Gymnastics Photo Essay

chalk dust
Shutter: 1/1000, Aperture: ƒ/1.6, ISO: 2000, Lens: 50mm

To skip straight to the final Photo essay. The following is a blog post about some of the photos I chose, and the experience.

Many of you may know that my biggest career goal is to cover the Olympic games. I’m working to build up my portfolio of sports photos, and try again a little closer to Rio, but also thinking long term for applying to future sporting events. So I worked with my area NBC affiliate to get an assignment to cover a local gymnastics team to try and get some experience. NBC said they didn’t simply want 25 cool pictures from a meet. They wanted a full essay, complete with characters, a plot, a beginning and an end. That was a complete change from my approach to rock concerts. But I wanted to do this, and being a journalist was my only way to get in to shoot the gym. I took the challenge head on.

I kept an eye out for detail shots, and this was the one I was looking for before I even began. I really wanted painted fingernails in the shot. I thought the chalk dust vs painted nails would illustrate that conflict between being a dedicated athlete and being a normal teenager. I shot at f/1.6 and really got a magical quality. I’m not sure anyone sees the nail polish and thinks about the conflict, but it’s a shot that has a lot of energy.

upside down
Shutter: 1/800, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1600, Lens: 15mm

Two things drew me to gymnastics first. One, it was the middle of February, and there are very few sports going on. Secondly, I love spectacle. I love monster trucks and rock stars and the circus. I love the pure spectacle of gymnastics. People doing flips and splits and jumps and being upside down. It seems superhuman, but at the same time, purely human. I love how successful gymnasts are the result of endless training and perseverance. Its the pursuit of perfection that I find engaging. Also, people like looking at pictures of people doing seemingly inhuman stunts. This was one of the very first pictures I nabbed, when I visited the gym prior to the Meet that was the main assignment. I was mainly there to figure out good spots to stand, appropriate shutter speeds, and what to expect. This was the only image I dropped to black and white to focus on the forms. Plus the lighting in the practice gym was awful.

Shutter: 1/800, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1600, Lens: 15mm

I tried really hard to minimize my use of fisheye. It’s hard not to rely on it. I usually use it to punch up my rock n roll photos a little. Or I’ll use it to include everything I can see. In this case I wanted to get really close, but not be so tight I cut off any of Carly’s hands or feet as she leapt by. I will point out that for all of these images, I’ve had some extraordinary access. The coaches and athletes allowed me to get pretty close to the apparatus. I just had to clear it with the Meet Director each time. Priority one was safety, I didn’t want to do anything that would get them (or me) hurt. Second priority was the judges, at the meet I couldn’t ever obscure the judges view of the action. And thirdly, at the one meet, there were professional photographers on hand. I didn’t want to get in their shots, or make their job harder. At States, there were no photographers to contend with.

Shutter: 1/250, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1250, Lens: 24-70mm

When I got to the meet, I was immediately overwhelmed. My team would be on three apparatus at any given point, so I needed to either follow one small faction of girls from each apparatus, or stick on one apparatus and get every girl as they came through. I felt like no matter what, I’d potentially miss something crucial, so I started floating a bit. The one narrative I had planned was between graduating senior Carly and her mother who was also her coach. But other than that, I had no idea what story I’d get. In a perfect world I’d capture some drama, such as someone falling, or getting upset, and follow them through to the end, but I just wasn’t seeing anything stand out for drama. It was all just eye popping acrobatics. And for the reader’s sake, I needed to focus the narrative on 4-5 people, tops. Then I spotted this image. I remember seeing this and thinking Wow, that’s the type of shot they’re looking to publish. I knew this photo would be one of the stronger ones in the essay, so using that image as a tent pole, I wanted to get pics of Taylor warming up and then performing on more apparatus, and then, fingers-crossed winning a medal, to add to the narrative. I had just a few strong images from the uneven bars, and it made it easy to pick the one of Taylor since I could immediately follow it with this photo. There was another athlete that seemed to be having an off night and was shedding tears almost every time I spotted her. So I followed her too, trying to get some drama to add in.

sheep jump
Shutter: 1/200, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1250, Lens:24-70mm

This is probably my favorite image from the DC Meet. It captured the jaw-dropping action that I was looking for, but also framed in the members of her team watching on, and it was composed semi-decently, and I caught the moment right at the height of the stunt. It may not seem obvious to the viewer, but this sheep jump is particularly impressive, as the athlete takes their eyes off the beam, throws their head back, and then lands on a four inch piece of wood. I got a great quote from Hannah, the athlete in the air. She said to perform every stunt as if its your last. If you get injured, and cannot perform anything else, was it worth it? It struck me as being very close to the thought many of us photographers have… if I were ever to be in a plane crash, it would be worth it if someone found my disk in the wreckage, and published my photos. Any way, it’s a level of dedication that drew me into this sport. In the end, I love how this image is the type of “artsy photojournalism” I was trying to exhibit. It was certainly both a portfolio piece, and something for the essay.

