By Richard E. Baker—
I’ve been photographing professional boxing for more than 40 years and, if you can handle the violence, I heartily recommend attending a match to stretch your photographic skills. In this article I’m going to give you a few pointers to get you started and, like me, once you shoot a few matches, you may become hooked on the historic sport of prize fighting which has evolved over many centuries.
The most asked question I get is how to get started. In almost every town or city in America you can find a boxing gym, a place where lovers of the sport go to work out and train. There will usually be a sparring ring set up along with various training equipment that boxers use to build up their strength and agility. Find this place and introduce yourself to one of the trainers. (If you live in or near a university town, inquire if the college has a boxing team and then speak to the coach.) Explain that you’re a photographer and would like to shoot some boxing photos. Also tell them you’ll be happy to give him some prints of your take and ditto for the boxers you shoot.
Begin by shooting the fighters working out, getting their hands taped and so on. If they ask why you’re taking the pictures, tell then you’re a photographer and have always been interested in doing shots of their sport. Then ask them some questions before you raise your camera. Where are they from? What got them interested in boxing? Once you establish rapport, tell them to ignore you, to just go on with their routine. Then shoot away.
If there are boxers sparring in the ring, saunter over there and see what you can get. The rest of this article contains suggestions on how to shoot at an actual boxing match and you should be able to transition easily into that once you’ve gone through basic boxing photo training at a gym or with a college team.
When I say “suggestions” I do not mean rules. Listening to self-proclaimed experts, including me, can give you a foundation for decent pictures but following anyone’s suggestions without deviation will stifle creativity. Never believe someone who says you cannot take a photograph for various reasons, just use you imagination and take it differently.
1: Research the sport. Learning about any sport is essential to good photography. This is especially true in boxing. Ignorance leads to many wasted opportunities. Boxers do more than stand there and try to hit one another. They use certain footwork, throw a verity of punches, and use various strategies for offense and for defense. Some boxers are aggressive and initiate blows while others are passive and prefer to counter-punch. Some are boxers and some are punchers. Knowing what each person is doing will help in your photographic decisions.
2: Lighting. Do not worry about it. There is nothing you can do about the light. It is what it is so you must use your technical and creative ability. I constantly run across decent boxing photographers who claim you must use shutter speeds of 1/500 or faster and many like to shoot at 1/1,000 or faster because they want all the action stopped. These experts think a totally still action picture is the best kind. I seldom shoot faster than 1/250 and sometimes even 1/30 or slower.
I think it’s ridiculous to take an action shot that shows no action. How does that kind of action shot differ from one staged by two people standing still with their arms out? I want to see motion – faces, gloves, some body part slightly blurred. This is where knowing the sport comes in handy. If you want a fairly sharp picture and can only use a slow shutter speed, snap the shutter at the peak of action such at the end of a punch where the glove comes to a complete stop before being withdrawn the same way you might shoot a jumper in the air when he stops before coming down.
3: Access. People not into the sport of boxing do not realize that bouts take place fairly often, usually small events with fighters on the way up or even amateur and Golden Gloves fights. Being allowed to photograph from ringside is often easy. Fighters and promoters want pictures of their fights. A promoter will usually exchange your entrance for a few prints. Do a decent job and he will allow you in every time, even when he has a big fight.
4:. Photographer Positioning. Always get as close to the ring apron as possible. Often there will be rows of tables around the ring, especially in small shows. Judges, boxing officials, special guests, reporters, and high rollers use these tables. Usually photographers will have to sit behind the tables. Often you can squeeze between the tables where they abut. You never have to worry about this at major events. One side of the apron is left empty to be filled with standing photographers, often from around the world. Fifty or more photographers vie for the 10 or 12 spots. The rest must sit in the stands using telephotos and make out the best they can.
5: One at a Time. Concentrate on one fighter at a time. Action happens quickly in a fight and trying to watch both fighters at the same time only leads to complications. I generally alternate rounds concentrating on one fighter and then the other, or I concentrate on the fighter throwing the most punches.
