Sunday, January 20, 2013

Photographing Martial Arts

Photographer Brendan Beavers - Shattered Images Photography
Photographer Brendan Beavers - Shattered Images Photography
Martial arts has been a favorite subject of mine for over 25 years now. Long before I was doing photography professionally I was a student of the martial arts. One of the things that was always disappointing was how poorly the pictures of martial arts generally turned out. Occasionally there would be a good picture, but it was a fluke and not reproducible. A few different things were at play to cause this. First and foremost was our poor understanding of photography, particularly how the auto settings 18% grey valuation effects the big three. Secondly was equipment, not so much on the camera side but on the lighting side, lights have come a long way and gotten much cheaper. And third is having a good understanding of how pictures render martial arts, what poses work if you will.

Lets look at these factors from a photo journalism, or journalistic portraiture style. Journalistic portraiture is telling a story with a portrait, so if you think of a conventional portrait of a martial artist as a three quarter bust sitting there in their uniform then a journalistic portrait would be one of them breaking a board or landing a kick. As I believe that this is the style that most of the readers of this blog will be interested in it is what I will discuss here. Later styles will be covered in future articles.

The first thing that hampers a good martial arts photo is how the camera is set up, how it expects to shoot the world. See An 18% Grey World. These expectations drive the auto settings. The camera will favor a shutter between 1/60th and about 1/120th of a second depending on available light. Using your cameras preset sports settings will tell the camera to favor higher shutter speeds, hopefully there will be enough light for well above 1/250th of a second so you can capture the action with out having lots of blur. If you are comfortable with the manual settings on the camera using the shutter priority setting to force the camera to shoot at 1/250th is a good option. This way the camera will adjust ISO and aperture to maintain exposure with out sacrificing shutter speed. I would also suggest setting the camera meter to spot meter on your focal point which will be your subject so the camera does not use the background to determine exposure.

With the advent of lightweight powerful portable lights the high shutter speeds necessary to freeze martial arts action is even easier to achieve. Speed Lights do a phenomenal job and can be mounted on the camera or mounted and fired from a secondary location closer to the action. These lights can be used in a couple of different ways. The first is to use the short intense light of the flash to control the exposure. This can give you an effective shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second freezing a spilt second of the action. The second is to use the light to bump up the exposure, this is a more common use of flash in most people's experience. An image that is to dark can be brightened by adding light, this gives you the option of using the shutter speed creatively to show action and is particularly powerful with the use of second curtain flash. Another option exists but only applies to lights with high speed sync capabilities. High speed sync allows you to still use ambient light in the exposure while using the added light from the flash to use the actual shutter speed for the action. In this manor you can more easily balance the background light with the exposure of the subject if you choose, and it also allows you to be very specific in what shutter speed you use. If you just use the flash to control exposure (that is the camera settings will not expose an image with out the added flash) the effective shutter speed freezes the action, in the second method you can start to add motion blur and use the flash to freeze a part of the action in the frame, either as the action starts (first curtain) or as it ends (second curtain setting). With High Speed Sync you really have the best of both option. You can use very fast shutter speed to freeze the action or you can very specifically control how much you drag the shutter giving you absolute control over how much blur you introduce.

Briefly the last point I mentioned was "posing". Posing is not really the right word when you are shooting action, but many aspects of martial arts do not photograph well because the reference is lost in the image and it is nonsensical to the viewer. This is particularly true of spin kicks. Some things do photograph very well though and with a little anticipation and a spot of timing you can get great pictures of front kicks, side kicks, round kicks, and great photos of different stances. With a little bit of experience shooting martial arts you can learn to catch the action that photos can easily relay.

Photographing Martial Arts Part II

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