Things I Learned Photographing My First MMA Event

Yesterday, my friend Caroline Yang asked if I wanted to come along to shoot an MMA fight at Cabooze in Minneapolis. I’ve been looking for ways to diversify the subjects of my photos, and this seemed like a great opportunity.

Not only had I never shot an MMA fight previously — I’d never even been to an MMA fight. So I really didn’t know what to expect from the experience or the photography.

Since I was with Caroline (who found out about the opportunity through a connection at Element Boxing and Fitness in St. Paul), we got to shoot from right up front at the cage near the judges’ tables. The quick action was a blast to photograph, even though I didn’t get a ton of good shots while I was there.

However, I did learn a few things:

Camera Settings + Equipment

As of right now, I’ve got a very basic setup for all of my photography. I use a Nikon D3300 and one of two lenses: a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G or a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED. At first I wasn’t sure how close we’d get to the cage, so I used the 55-200mm f/4-5.6 ED with the hopes of zooming past as much of the cage itself as possible (more on that later). In retrospect, I wish I’d switched to the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G once I got close to the ring.

I shot in Shutter Priority Mode. I needed a shutter speed around 1/200-1/320 to get the action shots, and I didn’t want to be tinkering around too much in Manual Mode. I decided to settle for a little extra noise and set my ISO to 6400 the entire time. I kept my aperture between about f/4 and f/9.

Setting + Environment

We were shooting under a tent outside the bar. The backdrops varied drastically depending on where the fighters were in the ring. Sometimes they were in front of a nice dark background that provided easy contrast. Other times the open sky threw off the lighting (even though the sky was gray for the most part), and sometimes overhead lights screwed with the photos as well.

All that being said, the setting did provide some good opportunities. Colorful lights flashed on the fighters before each match, and cool shots were bound to come if I just took enough shots.

I particularly liked this one with the red glow shining on a fighter in the first match. This was shot with at f/9 and a shutter speed of 1/250 at 68mm. I lightly edited it in Polarr

Timothy Pate MMA photography

As you can see, I was able to focus on the fighter in this instance. That wasn’t always the case. The cage frequently got in the way and took the subject I was shooting out of focus. Like in this photo:

Timothy Pate MMA photography

This photo could have turned out worse, but there were many that made me wish I could just take the cage down or shoot inside the ring.

There will be blood.

Like I mentioned, I’d never been to an MMA fight before this one. Watching (or partaking in) fighting has never been my thing. But from a photographic standpoint, it does make for pretty interesting shooting.

One of the things I tried to capture was the brutality of the sport. The blood and bruises on these guys after each fight made that pretty easy.

Here’s that first fighter again. This was shot at f/5 with a shutter speed of 1/200 at 150mm. Again, it was lightly edited in Polarr. 

Timothy Pate MMA photography

By the way, this guy won his fight.

Final Takeaways

Getting my feet wet in fighting photography right on the other side of the cage was an exciting introduction to this subject. Its challenges make fighting an even more intriguing photography project. I’ll definitely find a way to go back.

Next time, I’ll probably at least rent a wide angle lens and try to capture the fighters in full view. I also hope to be a little quicker so I can get some more of those classic fighting photos where fists meet faces.

And I’ll never sign up to be on the other side of that cage.

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