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MMA Behind The Lens: Part 2 feat. Amy Kaplan, Andy Cowan, and Gary A. Vasquez

Amy Kaplan, Andy Cowan, and Gary A. Vasquez take us behind the lens of an MMA photographer.

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Welcome to Part 2 of MMA Behind The Lens. This two-part feature focuses on interviews with MMA photographers, as they discuss how they do their jobs as well as the excitement and drive behind shooting combat sports. The featured subjects give insight into technical details regarding their gear and how to take great pictures, as well as more artistic matters; such as the emotion and drama they hope to capture through visual storytelling.

If you haven’t checked out Part 1 of this series, you can read that here. That piece includes interviews with the renowned Esther Lin of MMA Fighting and Showtime Sports and master portrait-taker, and self-proclaimed curmudgeon, Ryan Loco.


To continue this exploration of combat sports photography three photogs with a wide range of experience as professionals in the field discuss their work. First up is LA-based Gary A. Vasquez, a veteran sports photographer who has shot countless UFC events, and has also been on the sidelines for dozens of MLB and NBA games.

The second interviewee is a fixture firmly inside the ‘MMA bubble’. Andy Cowan is a Dublin-based MMA journalist, documentarian, and photographer who contributes to Irish outfit Severe MMA. Cowan has covered UFC events and European promotions such as BAMMA, ACB, and Cage Warriors.

The final subject of this feature series is Amy Kaplan, in-house photographer for Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) who has also shot UFC, Bellator, and Combate events. Kaplan lives in SoCal and works as an MMA writer alongside her work behind the camera. She formerly contributed to Champions and now writes for Fansided MMA/Sports Illustrated.

Though each are in different stages of their photography careers, all know the thrill of capturing ‘the shot’ and have experienced how photographing the sport of MMA is like no other gig.


Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports

Q. What camera equipment do you use and why?

A. I currently use Nikon D4 and D3 camera units. For an MMA event, my typical kit will consist of the cameras, 70-200mm lens, and a wide angle such as a 24-70mm. The 70-200 lens is used almost entirely, while the wide angle may be used here and there should the fighters come up close to the cage and you want to capture a wide angle image; to capture not only the fight but the atmosphere surrounding the octagon.

Early in my career I was a Canon shooter, but I tried out Nikon cameras and I liked them a lot. The lenses and optics are top rated and at the time when I tried out the Nikon cameras they handled much better in low light environments. This proved very effective because it allowed me to create high quality images in low light environments without a lot of grain that would degrade the quality of images.

Q. What is the typical itinerary for shooting a live MMA event?

A. If there is a UFC event in Las Vegas that I am going to work, let’s say, I will typically fly in the morning of the weigh-ins so that I can work those in the afternoon. With regard to my kit, I try to be as minimal as possible.

Normally when I work other sporting events I will carry everything with me and the case is just very large. For MMA I have a smaller bag that I can carry on my shoulder that I can put on the overhead box in the plane. This bag allows me to carry two camera bodies, two lenses, and a battery charger. For my computer kit, I am again minimal. I just bring what I need along with the computer such as cards, readers, and network cables (if it allows for hard wire connection). I don’t like to burden myself with a lot of equipment if I don’t need to. Doing this allows me to pass through TSA quickly.

With regard to uploading final images, before a fight I will create a main folder on my desktop and in that create sub-folders for each fight during the event. I am given a generic caption template which allows me write in a pre-made template for each fight, so that when it comes time to caption I just have to write in the action of what’s going on. I also tag images in my camera so that when I ingest them into my computer, they will already be selected and I can go ahead and copy those into my work folder, edit them, caption and then send. This is very critical for workflow and transmitting. Especially if someone is a lone gunman and has no editor to work their images and needs to send out images quickly on deadline, since the stoppage time during fights is very short – especially in pay-per-views and online streaming events. I find it easier if it is one of the FOX events because at least there is more time to work in between thanks to commercials and panel segments in their broadcast.

Q. What are your goals when it comes to shooting a live event?

A. My goal is to tell the story of the event rather than come out with X number of images. You can make great artistic pictures while telling the story of the fight. For the main event the amount of image requests will increase. Typically for a regular fight set I may aim to send 15-18 images on deadline, more if I’m asked. For the main event fights I may send 25-30 images because those will be in demand for editorial clients and I want to make sure there is a good selection.

Q. How many pictures do you take during a fight?

A. I can say that during a 5 min round I have taken maybe 200-300 images.

Note: Vasquez said they typically takes between 5,000 & 5,500 images at a typical UFC Fight Night, but he’s known photographers who take over 10,000 an event.

