How to Shoot Martial Arts | Light Stalking

How to Shoot Martial Arts

By alohal / May 2, 2011

Last Updated on by

One of the most important things we have to remember if we want to stay inspired in photography is to give ourselves photo projects. Engaging in a photo project is a lot of fun and a lot of learning. A couple of weeks ago, a reader asked us how we’d go about shooting martial arts. I'd never shot martial arts before, so I decided to find out. Here are some lessons I learned.
Pay attention to shutter speed

Shooting martial arts is like shooting action in general: we have to really pay attention to shutter speed. It was a cloudy day and the afternoon light was dim with a storm approaching. I knew that I had to freeze the kungfu artists in mid-motion, so I decided to bump up the ISO to 400 to make sure I had enough sensitivity for the high shutter speed I needed. I was aiming to capture the action at a shutter speed of at least 1/160s. Later on, I realized some of the kungfu masters moved so fast that that speed wasn’t even enough, so I decided to increase the shutter speed to 1/250s.

Shaolin kungfu, martial arts, shooting martial arts

Use a high shutter speed to catch the action. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

How did I do this? I was using a 50mm lens capable of going really wide, so it was easy to open up to f/4.5, with an ISO of 400, and get the shutter speeds I needed.
Pay attention to the light
With the incoming storm, light in the Shaolin gymnasium was dim. I was also shooting into some windows behind the practice mat. To make sure the kungfu artists would be lit enough, I metered on the Shaolin masters’ faces. The background was a bit underexposed, but this is what I wanted, especially when the background is busy.
Separate the subject from the cluttered background
When you shoot something you’ve not scouted, like I did with this assignment, I was not able to plan the backgrounds for the shots. I had to shoot with whatever background was available as the Shaolin masters and students practiced their kungfu.
To separate the subject from the background, or help them ‘pop’ out of the clutter, I used shallow depth of field by opening up the aperture. For the shot with the boy below, I opened the lens up to f/1.4, counting on the shallow depth of field to blur the background and separate the boy from it.
Shaolin kungfu student

Separate the subject from the background. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

Watch out for the Bruce Lee moments
During one of the practices, this Shaolin artist leaped, and I could not anticipate the movement—thus two things happened. One is that I ran out of space in the top of the frame, and two, he was moving so fast that I could not adjust the shutter speed to an appropriate speed that would freeze his motion.

Shaolin kungfu master

Anticipate movements so you can frame the shot more effectively. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

There may be some ‘Bruce Lee’ moments like this when you’re shooting, so watch out for them and make sure that you are ready. It helps to be familiar with the martial art and be able to anticipate the movements and positions that would make an impactful image.
With a little practice and willingness to take photographic risks, you can create some interesting photos of your local martial artists. It just might be the next interesting project you were looking for.
Aloha Lavina is a Bangkok based photographer whose photographs have appeared in CNNGo (USA), UTATA Tribal Photography Magazine (USA), Seventeen magazine (USA), Estamos! (Ecuador), The Korea Times (South Korea), and several books. You can see her work at her website, read her articles on her blog or follow her on Twitter.

About the author


    Aloha Lavina is an Asia based photographer and writer whose photographs and writing have appeared in CNNTravel, Canon PhotoYou Magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, and several books. You can see her work at her website and follow her on her blog.


    Leave a comment: