Professional sports photographer Curtis Harvey puts SIGMA’s new F2.8 trio through its paces and gives us an insight into what it takes to shoot the all-action competition cheerleading environment at Future Cheer UK.
Cheerleading probably isn’t what you think, with over 15 purpose built full-time cheer gyms, a thriving university scene, approx. 1200 teams and competitor numbers running in excess of 30,000 in the UK alone, cheerleading is now big business. Most people’s perception, including mine, when I started shooting cheer events two years ago, was that it was something to entertain the crowds at sports events during half time, that may have been where it started, but now it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Competitive AllStar cheer really started to hit new heights (pardon the pun) in the UK around 2008, with several operators organising events around the country, Future Cheer being one of them founded in 2004. Now Future Cheer organises a schedule of sixteen annual competitions all over the UK and Europe, including events in Disneyland® Paris and Barcelona as well as its flagship national competition in Bournemouth (that attracts 30,000 visitors over 3 days). Plus they have developed their own highly acclaimed educational program for both coaches and athletes, Future Cheer is one of the driving forces in the development and expansion of the UK Cheer & Dance industry. Feeding into the worldwide cheer community with sponsored bids allowing UK teams to travel across the globe for world recognised events, The Summit and IASF/USASF Worlds, held in Florida each year
Shock to the system – Shooting Cheerleading
Shooting cheer for the first time was a complete shock to the system, up until that point my photographic experience had been based around a mix of sports and dance events including martial arts, street dance and gymnastics. Cheer is a whole other animal until you shoot a cheer event you don’t realise the complexity and pace of the routines being performed or the athletic level of the competitors.
It’s a mix of all the explosive corner to corner elements from floor gymnastics, plus intricate high level and depth dance choreography, with the addition of awe-inspiring pyramids and high flying acrobatic basket toss releases. As a photographer, this poses several ‘dilemmas’ due to the sheer amount of high-speed action unfolding simultaneously, on several height levels and depths, across all four corners of the sprung floor.
The action unfolds at breakneck speed, with high octane fast-cut music to reflect the amount of content crammed into every two minutes and thirty seconds. We’re shooting at 1/500s to capture the unique poses and positions throughout a routine. The brief? Catch as many faces, shapes and acrobatics as you can, plus team shots and pyramids, while maintaining a low percentage of ‘missed’ or ‘in-between’ shots. There is very little time for instant shot review (working on 3 to 4-minute turn arounds on a 2.5-minute routine) and zero editing time, so high concentration levels are needed throughout the entire shoot (sometimes up to 15 hour days).
Cheer photography is in high demand ‘in event’, so we shoot tethered into a high spec system that allows us to manage the entire photography process all the way to sales and print, delivering the photos we take of each routine to a suite of client-side viewing laptops attached to a checkout system approx. 30 seconds after the routine has finished. The only system of its kind in the UK developed alongside cheer specialist RT Productions in the US. We review the quality of shots throughout the day with the help of our sales team to maintain standards and take into account lighting variations dependant on the venue. It’s an engrossing way to work, its rare in photography that you have instant feedback from clients (usually just relying on your own judgement), with cheer if your shots are not up to scratch you know about it almost right away, mainly due to this the fact that our shots are displayed live on large screens throughout venues seconds after they are taken.
Sounds crazy? It is, stress can hit high levels, especially if a problem arises meaning you lose precious seconds (which equal moments), but as with every sport or dance, it has a rhythm, you pick up on the cues and tell-tale signs and get a feel for the sport itself. Experience is kind of key, through knowledge of the sport I have become a better photographer. I have learned more about cheerleading over the last two years than I could have ever imagined, and that has fed into my photographic ability to catch those special moments on stage. Like with every kind of photography, be it sitting in a marsh for hours on end waiting for that perfect wildlife shot, or knowing the moment where a bride is going to be brought to cheers of joy, you learn from your surroundings and even more so from your subjects, almost breeding an extra sense for those great shots.
