Best of 2013 – Fight Action

UFC 166 - Melendez v SanchezCapping off my “Best of 2013” series of galleries is the one you’ve all been waiting for. This is a collection of my best fight action images from this year. I limited it to the top 50 images – ok, 52 in total, but one is a 3-image sequence. Some will say that’s probably too many, but I had to cut out so many good ones just to get to that number. It’s amazing just how many fights I shot this past year.

The obvious choice for my favorite would be the renown sequence of Stefan Struve getting his jaw broken at the left hand of Mark Hunt. But, I have a different one that has stuck in my head ever since I captured it. The Diego Sanchez v Gilbert Melendez fight was one of the best fights of the year, if not in UFC history. As soon as I knew I had this shot (at right), I tagged it and set it aside for this gallery. I knew nothing else would top it.

Here is a slideshow of the full gallery. Please click through to my site and view everything at full resolution to get the full effect.

Best of 2013 – Fight Action – Images by Joshua Hedges

Best of 2013 – The Features

TUF 17 Finale Open WorkoutsContinuing with my recap of 2013, I wanted to do a gallery that encompassed some of my favorite feature images I captured over the last year. This includes portraits and pretty much anything that’s not fight-action. I really enjoy trying to make interesting photos outside of the fights themselves, and I relish every opportunity I have to shoot something different than fights, whether it be for fun, for charity, or for another assignment.

One of my favorite feature images from this year is the image at right of Cat Zingano stretching before a workout leading up to her UFC debut.

Here is a slideshow of the full gallery. Please click through to my site to view the full-size gallery.

Best of 2013 – Features – Images by Joshua Hedges

Best of 2013 – The Reactions

UFC 156: Volkmann v GreenKicking off the first of a few “Best Of” galleries for last year with my favorite emotional reactions I captured. It was hard to narrow it down to a healthy edit of 40. I photographed so many great events this past year and saw so much emotion on both the winning and losing end. My favorite overall for the year still remains the Bobby Green celebration shot (seen at right) from his come-from-behind victory over Jacob Volkmann. I was up the fifth-floor press box of Mandalay Bay shooting the fight with my 400mm 2.8. Most of the action was turned away from me, and I was really regretting my decision to go upstairs for this fight. Then, as soon as Green mounted his comeback and finished the fight, he turned as if he meant to line up perfectly for my lens and let out an incredible scream. This ended up being my favorite frame of the night and one of my favorite overall shots of the entire year.

Here is a slideshow for the rest of my favorite reactions from 2013. Please click through to my website and look through the entire gallery at full resolution.

Best of 2013: The Reactions full gallery

Best Laid Plans

UFC 162 Open WorkoutsAs is often the case with shooting on-location under questionable circumstances, you can only plan so much. Today happened to be one of those cases for me at the UFC 162 Open Workouts. I walked into XS Nightclub at The Encore with the knowledge from my experience of shooting there last July. However, a quick survey of the scene revealed a different setup from last year, resulting in totally different lighting conditions. I always bring along my speedlites whenever shooting a workout because I never know what the light will be like and at least I have the consolation of knowing I can always provide enough light for any situation.

Once I realized how low the ambient light was, I started breaking out my gear and setting up. Shooting in a nightclub can be challenging because those places are designed to cram as many people in as possible and they don’t have a lot of secure locations to mount lights or even put up light stands. I could only find one spot within range of the stage to setup a light stand, so I decided to double up my two FourSquare blocks and concentrate all my light into one source. I put the softbox with six speedlites about eight feet off of the back corner, stage-right from my position. My first plan was to be able to walk around throughout the venue and shoot from multiple locations, giving me a variety of angles for my light source. However, once the workouts started, I quickly realized I would not be able to move at all. In fact, I kind of painted myself into a corner standing on the stage, only having about ten feet of movement left and right. The light source was to my right, about twelve feet above the stage hitting from almost a 45-degree angle. So, it wasn’t bad at all. I had some great ideas for portrait-style shots I wanted to get while in the midst of the workouts. By the end of the shoot, I found myself scrambling just to make any kind of shots.