Q. Do you know it when you get that ‘perfect shot’ and how does that feel?

A. It’s a great feeling to get a great image during the night, especially during one of the more notable fights later in the fight night. It all depends. You can either realize instantly you’ve taken a ‘picture of the night’ after a knockout or submission or long after the night is finally over, while going over your images.

Q. What are some fundamentals of photography you find you use often when photographing MMA?

A. Other than getting the obvious fighting images, artistic wise, if there is time during the event day – and there is a fight that really carries no significance – then try to get an overall venue picture to capture the atmosphere of the event. Also, depending how far the fighters are, it’s always good to shoot tight and fill in the frame as much as possible. This is also good because the farther away the fighters are, and the tighter you shoot, it will help the picture stand out. You will also get to capture detail like cuts, bruises, blood, etc.

Also it’s pretty cool to get pictures of the fighters in their pre-fight mode, so that it will go with the story a photographer is telling. It’s even better to use the pre-fight lighting to your advantage to create artistic images as well.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports and Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Q. What would you say are more advanced techniques that you utilize often when photographing MMA?

A. I mentioned that it is good to shoot tight when the fighters are far from your position. This is effective when shooting though the fence because shooting tight effectively makes the fence ‘disappear’ in your images because of the depth of field. I will admit, MMA is probably one of the hardest sports I have shot in my career, mostly because of the fence.

Auto-focus can work but doesn’t do much good, so it is a combination of auto and manual focus one must do. The first fight is where I take some getting used to once I am two or three fights in I am good for the rest of the night. Also what is important is getting the color temperature dialed down for the event. On some images, I can tell people leave what is called Auto White Balance and images look almost yellow. I’ve figured out the color temperature of the lights used in the fights and it brings out true to life colors which leaves minimal need for editing, which is critical in sending out images.

Q. What important lessons have you learned during your time photographing MMA?

A. I have learned that covering MMA events is a lot of hard work. The hours are long for fight night with 12 fights over the course of 8-10 hours. The work is more exhausting mentally than physically. After a fight night is over I just want to go back to my hotel room and sleep because I have an early flight back home. Most people misconstrue just because I am in Vegas working the event that I will party after, but that is far fetched!

It’s even more grueling for the UFC photographers who must wait even longer after everyone has left, for the tear down crews to bring down the lighting trusses so they can get their cameras that are aimed at taking overall Octagon images from above. Physically it’s tough because you’re in that position cage side for so long during the day. Your knees and arms begin to ache and you should always take breaks during the time between fights.


Andy Cowan, Severe MMA

Q. What camera equipment do you use and why?

A. I had been using Nikon cameras for years, but I have just in the last couple of weeks switched over to the Sony A7ii. For MMA, I use the Sony 24-70 F4 Zeiss Lens for 70% of my shots and I plan on adding a 70-200mm in the coming weeks. For events, I try to stick to these two lenses. I will also bring along a 50mm prime lens.

The focal length and aperture of the lenses cover me for pretty much anything that would be expected of me in both MMA and the other subjects I shoot. I switched to the Sony system for size more than anything. I do a lot of hiking in Ireland and my shoulder was getting sore from carrying those heavier bodies, so I finally made the switch. Best decision I ever made. MMA events can last for hours so its prudent to have a camera that won’t weigh you down.

Q. What is the typical itinerary for shooting a live MMA event?

A. I will usually try get my hands on a copy of the fight week itinerary as early as I can. This way I can plan ahead what kind of images I can expect to get. When I was in college, I was hired to shoot a music gig for one of the main music promoters in Ireland. It was the break I had been looking for and, to make a long story short, I messed it up, badly. It really knocked my confidence and I turned down a lot of gigs after that because I was certain I would mess them up too. I realized my downfall was down to my lack of preparation.

Thankfully, now I plan every day out so that I know what gear to have, where’s the best place to stand, who is likely to be there, and so forth. On the day, I always try to arrive early. If you are in the arena before the fights start, then chances are you will catch the promotion doing their light checks. I use this opportunity to get my camera settings ready. As the fights are happening, I will try to edit one or two photos so the site has something they can use on social media for results. I copy everything onto my computer and back the images up. When the event is over, I will try to edit a handful more so that they are ready to publish. I will leave the rest of my editing then for whenever I get home.

Q. What are your goals when it comes to shooting a live event?

A. The goal is to try have at least a handful of high quality images per fight and then several photos that can be used as stock for future articles or social media posts.

Q. How many pictures do you take during a fight?

A. I try to keep it to about 100-150 per fight. Anymore than that and post processing becomes too much of a chore.

Q. What, for you, are the most important images to capture during a fight?

A. The fight ending sequence would be the obvious moment here, but personally I love capturing emotion. Seeing fighters when they enter the cage knowing all their hard work led to this.

