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.

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Dropping Into a CrossFit Box – 11 Tips for Box Owners and Visitors

I’ve been fortunate enough to drop into over thirty CrossFit affiliates, some multiple times. The benefits of dropping into a box are many: meeting new people, getting a workout in, having a reason to go explore a new town or city, experiencing different coaching styles, pushing yourself to PR, etc.

Whether you’re traveling for work or pleasure, sometimes you need to get a WOD in and the hotel gym just isn’t cutting it. To make it easy, you can use this handy CrossFit finder to look up your closest affiliate. I’ve realized over the years that there are some things I wish I knew, both about coaching people who drop in and also visiting other boxes. Below are some tips for both affiliate owners and visitors for dropping into a CrossFit box.

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visiting Iceland and dropped into CF Reykjavik. Got to be coached by Iceland Annie and train with their Games team!

FOR THE HOME BOX (Owners, Coaches, and “home” Athletes)

1. Post your WOD
I realize there are reasons to not post your Workout of the Day (e.g. keeping your members from cherry picking, making it more “exciting,” laziness, etc) but for a traveling CrossFitter, it’s good to know the workout ahead of time. If I just did a grueling workout at my home box that involved GHD sit-ups, I’m probably going to want to know if the box I’m dropping into will have GHD sit-ups, toes to bar, etc. If I’m trying to drop into multiple boxes in an area, I also want to try and avoid repeat movements or similar workouts. And if you do post your WOD, make sure it’s current! I can’t tell you how many websites I’ve visited that have their most recent workout from 4 days ago. There was also one affiliate whose last post was 2 years ago. (I’m guessing they went out of business.)

2. Offer merch as an option
Most CrossFit boxes will charge $15-$25 as a drop-in fee. I’ve also encountered many that will waive the fee in exchange for buying a T-shirt. From my experience, there is a strong correlation from how an affiliate handles drop-in fees to my overall experience. In retrospect, the better boxes (based on workout, coaching, and member interactions) have been ones where they either waive the fee completely for the first visit, or ask that I buy a shirt. The ones that demand cash or credit card (no option to buy a shirt instead) are usually the ones I don’t have a great time at. I realize some boxes like Valley CrossFit get so many drop-ins that they take advantage of the revenue stream, but unless you’re them, consider the shirt option. It’s more marketing for you, even if I live across the country. You never know who’s going to blog about you or at least put up a social media post!

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Everproven CrossFit (Dover, NH)

3. Be friendly! (more than your usual self)
CrossFit is known for a vibrant, friendly, close-knit community, but that drop-in is going to feel like an outsider unless you greet them first. As the owner/coach, you are the face and leader of your community and your members will follow your lead. If a stranger walks in and you stay off to the side and chat with your friends, why would anyone else welcome this person? I once dropped into a fairly well-known CrossFit affiliate and while the coach definitely knew her stuff, everyone was done with the workout early and she was immediately on her phone texting and chatting with her friend at the front desk. Hmmm, no cool down stretching, no conversation to see how the visitor liked it?
For the members of the box, remember when you first walked in – how intimidating it was? Even if you’re not normally an outgoing person, make it point to at least say hi to the visitor. CrossFit is great because no matter what your backgrounds, it automatically creates conversation points: What box do you go to? How long have you been doing CrossFit? What’s your favorite/least favorite workout? What do you think of today’s WOD? What’s your Fran time? Where did you get that neon outfit and matching shoes, I NEED those! Etc.

4. Don’t assume
Don’t assume the person dropping in is healthy – ask about injuries, surgeries, and other limitations before class starts. Don’t assume they know your lingo – chances are they use different terminology for mobility drills, warm ups, and even some common movements in workouts. As a trainer, you should be demonstrating these movements anyway to make sure everyone is on the same page. Lastly, don’t assume knowledge-base or athleticism on looks. Let’s see how they perform the actual movements and how they move their bodies before coddling them or pushing them to do more than they’re capable of.

5. Get reviews
As I said earlier, sometimes I look at Google, Yelp, or Facebook reviews to see what kinds of experiences your members have. If I see things like “this is a really fun place” or “great workout, knowledgable coaches, great community” I’m more likely to drop-in. Obviously these reviews are good for attracting local leads as well, so make sure you ask your members to write reviews for you on multiple platforms!

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Kristan Clever, 2010 CrossFit Games Champion

FOR THE VISITORS

1. Give notice
Call or email ahead of time to let them know you’re coming. You should have already looked up their drop-in policies, so while you’re on the website, copy their email address and let them know who you are and anyone else that’s joining. Include the fact that you’re willing to pay a drop-in fee or buy a shirt – this will prompt them to confirm in writing which they prefer. Also ask if they have any digital waivers to sign ahead of time so you can get the paperwork done in advance. I also wouldn’t send them an email three weeks in advance as the owner and/or coach will likely forget. Rather, give notice 24-48 hours in advance. Usually the person receiving the email or phone call is the owner and will pass the information along to the coach of that particular class you want to go to. Here is a standard script you can use for dropping in:

Hi,
I’m in town for work/vacation and was wondering if I could drop into one of the afternoon classes (4:30 or 5:30). I’ve been doing CrossFit for ______ months/years, so I would be very low maintenance and I’d be happy to buy a shirt or pay a drop-in fee. Let me know if this is ok and if there are any digital waivers to sign ahead of time.
Thanks

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Sign at CrossFit Eagle Rock (Los Angeles, CA)

2. Know what you’re doing, technically.
If you’re dropping into a box, you better know how to squat, deadlift, clean, snatch, swing a KB, etc. You also should know the basic variations of the olympic lifts: hang power clean, power snatch, hang snatch, etc. You do NOT need a 300 lb. clean and jerk or 200 ft. handstand walk. The point is to know the basic movements and be able to perform them to the best of your ability (this includes the progressions and scales you would normally do) As a coach, I can’t take an inordinate amount of attention away from my regular members to teach a drop-in how to swing a kettlebell, much less how to snatch. I would rather have a less conditioned, but technically proficient drop-in, then a “fit” guy who has to learn what a power clean is. As a general rule, if you have consistently gone to your regular CrossFit box for 2-4 months, you probably have been exposed to most of the movements.

