Martial Arts Photography

10 tips For martial arts photos that actually attract new students

The internet is awash with stock martial arts photos. While these images are better than nothing, they don’t offer the same authenticity as having photos of your own students in your marketing materials. If you don’t want to use stock photos anymore, this leaves you with three real choices. You can pay a photographer to come to the club now and again and take the shots you need, you can find someone within your club to take them or you can learn how to take them yourself.

If you think being able to use a camera is something you may want to add to your skills list, learn how to take them yourself. Later you can then train others in the club to take them for you. If you think this is not for you, ask around and see if your club already has any hobbyist photographers. Having someone that can take these photos ‘in house’ will enable you to refresh your image library on a regular basis.

How hard can it be?

Trying to capture martial arts photos of children moving fast and unpredictably, in a low light environment dressed in a white uniform can be difficult. I remember my first digital camera made by Kodak, it was so slow you would press the shutter button and it would take at least a second before it actually took the shot. My first Digital SLR (‘real camera’) was a Canon 350d from which I then moved to a 30d and then eventually the very substantial Canon 1d.

This is not a comprehensive guide that will go into details of how to set a custom white balance or shooting with strobe lights but It will hopefully help you on your way to taking martial arts photos that will stand out from those of coaching peers. I have been shooting with a DSLR since about 2006 but I am entirely self-taught. Although I have spent just over 10 year attending college or university courses, photography was never one of the subjects I studied. That said, this didn’t stop me from learning or becoming an official photographer at many international taekwondo competitions.

Tip 1 - Equipment

The camera in your mobile phone can be great for capturing portrait photos but even the best ones struggle when it comes to catching clear action shots. To get good quality photos, my suggestion is to get yourself an entry-level Digital SLR and a basic zoom lens (often comes as part of a kit). Something like an 18-55mm would be fine.

At this point, try not to get caught up in trying to get the BEST camera (that will set you back thousands). You should be able to purchase a Canon EOS 4000D or Nikon D3500 for about £400 (550 USD) and both usually come with a standard 18-55mm lens. If you have a little more cash than maybe you could look at the Canon 250d (around £600 or $835 USD).

To be honest, which ever you get out of the ones above (or something similar) it will not make that much difference when you first get started. By the time you have outgrown you beginners DSLR, the technology will have moved on leaps and bounds. If you want any camera specific questions answered, remember i shoot with Canon equipment 🙂 

DSLR camera for taking martial arts photos

Tip 2 - Camera settings

Your mission is to use the camera settings so that you have to do the least amount of editing before you can use the images. Your camera will have several semi-automatic settings that make shooting easier and you should use these settings if you just want reasonable results NOW. If you have a little spare time to practice, it’s really worth putting the camera into manual mode and playing with the individual settings.

First setting to check is that your camera is set to recording the images in the JPG format. Other formats (like RAW) are often better for editing but as this is a beginners guide, we are not going to get in to editing. If you are going to be using the images online, you may even want to set the size of the images to Medium as you will not need high resolution images if you are using them on the internet.

Now, before we talk about different semi-automatic modes, we need to get a little of the basic terminology down. I know I said I would try to keep this guide as uncomplicated as possible but there is no getting around these three terms:-

  1. The ISO setting is the camera’s sensitivity to light. While lower ISO settings give you a more detailed image, all other settings being equal, the lower the ISO, the darker the image. In each subsequent generation of camera, the ISO performance tends to increase. Just set yours to 800 to start with though you can play around with this a little more when you have had time to practice.
  1. The next setting is the aperture size. This is the size of the hole the camera uses to let light in. This will be limited by the lens you are using. Measured with an F number, the lower the number the higher the performance, the bigger the lens and the higher the costs. I would generally set this as low as your lens allows when taking shots of one or two people similar distance from the camera.
  1. Your shutter speed sets how long the shutter opens to let light into the camera. Slower shutter speeds will produce better exposed images but will also cause image blur if it’s set too low. If you start by setting your shutter speed to 500th of a second and take a few test shots, based on the image being too light or too dark, you will be able to tweak the settings further.

I am not going to get too technical on these settings as I know you just want clear images you can use for your marketing. Set your ISO to 800, aperture to the widest it will go and set your shutter speed to 500th of a second. If the image is too bright (overexposed), drop the ISO down to 400. If the image is too dark (underexposed), move the ISO to 1600 and try again.

If you want to use the camera to do more of the heavy lifting, feel free to try the ‘aperture priority’ feature and set the aperture as low as it will go with the lens you are using. If you want to try the ‘shutter priority’ feature, set the shutter speed to 500th of a second and give it a try. Due to the availability of light being very different in different indoor venues, there is no set answer to getting these settings right the first time. It will take a little time playing with the different options before you find the right combination for you. The good news is that once you get used to your camera, it won’t take you long to set up the camera in future.

Canon DSLR camera settings

Tip 3 - Light

Light is your friend……….. or it is if it is neutral and even. If you have natural light and it’s not too bright, use it. If your training room is quite dark and your ceiling lights are not much to write home about, try shooting through the day. Unless you are just relying on ceiling lights, make sure your light source is behind you lighting the subject(s) of your shot. We solved quite a lot of problems at our venues when we added blinds on all the windows and replaced all the old ceiling lights with new LED lights. We also have the ability to turn on one, two or three strips of lights.

