Tom Theobald - Photographer
My name is Tom Theobald. I was born and live most of the year in San Diego, California. I travel and photograph Olympic sports worldwide several times a year.
Since 1980, mostly I photograph world class artistic sports and primarily--> rhythmic gymnastics. Sometimes artistic gymnastics, figure skating and have covered
grand slam professional tennis. Early influences were Russ Gilbert of San Diego (tutored me in press photography), Neil Leifer, Alan Burrows, and Eileen Langsley.
Russ taught me the basics in 1980. The first day with Russ he said to me, "Show the face...people want to see the face". "Tell a story with your pictures". Today
I work from time to time for two news agencies and the images appear worldwide. Several times a year I try to send rhythmic images to International Gymnast magazine
and sometimes via Zuma Press my work has appeared in Sports Illustrated publications. In the last year, I have been contributing rhythmic team images to USA Gymnastics Federation.
Since 1999, I use digital cameras (mostly Nikon at moment).
Two things happened to me in the late 1990's that brought me back to what I love to do most now. I happen to walk into the radio shop of UPI colleague Roger Williams.
Rog worked for UPI and helped me re-discover some early skating images of Grinkov and Gordeeva from 1986. I had been inactive for 7-8 years at that point when I showed him
the G&G skating images. This was 1996 and Rog kicked me in the pants to get going again:). After a period of retooling, there was a certain rhythmic exhibition performance
by Tamara Yerofeeva of Ukraine (see image below) at the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York. Toma's performance was a revolution for me. Ever since those moments in 1998,
rhythmic gymnastics is my favorite sport to photograph... Since 2007, I have begun to slowly work on a fusion of video with stills to show the beauty of rhythmic gymnastics.
Thanks, Tom Theobald
Updated February 2010
Tamara Yerofeeva, 1998 Goodwill Games New York
(Note: These notes on technique, assume the reader knows how to operate a camera in Manual (M) mode and adjust for white balance (WB) when needed.
Indoor Sports Photography - Basic Technique Tutorial (Part 1 - Emphasis rhythmic gymnastics)
Light is the everything to good images.
I try to position myself for the main light source behind me. Shooting into the lights is typically more difficult, yet can make nice special effects. In Dec 2006
I was invited to Magdalena YMCA in north county (San Diego) for a small rhythmic gymnastics holiday gala. Immediately I realized with the sunlight streaming through
the side panel windows...and that I needed to place myself with my back to those windows. It's usually the first thing I think about when entering a new sport hall.
Where is the light coming from and how bright is it? Next step is to spot meter a skin tone that is the average for the light source. Then adjust the ASA (ISO)
shutter speed, f/stop accordingly (with indoors sport photography, the f/stop here is a given-->go with your widest aperture).
The above paragraph is how I wrote this section previous (year 2006, very simply). Now I try to discuss a bit more detailed about mixed light sources and light flicker
or cycling frequencies of certain types of lights in small indoor arenas. You can run on AWB (Auto White Balance) and be halfway ok with image color balance... But some
arenas will have varying color temperatures in degrees Kelvin and cycle phasing lights. In camera, you can go to "preset" or set up a "custom white balance" constant as one solution.
(Edit June, 2010) But now I think the best technique to balance color cast on skin tones in tough mixed light arenas...is to set the Kelvin temperature in the camera. Most newer
pro cameras let you to set specific Kelvin numbers in the WB menu. Start at say 3000K and shoot a test frame every +100K degrees and check your LCD monitor for the image results.
Eventually you are going to settle on a Kelvin temperature setting in the camera WB menu that is balanced for the mix of lights at any particular arena. So come early and test a lot!
In the end there is always Adobe Photoshop to rescue and re-tone images. The surest way to get the color correct is to learn how to shoot in CAMERA RAW mode and use a processing
program the allows you to calibrate for white in the RAW file. If you are shooting JPEG, with ambient light try to get it close as you can with in the camera first.
If the colors look ok on your LCD display, you're fine. If not, the newest cameras permit you to go into a specific color balance menu and bump up blue, magenta, cyan etc
to get the subjects skin tone to balance and look correct. Again, try to do this trial and error in camera color balancing on training days before the main event. You may have
to be ready also for extra light banks, turned on just for 'game day' and adjust by the seat of your pants for those days for what you see on your LCD during your test shots.
