RickJ Photography | How I approach shooting competitive cheer

How I approach shooting competitive cheer

November 23, 2015  •  2 Comments

(or 10+ tips for shooting indoor sports)

By: Rick Johnson

Finishing a tumbling pass in styleFinishing a tumbling pass in styleMy daughter finishes a round-off back-handspring tumbling pass with finesse at a recent cheerleading competition.
I've been taking cheer photos at various cheer competitions for a few years now. Over that period of time, I've been asked time and again one of the following questions:
  • "I love your shots! How can I take pictures like you?"
  • "What kind of camera do you use to get those shots?"
  • "What settings should I use to get shots like yours? Mine turn out dark or blurry!"
First off, thanks for asking! Before you go further, it helps to understand the basics. Digital Photography School has some great tutorials on getting out of Auto mode, understanding the exposure triangle, and more. Learn the relationship between ISO sensitivity, Shutter Speed, and Aperture. Also, take the time to learn what the different modes will do on your camera, as well as when to use them. Once you have a good understanding of why fast shutter speeds are good, but why you also can't turn it all the way "up to 11", you'll be ready to learn more.
Next, you'll need to understand what the right tools for the job are, and how to use them! In no particular order, you'll need the following to succeed at any sort of indoor action photography without flash:
  1. Shooting Indoor sports requires a "decent" camera. It doesn't have to be top of the line Nikon D5 or Canon 1D that many sports shooters will use (to the tune of $5,000-$6,000 or more for the body alone - that's without lenses!), but that entry-level point-and-shoot or D-SLR kit from Costco may not do everything (well) either. A mega-zoom with fast (f/2-f/2.8) glass is okay, but a D-SLR or mirrorless with appropriate lenses will do better. A pocket point-and-shoot, or even your camera phone just doesn't have the sensor or optics that can gather enough light without a flash, and in most venues, flash is prohibited (or highly distracting to the athlete)!

    I shoot on a full-frame Nikon D750. I chose this model as it's small and lightweight, has a 24.2MP resolution, a reasonably fast 6.5FPS continuous shooting speed, and great low-light performance. The newly-released Nikon D500, Nikon D7200, and Canon 7D would all be good crop-sensor choices on a tighter budget, but will still run well over $1000 USD. I'd avoid the more expensive Nikon D810 and Canon 5Ds, as their higher resolution comes at a trade-off of slower continuous shooting rates, given the 36-50MP or higher files they create!

    Features to consider include a higher-performing auto-focus system that performs well in low light, high continuous shooting rate, large image buffer, and a high native-ISO rating (forget expanded ISO ratings - they're just marketing tools that don't deliver usable results in most situations). 
  2. GOOD fast lenses. Again, doesn't have to be top-end (though you do generally get what you pay for), but something with a lower maximum aperture (like f/2.8 or lower) will do FAR better than the telephoto zoom with a f/5.6 aperture that came with the camera. That f/2.8 lens is getting 4x the light (2 stops) into the camera than the f/5.6 lens! In a relatively dark gym or venue where you can't use flash, you HAVE to have fast lenses to get more light in with higher shutter speeds!

    I use 3rd-party Tamron zoom lenses (a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8) and Sigma prime lenses (85mm f/1.4 Art series), and they perform very well! In some ways, they're better than their Canon or Nikon counterparts for sharpness, though that does come at the very slight expense of focusing speed (not a factor in most situations).
    Those lenses will usually start at $1250 or so new, though you can find decent copies on the used market for less. An interesting note - while VC can help in some situations, it can actually be a hindrance when using higher shutter speeds. More on that later.

    You'll also want an appropriate focal length. A 24-70mm zoom lens from up at the stage will give you the range for the whole team and some individual stunt groups. A 70-200mm lens is good for shooting from the stands or getting individual athlete action shots while up close. You won't have time to switch between the two (unless you have 2 cameras - 1 wearing each lens), so know what you intend to shoot and prepare ahead of time.

    Some choices to favor:
    • 24-70mm f/2.8 Zoom WITH image stabilization technology (Nikon, Canon, Tamron, Sigma, etc.)
    • 70-200mm f/2.8 Zoom WITH image stabilization technology (again, Nikon, Cannon, Tamron, Sigma, etc.)
    • 24-120 f/4 Zoom WITH image stabilization (Nikon makes one like this) - a bit "slower" (higher "f-number"), but still better than most kit lenses
    Some choices to avoid in this arena:
    • 18-300mm of 24-300mm mega-zooms. They have a maximum aperture of f/5.6-f/6.3, and are meant for outdoor shooting
    • 150-600mm f/5.6-f/6.3 long zooms. These are meant for outdoor shots, and just can't gather enough light indoors
    • Kit 18-55mm, 24-85mm, 55-200mm, or 55-300mm kit zooms. These are variable aperture, and usually are at f/4.5-5.6 at the ranges you'd use
  3. Get that camera out of AUTO or scene modes. Shooting in full manual mode allows the most control, but for sports, shutter priority is fine too (camera decides aperture and often ISO), as a fast shutter speed is mandatory to freeze action. For some photographers who are still learning, it's okay to let the camera make some decisions, but the smartest "Full Auto" modes can't always predict what you're after (and they love to turn on flash in most situations, which may be inappropriate). Many "sports" scene modes will set the camera in a fast-shutter, no flash mode with continuous burst enable. 