Andy Cowan / Severe MMA

Q. MMA is an exciting and visceral sport, do you feel that when you are photographing the action?

A. It is incredibly exciting! As someone who started out as a massive fan of the sport, it is a privilege to shoot a fight cage side. That said, the high pace and trying to keep up does make it difficult. The biggest challenge would be the fights that finish early. Unlike other sports like soccer or basketball, you know you have 90 or 48 minutes to get shots. With MMA you could have several seconds. It is a rush to say the least.

Q. While you are photographing an event, are you able to take in what is happening in the actual fights?

A. To be honest, not really. If a fight goes three rounds, I never really have any idea how the fights will be scored. Although you still see the fighters through the viewfinder, its very easy to miss moments trying to focus or review images. Sometimes I will review a fight and see a fighters hand being raised and realize that I forgot that they had won. Events sometimes become a blur.

Q. Do you know it when you get that ‘perfect shot’ and how does that feel?

A. It is incredibly satisfying. It really depends on how the fight is going. Usually the perfect shot happens when the fight is at a high pace so it can be hard to stop and review them. I was certain I got a perfect head kick a couple of weeks ago up at a local show called Cage Legacy, but for some reason, from the sequence of photos I took, it was the only one that was badly out of focus.

Q. What are some fundamentals of photography which you find you use often when photographing MMA?

A. Composition and Focus. The image has to be composed properly. The fighters should fill the frame and be in focus. There is nothing worse than photography that is out of focus. This makes photographing MMA quite challenging because fighters are constantly moving and changing levels.

Q. What would you say are more advanced techniques that you utilize often when photographing MMA?

A. I am not sure if it is considered an advanced technique but the use of manual focus I find helps a lot. I learned photography using an all manual camera so I am comfortable turning the auto-focus off and having a go at it myself. Depending on where the fight is taking place and its position in relation to the cage, it stops the camera focus system guessing.

Q. What important lessons have you learned during your time photographing MMA?

A. Less is more. It is a very easy subject to sit on the shutter and take hundreds of photos per round and hope that some come out. I try to take my time and watch where the fight is going. I try to compose every shot. However this method can backfire in shorter fights but for the majority I prefer it.

Andy Cowan

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you encounter when trying to capture the images you want at an MMA event?

A. Equipment, I would love to have access to a second camera and higher end glass. The market for sports images is completely sewn up by the photo agencies in Ireland and MMA is seen as a niche sport here too, so that doesn’t help when it comes to selling images.

I rented equipment a lot when I lived in Toronto but that’s not really an option here because it costs approximately three times as much to do it. This makes it hard to justify paying thousands of euro for a camera body, let alone a second one every year and the same again for a few lenses. That said, I do my best to make do with what I have. Also I am under no illusion that better equipment would make me a better photographer, it would be nice though.

Q. What advice would you like to give to people who are considering a career in photographing combat sports?

A. I am only doing the photography side about a year, but my advice is to try to make the best of what you have. If you are starting out, don’t worry about not having the latest and greatest equipment and try not to compare yourself to the people at the top of the industry like Esther Lin or Mikey Williams (Top Rank boxing). Use them as inspiration.

The first event you shoot probably won’t look great, but use that as a base to go from. Review your settings, look up hacks online for sports photography and try to improve with every event. Slowly it will all come together. Before you go to an arena to shoot a fight, maybe message a fighter and ask to come down to the gym. They will be delighted for the photos for their social media and you get to try out and test settings.


Amy Kaplan, Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), freelancer (UFC, Bellator, various) and writer for Fansided MMA

Q. What camera equipment do you use and why?

A. I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark II and either a 70-200mm zoom lens or 24-70mm. They aren’t necessarily what I choose specifically for MMA, they are more just what I had. I got my Canon 5D when I was in photography school and I love it so much that I can’t bear to part with it. I was actually gifted the 70-200 when I was 18, so it’s a really old lens, but it’s awesome because it’s a great zoom that helps alleviate the visual of the cage. My 24-70 I really like because I can zoom in and out and it gives me a little bit more of the cage, which I’ve actually sort of grown to like.

Q. What is the typical itinerary for shooting a live MMA event?

A. I shoot the weigh-ins and then immediately afterwards I would charge all my batteries, clean my lenses, make sure that my memory cards are all clear and empty and then just kind of reorganize my bag and make sure everything is there. I double check to make sure I don’t forget any extra batteries or extra memory cards and make sure I have my lenses.

