Friday, March 21, 2014

Utah Gymnastics 2014: Best of the Home Season

Another season of Utah Gymnastics home meets is in the books for me.  Man, I love this sport.  Six meets plus one preseason exhibition, ranging from mid-December to mid-March and it seems to have passed in the wink of an eye.  This is the one sport I photograph about which I feel I devote the most time to thinking and worrying about the quality of my output.  As I’ve said in other posts, that’s got a lot to do with the sport’s unique potential for really special photographs, that exquisite juxtaposition of strength, power and athleticism with uncommon grace and beauty.  It’s a difficult outcome to achieve, and I kid myself into thinking I’ve achieved it more often than I actually do, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s my search for that ever-elusive, perfect gymnastics photo that motivates my approach to the sport and starts my adrenaline flowing at the mere thought of it.

I’ve gathered some of what I think are the strongest of my photos from this year and thought I’d present them along with a consideration of what I was after when shooting and why I view them as examples of relative success.  Here we go...[clicking on an image will bring up a larger version]

The Venue
I'd be remiss if I didn't start with the venue, which is at least as much a matter of the fans as it is the physical space.  Competing in the Jon M Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus, Utah gymnastics averaged 14,376 at its six meets, which led all Division I NCAA women's sports this season.  It's their fourth such NCAA-wide women's attendance title, and 30th gymnastics attendance championship.  The support this team enjoys is beyond belief, and the fans, ranging from very young to, shall we say, rather seasoned, don't just show up, they know gymnastics.  Here are some relevant photos:

The Jon M Huntsman Center in all its glory
Future Ute
The Student Section

Mutual Admiration

Vault is, by far, the most difficult gymnastics event to shoot, and I'd be lying if I said I enjoyed it.  In fact, I mostly despise it because it's just so damn impossible to capture a great image.  Currently, Utah hast the two best vaulters in the nation, but the fact of the matter is that as clean and precise and amazing as their vaults might look in real time, there just isn't much of it you'd want to look at once it's broken down by the thousandth of a second. I'll do my best to spare you the details of all you wouldn't want to see, but the basic point is that more often than not, the photos do not do justice to the excellence of the performances.  All the more reason to keep trying, I suppose, and here are my vault photos I've chosen to share.  For anyone who might be interested, four of these were shot with an 85mm lens, and one each with a 50mm and 35mm lens.

Kailah is tied with Tory (two photos down) for first in the nation.

In this next photo of Kailah, how amazing is it to compare her form as captured here with her form in the first image (from a different meet)?  The road to the top must be paved with perfect reproduction
Kailah again. 

It's not ideal that I failed to include the vaulting table in the image.
It's exciting for me to photograph bars routines.  Most of the action is on the upper bar, the athletes are doing their best to literally launch themselves without actually launching themselves (at least until their dismounts!), and it is astonishing how often it looks like their fingers are barely touching the one thing that is keeping them from floating off into space.  I also am granted a perspective on the event, from a relatively low position, that is much different than what the fans are able to see from their seats.  To my eye, all of this makes for some rocking gymnastics photos, and since Utah has some great bars performers, I've all the ingredients I need to create some magical images.  This season I've run the gamut of lenses while shooting bars, from a 35mm f/1.4 lens that put me close enough to touch the apparatus, to 85mm lens that pushes me back a bit, and a 200 f/1.8 lens that is tight enough to force my back against the arena wall in order to make it work.  Here are some of my favorite bars shots.

Hailee Hansen is a bars specialist.  And while she doesn't necessarily earn the highest scores, she provides the most stunning photos and I set my standard by my images of her.

Georgia Dabritz is tied for first in the nation on bars.

They call her no-grips Dabritz.  Can you see those callouses?


Nansy Damianova is the only Utah gymnast for whom I was compelled to shoot from the high-bar end of the mats for the sake of trying to grab this shot.  I can't say I'm completely satisfied, but this definitely is along the lines of what I was after.

Much of what these gymnasts do is jaw-dropping and far beyond the capacities of most of us, but there's a unique element of difficulty associated with acrobatics on a 4-inch wide slab of varnished wood.  And yet beam offers photographic opportunities for the grace and beauty of the sport that just aren't present in most of the other events.  So beam allows for capturing some impressive, seemingly gravity and physics defying feats while also offering perhaps the best opportunity for capturing the elegance of the sport.  Here are some images that fit the bill for me.  Most if not all were shot with an 85mm lens, and this season I attempted to capture some of the spinning and twisting dismounts in addition to the other, already mentioned routine elements.

Incredible height and form

Spectacular if you think about it for even a second

This was a dismount that, while not as tack-sharp as I would have liked, nevertheless stood out to me as something different.  I really like this one, though I recognize it's quite different from the more typical images posted above.

