Last month I answered a casting call on purpleport for a boxing event, which took place on 4th July. While I’d shot some basketball from the seats and had a fun time with my camera as a Tough Mudder spectator, this was my first proper stint as a sports photographer. It was an unpaid job, which was fine. I was happy that someone would let me take my camera ringside. I knew it would be a great learning experience.
I read every article I could find on boxing photography in advance of the event (there weren’t many). Getting there on the day there were two places to work from. There was a raised ‘balcony’ overlooking the action, or ringside – shooting between the ropes. I opted for ringside, along with a second photographer. The third headed upstairs.
The natural lighting wasn’t great; it started off mediocre, peaked as the sun got low and came through the side windows – illuminating the wall opposite like a giant softbox. Then it faded badly. Fortunately there were a couple of banks of LED spotlights at two corners of the ring; these cast a strong white light but in the other corners of the ring the illumination disappeared pretty quickly. Clearly this was going to push the limits of my kit.
I’d brought along a few lenses for my Pentax K-3, though only ended up using two during the night.
As usual, it was my Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.0 that spent most of its time on my camera. While it only has a fairly wide, rather than very wide, maximum aperture, the focal range is ideal. In fact, many of my favourite shots of the night were taken at 17mm (equivalent to roughly a 24mm full-frame field of view). Shooting from right by the ring, the wide end of the range was essential, although I still used the long end to zoom in on the boxers’ heads when they were at the far corner of the ring.
I also took a handful of shots with my fisheye lens, which gave a nice sweeping view of the ring and venue, but I felt didn’t show enough detail from the action.
I selected TAv mode on my camera. This is unique to Pentax cameras, and lets me set the aperture and shutter speed, while automatically selecting the ISO sensitivity to get a proper exposure. Obviously I put the drive mode into rapid-fire, although choosing the medium burst rate (4.5 frames per second) rather than high (8.3 frames per second).
I’ve recently changed settings to use the back focus button, rather than the shutter button, to focus my shots. For sports photography this was a huge improvement – I could focus while the boxers were manoeuvring, and then keep the shutter button pressed when I needed to – never having any focus delay before the shutter fired. Whichever boxer had their face more toward me – that face was where I was trying to keep my focus, waiting for the next dramatic burst of action.
Aperture was generally wide open at f/2.8; f/4.0 when zoomed in. On the aperture range for my Sigma 17-70mm, it’s rare that depth of field is likely to become an issue as long as focus is correct.
The shutter speed was a difficult choice, and one I refined through the evening. Longer shutter speeds blur action and allow lower ISO’s, which maintains detail in the scene. On the other hand quick shutter speeds freeze action but force your ISO up. I started off at 1/500 s, trying speeds as quick as 1/640 s and as slow as 1/80 s. I think my favourite was around 1/250 s. That froze most of the motion, while still showing a little blur in fast moving objects (particularly moving fists) that gave a sense of energy and motion. However, rather than sticking with a single speed, I think there’s something to be said for variety – leading to a range of feels in the final shots and giving any customers a choice.
As above, I’d left the ISO to its own devices. It varied between 3,200 and 12,800 (the maximum I allowed in the auto-ISO settings). The light wasn’t great, and even when it dropped to need f/2.8, 1/250 s and ISO 12,800, I still found myself having to boost the exposure on some images in post. Fortunately, where the noise got bad, in most cases my RAW development software (Corel Aftershot) was able to correct it to provide a decent result.
I’m not actually much of a fan of watching boxing. Fortunately, being actively engaged in getting good shots – repositioning to keep the boxer’s faces in view and in focus, trying to angle the camera and zoom for a decent composition, and anticipating the next burst of action – was far more up my street than just being a spectator.
And, even better, having got some unpaid experience from this – I’ve now got a paid job coming up this Saturday with boxing at a charity event, with a chance of some more if it goes well.