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by Patrick Lenz.
Original Post: Gymnastics Fundraiser Portfolio Shoot
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My daughter Gwendolyn has been practicing athletic gymnastics for 2 years now. Within those two years, she’s been able to train up to a level that let her win a first and a second place at two regional championships.
She’s with a talent school that recently went homeless. The parent club housing the talent school forced them to move out for “financial reasons”.
At that point, the parents of the 14 gymnasts decided to run a fundraiser to be able to give the talent school a home again. Apart from a plethora of meetings and trying to win over local sponsors, one of my offers to help was a portfolio shoot in one of the gyms where our refugees were able to score a weekly 3 hour training slot. (Seriously, this could totally turn into another season of Make It or Break It.)
I’ve never shot athletes in a staged environment before and I’ve been very upfront with the group that we could very well end up with nothing usable at all.
My only prior experience covering gymnastics athletes was more or less covering the kids' tournaments from the sidelines without official credentials. (David Black unfortunately happened to call Scott Kelby when he had a photographer’s spot to give away for the Evolution event in 2011.)
Indoor gymnastics events are traditionally and hopelessly submerged in crappy lighting (both quality and quantity), many competitions going on at once, and hordes of parents tackling you non-stop trying to score the perfect shot of their kid while waving their arms holding an iPad.
During those events I usually end up tucked away in a corner somewhere with my Nikon D3s on a monopod with my trusty 300 f2.8 and a Nikon D3 on my shoulder with the just-as-trusty 70-200 f2.8. To freeze the action you need shutter speeds of 1/800 of a second and quicker, so given the aforementioned crappy lighting conditions you need to stay upwards of ISO 3200 most of the time.
This is one rare occasion where the camera and lens combination just needs be situated in the pricier segment, just because it’s pretty much impossible to get a decent exposure in these lighting conditions if your equipment doesn’t let in enough light or starts spitting noisy images at you as soon as you cross the boundaries of ISO 800.
Cassie on Vault
With this staged shoot, then, I could finally get back in control regarding the lighting and to some extent posture of the gymnasts. (You do have to learn a slew of vocabulary to halfway know what the gymnasts are talking about in the first place.)
My wife came up with motifs that required hard, directional light to articulate the posture and dynamics of the exercise as well as mostly black surroundings to make the subject pop. Knowing my demanding perfectionism, I prepared two separate lighting setups in the studio on the morning of the shoot.
The first setup involved some bigger guns as I wasn’t able to rule out the fact that we could be stuck shooting repetitions of the same exercise all night trying to get a shot that I liked. I prepped two Elinchrom Quadra units with the “Action Head” giving me extra short flash duration, along with a Skyport trigger for my camera.
As with most studio flashes, the Quadras will not sync above 1/250 of a second, causing black bars on one end of the frame if you go beyond that. So while the flash duration itself may only be 1/6000 of a second and totally freezing the action, the shutter needs to stay open longer, potentially letting in more ambient light than I’d like in my picture, not giving me the mostly dark background that we needed. To compensate (and to still be able to shoot with a wide open aperture of 2.8) I packed a NiSi Fader ND Filter.
Of course, my lights would just as well be affected by the ND filter as the ambient light1, so they’d in turn need to pump out more light. But as I planned to work my lights close to the subject and given the 400Ws of the Quadras, I wasn’t too worried.
Setting up on bars
The second setup I prepared consisted of two bare Nikon SB-900 Speedlights triggered with PocketWizard MiniTT1 and FlexTT5. This PocketWizard system2 supports a form of high-speed sync (they labelled it HyperSync and likely patented it) with both Nikon and Canon bodies and allows for shutter speeds of up to 1/8000 of a second in some configurations. Their Wiki even claims it is more efficient than the camera manufacturers' own high-speed sync, allowing for longer battery life and/or better reach.
Since my assistant was mostly concerned getting the gymnasts prepared and keep them engaged, I also used an AC3 ZoneController to be able to change the light output of my flashes from the camera position.
Thanks to HyperSync this second setup didn’t involve an ND filter, but was also much less powerful in terms of raw flash output and slower in total recycling times between exposures.
Of course, being the rogue club that we are and only taking shelter in this gym, I unloaded the second, lighter kit first and ended up not using the studio strobe setup at all because the speedlights worked really, really well.
Even given the army of overhead fluorescent lights I was able to shoot at f2.8, 1/800, and ISO 200 and still keep the background mostly dark. The flashes had to work between ¼ and ½ power on varying zoom levels (14mm to 35mm) and were recycling so quickly that even occasional continuous shooting was possible.3
Using the lighter setup also meant we were able to move quicker between several disciplines such as vault, bars, floor, and beam. Since the whole gym is basically one bouncy castle, light stands with just featherweight speedlights on them also weren’t endangered to tip over from someone passing by in a distance like they would’ve been with a studio light.
In under three hours, we managed to initially set-up, take care of the occasional case of bad hair day, and cover 4 different scenes (albeit, of course, with similar lighting setups). I shot 300 frames and we ended up with 25 picks for the fundraiser portfolio, including portraits of each of the gymnasts.
Portrait of Gwen
The only issue I ran into when relying on continuos shooting to capture some of the faster paced elements was the traditional overheating of the SB-900s. This is supposedly less of an issue with an external battery pack and also seems to be addressed somewhat in the new SB-910. On my next gym shoot, I will definitely pack my other two SB-900s as well to either swap units between scenes or setup two speedlights on each side to reduce the amount of power each of them has to push.
All in all, I’m very happy with results of this first staged gymnastics shoot, which surely won’t be my last.
Remember, shutter speed solely controls the ambient, aperture and ISO affect both ambient and flash.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a single terminus to call this group of triggers and transceivers?
I didn’t use the (disgustingly expensive) SD-9 battery packs for the flashes, which would’ve improved recycle times even more. ↩