How to Photograph Martial Arts :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Martial Arts

by David Peterson 0 comments

Some photos practically take themselves. What could be simpler than photographing a beautiful landscape or a laughing child?

However, other subjects can be difficult to master. Take indoor Martial Arts for example. At face value it should be pretty easy to shoot martial artists, right? I mean, martial arts tournaments are full of action, and action makes for great photos. Unfortunately, it’s not all that simple. There are many quirks and potential problems of photographing this fast, often low-light sport to learn before you can take great photos of it.


Here’s the primary problem with martial arts: many, if not most, tournaments, classes and meets are indoors. Here’s the second problem: martial artists move fast. Now you already know how tough it can be to get good photos indoors—combine that with the challenges of freezing the action during a fast-moving sport and you can see why it can be so challenging to get good pictures of Kung Fu, Karate or Taekwondo.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel
  • 400
  • f/4.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 27 mm

Straight From The Matrix by Flickr user C@mera M@n


Let’s start with the first problem. Gyms, studios and other indoor areas where athletes train and compete are not lit for photographers. They really can’t be, because they’re big and open and bright lights would not only be unnecessary, they would also be uncomfortable (both visually and because they would tend to make the room too hot). And flash can be an unreliable strategy—though it’s theoretically possible use it in the right conditions, the distance required between spectators and athletes may make it impossible to get good results. Oh and there’s also that part where you might upset the competitors, who are going to be blinded and distracted every time they get hit with a burst of light. So flash: not always the best solution. Now what?

The first thing you have to have is the right equipment. You need a fast lens, the faster the better. If you’ve got a 50mm prime lens, that’s going to be a great place to start, though you may find that some zoom will also be helpful. A 50mm prime will give you an aperture up to f/1.4 (f/1.8 for a less expensive version) and you can get a mid-priced zoom that will give you f/2.8. The good news is that you don’t need telephoto unless you’re going to be sitting way up in the grandstands, so don’t worry that I’m asking you to throw down a couple of thousand on a new lens. F-stop is critical, but focal length is less important.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XS
  • 1600
  • f/2.2
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 50 mm

Shaolin Kung Fu by Flickr user Paul 李加乂 Li

The second thing you need is an understanding of how your camera’s meter works. Chances are, you do most of your shooting using your camera’s matrix or evaluative metering system, which is designed to assume that everything in any given scene averages out to roughly middle gray. In this mode, you’re going to get a scene that considers the background as well as your subject when determining shutter speed and aperture. The problem with this is that you really don’t care about that background. In fact, if you had to choose you would probably prefer to have a poorly exposed background, because there’s not going to be anything complementary back there at all. If you’re in an indoor sports arena or gym, there may be advertising banners, bleachers and other spectators in the background. In a studio there may be basic walls or walls hung with photos, weapons or other distracting objects. And there will always be other people—people watching, cheering, or waiting their turn, and for the most part those people aren’t going to add to your composition. So exposing for both background and subject is counterproductive.

Instead, switch your camera over to spot metering mode (center-weighted metering will work, too). You’ll also need to be in manual mode, because as you recompose each shot your meter is going to read off of whatever happens to be under it at the time you make the exposure, whether it’s your subject or not. So first, place your subject’s face in the center of the frame and dial in the metered settings. Remember that the lighting isn’t really going to change much, so for the most part these will be the settings you’ll use throughout the event—but remember that it’s always good practice to keep an eye on your meter, even if you’re confident that not much is happening with the light.

ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed

Choosing the right combination of ISO, aperture and shutter speed is critically important when shooting martial arts, because of that low light/fast motion problem. Not all gyms and martial arts schools are going to be lit in a similar way, but you can almost bet money that the light will be some version of poor. So start with an ISO of 800, and the largest aperture your lens offers. See what that does to your shutter speed. If you can’t get at least 1/200, you will need to adjust your ISO. Don’t be afraid to go all the way up to 1600 or 3200, if that’s what you have to do. You may get some digital noise in your photograph, but that’s almost always going to be preferable to a blurry image.

Shutter speed is somewhat negotiable, depending on what’s going on in the scene. Some martial arts exercises don’t require a very fast shutter speed, so use your best judgment. Also remember that a little bit of motion blur can help show action—if every one of your shots is tack-sharp and frozen-in-time, it can look a little bit like you’ve posed the shots. So don’t fear motion blur, especially if it’s limited to arms and legs—many martial arts exercises require fast movement of limbs, without much movement of the torso, and that can make a cool photo. But do try to avoid slow shutter speeds in situations that will blur your entire subject.

Also keep in mind that shooting at large apertures limits your depth of field. This is a mixed blessing because on the one hand, it means that you’re going to get some blur on that ugly background we discussed earlier. But on the other hand, it means that there may be some extra challenges involved in keeping your subject in focus. When you’re working with a larger aperture, movement towards or away from the camera will bring your subject in and out of focus, so you’ll need to use focus tracking to give yourself the best possible chance of capturing a tack sharp subject. But be aware that even focus tracking is an imperfect solution when subjects are moving very quickly.

  • Nikon D300
  • 250
  • f/2.8
  • 0.002 sec (1/640)
  • 200 mm

karate-2 by Flickr user juan.aguere

When flash is OK

Now, there are some situations where flash is going to be acceptable, and you’ll have to ask first. During practice, flash may be allowed and if that’s the case, don’t be afraid to use it—with some caveats. Always be respectful of the athletes, and don’t set off the flash directly into someone’s eyes. Use an off-camera flash and, if you can, bounce it off the ceiling (if the ceiling is low enough)—that’s going to give you much softer, even light without any of those ugly shadows or washed out spots that you often get when you use flash. If you can’t bounce it off the ceiling, try holding it at an angle so you aren’t illuminating your subject from the front.

Capturing the right moment

And you thought the light was the tricky part! A final difficulty with capturing great photos of martial arts is knowing which moments are the right moments. Some moves aren’t going to make sense to your viewer when captured as a still. Others are going to make great, action-filled shots. It’s always a good idea to have your camera on burst mode, and to try to anticipate the moves that are going to look the most impressive as a still.

Make sure that you keep active space in front of your subject—for example, if she’s showing off a kick, make sure there’s plenty of space between her foot and the opposite side of the frame.

This is where it really helps to have a good working knowledge of the sport. If you know that a certain move tends to be spectacular, anticipate that move and be ready for it when it happens. And think about the different angles you might be able to use to capture any one stance, kick or punch. Being ready for the moment before it happens will give you a much better chance at capturing it in a compelling way.


No, shooting martial arts is not easy, but I hope I’ve given you a place to start. Remember that with any sport or public event, it’s always a good idea to communicate with whoever is in charge before you set up and start taking photos. Connecting with the studio owner or instructor is going to give you the right idea about what you can and cannot do when shooting a practice or an event. So stick within those parameters but don’t be afraid to think creatively, too. With practice your photos will be works of art, just like all those kung fu fighters.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.