Timothy Armes' blog

Life as I experience it…


Anatomy of a shoot: the gymnast

This image of a gymnast, like that of the tennis player, is a composition. The technical issues, however, were totally different. A great subject for another anatomy….


A shoot like this requires access to a top athlete – both for the move itself1 and the physique, so my first problem was to find one that was willing to participate. After searching the Internet for a while I discovered that one of France’s leading gymnasts – Yann Cucherat – trains just an hour away from me in Lyon, so I contacted him, pointed him to my work and asked if he’d be interested. He was kind enough to say yes.

Yann’s training schedule was very busy so my time with him was going to be short. My assistant and I made sure that we were well in advance for our photo session, and this allowed us to prepare and test the equipment before Yann’s arrival.

Lighting and troubles

With my flashes I wanted to achieve two things: to simulate sun light and to freeze the gymnast’s motion. This would normally be a simple task, nevertheless in practice lighting the shot proved to be problematic. The issues involved are certainly worth examining in detail. Let’s look at the constraints one by one…

Constraint 1 – flash was the only option

I needed control over the light – not only was the ambient light was flat and boring but I needed a hard light source to simulate the sun for the final composition. A flash was therefore essential.

Constraint 2 – overpower the ambient light

Despite its size the gymnasium was actually very well lit thanks to copious amounts of overhead lighting and a number of skylights that were allowing plenty of daylight into the room.

Since there were other gymnasts in training there was no possibility to turn off the center’s overhead lighting. To avoid the motion blur introduced by the ambient light falling onto the subject my flash would have to deliver enough light to completely overpower the ambient light.

Constraint 3 – shutter speed

In order to minimise the contribution of the ambient light (constraint 2) the use of a fast shutter speed is a move in the right direction, however I couldn’t go any faster than my camera’s sync speed – a measly 1/200th of a second for the Canon 5D Mk II. Fortunately I was using a PocketWizard MiniTT1 to fire my flashes, so this allowed me to fire slightly over the sync speed – 1/250th – using their incredible HyperSync feature.

Constraint 4 – lowest possible flash power to reduce flash duration

To freeze motion I would need a fast flash duration. The Profoto AcuteB flash packs that I use provide their fastest flash duration at lower power levels (by switching out the capacitors), therefore the lower the flash power the better my chances of freezing the gymnast.

Constraint 5 – the aperture

The choice of aperture was being pushed in all directions by a number of variables.

  • To reduce the ambient light (constrain 2) I needed a small aperture.
  • To reduce the flash power (constraint 4) I needed a big aperture.
  • To produce a convincing composite image the aperture would need to be similar to that used in the background shot. For example it would be odd to have a very shallow depth of field on the gymnast and a pin sharp background.

I decided to compromise with f/5.6.

Constraint 6 – the ISO

The choice of ISO was being hustled by the same constraints as the aperture.

  • To reduce the ambient (constraint 2) I needed to reduce the ISO.
  • To reduce flash power (constraint 4) I needed to increase the ISO.

The ambient light was really very strong. Given my 1/250 sec at f/5.6 the ambient light at ISO 200 was still introducing motion blur. I decided to move to ISO 100.

The compromise

With the ISO, the aperture and the shutter speed all fixed, the only remaining variable in terms of exposure control was the flash power, and I needed to keep that at a minimum (constraint 4).

Prior to buying my portable studio flashes I spent a long time examining the options that were available to me, and I detailed the results on this blog. I stated the following:

“Another excellent starting point would be to buy 2 AcuteBs, one with the bi-tube (Twin) head. This set up offers a great deal of flexibility – the two heads are totally independant for complete control and less cable routing problems. When portability is paramount one pack is very light to carry about. When more power, quicker recycling times or shorter flash durations are needed then the two packs can be used to drive the Twin head.”

This is actually the route that I took. By using two AcuteB battery packs with one Twin head I was able to further reduce the flash duration for the amount of power that I would need.

The shot of Yann used for the composition.

Was it enough to freeze the gymnast? No!

Despite my best efforts there was still a touch of motion blur. It’s was mostly visible on the feet and legs which were having to move faster than the torso. The face was sharp though, and that was critical. All the variables had been exhausted. I had two choices – either to call it a day or to accept the motion blur as a creative effect in final image. I took the latter.

The right moment

The 5D’s frame rate is very limiting for this sort of work, so catching Yann at the right moment in time was a matter of good timing. Yann was great to work with – he managed to repeat the move enough times for me to get the shot I wanted.


With the photo of the gymnast completed I entered into the final stage of the creation of this image – the post processing.

I had a photo from New York that lent itself perfectly to the concept that I had in my head, and so I used this for the background. I had positioned the flash so as to provide exactly the same angle of light as the sunlight in this photo – this is vitally important when creating compositions.

To extract Yann from the gymnasium I used Photoshop CS5′s new Refine Edge improvements. Adobe have really done a fantastic job with the refine edge tool now.

The effect of perspective on an object is governed uniquely by the distance of the object from the lens (focal length is irrelevant), so to create a convincing composition the gymnast was placed such that he appeared to be approximately the same distance from the viewer as he was from me when I actually took the photo. In a photo like this there’s a little leeway before the eye really starts to notice something strange going on, so I made him a touch large than he would probably have been in reality. Note that this is different from the tennis player composition in which the perspective effect was so strong that the positioning was critical.

Finally there was a fair amount of tonal work involved to make the two images feel like they were a single whole.

  1. If anyone can tell me what this move is called I’d appreciate it! []

6 Responses to “Anatomy of a shoot: the gymnast”

  1. Joe Federer says:

    Great article – and image.

  2. [...] Armes reveals every detail of an amazing shot of a gymnast suspended in the [...]

  3. [...] for more photos: Olympic gymnast Yann Cucherat in training Read Tim’s explanation of the shoot. Share Bookmark this Email this Tweet this Send to Facebook Send to Google | Permalink | [...]

  4. Dom Bower says:

    nice article and brilliant image, got the link from the USP on hotmail.

    Beset wishes


  5. Alice MacNeil says:

    Do you know where I would look for a commerical/person lookigng for A gyminist
    to use on TV or big posters.

    Please reply ASAP


  6. Joseph says:

    Hey! Your blog has great and unique content and pictures , amazing pics.

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