CrossFit Competition Lift

Ten Steps on how to photograph a CrossFit Competition for beginners

By Douglas Pieterse, Co-Founder & Head Personal Trainer
"It may be simple but not always easy"

1. Choose the right equipment

In photography, there are those who like to linger in the nostalgia of old technology and doing as much manually as possible, and then there is me, the kind who wants to simplify the process as much as possible in order to enjoy the event without having to kill every brain cell trying to do the work of a processing chip. If there is a suitable automatic button then I’m all for it, especially when it comes to focusing systems and exposure. For this reason, I have switched to Sony cameras, with my current Sony A7iii I have managed to make my photography process simple and effective, without hiding behind the view finder. I’m sure there are better cameras out there but at this stage Sony is the one for me. Choose a camera that fits your budget but also your preferences and skill.


2. Set your camera before you shoot, let the camera do the work

You should always adjust all the required settings on your camera before arriving at the event. Find out what kind of features your camera has to offer and decide which one works for you. Here are some of my favorite features:

  • Face focus: your camera will prioritize any face it finds
  • Anti-flicker: this is a handy feature because some lighting may cause a flicker affect
  • Auto iso: this feature helps adjust exposure (it does not work in some cases, but it’s always on for me)
  • Lo Speed Auto Burst: this feature allows you to take 2-3 pictures per second by holding down the shutter button instead of 10 pictures (10 is great if the motion is fast, for instance if you’re trying to capture images at Olympic lifting, a higher burst rate is better)
  • Hi Speed Focusing: this feature does not mess around, it allows the camera to focus very quickly.
  • Auto Dynamic Range: this feature controls the way your camera deals with differences in lighting, I usually keep it on auto to keep things easier.


3. Exposure, aperture and shutter are not just fancy words

Exposure is the balance between aperture, shutter speed, and iso. Your picture is considered well exposed if all these are balanced. When your picture is over-exposed, it can look like you are taking a picture of a rabbit in the snow, or it may come out very dark as if you took a picture inside a cave when it is under-exposed. By using your shutter speed and aperture along with iso settings you can manipulate the image to give you the result you want. The higher the iso setting, the more “noise” or grainy your image may look. So ideally you want to use as low an iso as possible.


CrossFit competition jump

Aperture is how wide the lens will open to allow light in, we have to consider this because it will affect the depth of field. This is how much of your photo will be in focus and how much will have that lovely blurred out effect. The aperture value uses the prefix ‘f’ and often ranges from about f1.8 to f22 depending on the quality and type of lens. As a habit, I mostly shoot at f2, I like the way it isolates my subjects and love the bokeh effect (blurry part). How much you keep in focus really depends on your intention of the photo, if it’s a big group picture and the background is important in order to tell the story then you’d want to shoot at a higher f-stop. Telephoto or zoom lenses tend to be better for isolating subjects at 50mm and upwards, and they do really well when it comes to blurring out the background. Wider lenses tell more of a story and even at an aperture setting of f2.8 or f4 you can get a lot in focus. Another factor to keep in mind is how close you are to your subject and how far your subject is from the background. This may be tricky to understand initially but once you get the fundamental principle, it becomes a handy tool in your back pocket.

The closer you are to your subject the easier it is to blur out the background. The further your subject is from their background the easier it is to blur the surroundings. Put your index finger up in front of your face, notice when it’s really close to your nose everything seems blurry around it but as you move it away you are able to see more details of what’s behind it. Warning, if you do this test around other people they might give you a weird look or ask you if you are okay, what I’d do in this case is retract the index finger and raise the middle one.


Play around with your aperture settings until you find a depth of field that suits your style and now let’s talk about shutter speed. How quickly the shutter opens and closes is represented by a number, usually presented as a fraction on the top of your camera. The longer it stays open the more light can travel through the lens on onto the sensor, which affects exposure. Another effect is freezing the image, if your shutter speed is very fast, for example, 1/2000th of a second, then your image will be frozen whereas if you use a slower speed like 1/40th of a second then there is a high chance your image will show movement or blurring (that is if you are shooting a moving subject). Now it may seem like the faster your subject moves the faster the shutter speed needs to be in order to capture a crisp sharp image, but if you want to show the movement, you should actually slow down the shutter speed and capture some blur. Most of the time I like to freeze the moment, I shoot mostly at 1/1000th of a second with which may be a slight overkill, but that’s my preference. Experiment a little and see what it takes to get the images you want.


