Weightlifting Photography Basics

Especially in recent weeks, I’ve received a number of questions about the camera gear that I use to shoot weightlifting events. I also get a lot of questions about the settings that I use on my cameras. Of course, I’m very flattered by this as I’m a self-taught photographer and I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge of the sports photography professionals who’ve been doing this for years and years. That being said, I will do my best to answer those questions in this blog and hopefully help out anyone who is looking to shoot sports or weightlifting events in the future.

First of all, I should say that photography is a very complicated and in-depth subject that takes a long time to master. I am far from a master at photography. However, although many professional photographers won’t admit it, you can get pictures that look almost as good as theirs if you just know a couple of basic settings and you have good equipment. I would say that 80% of good photography is just about being in the right spot ready to shoot with the right equipment. In addition, weightlifting photography has a couple of small quirks so I will do my best to address the basics in this blog.

At it’s core, photography is about recording light. The more light you have, the easier it is record the scene in front of you. Low light situations are difficult because you often butt up against the capabilities of the camera/lens and you need to make decisions about what to sacrifice (I will explain more later). Unfortunately, most weightlifting photography is not only low light (hard to shoot), it’s also high speed (can be very difficult in low light). The upside is that the platform is pretty small and weightlifting is predictable in that you know what the lifter is going to do next.

So when a camera records light, there are three main settings that you need to be aware of: shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

  • Shutter speed is self explanatory but it’s basically how long the shutter opens to expose light to the sensor (in digital cameras, the sensor replaces the film). In weightlifting photography, it’s essential to have a minimum shutter speed of 1/250th second or faster. You will get blurry images if you try to shoot at 1/200th or slower. And ideally, you will take your images at 1/400th or 1/500th of a second. Usually any faster than 1/500th of a second is overkill because not much moves that quickly. Only go faster than 1/500th of a second at a very well-lit event.
  • The second setting is aperture. Maximum aperture is determined by the quality of your lens and it’s basically how much light your lens can let in. Aperture is usually listed like 1.4, 2.0, 2.8, etc. In general, the lower the aperture number is, the better (and also much more costly). The downside to using an aperture like 1.4 (ie, very wide opening in your lens) is that you get a shallow depth of field which makes it hard to keep things in focus. The upside to an aperture like 1.4 is that you get a LOT more light and you can either use a higher shutter speed (easier to freeze motion) or lower ISO (less grain).
  • Thirdly, ISO is the speed at which your camera’s sensor records light. When shooting weightlifting indoors, you’ll often need to use a high ISO value because you’ll need all of the light you can get in a short period of time. The downside to a high ISO is that you will get noise/grain in the image. The number that you can push your camera to on the ISO range varies greatly. Some older cameras start to look bad at ISO 800 whereas some of the state-of-the-art high-end cameras can be pushed to higher than ISO 10,000 before things start to look bad. Of course, those cameras start at $4000 and go up from there so they do not come cheap. And that’s without a lens.

Photography is largely about finding ways to balance the three main settings as all of them increase/decrease your ability to record light and each one has upsides/downsides as you change them in either direction. Finding the right balance for the subject matter and your equipment is what a good photographer does. Since your shutter has to be at least 1/250th for weightlifting (or anything fast, for that matter), you can select that setting and then decide on ISO and aperture. The first thing that I do is put my camera on shutter priority (which means I am determining the shutter and my camera is determining the aperture) and set 1/250th. Then I take a few test shots at various ISOs (I don’t use auto ISO for weightlifting) usually starting around 1600. I will go as high as 6400 if need be. Usually I pick an ISO where things are still look reasonably good (typically between 2500 and 5000) and then I just let the camera pick the aperture — which happens automatically on shutter priority. If the aperture is not maxed out (ie, if the camera is shooting at f/4 and I have an f/2.8 lens) then I will typically bump up the shutter speed to 1/320th, 1/400th or 1/500th which will almost always cause the aperture to “max out”. I don’t normally go above 1/500th shutter speed. I always review my pictures to check for clarity (zoom in on a part of their body that is moving in the shot to check for blur), brightness, focus, etc. If I notice something off, I adjust it. If I’m having trouble keeping lifters in focus, I might switch to manual mode so I can control the aperture and increase the depth of field (ie, make it easier to keep lifters in focus). If I notice my shots are blurry, then I will increase the shutter speed.

This should give you a basic idea for how to do weightlifting photography as far as the basic settings go. But settings can only take you so far. It’s invaluable to have good equipment. If you have a $500 camera bundle from Best Buy, you will not be able to get great weightlifting photo results in a dark room no matter what you do with your settings. The two big things to look for are a camera with a good sensor and a lens with a low aperture number (2.8 or lower is essential, lenses like 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 that come with many camera kits will not do a good job indoors). Of course, good sensors and big apertures (the lower the number, the bigger the aperture) are expensive. Sometimes very expensive. That’s just the reality of high quality photography. If you are on a shoe string, I would recommend getting a fast “prime” lens (ie, one that does not zoom) as you get a lot more for your money with prime lenses. At the very least, if you have a fast prime lens, you will be able to record a lot more light. You can see an example of one of these in the images below — look for the lens that has 85mm 1.8D written on it — I used that lens as my primary lens at the 2012 American Open because it was so dark and I needed as much aperture as possible.

Here is a gallery with pictures of some of my favorite equipment:

I primarily shoot with a Nikon D700 with an MB-D10 grip (which ups the frames per second from five to eight, making sequence shots better) and a 70-200 f/2.8 Nikon lens. I also sometimes use my 85mm f/1.8 lens (useful for low light). And at the Olympics, I was forced to use a teleconverter which gave me more zoom but reduce my maximum aperture. As it turns out, the Olympics were very well lit so it did not matter that I shot most of it with a maximum aperture of 4.8 (which lets in way less light than 2.8, which is what my lens would be without the teleconverter). But I needed the zoom reach because the audience was so far away from the platform so it was worth taking the hit on the aperture.

In total, the pictured equipment runs maybe $5000 to $6000 on the used market. But even this equipment isn’t all top-of-the-line — especially the body. I’m looking to pick up either a Nikon D3S (about $4000) or Nikon D4 (about $5500) to use in 2013 as those are the best camera bodies to use for weightlifting photography. I will continue to use my 70-200 f/2.8 and I will use my other lenses and teleconverters as needed. Thanks for reading and please let me know if you have any questions!