My first experience of gymnastics came during March 2018 at the British Gymnastics Championship at the Liverpool Arena. Gymnastics is tough work for the photographer, there is constant action for around eight hours with multiple events happening all at once. The temptation is to just get stuck in and start clicking but it pays to survey the scene and think about where the good backgrounds to your shots will be and thus where your best positions are likely to be. You should also have a good idea of the key shots you want to get.
Photographers have to stay out the outside of the main area and find gaps to shoot from - there were no chairs so its crouching down on knees and bum - I wish someone had told me to bring a pair of knee pads ! You also walk a lot over the course of several hours so it can be quite tiring.
At this event the backgrounds were going to be a problem as there was very little space available for getting clean shots with a pure black or single colour backdrop. The large screens, the clutter of the equipment, the grandstands and high level judges positions all contribute to having messy photographs, but there are still areas to search out which get you what you want. For floor exercises I chose to go up into the grandstands and look down on the action thus getting the floor itself as a uniform background. For beam exercises with a black curtain as background I had to move further back and shoot with a longer lens.
As its an indoor experience with many different coloured lights, two other problems have to be overcome - shutter speed and white balance. Shutter speed is critical and I started off too low but soon realised that to get sharp pictures it was going to take 1\2000th sec, wide open apertures and up to ISO 4000. I took both a 70-200mm f2.8 and a 300mm f2.8 and used both equally, its also a good idea to bring a monopod as well - even though you can easily handhold both these lenses its hard to do so for such an extended period of time. Even at 1/2000th sec it was not good enough to freeze the action during fast somersaults and at wide open apertures it is a struggle to get hands and feet sharp if they are off the focal plane - so its a compromise situation and I would always prefer the higher shutter speed. White balance was only a problem during the award ceremonies when the house lights dimmed and they put on the spinning lights with purple, red, green colour bouncing all over the place - it was a nightmare. For this reason I chose to shoot in RAW mode throughout so that I had maximum scope for changing the white balance later on.
I don't know much about gymnastics and apart from Max Whitlock I had no idea who the gymnasts were, so it was critical to get the starting lists from the organiser with the names and numbers of the participants detailed. As I have to caption my images before wiring them out I need to know who is in the photo and what competition were they participating in. This, of course necessitates ensuring that I took a picture of each participant from the back where they wear their numbers !
A very enjoyable event, the gymnastics fraternity are very friendly and welcoming and don't seek to marshall you too much, they trust that you will be responsible and stick to the rules that they explain to you at the start. The hospitality was excellent, the media room ladies looked after me very well and the wifi worked which is always a bonus for a working photographer.