Tip 4 - Focus

My biggest pet peeve is seeing ‘back focused’ photos used for marketing in martial arts clubs. This is when the background pin-sharp but the main subject in the image is blurry. This happens when the focus point is not on the subject when the shutter button is half-pressed. It’s especially a problem when you are taking photos of two people. You frame the shot with one person at each side and inadvertently focus on the background.

You usually have the choice of using ‘servo’ or ‘one shot’ focusing. The servo mode is for tracking a moving subject while using the one shot setting allows you to half press the shutter button to set your focus and then reframe the shot before you press the shutter button down fully to capture the image. If you are just starting out, just use the ‘one shot’ setting for now.

When you get a little more experience, google ‘back button focusing ’. This will give you the ability to move the focusing part of taking the shot to a different button on your camera. It takes a little practice to get used to but once you have used it for a while, you will miss the flexibility if you have to go back to the old way of shooting.

Tip 5 - Emotion

If you are using these images for marketing, make sure they portray the emotion you want the viewer to feel. When we are promoting content for our children’s martial arts programme we usually focus on images that contain children that are smiling and having fun. That said, you may also be looking to promote self-control or focus but capturing images modelling this maybe take a little more difficuilt.

Tip 6 - Composition

Your use of the photos will dictate how you compose them. Each photo should guide your eyes to the point you want to highlight. For me, this is the hardest part of photography. I am fine at the technicalities of producing good images but my creativity is often limited to problem-solving. To help people like me that suffer from low levels of art based creativity, there are a few ‘rules’ that can help.

One of these is the ‘Rule of thirds’. When you first start taking photos you will want to put the subject in the middle of the images (I still do this the majority of the time) but this can be pretty boring. Also, if you want to drop some text on to the image, it can lead to you struggling to find a natural space for it. The rule of thirds suggests positioning subject either one or two third’s across the frame (vertical or horizontal) will lead to a more aesthetically pleasing image. I don’t suggest you need to do this for every shot but having a varied collection of different compositions will be more versatile, especially if you are going to be using the images for different uses.

Photography rule of thirds

While we are talking about providing variety in your collection, I would also recommend shooting some images quite tight, where the subject mostly fills the frame as well as wider shots that will come in handy for situations where you want to overlay text. It’s also a good idea to mix up the number of portrait and landscape shots.

Tip 7 - Representation

This is a point often missed. Make sure the students in your images portray the people you want to attract. If you are like most martial arts clubs, you will have males and females of different ages and sizes that have a range of different ethnic backgrounds. If this is the case, make sure the images you are trying to capture reflect this. You want all parents of prospective members to look at your ads and be able to see their child in the images.

Tip 8 - Activity

Unless you run a competition based club, I suggest you avoid using any martial arts photos that portray violence between members. Yes, I know these students are learning techniques that will ultimately go on to help them defend themselves but while you admire the technical aspects of a technique in sparring, parents of prospective new students often worry about their son/daughter being the student getting hit.

When marketing for children’s martial arts, capturing students in a social environment having fun and burning excess energy usually provides the most inviting images. Of course, have some images of students performing martial arts techniques on the pads or in the air but don’t think this is all the parents want to see.

Tip 9 - Backgrounds

When planning your shots, try to be mindful of the background behind the subject(s) you are taking the photos of. Messy backgrounds can be distracting and that’s the last thing you want when spending your hard-earned cash/time on marketing.

If you have quite busy walls in your martial arts centre or you train in a school or sports centre, there is another way you can make the subject look prominent by blurring the background but it does require a more expensive lens capable of F2.8 or wider. To achieve this effect (often called bokeh) you set the aperture to it’s widest setting and then try to position the subject of your shot closer to the camera while having the background behind the subject as far away as possible. This is how the professionals achieve the best looking images where the subject stands out against a blurred background.

Tip 10 - Permission

I have seen many posts on the subject of getting permission from parents to use images for marketing purposes. While you don’t actually need permission for editorial use, you do if you want to use images of your students to promote your club. Even if you have an opt out tick box on the form parents fill in when students first sign up, I would still ask permission to use them in ads. While some parents may just not want a photo of their child in an ad for your club, some children could be protected by court orders.

If you really want to avoid the situation of parents revoking permission and asking you to remove images of their child from all your marketing materials, you can ask them to fill in a ‘model release’. This is probably the best route when you are spending a lot of cash for a prolonged marketing campaign.

If you are taking these images on a regular bases, I also suggest that you change the subjects of your campaigns at least on an annual basis. With only a short period of time using images of the same children, there will be less opportunity for parents to change their mind.


I hope you find this article useful and if you enter your email below, I will send you a printable infographic that will outline a practical ‘5 step process to great martial arts photos’ to help you take the photos for your next marketing campaign, without having to print out the 2500 words in this article.

Next Monday I will be re-introducing my weekly newsletter. As well as a review of what has gone on in the previous week and my weekly personal reflection, I will also include a link to a FREE professional Model Release form produced by one of the major photographic organisations in the UK. If you signed up to receive the ‘5 step process to great martial arts photos’, you will receive the newsletter automatically. Obviously, you will be able to opt out of this at any time.

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