Photographing The Crossfit Games: 14 Photographers, 5 Editors, Lots Of Hustle

An inside look at the photography of the Crossfit Games from Dave Re

You don’t have to be a Crossfit athlete to appreciate the insane spectacle and athleticism involved with the Crossfit Games. Every year, some of the fittest people in the world gather to take on a diverse collection of athletic events that are announced shortly before they begin. Photographer Dave Re heads the photography department for Crossfit and oversees a team of shooters who capture the events as they unfold over the course of a week. We caught up with Dave just before the 2016 games to find out exactly what it takes to photograph such an intense week of events and for some tips on how to get started shooting Crossfit on your own.

Can you give us a little insight into your roll in the Crossfit organization?

I’m in charge of satisfying all of the still image requirements that the corporate organization has. That counts the Crossfit Games as well as a variety of other things we do, including printed materials and social media. I have a small team that helps with photo editing and the library, as well as a graphic designer. We have a stable of about 25 freelance photographers that we use and I manage that team in addition to shooting myself.

via @kierankesner ・・・ "@MathewFras in the leader jersey during heavy DT @CrossfitGames @Crossfit"

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It’s interesting that you still get to shoot despite your managerial duties. Lots of people in similar positions seem to have all their time occupied with contracts, negotiations, and other managerial stuff.

I have to do all of that stuff, too [laughs], but it’s great to get to shoot. Our current director of media, Sevan Matossian still shoots and edits videos, too. It’s important to us.

How did you get involved with Crossfit in the first place?

I started doing Crossfit in 2007, trading photography for my gym dues. They had a need and I had a skill, so it was a pretty good barter. Crossfit held its annual affiliate gathering in in Austin, Texas, back in 2009. I was based in Austin at that point and I was asked by my box [Editor’s Note: “Box” is how Crossfitters refer to individual Crossfit gyms] to come down and shoot one of the events. While I was there, I met Crossfit’s director of media and a couple other folks. They suggested that I send over a couple photos that night if I had anything good. One of them was published on Crossfit’s main site the next day. A couple months later I got an email from the director of media asking if I wanted to be part of the team photographing the 2009 games. I took that job and it built from there as time went on.

What will your photography team look like for the 2016 Crossfit Games?

Our team this year will have a total of 14 photographers including myself. Then, we’ll have a total of five photo editors. There will also be about the same number again of photographers for various sponsors and things like that. There will probably be a total of 30 photographers on site. It’s kind of hard to keep track of everybody who’s not ours.

When do you arrive at the Games to start working on the setup?

My week actually starts on Saturday. We have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be in place, specifically a Wi-Fi network for the cameras at the StubHub Center. Sunday is more of the same. We start setting up for athlete headshots on Sunday as well. The TV broadcasts need headshot to show when they talk about athletes on-air.

When do the rest of the photographers get there?

Most of the team starts arriving Monday so they can get oriented in the venues and make sure that our workflow is working correctly and all the systems are hooked up right.

Competition starts on Tuesday for the Masters and Teenager divisions. We shoot that from 9 to 6 on each of those days, then Friday through Sunday is the big show with the individual and team athletes. That’ll run 9 to 9 Friday and Saturday, and then 9 to 6 on Sunday. It’s a busy week. It’s probably not quite the same load that the guys are going to have in Rio in a couple weeks [laughs], but it’s very busy.

Is the Wi-Fi network critical because you’re trying to get the images out fast?

In 2011 or 2012, the process was taking somewhere in the 30- to 40-minute range to get the cards run, the photos ingested, and then a picture out that we could post on Facebook and Twitter. People were scooping us. We had fans in the stands that were shooting with their iPhones. They would have a crappy-quality picture up of Rich Froning [Editor’s Note: Rich Froning is basically the Michael Jordan of Crossfit] winning the championship. He would be really small in the picture and all that, but they would have the picture up. That would get shared all around. By the time we posted a picture it was too late.

So we started working on ways to speed that interval up. In 2012 we ran a single camera—a Canon EOS-1D X with a WFT-E6A wireless transmitter—and we ran that directly back to an iPad where one social media person was posting things from that camera. It’s a pretty small test setup, but we had pictures of Rich Froning winning the Crossfit Games, again, online within five minutes of them being taken.

That was pretty revolutionary for us and, as I understand it, not many other organizations were getting it done that quickly at that point in time. I don’t know the exact timeline of what Getty Images was doing at the Olympics, but in terms of using wireless to do it, that was pretty early on. We had a Crossfit picture taken with a professional camera by a professional photographer up online in five minutes. It grew from there.

Getty is known for using a lot of hardwired internet connections to transmit their images. Is that something that would work for Crossfit?

One of the things that separates Crossfit competition from basically every other sport out there is that we don’t really know what the sport is going to be that year. We know it’s going to be Crossfit-related movements, but we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be. We don’t know if it’s going to finish on one end of the stadium of the other. We don’t know what movements they’re going to do or how many of them. That makes it hard to plan a camera position. You have to be flexible and be able to move around.

The athletes learn of the events shortly before they begin. Do you get a heads-up or do you find out when Games director, Dave Castro, announces them?

I will have a mild heads-up on certain things, but generally I’m learning the exact events as they’re announced. That means my team is learning them when they’re announced, too. It’s a real challenge. One of the venues we use at the StubHub center is a soccer field and, in order to shoot the athlete activity, you have to be able to move. That means a hard line [from the camera] is really a hard thing to do. Obviously, I think anybody in their right mind would prefer a hard line over Wi-Fi, but it’s just impractical in that venue.