Shutter: 1/800, Aperture: ƒ/1.4, ISO:1250, Lens: 50mm

I knew to keep an eye out for detail shots while I was there. Though detail shots are not necessarily going to be strong portfolio pieces, or move the narrative along in drastic leaps, they’re important for bringing in the viewer and allowing them to connect to the environment. Of all the detail shots I got at this meet, I liked how this one really illustrated how wide the balance beam is. I also liked the artsy print from all the chalk and the previous athletes, in conjunction with the curves of the athlete’s legs. I shot this at f/1.4, which helped pick the foreground out from the busy background.

Shutter: 1/320, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1600, Lens: 70-200mm

To wrap up the narrative of Carly’s final home meet before heading off to compete for WVU’s gymnastics team, I got this photo of the team members running out to congratulate her as she wrapped her floor routine. There are several images that came out, but I love how you can see how they’re about to knock Carly right over. I like how the image is telling you that this final routine was important, my caption isn’t necessary to tell the story. I would prefer that none of my photos would require a caption to be relevant, but for this photo-essay there were a lot of quotes and technical details about what poses they were completing. In the end, the captions absolutely secure the essay as a narrative. Otherwise it would have just been a gallery of random cool pics. The coaches and athletes were very helpful providing me names and quotes.

Shutter: 1/400, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1600, Lens: 24-70mm

I got very lucky. One can try to look at stats from earlier meets to try and predict winners, but in the two or three meets I’ve tried to predict, there’s no telling who’ll come out on top or not place at all. Taylor ended up winning gold for both beam and bars, as well as first place all around in her division. So not only do I have a picture of her on the top of the medal stand, but this shot also grabs that moment where she’s shooting her mom a quick look of disbelief as she waits for yet another medal. In photographing sports, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how perfectly composed or timed your photo is, if it’s not featuring the winner, nobody cares. So you have to shoot as much as possible, and then find out which photos will make it to the ending gallery. I got very lucky. Now the hugging picture is suddenly more relevant.

Shutter: 1/4, Aperture: ƒ/5.6, ISO: 1250, Lens: 15mm Fisheye

The original narrative was going to be more about this being the only meet in DC, so the morning after, I met up with the team to get some photos by some Washington landmarks. The Capitol would be the obvious choice, but it’s under a lot of scaffolding. I also had about 14 girls to corral on the Metro system, so I wanted to keep the excursion short and easily navigated. I had this shot in my mind, but there were some obstacles to setting it up. First off we needed to have a center platform where the tracks were on either side. Safety had to be the number one concern. With a center platform, the girls could be 12 feet away from the oncoming train, and I could get further back and capture what they were doing. The biggest issue to me was that the train schedule was heavily impacted due to construction, and I didn’t want to make them wait 16 minutes before each train. In a perfect world we would have traveled to a different station so that we had the full vaulted ceiling, and no overhang. Maybe one day. I needed to do a long exposure to get the train blurry as it arrived, but also wanted the handstand girls as crisp as possible. You can’t use a tripod in the Metro system, but I had a Gorillapod on the ground and a remote shutter release. It took just a few tries to get all 4 girls still long enough, but we got it. I really wanted this image to be this iconic “Gymnastics has come to DC” image, but the overhang and exposed ceiling really detract from the impact. Don’t worry, I had baby wipes and Purell for the girls’ hands when we were done. I cringe if I look at the floor too long.

Shutter: 1/160, Aperture: ƒ/10.0, ISO: 100, Lens: 15mm Fisheye

Instead this became that iconic shot. I noticed Taylor doing a needle scale earlier, just goofing around. So I asked her to do it again in front of the monument. I said “can you do that lollipop thing again” That got me made fun of. Anyway, this one shot quickly took the place of that iconic DC shot and became one of my favorites. As a note, this photo has a few tourists photoshopped out. Within the context of being a journalistic piece, you can’t do that, so the one on NBC does have a few tourists. I printed a large poster of this image to give to the gym, so I removed the tourists.