    I personally shoot manual to dial in my shutter and aperture settings (usually f/2.8-f/4 at 1/500-1/800 second or faster, depending on lighting and the lens). For test shots, I will turn on Auto-ISO and rely on center-weighted or spot metering to affect Auto-ISO decision, ensuring I don't have blown highlights or grossly underexposed images. I then use that ISO value from a good test shot to set a fixed ISO value to ensure shot-to-shot consistency. As long as stage lighting doesn't change drastically, this offers the best results and simplifies post-processing greatly. While I used to rely solely upon Auto-ISO, it significantly impacted my post-processing workflow as I couldn't guarantee shot-to-shot consistency between images, and found myself making different adjustments for every image.

    That said, i
    f lighting is going to vary greatly throughout the event (moving spotlights, changing backlight colors, etc.), using Auto-ISO for the entire event may be a better choice rather than worrying about changing sensitivity all of the time, so long as a sane maximum is provided. Yes - sometimes Auto-ISO is handy! Just know your camera's limits (ISO 3200 on my D5100, 12,800 on my D750, for example) to avoid too much noise, and be prepared to provide individual attention to each image as a result. Also, know your camera's metering modes to obtain the best exposure at the time. 
  4. Use a continuous auto-focus mode. For Nikon users, that's AF-C. On my D750, I'll use AF-C combined with the D9, D21, or 3-D point modes, or rely on Group AF for really dark venues. Know how to move that focus point around on the fly. Read your manual to understand how each works, and know that each camera system may have something different. The wrong mode (i.e. single point set to the wrong side of the frame) will leave you consistently focused in the wrong area, and full auto AF will leave the camera deciding where to focus, and it may not be what you intended.

    It also helps to disable shutter-release locking in AF-C mode, though this may cause you to get blurry shots if the camera doesn't have focus lock. Again, consult your manual to understand whether your camera has this feature, and how to enable or disable it, but the idea is to allow the camera to shoot in continuous mode rather than to block the shot when it doesn't have a confirmed focus lock.
  5. Shoot RAW where you can. RAW files are larger than JPEG files, so you'll get fewer on a memory card. That said, they contain everything the sensor "saw" during the shot without any in-camera processing or harmful compression. RAW files can be processed later on (or in camera even) to recover lost highlights (bright spots) or shadows (dark spots) in the image, as well as to correct for white balance (color cast) if you or the camera didn't get it right ahead of time. You'll need special software to process RAW files (such as Adobe Lightroom or Nikon CaptureNX-D - the former which is $9.99/mo or less from Adobe, and latter of which is free for Nikon users, but not nearly as powerful). The flexibility in a RAW workflow later on is FAR better than letting the camera decide immediately, then writing a JPEG and discarding original information. That lost data can never be recovered in the JPEG image.

    Think of RAW files as digital negatives which can be developed again and again without further degradation. If you're worried about how to do this and just want images now, use the RAW+JPEG mode to start to have both file types, but understand this will further affect how quickly each image is written to the card (you'll fill that holding buffer more quickly), and reduce the total number of images that can be stored on the card.

  6. Use a continuous shooting mode. This can be a blessing and a curse. I fire off bursts (CH on more advanced Nikons or "Servo" mode on other brands) to get the peak of a stunt, dance, or tumbling pass, since the moment you first fire off the shutter may not be at the athlete's exact peak. That said, make sure you know the limits of your camera's buffer, which is the temporary memory used to store pictures before they're written to the SD card! For instance, my Nikon D750 will slow down from 6.5FPS (frames per second) to just 1FPS or less if the buffer gets full, which is about 11-14 continuous images in RAW mode, or 99 images in JPEG-only mode. Many lower-end cameras can only fit a few RAW images in the buffer before slowing down. It can take several seconds for the camera to clear the buffer to be ready again. Fortunately, many viewfinders and displays will show how many images remain before the camera must pause. 

