Photographing mixed martial arts

I had the opportunity to shoot the One Championship, an international mixed martial arts (MMA) event in Kuala Lumpur recently, thanks to a special invitation by Van. In order to push myself and grow – photographically – I need to go out of my comfort zone and shoot something new. While I am quite experienced in shooting concerts and live music performances, indoor sports is an entirely different matter. It was also an opportunity to do another stress test on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, and see how it handles a poorly lit, fast paced action environment.

Shooting MMA fights proved to be a huge challenge for me. I am not a sports shooter, and I have only basic knowledge about mixed martial arts fights. It is crucial to know the game well in order to be able to predict crucial moments and better prepare for the shot. I was shooting from a spectator’s perspective, from a fixed seat about 20 meters from the cage. Without the freedom to move around, my choice of composition was severely restricted. Also, I was not close enough to the cage to use shallow depth of field to blur out the metal mesh of the cage. The lighting on the fighters was harsh and uneven, and so dim that I needed to use ISO3200 or higher when shooting at F2.8. Despite the challenges, I did what I can and tried my best to get some keepers from the evening.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II together with the M.Zuiko 40-150m F2.8 PRO lens performed well .

I found the customize-able focus limiter switch to be particularly helpful in this situation to prevent the focus from locking on the cage. I set the focus limiter to 20 meters on the minimum focusing distance (guessing the cage must be around 19m or less from where I was sitting). Not having to worry about the AF hesitating and accidentally locking focus on the cage allowed me to concentrate on framing and capturing the critical moments of the fights. Currently, the E-M1 Mark II  is the only Olympus camera to have this function, and I hope it trickles down to their lower models too.

I was shooting on shutter priority with shutter speed set to 1/800th of a second, and ISO was between 3200 and 6400. With the electronic shutter, I shot at low sequential burst speeds of 18 frames per second. Focusing was set to C-AF with cluster area AF enabled. The cluster area AF successfully locked on and tracked the moving fighters efficiently at all times, and I came home with very high hit rates.

When I did miss shots, it was either user error on my part or the fighters being blocked by referees and other obstructions in my direct line of sight. There were video cameramen and official photographers working outside the cage too.

These shots may pale in comparison to what the official photographers can get by being just outside the cage, but as a spectator and dealing with all the restrictions, I was quite satisfied with the results. No one, including the official photographers were allowed inside the cage, for obvious safety reasons.

Above all, I was impressed with the E-M1 Mark II, it performed effortlessly, despite all the challenges. The output may have more noise than I like, but is still very usable and nothing that a little noise reduction cannot fix. I intentionally left the chromatic noise unfiltered for the gritty effect instead of a plasticky smoothed-out skin look.

Will I return to shoot another round of MMA? Absolutely! And maybe this time, I will aim to get the closest seat I can, which I estimate to be about 10m away, and that should improve my shots significantly. Until then, I shall find other genres of photography to dive into…

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is available from B&H
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens is available from B&H

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2018 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Challenging and well done.

  2. Michael says:

    Can’t say that I care for the subject, but the photography is excellent. Really first-rate.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks so much. I think it is good to shoot something different once in a while. I have not done MMA shoots before, this was my first, so quite a unique experience

  3. Some great photos under very challenging conditions! The few times I’ve tried something similar I had a nightmare of a time with the camera focusing on the foreground (the cage, in this case). Focus limiting is something that really should be available on every lens…..

    • Robin Wong says:

      I believe the focus limiter is just simple programming. They should really make it available for all camera bodies! Not just E-M1 Mark II

  4. Dirk De Paepe says:

    The first shot is incredibly fantastic!

  5. This reminded me of my feeble attempt at photographing an MMA event, the MIMMA quarter final in 2016. It was in a mall with even crappier lighting and um… ‘less in shape’ fighters, LOL. I only had my EM10 first gen and the Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8. Well,vwe gotta make do with what we can afford. My photos definitely could not hold a candle to yours.
    I am hoping you can share some tips especially on the focusing. AF seems useless because it kept catching the fence and my skill with manual focus was not fast enough. How did you choose to focus?

    • Robin Wong says:

      The trick, is using the focus limiter. Set it beyond the fence distance so the lens will not focus anywhere near the lens. Currently this feature is only available in E-M1 Mark II.

  6. Nice photos and really nice post process. The NR applied is perfect without losing details.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks Yannis. Very minimal noise reduction applied. I went for the grainier look, preserving the details, instead of smooth painterly look.

  7. Rented that camera, Loved that camera, THE Best IBIS!!! I went with Fuji X-T2/H1 instead. The IBIS in the Fuji can’t compare to the EM, but that’s because the larger the sensor the harder it is to get IBIS performance.

    • Robin Wong says:

      It is true that currently nothing beats Olympus when it comes to their image stabilization, though Panasonic does come very close with their G9.

  8. Good job!. MMA photography is difficult because of poor lighting, no flash, and shooting through the cage. My favorite professionals are Nagao Susumu, Esther Lin, and Josh Hedges (UFC). Look forward to more of your photos from the worlds fasted growing sport.

  9. Incredible, under any shooting circumstances. This set really captures the amazing skill, strength and the aesthetic discipline of these top-flight athletes. You really did do justice to them. And what a coup to shoot a One Championship card!

  10. Terry B says:

    Robin, considering your professed inexperience for this type of shooting, you’ve captured some wonderful images. But regarding the event in question, I find this subject bordering on barbarism, caged men beating the hell out of each other all in the name of so-called sport. Hardly any different to caged animals, is it?

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words.
      You know, that exact same thought came across my mind, and for the similar reason I will not be a regular at shooting such violence. Unfortunately, in the sports world, this is what sells the tickets!

      • Terry B says:

        Sadly, we’re not spared it in the UK as events are televised. Do you recall the original versions of Rollerball and Death Race 2000? Sci-fi, but now how close to reality as spectator “sports” these iconic films have become.

  11. Really excellent, Ming. Under the circumstances, outstanding. The Ming-OMD-40–150 Pro combo delivered in all ways.

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