I try and get to the fights as early as possible. I like to be the first one there because a lot of the times – depending on the promotion – they’ll let you pick where you want along the cage. So if I’m there early I always like to pick a spot that’s closest to where the fighters’ will walk out. That way I don’t have to worry about running over there and running back to my spot.

If I’m shooting for LFA, I will be up on the stand shooting into the cage, which is a little different. So I’ll actually bring an assistant with me, and between rounds I will hand off my cards to them. And they will upload the photos between rounds and kind of organize them, maybe mark a few that are nice. And then at the end of each fight they will upload one of the best from each fight.

If I’m working at a UFC event – or just a regional promotion – and I’m shooting more stock photography, then I will just download the cards at the end of the show and organize them. It’s just a little too hard if I don’t have an assistant to download everything. I don’t know how Esther does it, she’s always so fast. I can’t do it. I get too nervous, that I might miss something. So I usually wait to the end.

Q. What are your goals when it comes to shooting a live event?

A. I shoot with the fighters in mind a lot more than a promotion or an outlet, because I know that the first thing that happens after a fight is the fighters message me and say, “Hey can I get pictures of my fight?”

So I always try and get a good walkout shot of both fighters. I try and get at least one good picture of them in the cage doing something; obviously usually I get 20-30 of those. And then I try and get a really good celebration picture and a really good hand raising picture. And sometimes the hand raising pictures are the harder ones to get because there are so many people in the cage at that point. But I really try to think about what the fighters would want see so I try and shoot for them.

Q. How many pictures do you take during a fight?

A. I would say usually, 300-400 a fight, depending on how long it goes ... I’m a pretty heavy shooter. I think. I don’t know if that’s heavy. It feels like I’m heavy.

Note: Kapan said they shoot around 2,000 to 3,000 photographs per MMA event “similar to a wedding.”

Q. What, for you, are the most important images to capture during a fight?

A. I used to have a very stereotypical view of MMA and I thought it was wife beaters who were violent and wanted to kill each other and that no one cared about anyone else and it was just about hate. And then when I went to Bellator and I saw all of the sportsmanship and the camaraderie and all of the hard work – and the teamwork – that’s what really made me a fan.

I want to share that with more people. I want that to be represented more. I want people to see the human aspect of MMA. There are aspects that are bad, but overall it’s very... it’s hard to say gentle, but it is a very intimate sport. There’s a lot of emotions there that aren’t just hate and violence.

Q. MMA is an exciting and visceral sport, do you feel that when you are photographing the action?

A. I think the adrenaline is almost a little bit heightened for me because of the anticipation of whether I am going to get the shot. You have the fight happening and when you know someone who is fighting and you know their backstories and what they have riding on the fights, that aspect does affect me. And on top of that you have the pressure of getting the shot.

I think it adds to the pressure when you have all the photographers bunched together on one side, because you know everyone sitting next to you is going to get that same shot or better, so you want to make sure you don’t miss it. Because if you miss it and they get it, what’s going on with you?

Q. While you are photographing an event, are you able to take in what is happening in the actual fights?

A. A lot of people come up to me afterwards and say, “What happened? Who won and who did this?” And I’m like, “I don’t really know,” because I’m so zoned in on making sure my aperture is right, my shutter speed is right, and everything is correct and that I’m getting it. I’m not really paying attention to what is transpiring, especially when it comes to a decision fight. They always ask, “Who do you think won?” And I have no idea because I’m not paying attention to that.

Q. Do you know it when you get that ‘perfect shot’ and how does that feel?

A. I’ve always been pretty good at knowing exactly when I get the shot. I think a perfect example of that was, I was shooting an LFA fight a few months back and the headliner had a headkick KO. I didn’t even look at my camera, I just handed it to my assistant and I said, “I got it.” And I knew I had. I didn’t even have to look. And I did. And other times I’ll look back at images and be like, wow I didn’t even realize that happened. So there’s a mix, really.

When I get it, it makes me feel like I’m vindicated, like I deserve to be there. I feel like when I get that shot, I’m like, “Good, there’s a reason I’m here. I’m not just a space filler.” And I feel proud, like I’m actually doing my job. I did something right. I did something good. So it’s definitely a validation of my talent. Because there are times that I get home and there are images that I’m not proud of and I feel like, “Why am I doing this? Am I really supposed to be here?” And then something like that happens, when I do get something right, and I am like, “Okay, I am supposed to be there.”

Q. What are some fundamentals of photography that you find you use often when photographing MMA?

A. You have to really know about shutter speed and aperture and all of that. That’s the real fundamental stuff and I can tell when photographers are just starting out, because they have their camera set on automatic. And I can always tell with the images afterwards, that they don’t really know about aperture or depth of field, because their focus is off. Or, you can see too much movement and they haven’t been able to capture freeze the movement.

