Jiu-Jitsu Photography 101

So, you’ve decided (or been talked into) photographing the next jiu-jitsu tournament. Whether it is on the grand stage of the World Championships or on the small mats of your local academy, here are some pointers that should help improve both your technique and understanding of both arts. This isn’t a comprehensive list and each photographer will have his/her own opinion on the matter, but this should offer a good jumping-off point.


Since tournaments are typically held indoors in a gym-like setting, the following tips will apply to that scenario:

Read your manual!

Or cheat and YouTube-it. I know this may sound boring or overly simplistic, but it is important. How can you take great photos if you don’t even know what your camera is capable of? Yes, the best way to learn is by doing, but by reading the manual you take out some of the guesswork and reduce the learning curve.



Do not use your camera’s Auto/Sports Mode

02Alright, I will come clean; I was guilty of using this mode when I first started. It wasn’t until I switched to Manual or Semi-Manual mode that my photographs really took off. Most cameras will have full Manual, Aperture Priority (Av), and Shutter Priority (Tv) modes. Aperture Priority, as the name implies, will use the aperture that you select and go auto on the shutter speed. Shutter Priority will do the same, but for the shutter speed. If you’re not quite ready to go full Manual, play with the Tv mode first. While the Auto/Sports Mode may produce a usable photo from time to time, DO NOT be afraid to push the limits and experiment with your camera. Even with a basic understanding of shutter speed and aperture, you will be able to get better results than keeping it on auto all the time.


Push your ISO higher

Back in the old days ISO used to refer to film-speed, but now ISO refers to your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the number, the more sensitive to light, allowing you to shoot in low light situations. More times than not, you will be shooting with lighting conditions that are less than ideal. What your eye may think is great lighting, your camera may disagree with wholeheartedly. A higher ISO will allow your camera to “see” more light. Most of today’s cameras produce great photos at high ISO’s, but be careful not to push too much. The higher the ISO number the more “noise” is introduced to your photos. Part of the challenge is finding that happy medium. Depending on the amount of ambient light you have to work with and the quality of the equipment (lens speed) you’re using, the ISO range can be anywhere from 100 to 3200. .


Change your level

If you have practiced jiu-jitsu at all you have probably heard the phrase, “Change your level.” This applies to photography as well. Look around at other people taking pictures. Most of them are holding the camera at eye level and snapping away. Shy away from the norm. Find a higher spot and get a wide shot, lay of the ground (if possible) and get a low, close-in shot or simply take a knee and get a straight on shot. Be creative with your “level.”



Shutter speed

Keep your shutter speed as high as possible if you are looking to freeze action. This will work in conjunction with your ISO and your aperture (lens opening). The higher the ISO the higher you can push your shutter speed. I recommend not going below 1/200th of a second. Again, it will take some playing around to get the proper exposure because other factors are involved which I won’t get into at this time in an effort to keep things basic.



Aperture (or f-stop)

This refers to the opening of your lens. A lens set to an aperture of f2.8 has a larger opening than a lens set to f22. Hint: the smaller the number, the larger the opening. But what does this mean? The larger the opening the more light that is allowed through. (See how all these things are starting to work together?) In photography, light is your friend. The more you have, the better your shots will be. So again, experiment with the Aperture, ISO & shutter speed.


Quick Tip

A quick way to get a starting point for your settings is to set your camera to Auto/Sports Mode (I know, I know, I said not to use this, but I have a reason). Take a couple of shots of something static (non-action). Look at the ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed settings of those photos. Now, set your camera to Manual Mode and set your camera to the settings you just wrote down. From here you can adjust your settings in combination with one another to achieve a good exposure. If your photos are too dark, they aren’t getting enough light. If they are too light, they’re getting too much light. Again, these are all basic concepts. Much more information is available on each topic and how to use them.




When you look through the viewfinder, think of that as your frame. My one comment on this is to FILL THE FRAME with your subject (unless you are shooting a wide angle shot that captures the whole venue or you are looking to capture an important element in the background in relation to your subject). No one wants to see the extra mat space around the athletes. Get rid of it. You can do this while you’re taking the picture by zooming in (if your lens allows it) or after the fact by cropping with photo editing software. You want to focus people’s attention, not distract them with non-important elements.



White Balance

Depending on the location, the light source could be either tungsten or fluorescent light with maybe some sunlight mixed in. Play around with your white balance settings. Many times Auto will work just fine, but if you see that your photos have an unnatural color tint to them, try using a different setting and check out the results.



Know the sport

One of the best ways to capture the perfect shot is to anticipate what’s going to happen. If you know what a triangle set-up looks like, then you know it is coming. This allows you to capture all the photos up to and including the submission.



I’m not going to tell you to run out and buy the latest and greatest piece of equipment (although faster/more expensive lenses allow you to capture action in low light situations better). Use what you have and use it to the best of its ability, and yours. Unless you have top-of-the-line equipment, stick with shooting in JPEG mode and shoot in short bursts. Shooting in RAW might limit how many shots you can take, thanks to the camera buffering. Photographer Chase Jarvis once said, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” Remember, a tool doesn’t fix the car, the mechanic does.



Get the face

When I look at shots that I consider my best work, the one thing they almost always have in common is that I’m capturing the expression on the athlete’s face. Your best shots are almost always going to have at least one athlete’s face in the frame.




Finally, shoot. SHOOT A LOT! With practice comes perfection. Shoot as many photos as often as you can. And when you get tired of doing that, shoot some more.





John Cooper is one of, if not the most well-known jiu-jitsu photographers. His work has been featured in magazines and popular websites. You can find him on facebook.com/ocjohn.

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