I had the privilege of shooting the Pacific Northwest Regionals Yo-Yo Championship this weekend at The Armory in the Seattle Center. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had guessed that it would either be 1) a few guys doing some mediocre yo-yo tricks, or 2) an awesome display of talent from a subculture that I was only barely aware of. It was definitively the latter. Hundreds of people showed up at The Armory (dozens of yo-yo enthusiasts, along with their parents). These people have spent thousands of hours honing their skills and it shows. After watching them do a myriad of yo-yo tricks over the course of two days, I started to realize the appeal: there’s something magical about the ability to make a small, circular device at your fingertips appear to defy gravity.
For the entire shoot, I used only my Canon 5D Mark III and my 50mm f/1.4 lens along with my trusty 70-200mm f/2.8. There are unique challenges to shooting a yo-yo competition that I did not anticipate. You are shooting in a low-light environment, in a situation where both the subject and an object in the subject’s hands are moving rapidly. Thus, I had to shoot with the aperture wide open (f/2.8 or lower) but still be focused on the subject to get some decent bokeh out of it AND have a high shutter speed to freeze the action, lest both subject and his yo-yo become blurred beyond recognition. For most of these shots, I used an ISO of 2000 combined with f/2.8 and a shutter speed of 1/400th to 1/500th of a second. As expected, the Mark III’s high-ISO performance was exceptional.
I took a few hundred shots and only a few dozen were at a sharpness that I’d consider to be usable. There were two failures here: one is the fact that I haven’t mastered all the intricacies of the Mark III’s incredibly complex autofocus system, and the other is the fact that the 50mm f/1.4’s focusing motor just doesn’t feel like it’s well-designed for action. After some experimentation, I realized that all I really needed to make some compelling shots (compelling for me, at least) was to try and capture these performers’ expressions as sharply as possible. If the yo-yo was in focus, that was an added bonus.
Video on the other hand was much easier. I shot at 60 fps and ran the shutter speed fairly constant at 1/125, thus giving me the freedom to close down the aperture significantly. Even so, maintaining focus was challenging on some occasions. Note that I was going hand-held for nearly all of these shots, carrying a very heavy lens with no rig, and trying to focus simultaneously.
Here’s a video I put together of the event:
And here’s video of Zach Gormley, who I believe was this year’s champion. After you watch the mind-blowing things he does in this video, you won’t be surprised: