Every inch counts for a gymnast. One miscalculation on the uneven bars or landing a few inches to the right or left on the balance beam could mean not only major point deductions in competition, but serious, life-threatening injury. Although the stakes typically aren’t that high for a photographer – just take another picture – Thomas Prior demonstrated discipline and precision to create a tack-sharp photograph of U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles for the cover of TIME magazine’s Olympics issue.
“I thought I could do it in five minutes but it became apparent the trampoline is very hard to focus,” Prior tells TIME, instead taking a full hour granted by Biles. “She drifts about a foot back and forward between poses.”
Inside Biles’ family gym in Houston, Texas, Prior tested his lights with a body double so they would freeze the three-time world all-around champion perfectly in midair, sculpting her idealized figure against his matte black backdrop. The final image chosen for the cover balances her elegant pose without looking strained. A glowing golden light accentuates her powerful muscles while preserving her grace.