So what do my camera settings look like?

When shooting CrossFit indoors I like to keep my camera on manual mode (M), then I set my shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second with my aperture at f-2, I leave the iso on auto and allow the camera to change that for me according to what it computes as best.

When I’m outside and it’s a bright sunny day, I often set the camera to aperture priority (A) and allow the camera to dictate the shutter speed and iso in order to get the highest quality possible. Quite often the shutter speeds goes very high depending on how bright it is outside.


CrossFit Competition Woman Back
CrossFit Competition Pull Up
CrossFit Competition Lady Dumbbell
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I shoot in RAW so white balance doesn’t concern me, and the camera usually does an amazing job on Auto White Balance. If all of this sounds like German to you then it may be worth it to take a photography course.


4. Don’t be shy, get right in there

All too often I see people taking pictures from the sidelines, this is great for showing the bigger picture, but if you wish to convey intimacy with your subject, you’d have to move closer. Nothing is as intimate as being right up in someone’s face, especially when they have sweat dripping and a grimace that resembles the pains of child labor. You can still see that from the sideline but being closer helps the audiences feel like they are really there. Don’t get in the athletes’ way though, or else you may be the one with the pain face later.


CrossFit Competition Row

5. The perfect moment may only last a nano-second, take a few extra snaps to make sure you get one

Knowing what to expect can help anticipate the perfect moment, but until you get better at taking the picture at the right time, it is safer to take a few extra images. It’s all digital so you can just delete what you don’t want after. Also have your camera ready to go, don’t let the perfect moment slip away because you forgot to turn on your camera first. Have it on and ready to go as much as possible. 


6. Pin point your subject

We often find there are too many people in our pictures, this is not a problem if you want to show a large group but I like to focus on my subject. Look around them for a clean back ground and get them isolated or have your depth of field so shallow that they are the only part of the image in focus. I like doing this when it comes to photographing CrossFit, because much like those long hard workouts, you seem alone, lost in your own world of high heart rate and intense sweat. Another great tip is to take detail images, just the hands, or sweat marks left behind, it builds an intimacy with the viewer helping them feel like they are right there. 


7. Try looking from a different perspective

Create a stronger impact on your audience through your images by changing the angle you take the photo from. High angle shots make your subject seem bigger and powerful, low angle give them a sense of vulnerability etc. Avoid using the same perspective shared by the spectators, try offering them something different by looking at the event differently. If an event has 4 heats, try shooting from 4 different angles. 


CrossFit Competition Sweating

8. Shoot through the crowds and equipment for an automatic photo frame

One of the best tips is definitely to frame your images with something in the foreground. If someone is standing in front of me, I would use them at the edge of the frame or I would shoot through equipment which can also make a great photo frame. Along with framing your images it also gives it depth. What I mean by this is having something in the foreground, with my subject in the middle, and then the background. Now my image has 3 layers making it much more interesting to the audience.  


9. Keep looking around, there is always an opportunity for a good picture around you

There is always an opportunity of a great picture waiting for you, you just need to keep looking. If you’re running low on inspiration, look for photographers whose works appeal to you and try to imitate them a little in your own way. Even watching television, you can find inspirations to take pictures from a different perspective.


10. Process your photos with a style that suits you best

You can surely leave your picture in its purest boring form but adjusting your images can actually make a huge difference. That’s why Instagram has all these fancy filters available. Filter presets are a great way to go if you don’t want to spend the time. Personally, I use Lightroom which is a photo editing software. It gives me more control on editing and I find it to be great for editing large amount of pictures at the same time. For CrossFit I tend to lean towards a moody type of image with higher contrast, but what’s great is that I’m never restricted, with a quick click here and there my images can have an entirely new atmosphere. Photo editing is another article on its own but it’s definitely necessary in order to take your images to the next level.

Reading a quick blog is not going to make you an expert but hopefully it will give you a direction and get you out there practicing. Go out there and take some great photos and tag me in them so I can steal your ideas in the future.  

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