The real problems began when Anderson Silva prepared to come on stage. He always travels with a large entourage, and today proved to be the biggest yet. He had about thirty people with him, all of whom would be on the small stage while he was working out. So, I was fighting for space the whole time. Being a 13+ year staffer for UFC provides me with a lot of access, but when Anderson Silva is in the building, all that experience and access means absolutely nothing. His trainers and camp will deliberately move in front of you to prevent you from getting shots so their own photographer (with no credential at all) can get the exclusive shots. They will push you around. They will try to have you kicked out completely. I was prepared for all of this as it’s happened several times before, but today was by far the worst situation. Two members of his camp climbed onto the tower where my light stand was mounted and throughout the shoot they used my light stand as an arm rest. So, I tried to keep an eye on that through my periphery at all times. At one point, I was blindly hail-mary shooting over two rows of people who would not let me any closer. Finally, I managed to squeeze myself into a tucked spot on the edge of the mat underneath a documentary camera following his camp. Unfortunately, this meant that I had no chance to get anything of use with 70-200mm lens, which is my lens of choice about 95% of the time. But at that point, I was just in survival mode and wanted to make any photos I could.

When all was said and done, I made it out of the shoot unscathed with a decent take. And all my equipment survived for another shoot. The lesson to be learned here is that you can plan and stress and go crazy trying to make sure everything is perfect, and there will still be a rather large sized monkey wrench thrown in the gears to throw everything out of whack. You just have to go with the flow and try to adapt as best you can. Realize that not every situation will be perfect. But don’t panic and just try to look for other angles and options. And don’t always count on your subject being totally cooperative. It’s nice when they are, but it isn’t always the case.

Here is a look at my take from the day.

UFC 162 Open Workouts – Images by Joshua Hedges

How I Got The Shot

Greetings from Tokyo, everyone. As I sit here in the airport lounge awaiting my flight home, I’m catching up on the social media happenings from last night. A couple of my shots from the Mark Hunt vs Stefan Struve fight have received quite a bit of attention.

So, I thought it would be a little fun and interesting to start a new feature on my blog where I give you a little insight into what I was thinking and how I made a particular picture. I’m going to call it “How I Got The Shot”. This could be a one-and-done thing, but I hope not. Hopefully some of you find this educational.

For anyone who may not know what I’m talking about, here is “The Shot” from yesterday’s UFC on FUEL TV 8 even in Saitama, Japan.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - MARCH 03:  (L-R) Mark Hunt knocks out Stefan Struve with a punch in their heavyweight fight during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
SAITAMA, JAPAN – MARCH 03: (L-R) Mark Hunt knocks out Stefan Struve with a punch in their heavyweight fight during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

I wish I could say I planned everything out perfectly and positioned the fighters exactly where I wanted them, but it just doesn’t work that way. There are so many variables that are within my control. I’ll start with the basics and work my way towards the actual sequence that ended the fight.

First and foremost, you have to get your exposure right. This is a very easy task, but one that people somehow still mess up frequently. UFC has a very consistent lighting scheme for all their shows. I know before I walk into the arena on fight day what I’m going to set my camera to before I ever fire a shot. And, for the most part, it doesn’t fluctuate much from venue to venue or country to country. I can usually count on the following being my settings for the night, within about 1/3 of a stop over or under – ISO 3200, 1/2000s, f2.8, 3400K white balance. I set all three of my cameras to this exact setting at the start of the night.

Before the fights even start, I try to take test shots under the full show lighting setup. This means being at the arena during walk-in rehearsals, which are typically 2-3 hours before the first fight. This gives me a chance to not only check the exposure, but also to check the white balance. UFC uses tungsten lights for all the overhead lighting in the truss, though the blue color of the canvas mat tends to skew it just a bit. I find that setting the white balance manually to around 3400K provides me with the look I prefer. Using the “tungsten” setting in camera (approx. 3200K) looks too cool to me. Sometimes, the color fluctuates too depending on the age of the lights and whether or not the riggers used any gels when hanging them. So, it’s always good to check. Just a side not too, I know a lot of people who set custom white balance using a white piece of paper or a towel. If that’s what works for you, that’s fine. I feel like that also is too cool for my taste, so I choose to do it manually. Look at the images on your computer screen too, not just the back of your camera, to decide what looks right.

Ok, so we’ve got the exposure and white balance dialed in, time for some fights. My assignments always require me to shoot every fight. I sometimes wish it could be like in boxing where people only really care about the main event or the last couple fights. But then again, there have been plenty “Fight of the Night” awards handed out for the first fight of the night. And for this fight in Tokyo, that looked to be the case as Marcello Guimaraes and Hyun Gyu Lim put on a nice performance in the opener. It will likely take you some time to get your timing down and figure out any focusing issues throughout the night. This is where it helps to have a number of preliminary fights before the “important” fights.

