BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: New Questions

Photography Question 
Karen Axe

Gymnastics - Getting the shot

Irecently submitted a question and got the beginning of an answer, but when I submitted my response, it went in as an answer to my own question. So please forgive me if I am clogging the system, but I am DESPERATE!

I purchased a Cannon Rebel xti with a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. I am just getting back into SLR photography after 20years away. I am trying to shoot gymnasts in action. The lighting is so bad that I need to shoot every shot at f2.8. If I take the ISO to 400, I can manage to push the shutter speed to 125 or MAYBE 160, but I am getting very grainy shots and am having great difficulty with focus. Any help would be appreciated!!! This is my son's passion and I want to get some great shots!

on 12/29/2006 12:48:17 PM

What file type/size are you saving? RAW (and to a lesser extent Large/Fine JPG) should retain better resolution with little noise to ~ISO 800.

If you don't want to shoot at higher ISO, then the only other alternative is wider aperture. There are no zooms faster than your f/2.8, but the EF 85 f/1.8 USM is pretty reasonably priced (~$320), the EF 135 f/2L USM is a bit more (~$875), and if price is no object look for the discontinued EF 200 f/1.8L USM (though beware this is one of the favorite offerings of ebay scammers).

Thank-you so much for your input! REALLY appreciate ANY ideas that might help me! I have shot well over 1,000 photos in the gym and do not seem to be making ANY progress.

Cost is a huge issue for me. I already spent more on the camera than I had planned and then an additional $800 getting that lens at a used camera shop. So I have to try to make this work!

I actually was very excited after I got the lens because, in addition to wanting to catch my son in action, there seems to be some nice business opportunities for me if I can figure this out.

I am shooting with the large jpeg file, but I will try to use RAW. Is there any other way to deal with noisy photos that is really effective?

I'm not fully certain where the problem lies. When I shoot at 400 ISO, f2.8 and a shutter speed of 200, I get the stop action, but the photo is dark. So I use Photoshop to lighten it (is that part of the problem?). The camera autofocus does not seem to focus on the gymnast - even though they are the closest thing to me. Many of my shots are out of focus - some are WAY out of focus. (I will try going to fully manual focus the next chance I get to practice) And even at ISO 400 the pictures are grainy - never crisp. At ISO 800 they seem nearly useless.

Should I be able to do better than this. Is it possible my new camera is a lemon?

I am also changing the white balance to flourecent light. The shots vary between correct color and yellow, even though I have bracketing turned off. Would it help to use the auto wb?

I seem to have chosen a VERY complicated environment to work in - especially for someone who gave up SLR photos years ago! low light, stop action, flourecent lights, zoom lens, very little depth of field.... HELP

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12/29/2006 5:36:21 PM

W.    You need more stability and more light. Use a tripod, or at the very least a monopod. And an SB800 equipped with a BetterBeamer (

You get what you pay for.

The more impressive gymnastics shots are often lit with rows of strobes synced to hi-speed cams. You can't hope to match that.

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12/29/2006 7:31:52 PM

Mark Feldstein
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/17/2005
  OR...if they won't let you use flash (and you ought to ask about that BEFORE you use it) use a film camera, put in a roll of T-Max ISO 3200 or better yet, Ilford 3200 and have a lab process it in a fine grain developer like Ilfotec, Rodinal, or even Acufine. The tripod is always a good idea.

No, I don't guess the camera is a lemon, it's just your available light isn't available enough.
Take it errrr.........never mind. ;>)

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12/29/2006 7:43:01 PM

Karen Axe   Using flash during real time gymnastics events is a big time no no. Apparently it can be quite dangerous to the gymmasts.

I do use a monopod much of the time, but I don't understand how this helps me. Aren't the shutter speeds are too high for a tripod to be of any real value?

I never used a film camera with ISO 3200. Won't that have the same kind of problem if you blow up the photos or crop them at all?

thanks again for your input

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12/29/2006 7:53:42 PM

Samuel Smith
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/21/2004
  karen asked???
noise at 800 iso was deemed very acceptable on the may have to settle for landings.

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12/29/2006 9:12:50 PM

Gregory LaGrange
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/11/2003
  Not dangerous to use the same kind of strobes as every other contact sport, but gymnastics is one of those hoity-toity sports, like tennis, where everything is a distraction.
Gymnastics is shot with available light, worlds and collegiate, but in reasonably bright arenas.
You'll need your highest iso. Tripod would be restricting, but you could use it for balance beam, pommel horse(right name?).
Your main key is timing. Like a person on a trampoline, you're best at taking the picture at the moment when they stop going up and right before they come down.
If this is a high school gym, you'll get 125th most likely as your highest. But you can try stretching that by going a little higher and lightening them.