Line of Fire
I use this term to describe the shooting line a photographer chooses. It's a concept and works in tandem with the next two topics (framing, background). Do you
want to work floor level and have a more up close personal view or do you want to go up high in the spectator seats with a longer lens and shoot down. If you can find
Eileen Langsley's books on gymnastics (in one book there is an image of Irina Tchachina from a high angle line with ball, just a lovely image)...watch the shooting
lines Eileen selects to work from. There is a certain 3-dimensional dynamic that is created with elevation options (high or low position). Sometimes moving just a
few meters in one direction or another can create a more pleasing line to your work. Another way to describe this is a line perspective between-->your position,
your subject, and the background. I find it's a kind of like a dance for me. A certain line forms in your work that has dimension. When the image is flat and has no dynamic
perspective or depth...sometimes moving just a short distance and the dynamic becomes more 3-dimensional, jumps (pops!) out at you and says yes. You are the
composer of this dynamic. Selective focus can add a personal theme to the dimension you are composing.
I have been playing around in the last year with low to high line of fire (2006). (L-R) Elizabeth Paisieva of Bulgaria at Portimao 2006 banquet...and with 15mm fish-eye, Kamila
Tukhtaeva of Uzbekistan, walking to carpet at World Cup Kiev in March, 2007.
Easiest way to describe this is with a 70-200mm or any zoom lens. Crank the zoom barrel in and out on a central subject and that is framing. What do you want to
frame? I write a lot about this in a post at the bottom of the following thread at rsg.net forum...
At first you may want to go wide and tell the whole story by including the scene around the center of interest. Dave Black calls this "setting the scene". Check out-->www.daveblackphotography.com
Or go tight and find some little detail you like. Can be anything close-up...a gymnast or her coach just applying her eyeliner or say just the ribbon whipping
in the air in a cool pattern. One quick rule I learned from Gerhard Barkmann (via Barny) and I try to keep... If am not going for a full body view and the feet are
going to be cutoff, frame from the knee up. Looks better! Ummm, but sometimes I break that rule (image of Inna Zhukova finish to ball at Mie in November 2006)
I try to make the image as simple as possible. Small arenas often mean cluttered backgrounds. The reason all the RG photogs love Omnisport de Thiais in Paris and
the event Thiais Grand Prix is because...the hot foreground light on the carpet and the dark background. It is not the biggest arena but it creates a very simple
and bold image. The light is intense there and makes for lots of contrast. Here is one example (Stela Sultanova of Bulgaria, Thiais GP 2006)...
If there is a lot of clutter in the image composition, sometimes the only option to clean up a background is to go up in the spectator seats and use the carpet
as a clean background. The carpet becomes your canvas and the gymnast the central subject. Working your widest aperture f/stop and throwing the background out of
focus can also clean up the background clutter. Beauty is often a very simple composition. One of my internal commands is to try ISOLATE for just that quality.
Here is an example of the carpet as a background (Nathalie Fauquette of France, Thiais GP 2004)...
Studio work always makes for clean backgrounds. Marvin Moore and James Glader have so nice examples...
This is the quick word I use to remember about peak moments. Comes from the "magic moment" of photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, many years ago. With sports and
rhythmic gymnastics, the peak moment is pretty predictable. With a slow motordrive (one of my previous cameras was just 3-frames per second)...sometimes you have just one
chance for the peak moment in sports. I learned about peak moments early by watching Neil Leifer...
Sometimes the peak moment is the jubilation moment after the action and during the victory celebration. Medal ceremonies have many of these peak moments of emotion
and you just have to be alert and ever ready for them. Neil has a saying that I remember. He says, "Prepare for luck!". It's about preparing before finding the "magic moment".
Putting yourself in the best position possible beforehand. Having the right lens and correct camera settings. Plus add all the above factors (light, line of fire,
framing, background)...and then go for the moment of blossom.
After a while you will begin to feel and harmonize with the performer's moments... Some performers plainly will telegraph their peak moments. Also often you don't exactly
know what is coming next in a routine. During week long championships and after many, many hours it becomes easier because a certain attunement develops and an inherent
harmony carries with you for the sport. Try to get good sleep, stay loose and fresh. A lot of this is about being calm in your marksmanship and remaining quiet inside.
