Lights, Camera, Action!


Breaking the MMA Lens: The inner light

The light, the light! I see the light…sometimes. When you’re shooting photos, the most important thing is light. You and the camera can’t see a thing without it.

All cameras are different and yet they’re all the same. They all depend on light. When we look at an object, what we really see is the reflection of light bouncing off the surface of the object. The surface could be a face, a car, a ball or anything else we see. But it’s really just the light reflecting off that surface. How much and what kind of light is reflecting…aahhh…that’s the issue. That’s the key to all photography and visuals whether you’re shooting landscapes or MMA cage matches.

Rule of Thirds Grid

Most people take pictures with their phone or a regular digital camera, also known as a point & shoot. Both phones and point & shoots do a lot of different things. They are also automatic – you just point and shoot. The camera or phone makes everything look nicey-nicey. The only drawback is that the automatic camera is choosing all the settings for you, and that’s not always the best thing. It picks the brightness, the color, the sharpness, just about everything except what you’re pointing the camera at.

If there’s a lot of good light, like daylight, the camera will love it and there are no problems. If there’s not so much light, the camera doesn’t like it and it has to make up for it in some way. It tries to grab more light so the picture looks nice and balanced. This may or may not be the best thing for MMA or any other photo.

There are three ways the camera or shutter can get more light:

  • It can open wider, like widening your eyes
  • It can stay open longer – longer shutter speed
  • It can make itself more sensitive to light by raising the sensor sensitivity or ISO

So the camera is trying to balance all three of these components to make a nice picture. In a tough photo environment like an MMA fight, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. If the camera is in automatic mode it will take an average of what it sees in the entire frame and set itself up for that. You, of course, don’t want the whole frame. You just want what’s going on in the cage. Maybe there’s a bright neon sign in the background, the camera might see that and think, “Oh, there’s something bright here, so I don’t need to boost the light”. Meanwhile, you don’t care about that bright neon light. You just want the fighters clear and bright. So the automatic setting in this case is throwing everything off.

Pro photographers set the camera up themselves. They don’t want the camera to do it for them because the camera might choose the wrong settings and we can’t have that. Pros will set how wide the shutter opens, for how long and what the sensor sensitivity is.

But of course there are problems…always problems. The wider the lens is open, the narrower the focusing distance, so one fighter might be in focus and the other out. You may or may not want this. The longer the shutter speed, the fuzzier the action. You need a fast shutter speed to freeze action or you’ll see the movement as blur.

The more sensitive the sensor, the noisier or dirtier the picture will look. When shooting this kind of action, there’s always balance and compromise. I often have to decide if I need to make a sacrifice on one of these elements and which one to choose.

If there is enough light, the action comes out clear, the colors rich and the action frozen. An ideal situation is when the ring is bright and the rest of the room or arena is dark.

But the situation, of course, isn’t always ideal and there is usually a juggling act with the camera settings. You’ll still get good photos with a little tweaking, it just takes some fiddling to achieve the right balance. Should I leave the shutter open longer? But then I might not freeze the action. Should I raise the sensor sensitivity? But then it gets noisier. It’s all a juggling act – which is what all photography is most of the time anyway.

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Joe LoBianco
Joe LoBianco
Joe LoBianco writes the photography column Breaking the MMA Lens for MMA Crossfire. New columns on the 1st and 15th of each month.

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