Making memories: being a photography volunteer

Chris is a PCC progressive calisthenics instructor

As part of my fitness interests, I filled in on photography for part of a recent London PCC. That’s “Progressive Calisthenics Certification“, the only instructor course in the world focussing on the bodyweight discipline inspired by Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning. (A book that changed my white-collar life.) I’ve taken the course myself, and had a blast being behind the camera – and would like to think I added value for participants too.

If you’re interested in volunteering on photography at a fitness event – whether it’s the calm of yoga, the madness of CrossFit, or a bunch of Jason Bournes doing martial arts – some tips might help. Here are the basics.

Framing the subject

First, get equipped. Bring a pro camera if you can, or at least prosumer. All cameras are good these days – but the main thing you’re looking for is speed of the snap.

That means a camera that can take in light fast enough to freeze a scene with action in it, then resets quickly, so you can take the next one without a wait. Sequences of images – like a headstand that starts from the kick-up, continues with the hand balances, and ends with the fall into a crumpled heap – look great, but you can’t do them if your camera takes five seconds to cycle between snaps. Phone cameras (especially iPhone and Samsung) can work surprisingly well; they’re optimised for off-the-cuff snapshots.

Bring more than one camera, and spare batteries if you can. (I used three plus an iPhone, and emptied every battery.) Such a belt-and-braces approach lets you snap all day without worrying about juice, and amid all the blurred fails you will capture some unexpectedly great images.

Arrive early to test. All gyms have different levels of photofriendliness. Sheeny white walls look different to gritty corrugated iron; fluorescent lighting can wash out skin and make the uber-healthy look like The Walking Dead. And if the sun’s shining, a course that takes place partly or wholly outdoors carries a whole different set of challenges. Experiment early with camera settings and find a configuration that flatters your subjects.

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Setting the scene

A few words on general approach. At a certification, you are not a war photographer, however many walking wounded surround you by day’s end. Like Hunter S Thompson, go gonzo, get involved. The best certifications are deeply social events; they’re emotional, tribal, joyous even. So be part of the team, and roar along with the crowd.

That means making eye contact, talking to people, leaping in to say yes when people want a snap. You are not “documenting” the event; you are “creating” what used to be called Kodak Moments, little memories. Smile a lot, learn as many names as you can, and make everyone aware you’re available for them. You can tell from their eyes when they’d like you to aim your camera. Do so; it’s what you’re there for.

On the flipside, some people are camera shy. So make the promise clear at the start of the day: if anyone is offended by a shot you’ve taken – delete it, the moment they ask. It’s no big deal. If someone thinks a shot is too embarrassing or unflattering to Share, the deciding vote is theirs, not yours. Always respect people’s privacy. Unless it’s the instructor, in which case take as many embarrassing shots as you can(!)

Never a truer word

Never a truer word

Don’t overcurate. Obviously, kill off blurs and misses. But don’t worry too much about leaving in some questionable quality. Maybe your shot of someone’s L-sit cut the participant’s head off, but maybe the framing also captured a smiling face elsewhere that’d make the ideal Profile Pic with a bit of cropping. Let your audience do the curating instead!

Last, make sure you know where to put them. (For some photos, that’ll be “where the sun don’t shine”, but not all.) The standard for certification courses tends to be a Facebook album. The Chief Instructor or a keen participant will either have set it up him/herself or know where it is.

Sort out permissions-to-post early in the day, and when the day’s done, post your pictures to the group as soon as possible. That means within hours, not days.

Tricks & tactics

Last, a few tips for making your album worth looking at.

The basic tactic is think people, not crowds. By day’s end you’ll have (too) many shots of the class as a whole, listening to an instructor’s brief: don’t worry about a shortage here. But the most memorable shots tend to be closeups, people pulling cool moves or interacting in pairs or trios. Shots featuring one person alone aren’t necessarily the best choice: half the visual fun of a front lever happens below the bar, on the faces of the people watching.