Sometimes I will hear certain performance music (songs) and it will make my feel happy inside. Having fun or feeling happy inside will help your moments and endurance...
Rule of Thirds
Go to Google search and input the photo term "Rule of Thirds". Bit hard to do with camera in hand, but easier to crop for this technique in Adobe Photoshop.
Hope this helps,
Answers About Photographing Gymnastics (Part 2 More Detailed Tutorial Notes)
(Note: The following are answers I composed to questions for an article about photographing gymnastics by Bradley Wilson.
Bradley Wilson is media adviser at North Carolina State, former exec. director, National Press Photographers Assn.
Bradley explained to me he was working on this article for the Journalism Education Association magazine. Apologize, a few
ideas from Part 1 are referred to again in the answers to Bradley's questions.)
1. Covering a gymnastics even, like track and field, is actually covering a plethora
of smaller events. Which is your favorite and why? What challenges does it present?
First for me is rhythmic gymnastics...
I have to say ribbon. It is a very delicate event and full of impression
and artistry. Ask the gymnasts and they say it is one of the hardest. Tangles,
knots, getting wrapped in your ribbon, dropping your baton (or stick)...lot of
things can go wrong. My style has evolved with the event in that I pursue
it with bigger lenses now (300mm and 400mm). With big glass means you are
going to cutoff more. But also with big glass comes the detail of beauty and expression
up close and personal.
Second would be artistic gymnastics...
Toss up then is between women's floor exercise (FX) and balance beam (BB). I
am personally more nervous for the gymnast on BB, yet the event produces
stunning action and silhouette imagery. I like a 3/4 line of fire view or
parallel the beam on my photo position. I still use 70-200mm zoom a lot on BB.
FX is more challenging now because I find there is less interesting
choreography and expression now then in the 1980's when AG was dominant
with me. The hardest challenge is to get a nice image once the tumbling
pass has begun. It can happen, if working at 800th/sec shutter speed and you have good
marksmanship to find the intense moments without cutting off arms, legs etc
in the image framing. In the big arenas I use 300mm & 400mm only now on FX.
2. Considering gymnastics as a whole, what is the biggest challenge a photojournalist
assigned to cover gymnastics will face?
I have to say access to decent photo positions in many arenas at the
biggest events (world championships and Olympic Games). TV is top dog and
holds priority on all camera positions in the arenas. Often still photo press
positions become an after-thought to most organizers. Sometimes the LOC
will allow the option to take any open seat in the spectator stands...as
long as you do not block fans view and you are courteous (try to remember the
spectators paid for their seats and the organizing committee is giving you the credential
for access). Often there are dedicated working positions that are very
good and then access will become limited to just the biggest agencies (AP,
Reuters, AFP, Getty Images). If you work for smaller entities...you have to think
on your feet quick, to find a position with a pleasing line and that often means
going to bigger lenses. Getting blocked by judges, tv cameramen, boom
cameras...you just have to live with those factors and work around them. It
becomes a giant puzzle or chessboard to find the dynamic position. A position that says
yes to you and what you see in your viewfinder. Then comes the personal
dance to find the gymnast's moments of expression. Only rarely are
sympathetic photographers with real influence appointed as chief
photographers at bigger championship events. In gymnastics the absolute best photo
chiefs in charge of positions and access bibs etc...have been Eileen
Langsley and Dave Black. They really care for still photographers and their working
3. What do you look for in a good gymnastics photo? What is a bad gymnastics photo?
#1 rule my press photog tutor taught me on the first day..."People want to
see a face...show the expression". He followed quickly with "tell a story
with the picture". Is easy actually, crank in close with a big lens and go
for the expression. Sometimes gymnasts' with backs turned tell a dynamic
story of artistic impression...but it is rare and you have to realize it at
the time and purposely go for that stunning silhouette.
An editor said once to me, "All tight action is good" and that almost
always means showing the face...
(June, 2007 addition) There is another notable quote that's been working on me recently
and goes something like-->"Take the viewer to a place they have never been."