Catching the emotions
But it’s not all about catching that perfect toe touch basket toss, the thing that sells the most shots hands down at any competition… is expression. Cheer is a sport of faces (some better than others), from a vast range of performers undertaking different roles, you see the true work put into a routine on the faces of the athletes. Be it a wow expression to the judges from a flyer at full stretch, to the concentration on the face of a backstop or base (cheerleading terminology glossary available on request). You can see the passion from every athlete on the stage no matter what their role is, and it’s just as important that someone’s daughter at the back of a pyramid, hidden from view acting as a safety spot is captured. Cheerleading is more of a team sport than I have ever seen on stage. Every role is critical; every athlete has a part to play if they are going to succeed. Capturing that diverse range of roles is unique to cheer, and no walk in the park. Through the natural flow of a cheer routine, every athlete gets their moment of glory and limelight and it’s about having the lens in the right place at the right time, waiting.
A cheer shoot kitbag is varied, the days shoot is a mix of the high-speed telephoto stage photography as described above, but also capturing those intimate moments that paint a picture of the competition itself. As well as pictures for sale we will also be shooting more arty marketing imagery for Future Cheer to use across their social media and marketing. So the need for a varied selection of lenses and gadgets is always high. In the few moments of rest-bite during a competition you are surrounded with hundreds of beautiful moments, emotions are on a high, from proud coaches embraces to enthralled audiences. The kinship between team members is clear to see all around you, cheerleading is based on friendships over all else. The best moments are sometimes backstage, those glimmers into the world of a team, their pre-performance routines, the little things that set them apart from each other. The camaraderie that outweighs the rivalry, the special moments that are burnt into parents memories. Capturing these is almost pure photography, sounds corny I know, but it’s about documenting a memory for someone. If done right it tells a story in a millisecond that would take an hour to explain. It’s a privilege to be behind the camera during those brief encounters.
The Holy Trinity of f2.8’s
I had the pleasure of road testing SIGMA’s new F2.8 Art and Sports lenses across all these environments, with quite frankly excellent results. Feel is a big thing for me, and both the SIGMA 14-24mm F2.8 DG HSM | Art and the SIGMA 24-70mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | Art does not disappoint. Weighty but not too heavy, with a very high-end finish and feel, a real step up in quality and incredibly tactile. Availability of light and type of light is sometimes a test in some venues, we tend to be searching for light in some of the vast arenas we shoot in and have varying light sources and types to add to the equation, the Art lenses were extremely bright, faster than their canon counterparts which we were shooting side by side to compare with on the same settings. In most cases, we were able to drop ISO down and reduce noise thanks to those extra stops of light we had which led to clearer crisper prints for clients. Stabilisation was also a huge help, I compare shooting cheer comps to shooting from a moving car sometimes due to the vast range and speed of movement you go through per routine, shots were crisp even when we had to slow shutter speed to grab more light. The SIGMA 14-24mm | Art front lens is a thing of beauty, obviously designed to pull in every last bit of light for beautiful wide angle shots. The SIGMA 24-70mm | Art gave us so much more flexibility to capture shots close to the action from the side of the stage, the added angles and options these lenses gave us combined with the quality shots we were able to capture led to real-world increases in sales. The real test of any piece of equipment is in its ability to add to your shooting repertoire and both these lenses are being added to our kit bags moving forward.
I had to put the SIGMA 70-200mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | Sports in its own section. The word that comes to mind is ‘beast’, I have long been in the “stick to brand rather than third party” camp, my experience with the new SIGMA 70-200mm | Sports has changed my thinking. It’s a tank, this is the lens we really put through the wars, on average it’s going to be doing tens of thousands of releases per competition. Our telephotos need to be built to last and build quality on this lens is through the roof. The zoom ring was smooth and pleasant, its ergonomics meant that the switch from back position to front position didn’t feel at odds at all (I was preparing myself for a day of wrist pain due to the switch, not the case). Focus was lightning fast, putting the Canon to shame for our purposes, giving us more shots across varied depths and movement in focus… a godsend. Sharpness of shots was pinpoint and across the whole zoom range, the extra ability to drag in light from the new optics also giving us less noise adding even more to the appeal of final prints. All in all, a very impressive step up by SIGMA, blurring the lines between brand and third party to such a degree there is little or no point discussing it any more. Also on a side note… it withstands hair and glitter spray very well (an environmental variation that is probably only found at cheerleading competitions).
You can see more images created by Curtis Harvey on one of the following links:
Future Cheer, The Best of British Cheerleading, website: https://futurecheer.net/
Future Cheer Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/future.cheer/
Featured products: SIGMA F2.8 Pro Trio