Taekwondo Photography Tips For Beginners Update 12/2021

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Photographic Techniques For Taekwondo

To commemorate my experience photographing a local Taekwondo tournament over the weekend, here are some of the photos I took, as well as photography advice and lessons learned. Since I was 12, I’ve been involved in Taekwondo, but I’ve never had the opportunity to capture the beauty and ferocity of this (at times) brutal discipline. I couldn’t miss a Taekwondo match with some of Colorado’s greatest athletes despite having pneumonia for the past two weeks. As soon as I finished my dose of antibiotics, I devised a strategy and took off.

taekwondo photography (1)NIKON D4 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 640, 1/320, f/2.8

I’m not a sports photographer, and I’ve never covered a sporting event at an arena before. However, before making any decisions on what to bring, I opted to arrive early to check out the lighting conditions. There were no wide windows, and the sole internal fluorescent lights were barely enough to highlight the rings as I had envisioned. Adding insult to injury, Taekwondo sparring takes place at a high rate of speed and hence calls for rapid shutter speeds for sharp images without motion blur. The autofocus speed is vital for indoor sports since athletes move so quickly that it’s difficult to maintain the action sharp. After figuring out where I wanted to shoot from, I grabbed my Nikon D4 and 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens to obtain quick, accurate results while still having the ability to zoom in and out. I’ve previously used this set for close-range outdoor activities and it didn’t disappoint. Athletes would be between 5 and 10 meters away from me, so a 70-200mm lens on a full-frame camera was ideal for both children and adults.

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To begin with, I considered simply using a high ISO sensitivity setting (above ISO 3200) to increase my shutter speed to a usable level for freezing motion. The more time I spent in the gym, the more aware I became of the possibility of having to shoot at even higher ISO settings that are beyond of my normal range of experience. Bringing back a slew of grainy, pixelated photos was the furthest thing from my mind. As a result, I decided to shoot with flash.

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NIKON D4 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 800, 1/320, f/2.8

The only option you have when faced with low or non-existent light levels is to generate it yourself. If you find yourself in one of these scenarios, your flash will come in handy because of its unique ability to freeze motion at slower shutter rates. The idea was to use a single powerful light source (a softbox) to illuminate the entire ring, creating a giant bright window within the gym. In order to avoid a complete disaster, I had no intention of putting together anything complicated involving numerous lights. There was a lot of movement in and out of the ring on two sides, with athletes and fans alike. It appeared that the section where I had the most control was the side with the scoring monitors set up on tables. This is where my gear would be, right next to the tables, in between two rings.

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Once I had my position marked, I needed to decide between the Nikon SB-900 speedlight and a far more powerful studio-grade light. One speedlight, even when enclosed in a softbox, cannot adequately illuminate a big space unless you have a triflash mount that holds three speedlights. Fast recycle rates and uniformity of flash output are also critical, as I may be shooting fast-moving action and need to capture multiple frames per second. Speedlights are just unable to meet such high output requirements. As a result, I left my speedlights at home and used my Elinchrom Ranger RX kit with a huge portable battery and a 39-inch softbox instead, which was a no-brainer. The equipment is pricey, but it’s well worth it if you’re going to use flash frequently.

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NIKON D4 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 800, 1/320, f/2.8

As soon as I got to the area, it just took me about 5 minutes to put the light together and set it up. Set the ISO to 800 (intended noise-free photographs) and shutter speed 1/250 of a second (maximum shutter speed given maximum sync speed restriction of 1/250) with the camera in manual mode. When working with large lights, I like to utilize PocketWizard Plus II units because they may be used in conjunction with speedlights and other types of lighting. In order to avoid obtaining a blurry trail when athletes kicked hard, I increased the shutter speed to 1/320 (1/3 of a stop) from the highest sync limit of 1/250. When you go above the sync speed limit, the bottom of the picture gets darker because the shutter is going too fast for the flash to keep up. Only the bottom 10-15% of the image was going darker when I looked at a few images, thus that’s what I suspected. Even though it was a pain, I had faith that the Graduated Neutral Density filter in Lightroom would help me resolve the issue. As a result, I made 1/320 my default shutter speed and used it throughout the event. Once I had a nice exposure using the Elinchrom device, I didn’t touch it again until the end of the event. I had to adjust the ISO on the camera every now and then, but the power output of the flash remained constant, and that worked out perfectly. The majority of the images were properly exposed, but the white balance was a complete headache due to the fluorescent lights’ plenty of yellow and the flash’s abundance of white. Because I didn’t have any gels, I had to ignore ambient light when setting my white balance for the flash. The softbox was positioned above my head at a height of roughly 2 meters, with the downward facing side facing the camera. I spent the majority of the time shooting just under the softbox, but I did walk around the ring a few times for variety.

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The lens I used was the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, which I used wide open at f/2.8 with absolutely no vignetting. I chose to use a wide aperture because I wanted to remove as much of the backdrop as possible while still getting as much light into the lens as possible.

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Lessons Learned

1. Even if you can only use one light, flash indoors event photography may be quite effective.

2. When shooting in a variety of lighting conditions, getting the white balance right may be a real nuisance.

3. To ensure consistency in your photographs, use manual exposure and manual flash power.

4. Fast and accurate autofocus can be achieved using a fast f/2 – f/2.8 zoom lens, which is recommended. The Nikon 70-200mm f/4G ED VR lens is recommended, but the older Nikon 80-200mm f/4G ED VR lens will work just well. To get a good shot of the ring, you’ll need a focal length of at least 200mm. Anything less will be too wide, while anything more will be excessively lengthy. Most of your images will be taken at a focal length of 70mm to 120mm, with a 200mm lens being used for close-ups like portraits.

5. Hypersync-capable PocketWizard units like the FlexTT5 have an advantage over older models that can only sync at a speed of 1/250.

6. To freeze all movement, use a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second. Instead of raising the flash’s power, I would have used 1/500 and a higher ISO of 1600 if high speed sync was available. If I had raised the flash power instead of changing camera settings, the backdrop would have been significantly darker.

7. If you’re looking for high levels of AF accuracy and speed, try using continuous mode with a single focus point (do not use dynamic AF). In order to pre-focus on my targets, I selected the AF focus point that would be between the colored chest protector and white uniform and positioned it there. With these settings, I was able to get perfect focus on nearly all of my photos; only 5-6 photographs (out of perhaps 250 total) were out of focus.

8. Be prepared to stop the lens fast when athletes are too close to the light source (which happened several times that day), or you can reduce the exposure afterwards in post-processing (as long as the highlights are not completely blown out).

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NIKON D4 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 640, 1/320, f/2.8