Q. What would you say are more advanced techniques that you utilize often when photographing MMA?

A. You definitely need to be really aware of depth of field. I think that’s definitely most important. If you want to eliminate the cage you really need to know about that. And also, you need to know lighting, you have different lighting when someone is in the center of the cage versus when they are against the cage. It’s much darker against the cage and if you aren’t quick enough and able to switch up your settings then you won’t get the correct exposure,

Q. What important lessons have you learned during your time photographing MMA?

A. I think the thing that I noticed in my first few fights was, that I didn’t have the correct lens. I was shooting with just the 70-200 so I wasn’t able to get really good wide shots. I didn’t get a lot of kicks. I would get really great faces and the blood and all that, and that was cool, but I was missing a major part of the fight. So it took me a while to play around with different lenses to really see which one would work.

Also kind of the etiquette on how to shoot. There’s photographers that will stand during the fight rather than kneel down and then there’s photographers who will walk around the cage and not stay in their designated spot and that’s stuff you kind of learn over time because nobody tells you. The first Bellator event I was at, I was walking around doing whatever I wanted, because I didn’t know and then I started going to more shows and realized I’m not supposed to stay standing and I’m supposed to stay in one spot – it’s just stuff no one tells you.

But also, one thing that I’ve kind of learned at photography school that I’ve always kept with me is, I never – this goes back to the downloading of images – whenever all the photographers are downloading images between rounds, I keep shooting. So I get a lot of images that the others aren’t getting. I kind of like to focus on the relationships and the more emotional aspect of fight photography, even more than the actual action of the fight itself. I really like the moments between, the coaches in the corners, and I really like the celebration, and the way they interact with their opponents when the fight is over.

Sportsmanship @wckmuaythai #sportsmanship #girlskickass #muaythai

A post shared by Amy Kaplan (@photoamy33) on

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you encounter when trying to capture the images you want at an MMA event?

A. With corner shots, the commission will stand right there next to the fighters and I’m like, oh my God. They’re not doing anything. They’re just standing there and I want to see the coach and I want to see the fighter.

The same goes for in the fight, the referees. I get so many pictures of the referee’s butts. It’s crazy. Or like, I get a great shot, but the referees’ butts are in there. So those are definitely things that cause problems. But there are some referees who are iconic, so I’m okay with them getting in the shot. Or if they are making some grand gesture, then that’s fine too. But, for the most part, it’s just like their butts are in it. They’re bending over and there’s some feet on the ground. So that’s not so great.

Q. What advice would you like to give to people who are considering a career in photographing combat sports?

A. I would say that, obviously you have to shoot, you can’t expect to start shooting UFC right away. I would say, find your local MMA promotion, ask them if they have a photographer, offer your services for free because you don’t know what you’re doing yet. So don’t try and charge. I know that’s controversial, a lot of photographers would say always charge, but I feel like if you don’t know what you’re doing you should not be charging.

So offer your services, if they have a photographer, ask if you can come and take photos and share your photos. Most MMA promotions, especially local ones, don’t have an assigned photographer. And if they do, they are totally fine with you coming and shooting. That’s kind of where I would start and get a feel for it. Don’t come with lots of lenses. Come with your mind open and just shoot. And as long as you keep shooting and keep practicing you’ll get better.


WRAP

Hopefully, the next time viewers are left agog by an epic ‘smash-face’ image, a shot that shows compassion between temporary enemies, or a portrait that revels not just the face, but the mind and soul, of a fighter, they’ll have a clearer picture of what was happening on the opposite side of the lens.

This knowledge may make readers enjoy those pictures more than they ever did. It might also be just what they needed to follow in the footsteps of the individuals featured in this series.

Each of these interviewees’ ability to capture MMA’s awesome moments for posterity is, thankfully, paired with a spirit of generosity that allows them to reveal how they make it happen. Far from protecting their methods, for fear of being usurped, they’ve decided to open the door for fascinated onlookers and, possibly even for those who wish to join them. It’s a competitive field, with only a few spots at the very top. But after all, photography is an art that’s designed for shared experiences.

Other feature articles by Tim Bissell include Blood Sports n’ Body Paint: an interview with the infamous ‘Just Bleed’ guy, Taekwando and Terror: a story of two brothers’ disparate paths, Behind The Pain: the scoop on how STEMM and Dana White created the sound of the UFC, and The Male Gaze in Women’s MMA: a five-part series on how female fighters’ appearances have shaped the sport.

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