I had some good moments throughout the night, but I didn’t really feel like I had my timing nailed down until the Diego Sanchez v Takanori Gomi fight. Diego’s fights are always good for photographers. He comes forward, stays in the pocket, and has a really good chin. If you can’t make at least one good image from a Diego Sanchez fight, maybe you should think about trying something else. Or maybe you were stuck behind a pole and in a bad position for all the good action.

Anyways… Mark Hunt v Stefan Struve followed the Sanchez v Gomi fight. Hunt has been loved by Japanese fans for years from his days of fighting in K-1 and Pride. He’s always had an exciting style. You never have to guess how a Mark Hunt fight will go. He will get hit and he will hit back harder. His fights are typically either a test of how good his opponent’s chin is, or if his opponent would like to showcase their grappling. Knowing this about Mark and having shot a number of his fights, I found myself “sitting on” him, in a matter of speaking. What I mean is that I would put one of my focus points on his face at all times and track him waiting for him to throw something. Unless of course he was turned away from me, then I would follow Struve for those few moments.

Just before the ending sequence, the guys were a little bit more than 15-feet away from me when Hunt threw a big right hand that landed flush. I had a bad angle for it, Hunt was completely hidden and all I saw was Struve’s back, so I didn’t fire my camera. But looking through the eye-piece, I noticed this look on Hunt’s face as Struve absorbed the shot without going down. If I could put it into words what his face said, it would be “What the hell do I have to do to beat this kid?” At that point, I told myself to get ready. I had that feeling he was going to throw another right with even more power than the previous shot.

I was right. Hunt blasted Struve with a massive right hand, followed by a ridiculous left hook. My angle was still not favorable for the first sequence, but I managed to capture it nicely still. I caught these in two 3-shot bursts. For the first sequence of the right hand, I had my focus point over to the right side of the viewfinder up a little from center, dead on Hunt’s face as he launched the punch. I did my best to keep tracking him with the AF point, but to be honest, I’m surprised any of the shots after the first were sharp. For the second sequence of the left hook, you can see the second frame is not as sharp. The action was so fast, I couldn’t switch the AF point and remained on the right side. So then Struve jumped into focus. Below are scaled down shots of each sequence. These are exactly as they came out of the camera, only sized down. No sharpening or cropping at all.

Click on the images to blow them up larger.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - MARCH 03:  (R-L) Mark Hunt punches Stefan Struve in their heavyweight fight during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
SAITAMA, JAPAN – MARCH 03: (R-L) Mark Hunt punches Stefan Struve in their heavyweight fight during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
SAITAMA, JAPAN - MARCH 03:  (L-R) Mark Hunt knocks out Stefan Struve with a punch in their heavyweight fight during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
SAITAMA, JAPAN – MARCH 03: (L-R) Mark Hunt knocks out Stefan Struve with a punch in their heavyweight fight during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Aside from the focus, I also got really lucky with the distance. Had the final shot been just a few inches closer to me, my 70-200mm lens would not have been able to focus and I would have been out of luck. Sometimes, you have to decide when to switch or when not to switch to your wide-angle lens. I made the decision to stick with the 70-200 as soon as the first punch landed. It cost me the chance to get any sort of jubilation shot immediately after, but I think it was a worthwhile sacrifice.

Once I did switch over to the wide angle, I was able to catch this gem of Struve telling Herb Dean his jaw was broken.

SAITAMA, JAPAN - MARCH 03:  (R-L) Stefan Struve points to his jaw as referee Herb Dean stops his heavyweight fight against Mark Hunt during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan.  (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
SAITAMA, JAPAN – MARCH 03: (R-L) Stefan Struve points to his jaw as referee Herb Dean stops his heavyweight fight against Mark Hunt during the UFC on FUEL TV event at Saitama Super Arena on March 3, 2013 in Saitama, Japan. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

And that’s how I “Got The Shot”. Hope you enjoyed reading. Feel free to leave me any comments or questions.

It’s The Little Things

Photographers often stress too much on assignments about the job and overlook little things. I won’t pretend like I don’t do it myself. Especially when it’s a last-minute job or I’m working under a serious time crunch. So, I wanted to put together a blog post reminding us all to remember the little things that will in turn make our photos, and our work in general, better.