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12/29/2006 9:22:03 PM

Raymond H. Kemp
BetterPhoto Member Since: 4/2/2004
  Without the use of flash, flat-out your only viable option is to go for a higher ISO. If your shooting only 1/125 and your lens is at full focal length of 200 then your shutter speed is too low to maintain reasonable sharpness. You'll need to set your shutter speed to at least 1/250 to help maintain camera shake. Anything to help stabilize your camera such as your monopod will be an asset.

Now to get to that speed you will need to boost your ISO to 800 or 1600. Shut off any in camera sharpining, as this will only amplify the grain. Use 3rd party noise reduction software such as Noise Ninja to work out some of the grain in post processing.

Good luck!


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12/29/2006 9:59:40 PM

Karen Axe   Some great thoughts here. I can't wait to get back to the gym on Tuesday and give them a try.

I do have the in-camera sharpening set up a bit. I'll change that and do sharpen only after the fact as needed.

So the focal length IS adding to the problem, eh? I wondered about that. Does that mean that if I can get in closer and pull the focal length back on the zoom it will help with the inadequate lighting?

I played with the Raw vs jpeg and am getting results I am happier with. This suggestion alone may be enough to get me closer to my goal.

I had noticed that the pictures were more clear at the top of a swing or a flip. I'll practice that timing this week. Thanks.

I'll post a note on Tuesday night to let you know how my next round of practice shots turn out. My son's next big competition is on Saturday, so I want to be ready. (Unlike his last one where everything is a blur and he won his firs all around champion trophy - what a heartbreak. - Hopefully with my new camera, practice and all your suggestions, that won't happen again!)

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12/29/2006 11:37:20 PM

Robyn Mackenzie
BetterPhoto Member Since: 3/21/2005
  Hi Karen,
It's disappointing, isn't it, when you can't get the shots you want? I've tried several times - at the world championships last year, and commonwealth games this year. I shoot now with a 350D. Generally I had to settle for shots of the gymnasts pausing in their routines, to get reasonably sharp images. Noise is a real problem. Maybe if you know your son's routines, you can prepare for the moments when he is relatively still. (eg. in splits or balance on the floor, iron cross on the rings, etc. etc.)

If you're interested, please see
and (these 2005 images were taken with a point and shoot - VERY noisy...)
Have fun!

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12/30/2006 2:00:58 AM

Raymond H. Kemp
BetterPhoto Member Since: 4/2/2004

You bet the focal length and shutter speed combination are a big contributor to image sharpness! Since your intent is to get good clear shots of the action as motionless as possible, adjust your shutter speed to the highest setting you can get away with before ISO noise and light goes into the tank. And yes if you go in closer and pull back your lens that will reduce camera shake assuming your keep your shutter at a higher setting than the focal length.. Remember youíre trying to freeze your sonís action and the only friend to do that with is your shutter speed.

Find your optimal shutter speed first then see what you need to do to work on noise in post processing. Oh, use that monopod! Anything to stabilize the camera will help!


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12/30/2006 6:33:20 AM

Bob Fately   Karen, you mention that when you shoot at 1/200th second the action is frozen (which makes sense) but the photo is dark. It is possible that the lighting in the gym is "confusing" your light meter as well. Let me explain:

If your son (the subject) is at a location where there are a few bright light sources behind him and to either side - like windows with daylight pouring in or, when you are shooting upwards, the ceiling lights of the gym, then these lights could well be "fooling" the meter into thinking that there is more light than there really is on your son. This is called a backlit situation; not unlike a beach picture where the bright sun and sand behind the subject causes your meter to speed up the shutter or shut down the aperture more than is necessary for the subject itself, so you might end up with a silhouette of the person with a nicely exposed beach behind them.

Since the camera is only a machine, it cannot know that what you are really interested in is the person in the foreground. So, you end up with what you want being dark, after which any post-processing compensation could lead to unwanted artifacts, like noise.

There are two ways to try to deal with this situation, if indeed that's what is happening. One is to set the light meter to "spot metering" mode - so the meter only takes a small portion of the image frame into account - and then making sure that spot is on your son rather than a bright window in the background.