3. Let coaches know if any injuries or limitations upfront
While the coach should ask you about any injuries you may have, don’t be a hero and ignore pain or injuries if you have them. Let the coach know everything that’s going on, even if it’s not bothering you at the moment. Do this BEFORE the workout, not as she’s saying “3..2..1..GO!” As a coach, I’d rather know about that knee problem that flares up every so often, even if that chance is very low. I would also expect you to monitor yourself during the workout and let me know if anything comes up as soon as it happens.

CrossFit 310 (Redondo Beach, CA)

CrossFit 310 (Redondo Beach, CA)

4. Do the WOD
What’s the best part about CrossFit? The community! So even though you may be in the middle of a Smolov cycle, hop into a class and do the daily WOD. If they have open gym times that you want to take advantage of, I suppose that’s fine, but please don’t ask to do “your own thing” off on the side while everyone else in the gym is doing the WOD. It’s elitist and not cool.

5. Don’t _________________ until someone else does
Some gyms have a policy of NOT cleaning up equipment right away because they want you to go over and cheer on the last person finishing the workout. Don’t be that guy who’s cleaning up his bumpers while everyone else is crowding around and supporting their fellow athlete. Also, if you tend to alleviate the summer heat by taking your shirt off, don’t do it unless someone else does. Again, you don’t know their policies (maybe it’s a health thing) and you don’t want to look like the “too cool for school/shirt” guy. Same thing goes for chalking up the floor (some gyms HATE this while others allow it).

6. Appreciate the (different) experience
Going to another box is going to be different, no matter what. Most times, the warm-up is different, the workout is done differently, and the cool down is different. The coaches are different and the other athletes are certainly different. These things are neither good nor bad on a basic level. Most people walk away with more appreciation for their own box which I think is perfectly fine and actually good. But I also think it’s silly when people say they go to the best affiliate ever, but have never been to another one. Appreciate the new experience and feel free to let your home coaches know about your experience. If you’re a coach, I HIGHLY recommend getting to other boxes. It can be easy to get in the same routine of warm-ups, coaching cues, and WOD formats, especially if you’re rarely coached.

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Becca Voigt – 8-time CrossFit Games athlete. You can clearly see I observed #5 and kept my shirt on.

Think about dropping-in like visiting a friend’s home. You know they’ll be welcoming and friendly, but you still need to respect their traditions and culture, even if they’re different from your own box back home. If you’re an owner or coach, don’t dismiss this person just because they’re here for a day. You never know their network of friends and family and any great experience they’ll have will stick with them forever. I have people from all over the country ask me for box recommendations and I have a go-to list for different cities. For affiliates that I especially enjoyed my experience, I’ll write a Yelp or Facebook review. A little bit goes a long way and how you treat your visitors says a lot about you as an owner, coach, or box member.

Have you dropped into other affiliates? Have any tips for people? Or any particularly great boxes out there? Sound off in comments!

CrossFit Home Gym: How to Hang Gymnastic Rings part II

In my first post about hanging rings, I showed you how I put up my personal set of rings in my garage. Over the holiday break, Ditty and I traveled to her parents house and I had another opportunity to hang rings. This time it was for my father-in-law, E, who had gotten us into CrossFit in the first place. (Two years ago he competed in the Masters Division at the South Central Regional CrossFit Games) He had a pair of gymnastic rings hanging outdoors on a pull up bar, but my new brother-in-law and I had the idea of putting them in the garage. Since the setup is different than mine (and probably more like many of you out there) I thought I’d share pictures and descriptions of what we did.

gymnastic rings garage gym

To give you an idea of the setup, we were working with a two car garage with 15ft. high ceilings. E wanted the rings pretty much in the middle of the garage so that he would face perpendicular to the garage doors. Luckily, there was a crawl space/small attic above the garage attached to one of the bedrooms.

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One of the biggest tasks was just getting the plywood up off the joists. The claw hammers we had did not grab the wood at the right angle, so it made for a time consuming task of pulling nails up. Eventually we drilled holes large enough at one end to pull the plank of wood up. (see above: there is a square cutout of the plank on the right side)

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After pulling the plank up, we used a tow webbing that was about 25ft. long and draped it across two joists. They acted as both supports so the load was spread out over two joists and also as extensions for the rings to hang from. We then used a drywall saw to cut holes for the webbing to drop down into the garage. Then we drilled holes in the joists and posted U-bolts to keep the webbing from swaying along the joists.

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In order to get the right length of the very long webbing, E was downstairs and attached the rings. We pulled up the slack until he thought they were a good height and then we tied it off using an alpine butterfly knot. (you can probably use any knot that won’t loosen, but we just happen to run across this one as we were Googling) After we were finished, we nailed the plank back into place to further hold the webbing and knot in place. (You can also see the back of the U-bolt on the left joist)

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The next day we did a WOD Fight Gone Bad style (5 stations, 3 rounds of 1 minute of work at each with 1 minute of rest in between rounds)

Wall ball

ring push ups

sit ups

kettlebell swings

Prowler push

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After doing a number of ring push ups (and handstand ring push ups) I can personally attest to the stability of the ring setup. If you have a similar setup in your home, go spend a few dollars on webbing and carabiners and get it done!

gymnastic rings garage gym