I put together a photo essay that concluded with this image and I interviewed the coaches and got some quotes from the girls for the captions and thought I was done. A couple of weeks went by and they were headed to the State Championship, so NBC sent me to cover the teams there. But before I went to States, I visited their gym one more time to get in a bit more practice.


I had brought my seven year old son with me to the Washington Monument trip and he loved all the stunts and flips and splits that the girls were doing, so he asked us to sign up for gymnastics. I then brought him with me to the gym for my pre-states practice (As a non-athlete, I have been abusing this term). I found out why he likes gymnastics so much. Little devil. He asked me to get this young lady’s phone number. He’s going to have to settle for talking to the girls at his own gym.

Shutter:1/320, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 2000, Lens: 70-200mm

One of the tips they tell you for shooting gymnastics is that there are only two apparatus you shoot, the balance beam and floor routine. The uneven bars and vault are much more difficult to get anything good. You’ll be limited in vantage point and it’s much more difficult to get a great looking photo. I got some decent stuff, but when it came to my photo essay, I was more concerned about showing the variety of activities. Your typical reader wouldn’t say “Vault doesn’t make for very good pictures, I understand why there aren’t any in there.” I found a vantage point that worked for me where they’re running right toward the camera. I will warn against this spot though. Some of the girls weren’t comfortable when I was right at the end of the vault, in their sight-line for landing. So talk to the athletes first before positioning yourself there.

tee hee
Shutter: 1/320, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 2000, Lens: 70-200

I had a lot of lovely floor routine pictures to choose from, but for my essay I really wanted to include this one. Morganne was curled up in a ball for what felt like an eternity as the technician struggled to play her musical selection. It finally started and then paused again almost immediately, causing her to giggle a bit. I really liked that moment that showed the human side behind all the training and stoic posing. As this essay was to focus more on the people and team, rather than the exhibition of the sport, I chose this image.

Shutter: 1/400, Aperture: ƒ/2.8, ISO: 1600, Lens: 24-70mm

This is the photo I started shooting gymnastics for. I was still working on rounding out my portfolio, but when I shot the State Championship, my primary goal was to get just one super kick-ass gymnastics photo I could put in the portfolio to try and get to the Olympics. I got some great emotional shots from the home meet for the essay, but now I was focusing on my portfolio. I got lucky that this photo shows a perfect, dynamic pose, and also has a really clean background. For my portfolio I was able to remove all the signage in the background, making Taylor pop a little bit more. I asked her ahead of time what she was planning to do in her routine, and asked which way she would be facing for the most part. It really helps to watch their warm-ups, they’ll do most of what they’re going to do for the judges and you can be prepared. Taylor also won the gold for beam with this routine. So had this been at the Olympics, this photo would definitely be selected.

Shutter: 1/160, Aperture: ƒ/3.2, ISO: 2000, Lens: 70-200mm

Another photo where the moment and composition lined up in my favor. I like the halo around Reese’s head, and it’s clear that she’s getting ready to perform. You can see how precarious the balance beam really is, and I love Reese’s mental focus. Reese won gold for beam for her division, as well as Level 10 all around for the state of Maryland.

Shutter: 1/640, Aperture: ƒ/1.8, ISO: 2000, Lens: 18-35mm

I had felt that the essay needed to be published prior to States, because if they didn’t win much, then there wouldn’t be any news relevance. Due to NCAA Final Four and other news, my essay on local gymnastics just wasn’t the top of the news cycle. Then it happened, I got lucky again. The Level 9 team ended up winning the State Championship. Several of the girls I had focused on at the earlier meet had won individual medals. My little gallery was suddenly newsworthy again. The finished essay was published a week and a half later on NBC Washington‘s web site, and a photo was printed along side the story in the Frederick News-Post. In hindsight, if I were to only get one gallery published, I’m glad it included the journey from practice, to a home-meet, to the State Championship. It was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Shooting sports is much tougher than live music, and putting together a cohesive essay with a story arc and specific characters is much harder than just getting 25 kick-ass rock n roll shots at a concert.

I’d do it again. I just shot some track and field, and I’m looking to get some other sports in before pitching my case to try and get into the Olympics. I was really inspired by how hard these girls worked, how determined they were, and especially the (physical) risks they took.

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