    I struggle with filling the buffer to this day, and using a CL (lower speed continuous) mode if equipped or simply shooting less does help. Using the slightly smaller 12-bit vs 14-bit RAW format helps too (with some loss in post-processing dynamic range), or I can resort to shooting JPEG-only when I can get reliable exposure and don't need to process afterward (for instance that multi-second tumbling pass). There are also other ways to improve this performance, so read on!

    As your skills improve, you may be able to time certain sequences just right to avoid bursting, but certain sequences like stunt inversions, tumbling pass finales, etc. still favor a quick burst to capture the entire moment.
  7. Use Fast and reliable memory cards! RAW and Continuous modes do require FAST memory cards. I use memory cards specified to write at up to 90MB/sec (UHS-1 Class 3). Slow cards will require the camera to spend more time flushing its buffer to the memory card, which means fewer shots before the camera has to pause, and ultimately, missed shots. High-quality SanDisk Extreme Pro or Samsung Pro cards that meet this specification are coming down in price all the time.

    Important tip: Don't be lured in by the 95MB/sec READ speeds advertised on some cheaper cards. What really matters is write speed, and that can be as low as 40MB/sec on those same cards! 95MB/sec is great once you're getting images off the card with a USB 3.0 reader, but the write performance in the camera is what really matters during the event. Also, don't overspend! If your camera doesn't support UHS-II (really fast cards at hundreds of $$), don't waste the money on them if the fastest UHS-1 cards are all your camera can take advantage of. Check your camera's manual for full compatibility information on the type of cards. Specific brands and models change all the time, so take compatibility tables in the manual with a grain of salt, so long as the cards meet all other requirements. For example, the Nikon D750 only supports up to UHS-1 type cards.
  8. Know the sport! You have to constantly scan for and anticipate what's coming up next! Is a stunt group getting ready to throw a basket or a twist-up? Is a tumbler staged at the edge of the mat, getting ready for their pass? Aim, frame, zoom, and focus! Don't start shooting until the real action begins! If you know the tumbler runs before they jump, delay the first shot until they jump. If a cheerleader is going up with their back toward the camera, wait until they start to twist and you can see their face. 

    Also, if you're intending on sharing images with the whole team, try to avoid focusing too much on just your own athlete (trust me, it's harder than you think)! If you have the luxury of watching some full-out practices to understand timing, positions, etc., you'll have a strong advantage when shooting during the competition. It never hurts to ask, and trading free (or reduced cost) images to the gym owners or coaches can go a LONG way at getting a prime spot and information where and when you need it to be successful.
  9. Be prepared to edit and reject shots! Unless you capture perfect shots at every shutter press, KNOW that you'll have some rejects. Don't be afraid to be critical of your work, and reject those photos which are clearly mis-focused, where the athlete is turned or in an unflattering pose, or where exposure is just unrecoverably off. Minor things like under or over-exposure and color shift can be corrected in software. For the rest, learn from the mistake, and try to understand why you pushed the button when you did! Was it bad settings, bad aim, or something else? Doing is learning! That said, get your cheerleader involved in the process (if that's the situation). What you think is terrible may be perfect in their eyes as it shows them in the best pose, and, what may be photographically perfect may be in terrible form, and not flattering to the athlete.

    When editing, it's very likely you'll need to crop, adjust rotation angle, and occasionally, adjust exposure for lighting variations on stage. Don't be afraid to do this to make a good shot into a great shot!
  10. Have fun! Don't be so focused behind the camera that you forget to cheer and encourage your subjects! Unless you're doing this professionally for someone else, chances are it's your athlete out there in the crowd! They want to know you're there for them too, and not just hiding behind the lens. Cheer them on, and make eye contact without the camera up to your face from time to time.
Bonus tip: Know the rules of the venue. Some of the equipment I've mentioned may not be permitted at specific events. Some events prohibit reselling images. Others don't allow "professional cameras" while others permit cameras and not-for-profit photography, but only with lenses no longer than 70mm (those longer, heavier lenses can get in the way).
When shooting a cheer routine, there's a LOT that happens in 2m30s, and I can easily shoot 100-200+ images in that period of time. Not all of them are going to be keepers, but using the tips above help more of them to make it to the gallery vs. the reject pile by making the right decisions before and during the event!
These are just some of the many techniques I use at an event. Do you have a tip that helps you shoot cheer or another sport? Share it in the comments below!
(Edited 15-May-2016, again 26-Feb-2018)


Ross Brown(non-registered)
This was fantastic information! Your willingness to share your knowledge is a blessing to every person who finds this website. Thank you!
Leonardo I Candelario jr(non-registered)
Thank you for this information I did make a comment some where else earlier today but I think I missed spelled my email address.
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