Synchronize Your Clocks
One of the first things you should do on an assignment, perhaps even before you leave for your assignment, is to synchronize your camera clocks to the local time where you will be shooting. Make sure all cameras are perfectly synced to each other, as well. When your assignment involves multiple cameras, everyone’s clocks should be synced. This will be a tremendous help for your editor(s) and is just a good practice for organization purposes. When you’re working for wire services, the less the desk editors have to mess with, the better. So if you send in files with correct dates that match the captions, they will spend less time processing the files and get them posted and out to clients faster.

Clean Up Your Background
This is something that I never really paid a lot of attention to in my early years, until I started working for Getty Images. I think a lot of photographers are the same. We all worry about the immediate subject we are shooting, rather than the whole scene. Sometimes, obviously, backgrounds can only be cleaned so much. You’ll notice a lot of my UFC shots have annoying bright-colored banners in the background. I try to eliminate them when I can, but there are just so many that it’s impossible to have a completely clean background. If I only transmitted completely clean background images from a UFC fight, I would have a take of maybe 4 or 5 photos. So, you have to accept that it’s not always going to be possible. But, you should also do whatever you can to put yourself in the best position to obtain a clean background. Some things you can do include shooting with a wide aperture to get a shallow depth of field, get low and shoot upwards, or get high and shoot downwards. Sometimes, the background helps make the shot too, so you have to always be looking for things like that. When a fighter jumps on the cage to celebrate after a big knockout, the first thing I do is grab a quick couple of frames of him that captures his immediate emotion. After that, I look in the background and start looking for pockets of light that hit the crowd who are also going crazy. It doesn’t always work out, but sometimes if I catch the light right and the fighter is looking in the right direction, it makes for a cool frame. Even though the background is not really clean. But, in general, you should always try to produce as clean of a background as possible.

AF Focus Points
This seems to be one of the more difficult concepts for newer sports photographers to grasp. I was guilty of this too, in my early days. For most sports, I would always suggest shooting with a single AF focus point. You want to make sure that focus point is sitting on whatever it is in the frame that you want to be in focus. Typically, this is the face of the subject. Obviously, it’s not always easy to keep the AF point on the subject’s face, and sometimes there is not much contrast in the face to be able to quickly grab focus. If you’re shooting football or baseball, you can put the AF point on the center of the player’s chest. There’s usually good contrast with uniform numbers and logos to be able to quickly grab focus, and most of the time, the depth of field is good enough to allow the face to still be pretty sharp. The main point of what I’m trying to say here though is that you should not just set your AF point to the center and leave it there. Learn the functions of your camera and move the AF point around. Program registered AF points that you can quickly switch between. You will see an immediate difference in your results if you’re accustomed to focusing with the center AF point and re-composing the frame.

Set The Correct White Balance
Again, this may sound like a given, but I can’t tell you how many people I’ve ran into who don’t understand anything about color temperature and white balance. One of the first things you should do on an assignment is set your white balance correctly. Avoid using auto white balance (AWB) at all costs. Obviously, there are some situations where AWB might be the best option, but in general, it is not. Learn the color temperature of different types of lights and set your white balance manually. Use your preview screen for fine tuning. You can develop your own style and preferences from that too. For example, normal daylight color temperature should be somewhere around 5600K. However, when I’m shooting in direct sunlight, or with daylight balanced strobes, I prefer to set my white balance a little warmer and typically end up somewhere around 6300K. There are various tools on the market that allow you to “auto-magically” set a custom white balance, too. I don’t have an issue with these most of the time, but I would still recommend you learn about color temperature and know how to set the white balance manually.

Off-Camera Flash > On-Camera Flash
If you must use a flash, take it off camera when possible. Get an off-camera flash cable, wireless transceivers, or wireless flash. I’ll steal a concept from one of my mentors, Dave Black. Think of your lighting scheme in terms of a triangle. Your camera is one point of the triangle, the subject is another point, and the flash is the third point. If the camera and the flash are on the same point, the results just don’t look good. It could be as simple as hand-holding the flash and moving it a foot or two to the left of the camera. Just try it out and look at the results. Compare it to an on-camera flash shot. You will never go back once you see the difference.

Only Transmit Sharp Images
I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people transmit images that are not sharp. Most wire services will reject images that are not sharp. Every editor has a different idea of what is sharp, but you should always make it a priority to send the sharpest images possible. If an image is soft, figure out why and work to improve it next time. You should get in the habit of checking your images on the back of your camera. Zoom in to 100% and check to see how sharp it is. Don’t think just because it’s only going on the web it’s ok. Soft is soft, and no amount of unsharp mask can fix that. And the solution is not to just shoot everything at f8. Whatever it is you shoot, whether it be fights, baseball, hockey, whatever. Take your camera and lens that you will be using. Set the settings to exactly what you will use for the assignment and under the exact lighting conditions you will use, shoot something or somebody that is completely still. Zoom into that image at 100%. Unless your camera or lens has some sort of issue, that is what a sharp image should look like. So as you’re shooting the rest of the assignment, review from time-to-time and make sure your images are relatively close in sharpness to that image.