How does the Wi-Fi network hold up to that kind of heavy-duty image transmission?

The effectiveness of the Wi-Fi really depends on what part of the center we’re in. In the soccer stadium, we find it works out pretty well. In the tennis stadium, things can be a little bit spotty with the radio frequency noise. There, because of the way the venue lays out, we do have fixed photographer positions on two sides, so we run hard lines to those seats. That ensures that we’re getting something. It may not end up being the best angle or the best picture, but we have something to run whether the Wi-Fi is coughing up a hairball or not.

Is building industrial-grade Wi-Fi networks something you had experience with before? It sounds pretty intense.

It gets pretty complex, but my former career involved a lot of tech stuff, so I actually have the skill set to work on it. That comes in handy quite a bit for making all those things run.

What kind of software solution will you be using to cut through all of those photos?

We leverage Photo Mechanic pretty heavily. We have two different photo paths coming in. We have the Wi-Fi stuff, which is shot in small JPEG because that most closely matches our actual social media output. Plus, it’s fast and when you have five or six people shooting at once on the Wi-Fi, that gives the best chance of the whole pipe not clogging up. The other path of input is having the cards actually run back up to the editors, and for that we’ll have the photographers shoot Raw so we’ll have that for higher-quality output.

On the Wi-Fi stuff, we run a live ingest. Those files get renamed so they will match the Raw files when they come in. They get the photographer’s name and a time stamp and stuff like that so they can be identified later.

The Raw files also come in through Photo Mechanic, and we go through those and select a pretty wide set that can be used for things like Facebook, our press page, any articles that we publish during the week, and other outputs so that everybody in the media organization is getting what they need to get their jobs done. After we get back, we go through it and tag everything up in a more complete way.

Is it important to have an intimate knowledge of the sport of Crossfit to get the best photos?

Yeah, of course. Any other sport is the same way. If you don’t know how the game works, but you’re a good photographer, you’re going to show up and probably get a couple frames. It’s the law of averages, really, but you’re going to miss stuff.

If you’re shooting baseball and you don’t know when to look for the double play or a guy stealing second base, you’re probably going to miss those things happening. You need to know the technical aspects of the movements or the technical aspects of the game

In Crossfit, if you don’t know how an Olympic lift works, you’re probably going to catch the athlete at a point where you’ll get a well-exposed, in-focus frame that looks really unflattering to the athlete. It’s just the wrong point in the movement to photograph. Knowing how the movements work and how to time them comes from experience in watching the movements. Doing the movements is even better.

What’s the most challenging thing to shoot in terms of Crossfit events?

In the Crossfit repertoire, there’s a huge number of movements we have to shoot. Most of them are pretty straightforward, but some of them are pretty technical. The Olympic lifting stuff, like the clean and the snatch, is particularly tough. If your timing isn’t there, you can motor-drive away and maybe get something, but like everything else, the best shots come from timing it and getting that frame right where it needs to be.

Saturday's #PhotooftheDay | @CandiceWagner21 after Women's Event 5 at the South Regional. @tairandall #CrossFit #CrossFitGames

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What is the typical gear kit look like for a photographer on your team?

It’s almost always going to be a pair of pro-level DSLRs—sometimes three. Typically, they will have a 24–70mm lens, a 70–200mm lens, and a longer lens to cover the Games. The soccer stadium with the 70–200mm is a very frustrating experience.

My personal kit at the games is going to be a 200–400mm f/4L Canon EF IS USM Extender 1.4X, a 70–200mm, a 24–70mm, three 1D X bodies, and a 24mm tilt-shift coming in as a rental to use for some specific things. It can be overdone, but if you find its application, you can get some great stuff with it.

What are some common mistakes people make when trying to shoot Crossfit for the first time?

The basics of sports photography apply to Crossfit photography as well. Peter Read Miller has a great book out that talks about sports photography and I’d highly recommend it to anybody who really wants to learn and understand.

One specific mistake I see pretty often is that people cut off fingers or toes, or they will cut off a foot at the ankle and stuff like that. Leave space to crop or get in tight and cut the leg above the knee or the arm above the elbow.

I also see a lot of exposure problems and issues with general camera fundamentals. Crossfit is a fast-paced thing and you can’t be messing with your camera while important things are happening.

As I said before, people also don’t understand the important parts of the movements. Watch the movements and get an understanding for them before you’re shooting them. Even ask a lifter or a coach what the crucial point in the movement might be.

What is something even experienced shooters can do in order to improve their Crossfit photography?

Change your height. A lot of people shoot standing up and the best angles for these movement are almost always lower than the center of the athlete. The other option is to try and get way up above. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you take what you can get, but if you can get your sight line off of your typical eye height, you’ll often get a much better frame.

What’s the best way to give Crossfit photography a try? Can someone just reach out to a gym and ask to come shoot?

I think generally there are a lot of folks at Crossfit boxes who would love to have some photography. If you reach out and say, “hey, I’d like to get some experience shooting this stuff, if I give you guys pictures, can I come in and shoot?” I think that arrangement would work for a lot of gyms.

What I would recommend is to go join a Crossfit gym and go do Crossfit [laughs]. There really isn’t a better way to learn the movements and you can take some pictures along the way.

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