Photos, Fitness, and Nagging Fears

This weekend was all about photography and CrossFit.

I should start by explaining that, for roughly the last month, I’ve been (1) off Facebook for personal reasons and (2) away from the gym for entirely separate personal reasons. I felt pretty great about the Facebook thing but pretty crummy about the fitness thing. With no travel plans or disruptions for the foreseeable future, I was excited to get back into normal workout mode and start training for summer races.

Except nothing is normal at my gym during the CrossFit Open.

In the Open, affiliate gyms and garage athletes across the world tackle weekly workouts to test their overall fitness. The best move on to Regionals and eventually the Games in hopes of being crowned “Fittest in the World.” (Which is a silly title, if you ask me, but no one asks me for obvious reasons.)

I wasn’t planning on signing up for the Open. I don’t want to give money to CrossFit, Inc. (at least until Dave Castro stops giving guns away as prizes) and I don’t enjoy competition against others. Since I wasn’t on Facebook, I was insulated from the Open-related excitement among my friends.

Then I went back to the gym. It was like walking into one of those tornado money machines, except instead of money it was CrossFit propaganda. Still, I probably would have held out… if I hadn’t gone to “Friday Night Lights.” After normal classes on Friday, everyone registered for the Open gets together to do the week’s workout, cheer each other on, drink, and hang out. The good vibes are infectious.

So why did I go to the gym Friday night, if I wasn’t planning on doing the Open?

This is where the photos come in.

I bought my “real camera” (Nikon D3300 with the 18-55mm kit lens and an additional 55-300mm telephoto lens) about 18 months ago. I didn’t start systematically learning about gear and photo-editing software until the end of last year. I switched to shooting RAW less than six months ago and I’m still learning the basics of Lightroom workflow. I enjoy photography and I feel like I’ve learned so much from this hobby, but I’d never describe myself as a “photographer” or presume to share my opinions with others.

There isn’t a particular type of photography I enjoy more than others. I try to learn by shooting what I’m doing: food, travel, fitness.  The same things I blog about. At my old gym, one of the coaches was a professional photographer. He would bring his camera to weekend classes and post hundreds of photos of workouts, often with Photoshopped captions and quotes.

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From my early CrossFit days, fall/winter 2015

I always thought his photos were so cool. They captured so much of the intensity and emotion that makes the sport of CrossFit fun. I wanted to try my hand at action/sports photography, but I was nervous about stepping on his toes. “He’s a professional. He’s loved by everyone here. I’d look so silly showing up with my dinky lens, pretending to be a photographer!”

Then an unexpected opportunity presented itself: a bunch of my friends decided to open a new gym across town and the photographer-coach didn’t move with us. Suddenly, I was in a new space with beautiful light, surrounded by friends who were happy to support my hobby. So I showed up one sunny Saturday morning with my DSLR, shot hundreds of photos, threw out most of them, and posted an album to the new gym’s public Facebook page.

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Though there were a lot of problems with these photos, I learned a ton from shooting and editing this first album. Most importantly, I started to get over my shyness and embrace the role I was stepping into. I was fortunate to receive a lot of positive feedback from my friends (and the business owners) that encouraged me to keep going.

A few months later, the photographer from my old gym moved to the new gym as a coach, bringing his shutter-happy habits with him. I was glad to see him: He teaches photography and is a fantastic resource for an amateur enthusiast like myself. I no longer felt shy around him. There was no point in comparison: he’s a pro and I’m a newbie and that’s okay. There is space for both of us in this community.

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Learning the hard way about lighting and ISO settings in a dark CF box.

Still, I decided not to shoot the same events as him. If I knew he was coming with his camera, I’d hold off. I didn’t want to feel like people were comparing my photos to his.

This worked out just fine until last Friday night.

I knew he was doing the workout and assumed he wouldn’t bring his camera. So, I decided to bring mine to document the evening. It was lots of fun, getting close to the action as the athletes worked their way through 20 minutes of pure misery. I was surprised when, after finishing his heat, my photographer friend also jumped into the fray with his Canon. Shooting the exact same photos I was.

Oh crap. **triggered**

By the end of the weekend, we had both published albums of photos from 17.1 (this week’s workout). His photos were a lot better than mine. A larger number of strangers on the internet approved of his album and images. This was my worst nightmare.

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Mine – 55mm, f5.6, 1/80, ISO 12800 (widest aperture for the lens at that focal length)

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His – 70mm, f2.8, 1/200, ISO 12800

Except that it wasn’t that bad. I learned a lot from seeing his photos, asking about his gear, and getting his advice on editing. My photos were darker, grainier, and blurrier than his and I know precisely why. It’s because of my less expensive, darker, slower lens, not because I’m a terrible person/talentless hack. Go figure!

Everyone was supportive of my efforts, cognizant of my shortcomings, and grateful that – between the two of us – we captured a lot of great moments. Even better, when people finally convinced me to do the Open workout on Sunday morning, he was there to take a few photos of me to add to the album. Again, despite my fears about competing, the workout went better than expected and my friends cheered the whole time.

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So it kind of all worked out for the best, despite my crazy paranoid fears. I’m excited for the coming weeks of the Open and relieved that my friend will take tons of great photos of everyone, freeing me to work on improving my skills.

A few things I learned this weekend:

  • How to make collages in Lightroom 

Immediately proceeded to make half a dozen collages from burst photos of box jumps and snatches.

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  • How to reduce noise at high ISO in Lightroom

(And the limitations of digital noise reduction. Hello, creepy smooth faces from jacked up luminescence.)

  • Basics of working with layers in GIMP

Mostly because I wanted to make this silly poster and I can no longer get Photoshop for free through school

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  • The limitations of my kit lens

This is clearly seen in the photos above.

Next up: panoramas, split toning, HDR, more “photoshopping” (in GIMP), and finally deciding which new lens to buy.

So what’s this rambling post really about?

The world is full of amazing people doing amazing things. I can cower from that truth, trying to protect my fragile sense of self from any hint of comparison, or I can embrace it. In my case, that’s a lot easier said than done. Luckily, I belong to a CrossFit community that supports each member as a whole person. It’s not just about the hour each day we spend lifting weights together. When I need something in life, when I’m looking for help or need advice, these are the people I turn to.

In the end, this story – like most stories on this blog – is about gratitude. I was able to tolerate my anxiety and walk towards my fear because I had the support of an incredible community that cares about kindness and sincere effort more than it cares about innate talent.

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