Tuesday, September 9, 2014

TROY-KWON-DO: Martial Arts Photography for Parents

If there is one thing I love doing as much as martial arts, it is photography.

I spent several years photographing equine sports and martial arts events and in the process learned how much more I like using film than digital. I could talk for days about how light waves change when “stopping down” the lens to give you more “depth of field”, but I don't think that is going to help anybody here.

I plan on doing a more in depth article on the finer points of sports photography using DSLR cameras, but this article is just for the parents. That's right, I'm talking to the professional phone / tablet photographers.


Here is a sample from one of our belt tests. With proper technique, you can get nicely exposed shots even in a dim environment. (face has been covered for privacy reasons).

For those of you who do not know, my family owns and operates a Tae Kwon Do school. Other than doing my usual instructor duties, I take all of the photos at events like belt tests and tournaments with professional equipment.

There have been several times when parents have asked me how to take better photos and almost all of what I tell them has nothing to do with their equipment, it is how they are using it. With proper lighting and timing, a cell phone can do just as good as a DSLR for most purposes (posting online, small prints, etc). Here is a quick list to improve your shots next time you are in the dojo.

1) No “Granny Shooting”. Granny shooting is when you frame the subject in the center of the field of view. When quickly snapping a shot it is natural to want to put the subject's head in the dead center of the photograph until you teach yourself otherwise. This almost always results in the shot having way to much negative space above the subject and immediately pulls the focal point away from what you are shooting. To correct this, think of the screen as if it had a tic-tac-toe board on top of it. Try your best to line the subject's head on the top horizontal line. If you wanna get really snazzy, give the subject more “nose room” - more negative space in front of the subject than behind. Don't just “center” everything!


I have drawn crude tic-tac-toe lines on this picture from someone's camera phone when Grand Master Pat Burleson came to visit. Notice how in the cropped picture on the right the top lines meet with Mr. Burleson's eyes? This makes it a much nicer shot.

2) Shoot away from windows or bright lights. Many dojos have large windows near the entrance, allowing a lot of light to shine through. Most, if not all mobile device cameras have some kind of auto exposure system. It is critical to shoot with your back facing the windows, or else the light bleeding through the window could make getting a decently exposed shot very difficult. The resulting contrast from shooting into the light is not very appealing and will usually give the camera a hard time when autofocusing. Shoot away from the brightest light source.



Notice how the blown out windows in the background caused the white balance and exposure of the shot to look funny? Not only is this unappealing, it is much harder to even get a good shot when your camera sensor is battling extreme exposure changes from a dim foreground and bright background. (faces have been covered for privacy reasons)

3) Stay still. Dojos are particularly tricky for photography because of the poor lighting. Light is what makes a photo, so a camera must slow down its shutter speed to properly expose the shot. I do not recommend flash in the dojo for several reasons (I will explain why in the DSLR post). To keep the images from being blurry due to the slower shutter, hold the camera as still as possible.

4) Don't shoot the action. Because of the blurriness explained in the 3rd bullet, it is extremely hard  to get a good photo during fast action without a “fast” lens on a DSLR (1.2 – 2.8 F stop). Wait for “pauses” in the action, like the “top” of a kick, or a paused moment in a kata to snap the shot, or else your photo will always be blurry or just silly looking. Remember – the action may look cool to your eyes, but a picture only captures a brief moment of that movement. You need flash or a fast lens to “stop” the action properly, but honestly the shutter is too slow (both in finger-response time as well as actual shutter speed).



Nine times out of ten, this is what will happen during action moments. The shutter is too slow to clearly take the shot and the camera has backfocused to the background behind the subjects. No bueno.

5)     Get close. There are two reasons to get as close as possible to your subject. One, you want to cut out all unnecessary negative space to make sure your subject is the focal point. Two, the closer you are to the subject, the nicer the “Bokeh”(blurry background) is. Due to the small sensor size and tiny aperture, a camera phone will never have that super blurred portrait look we all love. But you want to give it the best chance its got to make it as creamy as possible. I know it is hard to get close sometimes, but it sure beats using the crappy digital zoom on the camera. The more you zoom, the shakier your shots become – not to mention, most camera phones digitally zoom, not optically, so your quality degrades the more you zoom in.



I think I was supposed to be the subject of this photo. Getting closer to me lifting the weight would have solved the “subject” issue. Waiting until I was at the top or bottom of the lift would probably have kept the shot from being blurred as well.

6) Shoot the photo as “raw” as possible. There are a lot of custom settings and filters available on your device. Ignore them all except maybe HDR if you have it. The device does a great job of setting everything up for you. Once you have the raw image, you can always apply these filters to it later using one of the million different apps there are out there.

7) Touch the screen on your subject. Most people know this – but you can tell your device where to focus by touching the subject on the screen. It will find the correct focus most of the time, but this ensures that the focal point is right where you want it. This is especially helpful if you are doing some artistic shots and your subject is way off to the side or otherwise nowhere near the center of the frame. I use this technique often to include our logo in the shots (it is painted on the back wall so I frame it off to the side).

8) Take lots of shots! The greatest advantage that digital has over film is the ability to take millions of shots without consequence. You can also “chimp”, which is reviewing your last shot to see if you like how the photo came out before taking the next one.

9) Keep your lens clean, but not TOO clean. I have noticed my phone camera collects a lot of dirt and other stuff from moving it in and out of my pocket all the time. I often leave it on surfaces without even thinking of whats collecting in the lens – like in the sand at the beach! It is best to clean it with some solvent and a Q-Tip every now and then (use an air can to blow off as much as possible first). The less blocking the lens, the more light you get! The flip side is that you are scratching the lens surface every time you do this – so clean it is infrequent as possible to avoid permanently damaging the lens. I have never bought a lens cleaning kit for my pro camera in my life. If the pro lens looks bad enough to need cleaning, then I just unscrew the UV filter and replace it with a new one. Lens cleaning kits are a scam, you will never need them as you are almost always doing more damage to the lens than helping it when “cleaning” it.



This a shot of my Mother at a Tae Kwon Do tournament. The low lighting, fast action and chaotic environment make these shots tricky to get.

There are an infinite number of ways to get a good shot and beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder. I understand that some of my tips are not the “best” way to handle these situations, but anything involving “pro” equipment or ridiculous measures defeats the purpose of this article.

This guide is for the Moms and Dads of martial artists – the ones who don't really care how the camera works – just that it makes good photos! I plan to get super nerdy in my explanation of using pro DSLR cams and manual point and shoots like at Best Buy in my next camera post. Feel free to email me any of your shots for critique, I love seeing other people's work!




Troy Seeling is a 1st degree black belt and instructor in Tae Kwon Do, with 5 years experience in Boxing and a two-year white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.  Troy also instructs a strength and fitness class, and helps to manage his families' dojo, North Texas Karate Academy  In his spare time, he enjoys trying different forms of physical fitness, including Olympic weight lifting and distance running. He also enjoys film photography with antique cameras.  You can contact Troy at troyseeling@aol.com.




Ed note: Opinions in "Troy-Kwon-Do" posts are those of Troy Seeling, and I don't always agree. I am gravely disappointed Troy didn't cover how to get the best selfies in this post.  -The Stick Chick