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Clever boxing photography

Have you ever wondered how photographers capture that crucial knock-out in the boxing ring? Well boxing photographer Steve Merry has the answers.

| Sports and Action

Clever boxing photography: My first experience of photographing boxing came around 18 months ago, when I was invited along to a European Boxing Federation fight event. There I was, excitedly packing my trusty Nikon D50, half a dozen 2Gb SD cards, standard kit lenses and speedlight into my kit bag and heading off for a night of grabbing fantastic fight images. I had shot plenty of outdoor sports images before, mainly football, so this should be interesting. However, shooting boxing is very different from other sports.

The first thing I noticed on arriving and taking my ringside seat was how dark it was. With zero preplanning or thought, I was expecting a well lit venue - how wrong I was. What I hadn't realised was the venues are well lit, house lights blazing, until the boxing actually starts. Then the house lights are turned off, to be replaced by flood or spotlights on just the ring.

Not a problem I thought, there should be enough light to use with an increased ISO of 400‐800. Wrong again. Average shutter speeds were around 1/30, clearly too slow for hand‐held indoor sports photography. I was considering attaching my speedlight when the referee paused the fight, to severely reprimand an amateur photographer at ringside, who had just taken three images with flash. It appears boxers don't appreciate flashguns hitting them in the eyes when they are trying their best to duck punches.

Overall, it was a very disappointing night of photography. Having tried wide angle, medium telephoto and even longer telephoto (from a balcony), I was left with a huge collection of dark, blurred images. It was clearly time to rethink.

Having shot at around 50 boxing events since that fateful night, things have changed.

Here's my ‘How To' of boxing photography.

Clever boxing photography: Firstly, check with the promoter and venue that you are allowed to shoot. A lot of events have a dedicated photographer there to shoot and sell their images. This is one place you don't want to tread on anyone's toes.

Get to the venue early and choose your spot. Usually the venue managers and promoter(s) will run through several ‘light checks' before the start, which gives you the opportunity to check metering and coverage etc before the boxing starts. My suggestion is look for the corner‐men's steps - these will be the corners where the boxers enter and take their seats between rounds. Pick a spot (preferably ringside) around 6' to one side of the corner. This allows you to shoot the rounds and not have to move to grab that emotion filled image of the boxer taking instructions (or constructive criticism!) between rounds. It's also very useful for grabbing images of the corner men during rounds. By picking one spot, you also remove the risk of annoying others by having to move, or leaving your kit bag while you move to take that one shot. If you can, try to get the promoter to agree to let you sit ‘canvas‐side'. This is ideal for several reasons:

  1. You can shoot ‘through' the ropes for far cleaner images.
  2. You won't have anyone getting in your way as you frame that killer image.
  3. People tend to consider you a pro, so leave you alone.
  4. You can slide your kit bag under the ring apron keeping it safe!

As for kit, a wide‐angle fast zoom is ideal. These lenses will give you faster shutter speeds to catch the action, a shallow DoF to blur out audience distractions and a wide angle of coverage of the ring from so close. My lens of choice is the Sigma 18‐55 f2.8 EX. The speed, quality,sharpness and DoF of the lens seems made for boxing. I tend to shoot at f/2.8 or f/4; this keeps the shutter speed usable, creates a nice DoF, is generally at the sharper end for the lens (f/4) and also helps with faster AF during the bouts. I also use the Nikkor 50mm 1.8mm from ringside. This is a great, cost effective and fast lens that produces very sharp images.Clever boxing photography:

Please do remember to shoot with ‘both' eyes though! The boxers seem a lot further away when shooting wide and the last thing you want is some 18st. heavyweight resting his size 13 boots on your lens! Use your ‘spare' eye!

If you can't get ringside, I would suggest trying a balcony if possible. Action shots of boxing from a height give a real sense of emotion, as generally you will frame the first few rows of spectators too. I would also mention, a lot of photographers try their best not to include ropes or the ref etc in their images. We all like the clean images we see of just the two boxers and no ropes or ‘distractions', but including the ropes, or ref, or shouting crowd or corner‐men, really portrays a sense of ‘being there', so don't be afraid to experiment.

You will have to shoot at high ISO's (800>), so a DSLR with good noise reduction is a real benefit. Don't worry too much about noise though, these are action images, not studio shots and a manageable amount of noise add's to the atmosphere. I shoot with the Nikon D300 now, which manages noise extremely well, even when shooting at ISO1000 and above. Set your DSLR onto continuous shooting mode, watch the action and try to fire in bursts. Boxing at any level tends to have early ‘quiet' rounds, then after 2‐3 rounds, things liven up. Watch the boxers and try to recognise patterns in their styles. For example, a boxer might be a big counter‐puncher, sitting back on the ropes drawing his opponent in and then unleashes a flurry of punches. Watch their styles and you will be ready to fire those bursts when the action is most likely to happen.

Do spend down time between bouts backstage, if you have approval from the promoter of course. You can shoot some terrific shots of boxers warming on the pads, or maybe even some close up abstracts of boxer's wraps and gloves.

As for post processing, colour usually works best, as bruises and blood don't show that clearly in mono and that's what boxing is all about. But, a well timed, atmospheric image processed into B&W works a treat. Please be careful when trying that ‘work of art' colour pop image though. Colour pops can be extremely effective, but with boxing, it tends to confuse the image.

The last points I would make it take plenty of memory cards and apart from checking histograms, leave viewing images until the event is over.

Clever boxing photography:
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27 Apr 2011 6:15PM
Thanks for the information. I take photos at Karate events and have similar issues. Really need to get a better lens as the action can be so fast at times as they have kicks and punches.....and like you said you need that killer one...........

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