6: Fighter Side-by-Side Positioning. Now for the fun part. There are several tricks to get the best boxing shots. Shoot fighters side-by-side on a horizontal line. Since you will be usually shooting with a large aperture you will have limited depth-of-field. If the fighters are side-by-side in front of you they will both be in decent focus. You also have a chance of seeing both faces. If one fighter is behind the other on a lateral line only one will be in focus and only one face can be seen. (I take many pictures like this, anyway, especially if I am trying to capture a single expression.)
7: Shoot The Far Arm. Generally shoot the arm farthest from you. Sshooting the nearest arm of a fighter often blocks his face as well as his opponent’s. Also, avoid jabs. Jabs are straight punches from the leading arm. Because they are straight, they lack interest. From a compositional standpoint curves on people are generally more appealing than straight lines and these punches also block faces. Stick to the far arms and your shots will improve greatly. Shoot when bodies and legs are bent for the same compositional reasons.
8: Body Shots. Body shots and uppercuts are especially nice because they are thrown when a fighter’s legs and body are bent. Again this gives a nice curve to the shot and the faces are visible.
9: Patterns. Hitting the shutter at the right time is almost impossible without practice. In most cases, you must depress the shutter before the punch is thrown– not because the camera is too slow but because our reactions are too slow. To help with this problem start looking for patterns in the boxers. Most boxers fall into various patterns throughout a fight. The longer a fight goes the more they fall into these patterns. They might throw two left jabs followed by a right. Wait until the two lefts are thrown then, as soon as you see his right shoulder start to move hit the shutter. After any lefts are thrown look for rights because he can throw nothing else. Likewise, after he throws a right or two he must throw a left. You will get the hang of it fairly quickly.
10: Lens Variation. Boxing is one of the few sports that can be shot with just a 50mm lens. Even if you use some type of zoom lens you will find that you are shooting somewhere around the 50mm range anyway. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Some photographers consistently shoot full body shots while others shoot mostly from the waste up.
Because I am interested in expressions I crop pretty tightly. My shots are really portraits. I only shoot full body if I know someone is going to be knocked out and then I often do something I never see other photographers do – I shoot with a super-wide lens. If I know a boxer is coming close to being knocked out, I switch to this lens (or zoom out to the maximum) and take a chance that it will happen near me. If it does I get a great shot.
11: Late Rounds. As a fight progresses a fighter wears down. He gets bloodied, swells up, and covered with sweat. These are the shots you want. You want the muscles to ripple and glisten with moisture, the expression of defeat, survival or conquest on the face; and you especially want flying sweat. Nothing frames a punch like the darkness lit with sweat and water. The best time to get these shots is at the beginning of the final rounds because the corner will have doused the fighter with water to cool him down and he is sweating like a cold beer bottle in a warm room.
12: Choose The Right Paper. I have made hundreds of boxing prints on Red River’s San Gabriel SemiGloss Fiber paper (which has been replaced by Big Bend Baryta) because it shows the beauty of boxing better than any other paper I’ve ever used. The paper has a refined sheen and subtle texture that makes my fighters look as if they were painted by classical artists.
Now that I’ve shared the basics with you, I have a few more comments to make. Photographers who simply hold down the shutter release and take hundreds or even a thousand or more photos may get a decent shot but they are trying to do it through luck, not skill and, in many cases, the best shot is still missed. Learn to anticipate peak action— good sports photographers have been doing that for years and it shows in their work. A bonus that comes with this technique is that you don’t have to plow through hundreds or thousands of images after the event.
Finally, have fun. This is your chance to cut loose and enjoy the night. Celebrities, great and small, often attend fights. Here is your chance to get some amazing shots, and fighters, unlike many sports figures, are readily accessible and, contrary to their aggressive trade, extremely friendly.
Big Bend Baryta 310 photo paper.
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Last updated: February 16, 2023