So get in there. Don’t hang on the sidelines. Walk right up to people, hang off the Swedish ladder, stand on the vaulting horse to get a more interesting shot. Try to make sure you get at least a few pics of each participant as principal subject, in a pose or move they’ll be proud of.

Obviously, don’t shove your lens in anyone’s face – particularly if they’re executing an HSPU – but make sure you don’t miss anyone out. Some people will be more awkward in the lens than others. Try to make sure everyone goes home knowing they’ll see themselves in the album a few times … and feeling good about it.

The caveat, of course, is maintain situational awareness. Up close and personal is where the best shots are, but you do not want to be in the way of someone coming out of a headstand hot. (Trust me on this.) Just be mindful of who’s in your vicinity – think of yourself as a guest in their space, not someone participants have to move aside for – and you’ll be fine.

There’s another reason to get up close and personal: it stops your autofocus wandering. If you’re on the sidelines zooming in on the woman doing a terrific floor lever, there’s no surer thing than someone else will be coming out of a handstand in front, and you’ll end up with a pin-perfect snap of a random leg instead, with Leverin’ Linda a blur in the background. So try not to use zoom, however user-friendly today’s cameras make it; use your body to do the zooming instead. (Hey, functional movement is the whole point of fitness, after all.)

Use interesting angles! Nothing’s worse than the same setpiece of the gym hall with the same crowd in it, repeated over and over. So look for unusual angles that capture the fun. Get below and behind the guy doing the pullup, so you can see the triceps straining. Tilt the camera so the back lever guy’s diagonal. Shoot the parallel bars from floor level. Use apparatus, climbing the scaffold so you can capture a scene from above.  Get down and party, frame a subject through a doorway, kneel and crouch and slide around. Who says you shouldn’t get a workout?

Snap first, think later. Participants are learning, not posing; if you wait one more second for that move to look better, the move will most likely be over. So never hesitate over the shutter button. And take more shots rather than fewer; using more space on your SD Card doesn’t cost you anything. As experienced photographic assist Michelle Steenhuis says, “There’s no going overboard when it comes to photos!”

Look for the “story shot”. That pic of someone topping out their first muscle-up is terrific. But adding to it is the pic a second later, when they’re high-fiving the planet with the Face That Says Whoohoo. iPhones even have a default of taking three shots, separated by a second, that string together into a fun animation. Take as many of these shots as you can.

Remember everyone loves bloopers! Most people don’t mind their fails being shared; everyone’s learning, after all. So treat the faceplant the same as the perfectly executed skin-the-cat. These photos can be a lot of fun. (Of course, if someone does ask for a Delete … do it, without protest.)

Finally, don’t fall in love with your own camera. Offer to use theirs! Everyone will have a phone they want to capture some of their moves on. Particularly at end-of-day, when everyone wants photos of themselves for their Instagrams. A surprising number of people are a bit shy about asking, so don’t wait – offer straightaway without being asked. It’s a great help in building those memories.

And remember to have fun, folks!

Doesn’t sound hard, does it? Volunteering on camera is easy and pays you back with a whole lotta love. (The smiles I saw on people’s faces when they learned their last day would have a photographer after all were worth the earth.)

If you believe in the subject being certified, practice it yourself, or even teach it, your act of volunteering might mean knowledge of that subject spreading to someone who’d never heard of it. Maybe that person will take up the activity. Maybe they’ll attend a course themselves. Maybe it’ll change their life. All because of a photo they saw of a friend having fun.

Which, when you think about it, is the whole point of volunteering. So volunteer. You’re about to make someone’s life a lot better.

Chris Worth is a London-based copywriter and trained progressive calisthenics and kettlebells instructor who recently published the workbook for effective freelancing 100 Days, 100 Grand, available at Amazon and in 30,000 bookstores worldwide. He knows business backwards, finance forwards, and technology inside out, with interests in adventure travel and extreme sports. If you need campaigns, copy, or content, contact him here. This article also appeared on Medium.