The other is to go into manual mode - and experiment to see what the proper exposure values will be...happily with digital you can just take each shot and 'chimp' on the LCD screen to see if it's good, then reset the shutter accordingly (since you will want to keep the lens as wie open as possible anyway). Once you've found the right shutter speed, just leave it set there - the lighting on the athletes isn't going to change dramatically and this way any distracting light from the ceiling or windows won't affect your settings.

It is, no doubt, a difficult lighting situation. Sometimes the pros have huge banks of lights hanging high in the rafters, triggered by radio remote controls on their cameras, so that nobody sees the light flashes but there is better lighting than any mere mortals can achieve. But since you can't do that, you must try to compensate for the realities of the lighting and the equipment you've got.

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12/30/2006 6:53:29 AM

Karen Axe   I'm learning more with every comment! Thanks!!

Just a little more info about the conditions. My son is training at the compulsory level, which means he trains and competes in gymnastics schools, not arenas (except a few of times a year). These schools are generally some version of a converted warehouse with flourecent lights and high ceilings.

When he is training in his home gym, I have permission to be out on the floor shooting from any location that doesn't get in the way of the gymnasts. During competitions, I am stuck in one position in a crowded stands where only a monopod can be used (no room for a tripod).

As for the lighting settings, you are right on Bob. I am often shooting up against those lights, but I try hard to get positioned to avoid having the lights directly in in the shot. I have been shooting on shutter priority, but have yet to have the aperture settings go to anything but f2.8.

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12/30/2006 8:00:39 AM

Samuel Smith
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/21/2004
  hope your ok.

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12/30/2006 8:06:55 PM

anonymous A.   
You already have a lot of good advice, Karen. There are 3 separate issues that you have to contend with here (well, 3 MAIN ones).
The first is the grain you started out with. In fact, there is no grain with digital images, but there is "noise", interference and artifacts caused by turning up the sensitivity of the sensor (somewhat like the distortion you get when you turn up the volume too high on a radio). I am surprised that you have unusable images at 400 to 800 ISO if noise is the only problem, but I think you will find that Noise Ninja, Pure Image or a similar software solution will help. However, the attached unretouched image was shot at ISO 3200 at f6.3 using my 20D at a Carols by candlelight by available light, mixed tungsten and fluoro. No in-camera sharpening and hand held.
The focal length is important for two reasons, both related to the second issue: camera movement. Even the minor camera movement caused by pressing the shutter button will soften the image if the shuuter speed is too low. Too slow generally means below the reciprical of the shutter length, so if you are at 200mm, speeds below 1/200 will result in a relatively mushy image, because the camera shake is magnified to the same degree as the image. But remember, the calculation is based on the 35mm equivalent focal length. so if you are using a 200 mm lens, you need at least 1/320 to avoid the problem.
If you can't boost you ISO enough to acheive this without noise killing the picture, you have to find a way to steady the camera: a monopod or an image stabilised lens are the cheap and expensive alternatives.
Neither of these will stop subject movement. Again, that requires a higher shutter speed. There are tow alternatives. The first is to exploit subject motion to create a sense of movement...slow down the shutter and use the blur to artistic advantage.
The second is to learn where the "still point" is in each routine and for each apparatus. The rings have strength elements which are obvious still points, but whenever an athlete changes direction, reahes the apex of a leap, hits the low or high point of a gialt circle etc. there is a monent when they are at rest...just a moment, but it is there, and that's your opportunity!
The third issue is exposure, and the advice to use spot focussing mode (or is it "partial" on your model? I can't recall... anyway, that will certainly help.

Fourthly (yeah, I know) prefocussing manually and squeezing the shutter button a moment BEFORE the subject reaches the point of focus is good technique; so is shifting to either AI servo or AI focus mode ~ these modes were designed for moving subjects, but are really only accurate if there is enough light.

Hope this helps.

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12/31/2006 2:05:21 AM

anonymous A.   
Pic didn't upload...I'll try again. Oh this gives me a chance to add that white balance is irrelevant if you are shooting in RAW, but the software you use to convert to tiff or jpeg is important. The Canon supplied Digital Photo Professional is fine, but other options may leave you frustrated.

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12/31/2006 2:13:47 AM

anonymous A.    I'm getting "server side errors" so I'll try again a bit later.
I'm off to watch the Sydney Fireworks!
Happy New Year, all.

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12/31/2006 2:21:41 AM

anonymous A.   
Here is the picture: auto white balance coped quite well with the mixed lighting.
Happy New Year!