I find the 70-200mm zoom when worked too loose on the zoom barrel or too
far away...will make too small an image. Ok, all the gymnasts' legs and
arms are all there and not cut off. But what you really want is central
subject IMAGE SIZE. Go for it and risk with bigger glass or cranking in the zoom.
More importantly move around the possible photo places and pick line of fire
positions that produce dynamic boldness and depth with that bigger IMAGE
SIZE. A 3/4 line position from slightly up in the spectator seats with big glass
will often produce this dynamic. Often I prefer this line a little more then the flat head view taken at
carpet level and too far away. With rhythmic and FX in artistic gymnastics, I try use the carpet as
a clean background canvas by going just a little up in elevation. On balance beam a
slight low to high line of fire can add that dynamic range to the image as
the background falls off deeply. Think on your feet and ask yourself especially this:
Can I move to a position that eliminates the background clutter and flatness of
the image? I like to see it as like a dance between you, your subject and the
background to create bold dynamics, image size and dimension. Sometimes it's just a
matter of moving a few feet from where you are...
4. If you could give a photographer one piece of advice for covering
gymnastics, what would it be?
Even if you don't know the gymnast's routine (RG, AG)...try to make every
frame count in finding the peak moment (your peak moment).
I learned this principle early from colleagues. It actually doesn't make
much sense when you have an 8-frames per second camera body in hand. But
wait, I can explain. Ok, you have to shoot a lot of pictures, yes. But
make them count! Make each and every frame count. This is about composing
and making great images and there are many in gymnastics... You can blast
away at high frames per second, just try to think about each frame as you
are doing it. If I do hold the shutter button for a burst...for me, almost
always the first frame is the peak moment of my anticipation that I intended.
One thing, if you can just watch the trainings (with no camera at all in
your hand)...form your ideas beforehand. Then let the wheels spin a little in
your head to PREPARE a plan for later. That technique can subtly help you.
Here is the best example I can think of. When I was very early beginning
with world class gymnastics...at 1981 World Championships Moscow, my roommate
was Alan Burrows from Great Britain. I was in awe of Alan and for years knew his
pictures. I just wanted to ask him about one great image he made of Olga
Korbut doing a split leap coming head-on toward his camera. I asked Alan
how did he make that one image (was a giant poster in International Gymnast magazine).
Alan explained to me the Russian team was warming up at Wembley arena in the mid
1970's and each gymnast was doing a series of split leaps (corner to corner)
across the carpet in a cadence sequence. He realized the moment was especially
valuable and so he said he pre-focussed (manual focus era) on a central
point in the middle of the carpet and waited for Olga to leap through that
point. First he OBSERVED...then he made a plan.
Ok, often is not always possible to know beforehand what the gymnast is
going to do in a routine. You can try to watch video. But many, many times
you have to fly by the seat of your pants and make a little plan in the moment
and FEEL the routine's peaks. Still is going to be your "magic moment" (phrase
from Henri Cartier Bresson). Think for yourself and remember that moment is always
personal, only to you. If you have to work with a lot of other photographers
in say one photo position. Then I try to remember the quote from David Burnett
of Contact Press Images...
"The satisfaction comes from working next to 500 photographers and coming away
with something different." -David Burnett
5. Tell me a story about a gymnastics event you covered and what lessons
This is a story of how my first published gymnastics image happened
(Svetlana Grosdova at 1981 World Championships Moscow). With digital this may rarely
happen today, but the story behind the image goes with the last answer re making each frame
count. Ok, it was the very last minutes of shooting at Moscow in November, 1981. After
a week of solid shooting and shooting and shooting, 100+ rolls of film. I was down to my last
roll of film. After the awards, the Soviets had gala exhibitions and out walked
Svetlana Grosdova to do a balance beam exhibition. Barely I had knowledge of her,
but it wasn't hard to realize immediately, this was something very special happening.
Yet when I looked there were only 10-12 shots left on my camera's counter and no more
after that. Nicest moment happened last 2 frames and then I ran out of film. Afterward
those final frames became my first published picture. Had to make every frame count.
Here is the Grosdova image (click for larger version)...
Finish of Part 2 Tutorial. Hope you enjoyed, Tom.