How to Shoot Martial Arts

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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.

About 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.

Great article. I’ve been trying to learn more about shooting my daughters when they dance and you provided some great examples. The challenges are similar to what you faced shooting martial arts: low light, fast action, unpredictable moments. You seemed reluctant to use ISO 400. I often end up using 800. Yet your images look so colorful and bright. I’ve got some work to do!

Hi kdaunt, the color comes from exposure compensation and white balance setting. I tend to use Cloudy WB to add more saturation, and underexpose a tad to do the same. Thanks!

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