Saturday, April 14, 2012

Gymnastics 2012 - Best of and More

Gymnastics is my favorite sport to photograph.  Surprisingly, it also is the most grueling.  I’m not sure why this is given that other sports, like football, require much more physical activity as part of the process of shooting the event.  I suppose it could be that gymnastics is the one sport for which I always believe it is possible to capture something spectacular, so I place a lot of pressure on myself before, during and after each meet I photograph.  And this is because, to my view, gymnastics offers the opportunity for bringing together beauty, grace, power, and technical skill in a way that is unique to athletics.  As such, I set as my goal the capture of images that will leave no more than one of these to the viewer’s imagination.  Unfortunately, it’s a tough goal to achieve, so the ‘spectacular’ image is very rare indeed.  I devote hours to thinking about and planning my approach to each meet, then a few more hours second-guessing all of it both during and after the shoot.  Another challenge that is somewhat unique to gymnastics is the number of photos from each event.  Typically, I come away with about 2,000 images from each meet, as compared to less than half that amount from most other sports I shoot.  And I find that I must sort through all of these images at least three separate times to be sure I haven’t overlooked anything that might just put together the elements in a special way.  Finally, the more I do this (it’s been about 7 years now), the more critical of my work I become, so that, for example, this year, having shot 8 meets and some 16,000 photos, I don’t know that I can put forward a single image and say it meets my criteria for ‘spectacular.’  Nevertheless, I do have images I’m happy with for various reasons, so I thought I’d post some of them here, along with some information about how they came about and some thoughts about what I like and, where appropriate, what I feel is missing from each shot.

  • This is a shot of the team being introduced at the regional meet that occurred following the regular season.  Nothing particularly special about it, other than it’s always nice to get a photo of the whole team, and I do like the shadows created by the spotlights.  [You can click on any of these images to view a larger version.]
  • I’ll start with vault for the action shots, and I’ll state up-front that I hate shooting this event.  It’s fast, the athletes are very difficult to maintain focus on as they move through the frame, and for the vast majority of this movement, their faces are not in view.  All of this adds up to a very low likelihood of capturing anything worth taking a second look at (or even a first look, even if that must precede hitting the ‘delete’ key), and typically, I live up to that very low likelihood.  Here are two vault shots, the first being somewhat typical of what I am able to get when I get anything, and the second being a little different in that I shot it from the springboard side of the platform.

  • Next are a couple I would put into the ‘beauty and grace’ category, neither of them showing much in the way of technical skill, and the second offering a bit more of a hint of power than the first.  The background on the second shot is busier than I would like, but the attention of the crowd on the athlete, especially that of the young children, adds something special in my view.

  • And now for some technical skill, which to my thinking is most evident on bars and, to a slightly lesser extent, beam.  I say this only because as I try to imagine actually doing any of the things these women do on these events (as if!), the high-flying bars moves strike me as a good deal more risky than the magic performed on a 4-inch-wide beam, but the reality is that the level of skill required is all the more remarkable for how effortless these athletes make it look.  I should add that the challenge to the photographer in all of this is to capture the ‘good stuff’ (the grace, the beauty, the power and the skill) while avoiding all that is unflattering, such as strained facial expressions, breaks in form, undulating muscles and the like.  Here are 8 shots that come closest to my notion of meeting this challenge.
This black-and-white shots is one of my favorites.  I like the angle, her form is great, her height is crazy--most of the pieces are there.

Sometimes you get lucky, and while I don't want to deny that there might be some skill involved, I know I could not nail this focus every time, and the body position, parallel to the floor, is awesome.

 I can't look at this photo without Superman coming to mind. :)

  • Emotion is a constant in sports, and often a challenge to capture because it happens ‘away’ from the action, which usually has my attention.  This emotion can range from the quiet intensity of the athlete preparing for competition, as in this first shot; to the mixture of sadness and joy as the athletes in the second shot bask in the home crowd’s cheers during the last introductions of their college careers; to the release of tension in response to a coach’s pep-talk, as with the third shot here; to the intense reaction to performance of coaches and/or teammates, as in the fourth and fifth shots.

  • Finally, I will on occasion strive to create the technically beautiful photo and hope, in the process, to achieve the gymnastics-specific goals I have set for myself.  This usually means using a large, heavy, telephoto lens and setting it to its widest aperture so as to render all but the subject of the photo to a buttery, out-of-focus backdrop.  I can best describe this effort as a high-wire act because, while its fruits can be beautiful, the overall rate of success is very low, either because it is more difficult to achieve focus shooting very tight to the subject, or because the tight framing often leads to the cutting off of important body parts from the photo.  Here are three examples of what can come from this approach.  The first is of a relatively static pose and, while close, does not achieve the level of separation of subject from background as would be ideal.  The second is against a busy background and, rather obviously, ‘cuts off’ one of the athlete’s legs.  I still like this shot for some reason, but the problems are obvious.  The last shot is a true winner for me where the technical beauty of the photograph is in question.  It only captures two of the four elements mentioned earlier, but that’s not enough to stop me from singling this out as the shot I’ll work from next year to continue striving for spectacular.

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