Since 2012, Rolljunkie has been making some of the best jiu-jitsu gear, clothing, and apparel around. And since 2012, we've also spent quite a bit of time promoting our brand through event photography (among other things). Photographing any sporting event can be tricky. And with sports like BJJ and wrestling, you can expect bursts of fast action and venues with poor lighting as some of the additional challenges involved with shooting. In this article, we'll provide some tips and information on how we have successfully shot events in the past. Fair warning - we're not professional photographers by trade, we make jiu-jitsu gear, but we do have a ton of experience photographing jiu-jitsu in indoor lighting conditions. We'll share some of what we learned along the way for others that may be just starting out photographing jiu-jitsu or wrestling events.
Before we get into the details of our experience, let's discuss the results we seek with our photography. After all, our goals may not align with yours when it comes to taking pictures. For us, we aim to take professional grade pictures. In other words, we want our pictures to be high resolution, sharp and crisp, capturing the details, with little to no blur. In addition, we like our pictures to freeze the action, again with no blur. Pictures should be exposed properly so the images are bright and vivid regardless of the lighting conditions at the venue. In addition, many of our pictures will also include a bokeh effect where the subject is in focus, but the background is slightly blurred.
Equipment Basics and Budget
If you're looking to capture professional quality photographs, then you're going to need to get your hands on some decent equipment. Sure, you might be able to shoot some nice looking still photographs with your phone or pocket camera, but capturing high quality action shots will be rare. For consistent quality results, in our opinion, what you really need is a DSLR style camera.
Unfortunately, quality camera equipment like DSLRs are not cheap. High-end gear will easily run you thousands which is simply not in the budget for most non-professional photographers. That said, it is still possible to get great photos with entry level DSLR's that you can pick up for a few hundred dollars. When we first started shooting events, we were equipped with nothing more than a Sony A57 and the included 55-200mm lens kit. Not great equipment by most standards, but we still got a lot of great shots out of that camera.
Over time, as we shot more and more events and learned about photography, we upgraded our equipment and our lenses.
Sony A57, 55-200mm F4-5.6 Lens
Know Your Camera and Equipment
All the fancy camera equipment in the world won't consistently result in quality photographs if you don't know how to use it properly. Learning the basics of photography and how to operate your camera settings is paramount if you want to take capture great shots.
At the first several events we photographed, armed with our Sony DSLR, we set the camera to auto mode and snapped as many photographs as we could. Our thought process was that if we took enough photographs, some of them were bound to be good. We weren't wrong. Our Sony DSLR shot some pretty good images at those events that were crisp and clear. Every event we attended, we came away with a handful of quality photographs that we were able to share and use for marketing. Still, unless you are just starting out and don't know how to use your camera yet, we don't recommend this option. For every nice shot we captured, there were tons of bad images taking up space on our memory card and destined to be deleted.
What we found over time was that the more we learned about photography and our equipment, the more consistent our photography became. Blindly shooting on auto mode is not the best way to achieve quality results.
If you don't know already, take the time to really understand the function of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. The sooner you know these settings and stop using auto mode, the sooner you can start getting high-end results. Another tip: learn to use your camera's burst mode. Burst mode will allow you to capture images in rapid succession by pressing and holding the shutter-release button. When we first started, we didn't know about burst mode and just shot one image at a time. Who knows how many great images we missed out on!
Once you have good handle on how to use your camera, you will want to experiment with shooting in different modes other than auto, such as shutter speed priority mode and manual mode. If you want to capture images of fast moving action so that it appears frozen (no blur), you'll need to use a fast shutter speed. We typically shoot at 1/1000 or even faster if lighting permits.
Canon EOS R with RF28-70; f2, 1/1000, ISO 1600
Of course the downside of using a fast shutter speed is that it limits how much light you get to the lens. When shooting indoors in poorly lit gyms and facilities, this can be a problem and it's where we found our equipment upgrades really made a huge difference on our results. Once we started shooting with fast lenses (apertures of f2 and f.2.8), indoor lighting became more manageable. We could use fast shutter speeds and still get enough light for a properly exposed image without having to jack up the ISO to the point where the image gets grainy. If you don't have a lens that is that fast, then you will need to adapt. Drop the shutter speed down and try to position yourself where you can get as much light as possible. Using a flash is another option, but since we don't have experience with flashes, you'll need to search elsewhere for advice on that.
Crop vs Full Sensor
Nowadays we shoot with a full sensor camera, but before that we spent years shooting with a crop sensor (APS-C). Shooting with a full sensor simply captures a larger image and give you more options for cropping. It's definitely a nice advantage and a big one, but we wouldn't say it's absolutely necessary. You can still get amazing images on using a crop sensor body.
Position, Venue, Lighting, Composition
We should also take the time to mention that it's not just about the camera, the equipment, and having the right settings. Anytime we shoot, we try to move around the venue and get different angles and perspectives. Space and depth provide a better background than shooting up against a solid wall. Find positions with good lighting that work well for your lens focal length. Then when it's time to shoot, don't forget about your image composition. If you don't know about image composition and tricks like the rule of thirds, then search and read up on it. It will help your photography!
Shooting RAW and Post-processing
So you learned how to use your camera and shot your event, now what? Post-processing of course. A lot of issues from color correction to brightness can be corrected in post-processing. If you shoot in RAW you will have more options available to you for post-processing, but since we typically try to keep post-processing to a minimum, we often just shoot and edit in jpg. Adobe Creative Cloud is our preferred tool suite for post-processing edits, but we're sure there are other tools available as well.
Once last tip we'll mention is that just like jiu-jitsu and wrestling, you will get better with practice. The more you get out there and photograph, the more comfortable you will be with your camera and the settings. You'll learn from experience and it won't be long before you see that in your results.