BTS – MMA Fighter Portraits

It’s always fun to photograph athletes, and martial artists are great subjects. Not only are they usually very interesting looking, they tend to be very serious about their sport, but not too serious about themselves. This makes for an enjoyable shoot.


I recently photographed UFC fighter Rafaello Oliveira and some of the local MMA competitors that he trains. To create a dramatic look for the photos, I used a single keylight almost directly over the subject’s head, combined with double backlights.


I used almost completely bare bulbs for this. I did put a layer of “tough spun” diffusion on the keylight to keep it from being too uncontrollable, but I wanted the lights to be as hard as possible, so I did not soften them in any way.


The overhead keylight casts shadows that emphasize muscle and bone structure, at the expense of seeing detail in the eyes. It’s not the kind of lighting you’d want for a fashion model, but for someone who is supposed to look tough, it works well.


The double backlights evoke a sense of drama and theatricality, as we would normally only see that much backlighting on a stage or performance venue.


Finally, when processing the images in Adobe Lightroom, I turned the “Clarity” slider up a bit, to emphasize local contrast, and to give the image a bit of a gritty look. This is the exact opposite of the “Vaseline on the lens” look that is associated with glamour shots.


I processed the images for both b&w and color usage. This kind of dramatic light translates well into black and white, although I personally prefer color for this type of subject matter, because it gives the image of sense of immediacy.


5 Replies to “BTS – MMA Fighter Portraits”

  1. Very nice work. I am used to working with medium format Ilford Pan and Tri-X films for black and white work and normally am less than impressed with digital substitutions. This is an exception to be sure, very beautiful. I didn’t think it was possible to get digital b&w to look this good. Not to mention all the great color shots…

  2. High praise, indeed! Thank you very much for the kind words, Chris. I have found that lighting is absolutely critical for digital b&w. Much more so than shooting b&w film. Without a LOT of contrast, digital b&w just tends to look like “gray and gray” instead of “black and white.” I’ve seen other people shoot really nice, high-key digital b&w (Jack Guy springs to mind … ), but high contrast is the key for me.

  3. thanks for the easy to understand breakdown of how you created these shots, really cool and I’ll definitely be using it myself. Reminds me a lot of a shoot a photographer did of our armwrestling team that came out really sick. worth taking a look if you go to click on portfolio-> action -> the photos in the middle are us! 🙂

    keep up the great tutorials!

    Phill from Montreal

    1. Thanks, Phil! Those are cool shots. Looks like he used a high-pass filter to give it a little extra punch. I’ll post a tutorial showing how to do that.

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