Always Be Prepared
You should always do everything you can to be prepared for an assignment. Do your homework. Get to know your subject. Depending on the assignment, this could mean a number of different things. If you’re shooting somebody’s portrait, try to learn a little about the person. See if you can learn a little about their personality, their likes and dislikes, their quirks. Don’t be an ass-kisser, but it never hurts to be personable and try to make your subject feel comfortable. If you’re shooting a sport you’re not familiar with, doing your homework means you need to get familiar with the sport. You need to learn the rules. You need to know what to look for. Where do the big plays happen? When and where are you likely to see celebration? Who are the key players? Are there any records that may be set or broken? Point is, don’t just show up without having done some research and homework. You don’t want to be stressed trying to figure things out as the shoot unfolds. I see this all the time and I think it really hinders the quality of images the photographer produces.

UPDATE: ThinkTank StreetWalker HardDrive Review

Quick update after my first flight en route to London on a United Express Embraer 120 turboprop. The gate agent asked me to check my StreetWalker HardDrive but I insisted it would fit under the seat if not in the overhead bin. These planes have notoriously small bins that fill up fast so they encourage everyone with a carry-on larger than a purse to check their bag. This is where frequent flyer status comes in very handy. I was first to board and took my exit row seat. The bag fit perfectly under the seat. So I decided just for fun to try to fit it in the overhead bin. Perfect fit again. Didn’t even have to remove my laptop to condense it. Another check in the “plus” column for the ThinkTank StreetWalker HardDrive.

ThinkTank Streetwalker Hard Drive First Thoughts

By now, everyone knows what a huge fan I am of ThinkTank Photo and their products and service. In my opinion, they make the best bags and attachments, hands-down. Over the years, I’ve collected quite an assortment of ThinkTank items. Over the past few months, my trusty Shape Shifter backpack has started to show its age and I had begun looking at options for a replacement. I’ve spent several weeks looking at various different options and talking to a lot of colleagues to get their insight on what they like and don’t like.

My ultimate goal was to replace the Shape Shifter with a backpack that I could fit even more gear into. I almost went with Dave Black’s method of using a hiking pack and just wrapping all my lenses and cameras in Domke wraps. His method is definitely the most efficient means of transporting a lot of gear in a carry-on size bag. But, I’m a creature of habit. Over the years, I’ve become quite dependent on the divider system found in most camera bags.

One of the top bags on my list to look at was the ThinkTank StreetWalker HardDrive. My interest got back to the ThinkTank staff and they were gracious enough to overnight me a bag to demo and review.

ThinkTank Photo StreetWalker HardDrive backpack (photo courtesy ThinkTank Photo)
ThinkTank Photo StreetWalker HardDrive backpack (photo courtesy ThinkTank Photo)

My first impression upon opening the box was that the bag was much beefier than my Shape Shifter. Though in terms of size, it’s not a whole lot bigger than a fully-stuffed Shape Shifter. I quickly started configuring the dividers and tried to fit all my everyday gear from the Shapeshifter into the StreetWalker. This mostly consists of things like hard drives, laptop chargers, extension cords, wifi adapter, phone chargers, headphones and various cables. All that didn’t even take up half the space in the bag. I was then able to add one of my 1Dx bodies, two lenses, three pocketwizards and trigger cables, extra batteries, and my wireless mouse. And of course, my Macbook Pro went into the separate dedicated laptop slot.

The next test was to see how much heavier it was than the Shape Shifter, and it wasn’t a huge difference. The Streetwalker feels much more comfortable on my back, though. The more rigid design helps distribute the weight better and it doesn’t seem to have as much of a tendency to sag.

I’m leaving for London for my first assignment with the new bag on Monday, and I’ll be able to provide a little more information on how well it travels on planes. I don’t suspect I’m going to have any issues. The Streetwalker is a few inches taller than the Shape Shifter, so it may not be allowed to go under the seat. It’s rare that I travel with a bag under the seat anyways, so that won’t be a big deal for me. So far, I’m liking the bag a lot, and I’m looking forward to putting it through the paces over the next few weeks.