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12/31/2006 12:50:50 PM

anonymous A.   

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12/31/2006 1:01:12 PM

Karen Axe  
  Girl on a beam
Girl on a beam
ISO 800, f2.8, shutter speed 1/125 Cannon EF 70-200mm lens, manual focus, no in camera sharpness, contrast etc, flourecent light white balance adjustment. Grain adjusted with DPP during import. Lightened in Photoshop Elements 4.0. Focal length 200mm. Monopod used
© Karen Axe
Canon EOS Digital ...
ISO 400, f2.8, shutter speed 1/160 Cannon EF 70-200mm lens, manual focus, no in camera sharpness, contrast etc, flourecent light white balance adjustment. Grain adjusted with DPP during import. Lightened in Photoshop Elements 4.0. Focal length 70mm. Monopod used
© Karen Axe
Canon EOS Digital ...
ISO 400, f2.8, shutter speed 1/125 Cannon EF 70-200mm lens, manual focus, no in camera sharpness, contrast etc, flourecent light white balance adjustment. Grain adjusted with DPP during import. Lightened in Photoshop Elements 4.0. Focal length 70mm. Monopod used
© Karen Axe
ISO 800, f2.8, shutter speed 1/125 Cannon EF 70-200mm lens, manual focus, no in camera sharpness, contrast etc, flourecent light white balance adjustment. Grain adjusted with DPP during import. Lightened in Photoshop Elements 4.0. Focal length 70mm. Monopod used
© Karen Axe
I have really enjoyed this discussion and all that I have learned from it. As promised I am attaching some of the photos I took today at the gym. My pictures have improved quite a bit. I feel like with a better composition, and practice with manual focus, my photos will be at least usable - which they weren't before. I'm still not getting photos quite as sharp as I like, but they are much better. I'm thinking that all the chalk in the air is contributing to the problem.

Thanks everyone!

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1/2/2007 6:26:08 PM

Samuel Smith
BetterPhoto Member Since: 1/21/2004
  your 800 turned out very nice.

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1/2/2007 9:27:17 PM

anonymous A.   
Karen, you are not doing your work justice. Your photos should look like this...

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1/2/2007 10:04:02 PM

anonymous A.   
Same routine applied to one of the 800ISO shots.

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1/2/2007 10:13:08 PM

Karen Axe   Thanks for the input David. The changes really help the photo. I am working on learning Photoshop Elements and hope that I can modify pictures equally as well in that program.

You say this is the way my pictures are supposed to look - It's interesting that when my photos posted to this site, they improved dramatically - I guess this is due mostly to the size of the picture compared to a full view on my computer screen. I basically like my pictures, (especially after a bit of editing) but I am looking for a much more crisp shot - like what I get when I shoot with a flash or outside. They all look too "digital" - They are much better than before I came to this site, but I still don't have a warm fuzzy feeling that I can print out photos that parents will want to buy. They are certainly good enough to add to my son's scrapbook and remember all these hours of practice and competition. And that's a LOT to get out of one question posted to this site.


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1/3/2007 2:57:12 PM

anonymous A.    Ah well, I don't pretend to know what you want your photos to look like, Karen, which is the only test for how they should look; forgive me if I have overstepped or presumed too much. But it is obvious that those skin tones are way off, the shots lack definition and look underexposed and muddy.

Perhaps it would have have been better to say that this is how the could have looked.

The photos as posted will look better at a smaller size because any faults will be reduced in the same proportion as the image, and yet I was still able to see odd textural effects and artifacts in the online versions. What resolution are you shooting at? Large jpeg or RAW files from your Canon shouldn't show these sort of flaws. At ISO400 noise should not be an issue with a 30D. Even at 800ISO it is generally better than a Nikon at 400 (no offense to my Nikonite friends).
In fact, on the couple I played around with, there wasn't any significant noise: the problems were mainly with exposure and saturation, resulting in muddy, coarse images.
How about getting your Gallery up and posting a few unretouched images, so we can figure out what is going on...I'm starting to wonder if the fault is with the camera's metering system.

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1/3/2007 8:16:22 PM

Karen Axe   OK, I have added 9 photos to my gallery. They include several photos that I took yesterday - where I have tried to implement all of the suggestions in ths discussion. There are a few with flash included for comparison. I don't have any good outdoor shots, but I think I will add one I took that needs quite a bit of cropping. The only thing I have done is change the photos from RAW to jpeg and resized them according to the recommendations.

