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In 1965, Muhammad Ali took to the ring in a famous rematch with Sonny Liston.
Ali was the new hope for heavyweight boxing, as he was as quick with his mouth as he was his fists. Liston was the stereotypical bad guy, menacing and powerful. It was meant to be the fight of the century, but it didn’t last a full round. With just under two minutes on the clock, Ali landed a fast right after Liston pursued him around the ring. The champion dropped to the canvass, and Ali stood over him, swiping his right arm across his chest and jeering Liston. Few recall that iconic moment was preceded by another few seconds of fighting before referee Jersey Joe Walcott declared it over, thanks to a man called Neil Leifer.
Not ten feet away from the action sat Leifer holding a Rolleiflex 21, and he snapped what has since been called the most iconic boxing photograph of all time. That shot defined the evening and encapsulated those early years of Ali. Liston got back up after that knockdown, slowly taking to one knee, only to face another Ali onslaught. That is forgotten because Leifer’s shot seems to tell the story without the complication of a few more seconds. Ever since then, eager photographers have gathered ringside at bouts of all sizes looking to capture that perfect moment, one that becomes as iconic for the fighters featured in it as any other shot.
Photography is a challenging skill to master, but it can be much more impressive than a fight video. Sure, a video shows you what happened, blow-by-blow, but a photo grabs so much more. As with Ali in 1965, it captures the frustration, ecstasy and agony of the moment in one still frame that bursts out of magazines for years to come.
If you are a budding boxing photographer and you hope, one day, to get a shot half as iconic as that of Leifer’s, then here are a few basics to get you started.
You will need two core pieces of equipment for shooting a boxing match: a good camera and a decent telephoto lens. There are many DSLR cameras on the market, andchoosing the right one is essential. Most photographers use either a Nikon or a Canon but do not feel restricted. The Sony a7R is excellent, nice and lightweight and with plenty of lens options.
You will also need a telephoto lens, something like 24-105mm. There are plenty of lens options available, so do not spend thousands of dollars if you are not sure you will take up the hobby. A prime lens won’t give you the flexibility you need, and one key aspect of shooting a boxing match is being reactive. For that reason, you will not need a tripod, as you need to adapt to the changing positions quickly. Do not worry about a flash either: if you start making a nuisance, you will find your boxing photography career very short-lived.
It is also worth packing several SD cards, as you are likely to take many photos.
Get to your location as early as possible and, if you can, pick your spot. Likely, you won’t be ringside at the next Tyson Fury fight, but if you are at a local club, you will have more freedom to find a good position. Try to shoot between the ropes; that will give you a good clear view of the fighters. Do not be tempted to change position either; always stick to your spot. That’s standard photography etiquette as much as anything.
This could warrant a whole article of its own, so here are a few pointers to consider when setting up your camera.
• Use a fast shutter speed, perhaps 1/1000sec if possible. This freezes the action is particularly good if you want beads of sweat flying from a face after a punch is landed.
• Use a shallow depth of field, f/3.2 to f/4. It will allow you to blur out details in the background and give you more light entering your camera, meaning you can up the shutter speed.
• Do not be afraid to up the ISO. The higher the ISO, the faster the shutter speed. The key to excellent boxing photography is a high shutter speed, and today’s cameras can handle high ISO without much noise. Remember, you can always touch up in Photoshop afterwards.
• Remember to shoot in RAW mode. This might be obvious, but it gives you more processing options.
• Finally, make sure you set your camera to continuous shooting or burst mode. By changing this setting, you are more likely to capture the perfect moment amongst the hundreds of average photos.
Most Important of All
The most important thing of all is to enjoy what you do. You might not capture the next Ali and Liston photo, but you will be ringside for events and perhaps even the first port of call for an up and coming fighter wanting pictures of their precious moment. That is a thrill all of its own