I had an opportunity to photograph a local Taekwondo sparring event last weekend and I decided to share some of the photographs from the event, along with some photography tips and lessons learned. I have been involved in Taekwondo since I was 12 and while I spent many years taking part in this beautiful and highly energetic (and sometimes even brutal) sport, I never had a chance to photograph it. While I have been suffering from pneumonia during the last 2 weeks, I could not skip a Taekwondo sparring with some of the best athletes in Colorado. I got my daily doze of antibiotics, then quickly made a plan and took off.
I am not a sports photographer and I never really shot an indoors sports event before. However, before planning on what to take with me, I decided to visit the location early and evaluate the lighting conditions. As I expected, the place was very poorly lit, with no large windows and only indoors fluorescent lights to barely illuminate the rings. To make matters worse, Taekwondo sparring is a very high-speed event that requires fast shutter speeds to get any decent results without blurring motion. And lastly, autofocus speed for any indoors sports is critically important, since athletes move incredibly fast and it can be tough to keep the action in focus. After determining where I would shoot from with a good clearance, I decided to grab my Nikon D3s, along with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens to get fast and accurate results, with the zoom versatility. I have used this combo before for outdoor sports at a close range and I knew that it would not disappoint. I wanted to capture full body shots of athletes and the action would take place between 5-10 meters away from me, so the 70-200mm range on full-frame was perfect for both kids and adults.
I first thought about just shooting in available light at high ISO sensitivities (above ISO 3200) to boost my shutter speed to an acceptable level in order to freeze motion. However, after spending a little time at the gym, I realized that I might have to shoot at even higher ISO levels that are beyond my comfort zone. The last thing I wanted was to come back with a bunch of noisy and blurry images. So I made a decision to use flash.
When there is very little or no light, sometimes you have no choice but to create it. And flash can be a very powerful tool to save you in those situations, especially because of its unique ability to freeze motion at slower shutter speeds. The plan was to illuminate the subjects with a single large light (a softbox) that is powerful enough to spread over the ring area, sort of creating a large bright window inside the gym. I was not planning on setting up anything complex with multiple lights, because it would be a disaster to try to manage those lights without someone keeping an eye on them. Two sides of the ring had a lot of traffic, with both athletes and spectators constantly moving in and out. There were some scoring monitors set up on tables on one side and it seemed to be the area that I could more or less control. So I decided to set up my gear right next to those tables, in between two rings.
Once I marked my location, I then had to think about what to use – Nikon SB-900 speedlight or a much more powerful studio-grade light. Unless you use one of those triflash brackets that can hold three speedlights, a single speedlight is just not powerful enough to illuminate a large area, especially when it is inside a softbox. Plus, fast recycle times and consistency of flash output are also very important, since I could be shooting action quickly, frame after frame. Speedlights just cannot deliver that kind of demanding output. It was a no-brainer that I had to use a powerful light, so I left the speedlights at home and grabbed my Elinchrom Ranger RX kit with a large portable battery, along with a 39″ softbox. The setup is expensive, but it is worth every penny when you need the power and consistency of flash.
After I arrived on location, assembling and setting up the light took me less than 5 minutes. I set the camera to manual mode (for consistency of shots), then set ISO to 800 (wanted to have noise-free images) and my shutter speed to 1/250 of a second (maximum shutter speed, given the max sync speed limit of 1/250). I typically use PocketWizard Plus II units with the big lights, because I can mix them with speedlights and other lights when necessary. The maximum sync speed limit of 1/250 was just not cutting it for me and I was getting a trail of blur when athletes kicked fast, so I decided to increase the shutter speed to 1/320 (1/3 of a stop increase) to push the limits. When you exceed the sync speed limit, the bottom of the image comes out darker, because the shutter is too fast for the flash. I looked at a couple of images and realized that only the bottom 10-15% of the image was getting darker. While not very pleasant, I knew that I could use Lightroom’s Graduated Neutral Density filter to fix the problem. So I permanently set my shutter speed to 1/320 and shot the entire event with the same settings. I adjusted the power on the Elinchrom unit to fit my camera settings, and once I got good exposure, I never touched it till the end of the event. Every once in a while I had to either increase or decrease ISO on the camera, but I did not touch the power output of the flash, which worked out beautifully. Most of the shots were properly exposed, although white balance was a nightmare, with all the yellow from the fluorescent lights and all the white from the flash. I adjusted my white balance for the flash and I had to ignore the ambient light, because I did not have any gels to play with. The softbox was set up above my head at around 2 meters, pointing down at about a 30% angle. I shot mostly right under the softbox and sometimes moved around the ring to get a different perspective.
As for the lens, I shot the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II wide open at f/2.8 and almost never changed my aperture. I decided to shoot wide open, because I needed to isolate subjects from the background a little and bring as much light as possible into the lens.
- Flash for indoors event photography can be very effective, even if you can only use one light.
- White balance can be painful to deal with once you start mixing different types of light.
- Shoot in manual mode and manual flash power for consistency of shots.
- Use a fast f/2 – f/2.8 zoom lens for fast and accurate AF. The Nikon 70-200mm is ideal, but you could also use the older 80-200mm. If you will be shooting close to the ring area, anything shorter in focal length is too wide and anything longer is too long. You will most likely shoot between 70mm and 120mm, sometimes zooming in to 200mm to get some headshots.
- Newer PocketWizard units like FlexTT5 that can handle hypersync are definitely preferred over the older ones that are limited to 1/250 sync speeds.
- Ideally, you should be shooting at 1/500 to completely freeze all motion. If I had high speed sync available, I would have shot at 1/500 and increased my ISO to 1600 instead of increasing the power on the flash. If I left my camera settings the same and increased the flash power, it would have resulted in a much darker background.
- Continuous mode with a single focus point selection (not dynamic AF) close to the center seem to give the best results in terms of AF accuracy and speed. I picked my subjects that I would pre-focus on and moved the AF focus point to where he/she was, typically aiming at the hip, between the colored chest protector and white uniform. I nailed focus in almost all shots with these settings and only missed focus on 5-6 images (out of ~250+ images).
- When athletes are too close to the light source (happened a few times that day), the images will get blown out a little, so be ready to either quickly stop down the lens, or you can decrease the exposure in post-processing later (as long as the highlights are not completely blown out).