Yesterday I also took a few photos at ISO 200 to see if that would help. I included one of them in the gallery.

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1/4/2007 7:57:36 AM

Gregory LaGrange
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/11/2003
  You're not talking about the "sitting high" and "high five" are you?

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1/4/2007 3:09:20 PM

Karen Axe   Sitting high was shot at ISO 200.

I decided to check into the problem with the sensor theory and tried to take the camera back to the store. The person there told me that my problem isn't grain but that the camera is not picking up enough information with the low ISO value. He suggested getting shots that don't need cropping, using ISO 1600 and shooting in RAW so I can more control over the grain. I'm off to experiment with all of that tomorrow.

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1/4/2007 3:18:13 PM

Gregory LaGrange
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/11/2003
  What sensor theory?

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1/4/2007 3:27:14 PM

Karen Axe   Theory, as in an idea as to why my photos look so bad. Based on what David said, I contacted Cannon to discuss my shooting environment and the resulting photos. The Cannon rep also thought I might have a bad sensor, even though the problem was only happening in low light.

But David also noted that he wasn't seeing noise in the photo. It makes sense to me now that I was trying so hard to get rid of noise that I raised my ISO value and made my pictures so dark that there wasn't enough information to work with. What looked like noise to me was actually lack of information in the data.

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1/4/2007 3:33:53 PM

Gregory LaGrange
BetterPhoto Member Since: 11/11/2003
  I think you're just under exposing.

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1/4/2007 4:04:59 PM

Bob Fately   Karen, it still seems to me that you are underexposing, most probably due to the bright light sources in the background. The ceiling lights, for example, are probably 6 or more stops worth brighter (that is, 64+ times as bright) than your subject. The meter, if it's set to average or matrix or possibly even center weighted, doesn't know this, and so tries to make an exposure to keep as much as possible "exposed". But that, of course, means that it's underexposing your son.

Perhaps if you try to take some shots in spot meter mode, where the meter is focused only on the subject, you will get a more appropriately exposed subject (even though the lights will be blown out completely). To the degree that you can keep the ceiling lights or windows out of the frame you won't have too mush contrast between the hright and dark areas, either.

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1/4/2007 4:44:21 PM

anonymous A.    Having seen what's in your Gallery, Karen, I agree with Gregory and Bob: the problem is underexposure. But it doesn't seem to be because the meter is being misled by back lighting, as it occurs in shots where there is no strong contrast between the subject and the light from behind, and even your flash shots seem underexposed.

I HOPE that at some time you experimented with the exposure compensation setting and forgot to return it to 0! That would explain everything and need no repairs to the camera (turn on the camera and look at LCD near the shutter button; you will see a set of lines, one of which will be highlighted: [] ~ if the highlighted mark is not in the centre, touch your shutter button briefly then use the quick set wheel to move the highlight back to the centre. Setting exposure compensation can only be done in the "creative" modes _ P, Av, Tv, M A-Dep, but I THINK settings made in these modes is retained if you switch to Auto and the "Scene" modes.

If this is not the problem (who should be so lucky??) the same control can give you a work-around until you get the camera back to Canon for a replacement/repair ~ just use the same control to set 1 or 2 stops more expose (shift the marker to the right).

If you open any of these images in Windows or any decent imaging or organiser/album, you can see the details of the exposures at which they were made, including whether or not any exposure compensation was applied at the time: In Windows file manager, right-click on the file, then click Properties and select the Advanced tab or button (depending on your version).
editors usually give this data from the Image menu or by pressing [shift]+I or similar.
Anyway, now that I've seen the pictures, I'm convinced that the problem is with exposure, so let's go from there... are you shooting in P, or one of the "creative" modes, or have you been using one of the scene settings? Portrait and Landscape will override or disable settings you need for the gym shots you are taking. Av and Tv may prevent access to the full range of control available. Yes, I know that sounds like a heresy and it's counter intuitive... but unless you have a separate lightmeter you are still relying on the camera's inbuilt meter, and by only setting either the speed OR the aperture, you have no way of knowing what the "real settings might be.
The problem might also lay with the lens: try it with another, if you can. If it isn't communicating properly with the camera, perhaps it isn't stopping down accurately. Maybe also, you have the brightness set too high on your color LCD: that won't affect the exposure, but when your review the images as you take then, they may look a lot brighter than they are, tricking you into believing you have the shot when you don't.
Enough from me: I'm sure others can add to this now there are pictures to review.

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1/4/2007 10:39:29 PM

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