I suspect that floor is the favorite for many fans of gymnastics.  The routines are longer than those of the other events, there's music, dance is an important element, and the tumbling runs allow for the most outright displays of power and strength that a gymnastics meet has to offer.  For the photographer, the challenges are many.  First, the size of the area covered by the routine is large enough that a single lens won't allow for full coverage.  Either you cover the maximum distance well but cut off body parts when the action comes nearer to you, or you manage the near action but lose the athlete to the background when she moves to the other side of the mat.  So, effective shooting of floor usually requires two lenses (and two cameras), which forces upon the photographer the need to make decisions about when to switch from the one you are holding to the one that is sitting in your lap. Unless you know each gymnast's routine as well as she knows it, you're going to make the wrong call on occasion.  And then there is the fact that while the tumbling passes might be the most exciting parts of the routines, it's difficult to capture good images of tumbling-pass action for some of the same reasons mentioned regarding vault.  So it's good that the routines are relatively long, because this allows for the taking of lots of photos and increases the likelihood of grabbing a few good ones.  And speaking of which, here are some of my favorites.  (Over the course of the 6 regular-season and 1 intrasquad meets, lenses used for floor included: 50mm, 24-70mm, 85mm, 70-200mm, and 200mm.)

I was taken enough by this near-flight move that I'm including four versions of it.

I sometimes wish I could make the backgrounds go away.


Finally, I want to share a few images that reflect some of the emotion that characterizes Utah's meets.  These student athletes are unquestionably devoted to their sport.  They work incredibly hard, year-around, and they bring a level of intensity to their competitions that is palpable.  But one of the beauties of college gymnastics (as opposed to most other levels within the sport) is that it's a team sport, with individual achievements tempered by the success of the group.  And these athletes, impressive and dedicated as they may be, are college students after all, competing in front of boisterous and adoring fans.  It's intense and its competitive, but thankfully there is evidence these young ladies love what they are doing and are enjoying the ride.  Here's some proof.

Co-Head Coach Megan Marsden leads the cheer

Two graduating seniors absorbing the crowd's love and the reality of the final home meet of their careers.

This next photo is perhaps my favorite of the season.  Senior Nansy Damianova has just completed her final routine of her collegiate career that she will perform in front of the home crowd.  And she has nailed it.  She has taken a few moments to acknowledge the soaring ovation, then headed back to her team, which is right about when her score is posted: a perfect 10.0.  Bedlam ensues, and I cannot even type this without getting goosebumps.  I know this photo cannot succeed at creating the full effect for anyone who wasn't there to experience it for themselves, but it as as close as I can come and because of that I love this photo. 

The Ripple of Perfection

What a moment

I'll close with one final photo, of the team, since that's what this is all about.  What an honor it is for me to be able to photograph their competitions.  Thanks for looking, and feel free to leave a comment if you'd like.


  1. Russ, thank you for the photographer's eye view. It's fascinating (and frankly heartening) reading how you wrestle with all these trade-offs and obstacles. Some of these are just breathtaking - the detail of Hailee's fingers on the bars & her gaze & her hair flying around come to mind - and they're all fabulous. Please keep up the great work.

  2. Thank you, Fritz. I appreciate your comment.

  3. angie Garcia-JohnsonMarch 21, 2014 at 8:15 PM

    I loved your photographs...great angles and an artist's interpretation of athleticism with movement captured at just the right time. Wow!

    1. Thank you, Angie. I'm glad you enjoyed them and I appreciate your feedback.

  4. Your photographs are always stunning. These girls are so beautiful and their gymnastics enhances their beauty through their sport!! Thanks for sharing them and GO UTES!

  5. Beautiful work, Russ. I look for you every meet, and often wonder what it's like to view the meet at such close range. This gives me some idea.

  6. Russ, it is rare to get a look inside a great photographer's head regarding how an event is seen, approached and skillfully captured. For those of us that have followed Utah's exceptional athleticism through your masterful photographic expertise, we have been a most privileged group. Thank you, my friend!

  7. Jenny: Thank you. I agree with your comment about beauty squared. :)

  8. Thank you, Deborah. It's amazing is what I'd have to say, and I do think the photos show some of that, at least in terms of the up-close-and-personal feel and the unique angles.

  9. Hey Matt, thanks for the props. It's rare that I try to express any of this, so I'm glad to know you enjoyed it.

  10. Great work Russ. It is such a difficult task to capture the grace, beauty, athleticism, power and emotion that make Women’s Gymnastics such a wonderful sport, but you do it so well. The image quality of your work is always so good (inspite of the challenging lighting,etc.) I really appreciate the commentary.

    1. Thank you, Ivo. You've got a pretty nice perspective on this action from your seat, so it's nice to hear you enjoyed these photos.