, to keep it as simple as possible, I’ve recommended two main setups here to avoid decision fatigue. At the end of the day, if you choose to go with something else, focus on keeping the aperture low (pun intended) and choose a useful focal length.

Click here for Part II where I’ll talk about technique for taking pictures with both iPhone and DSLRs.