Exposing for the Spotlight


Kung Fu Night has recently come to an end and now having 4 events under my belt, I thought I would share my experiences.

When I first sought out to photograph Kung Fu Night, I had no idea how difficult it would be. There were a multitude of elements to consider: the spotlight, the brutal darkness, composition, and motion just to name a few. One thing I had going for me was 9 years of Kung Fu telling me which moves were coming next. Here are a few things I learned along the way to take excellent photos.

Prepping Your Camera for the Event

I always shoot in RAW. For those who don’t know, RAW is a file format used on DSLRs to hold as much information about a picture as possible. Because of the RAW format, we can perform needed edits on the photo after the event.

Upon arriving at the event, The first thing I do is setup my camera for the harsh contrast from the spotlights. To do this, I pop over to manual mode and start setting up my exposure.

First, I set the shutter speed between 375–500. This will ensure that the performer’s face and body are not blurry, but their extremities may be. This is a desired effect as it will help demonstrate the motion of their hands as seen in this photo.

Next I set the aperture to as wide as it will go. This isn’t ideal to get the best quality picture out of a lens; however, I need the extra light in order to get a usable exposure. Most lenses are built to perform between f5.6–f8.

Lastly, I’ll set my iso to somewhere around 1600–2000. I use a canon 6d which has phenomenal low light performance. On cameras with crop sensors, I’ve noticed a lot of grain going this high with the ISO, but it’s a necessary evil. Most people will look beyond the graininess of a picture if the subject matter is interesting.

Some cameras come with features like sports mode, full auto, and program. Automatic modes don’t utilize the full power of a DSLR. A point and shoot/mirrorless camera is better suited at those who choose to only use automatic modes. These modes will also slow down the camera which could make auto focusing slow. When the camera feels the subject isn’t in focus, it won’t take the picture, which means the shot was missed. Automatic modes may also not get the correct shutter speed, or will boost the iso so high that the pictures is too grainy to use. Setup the camera for manual once, and it’s good for the rest of the night.

Composing a Shot

There’s a quote from Robert Capa that I always try to keep in mind: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. It certainly helps that I’m able to walk around the stage to get just the right angle on a performer; however, the spotlights are setup so that the audience gets the best view. If you talk to anyone sitting front and center, they’ll tell you that I spend most of my time front and center in the middle aisle.

For my lens, I use the kit 24–105 f4–5.6L that comes with the 6d. This gives me a a good amount of variety during the performance to minimize lens swapping. I’m able to zoom in for closeups on performers, as well as take wide angle shots of the group; however, I usually find that single shots of performers always turn out better. See the quote above.

Not every shot I take works out to be a usable photograph. There are a lot of factors to overcome, and I’m far from perfect. The trick is to try and take multiple photos. There have been many photos that I couldn’t use because the camera wasn’t quite focused yet, someone’s weapon had just entered the frame as I took the shot, or the performer has a silly look on their face (some of which are quite humorous). I try to take multiple photos of a scene to try to mitigate factors not in my control.

photo credit to wikipedia user Moondigger

One more thing I’ll bring up on composition is the rule of thirds. If you look at the image to the left, notice that the tree is not in dead center of the picture. The lines overlaid on the image split the picture into 6 lines; 3 vertical, 3 horizontal. The 4 points at which these lines overlap are great spots to position your subject to help provide a more interesting picture. Furthermore, the direction in which the subject is facing matters as well. If it’s facing left, position it on the right; and vice versa as seen in the photo below.

Photo demonstrating the rule of thirds and positioning the subject properly

After the Event

Taking the pictures is not even half the battle. After the event I usually spend 8 hours or so reviewing and editing photos. It’s very important to find a photo editing workflow that works for you as it can be a painful process. After one Kung Fu night, I believe I walked away with over 800 photos that I had to later review, pick, and edit.

There are people who try to be purists and never edit photos; the argument being that it’s cheating. The problem with that logic is that modern cameras aren’t as capable as the human eye. The dynamic range is worse; most lights emit a yellow glow that should be corrected, and there’s a vignette and distortion from the lens that should be removed. To be honest, not editing the photo makes it look less real than how the photographer initially saw it.

I use Adobe Lightroom for the bulk of my simple touchups. Things like adjusting exposure, white balance, and lens correction are easily done in Lightroom. If I need to do further touch ups like removing objects or people from the shot, photoshop does the trick perfectly. There are tons of photo editing software out there, I just have an adobe cloud membership, so I get those already.

My workflow for editing photos is as follows. I load up all the images and go through them one by one looking for good composition. I ignore the exposure for the moment and try to focus on what could be a great picture. I take cropping into account here because frequently one performer in a group gets captured very well compared to the rest.

After flagging photos, I switch over to editing. based on the exposure I set my camera up for, the performers are going to be a bit dark. I do this intentionally, knowing that I’m going to edit them later. When shooting in RAW, you can push the exposure 2 stops lighter before it gets too grainy. For comparison, JPEG can do about .5 a stop. I’ll generally only push the highlights of the photo since everything that’s dark is unusable. I’ll also do some color correction, and add some clarity to give it a more powerful look.

Lastly, I’ll remove things from the photos like the illuminated exit sign, performers that don’t belong in the shot and other various items that clutter the photo. In the photo below, I applied a mask to the performers holding the kicking target to make them a little darker since the kicker is the subject of the photo.

Once I’m happy with the batch of photos, I’ll export them to jpg format around 1920x1080 resolution. This ensures an HD photo, and the file size isn’t too large. If I left them at the native resolution (5472 x 3648), some photo sharing sites might penalize for it since the file would be around 10MB.

If you would like to learn more about photography in general, I suggest looking at the courses on lynda.com. After I bought my first DSLR, that’s where I first learned about exposure and composition. After that, it’s just a lot of practice. I highly suggest trying to photograph a lot of different things. For me, photographing wildlife helped figure out how to deal with a subject that doesn’t respond to you; and landscapes helped teach me about composition.

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