Few photographers can nonchalantly say, “Yeah, I’ve had blood splashed on my camera.” But for sports photographer Joshua Hedges, 12 year veteran of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, it’s just another day in the office.
The West Texas native has been become known for his mixed martial arts photography, and his work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine, USA Today, Time magazine, The New York Times, and The LA Times. Fstoppers catches up with Hedges to hear about his favorite fight, why shooting the UFC is different from other sports, and staying focused while two guys pummel each other. Check out the full FS Spotlight interview below!
Fstoppers: How did you get started with photography?
Joshua Hedges: I’ve always been interested in it. One of my early Christmas presents from my parents was a little Kodak mini camera, and I was always carrying that around taking pictures of everything. As I started getting older, there was a photography class in high school where I learned how to develop in the dark room, and I built on it from there.
Fstoppers: Did you always have an interest in the martial arts? How did you end up shooting for the UFC?
Joshua Hedges: I didn’t always have an interest in it. I got introduced to the UFC when I was in high school. One of my buddies’ dad got it on Pay-Per-View, and we’d all hang out there on a Friday night. It became a thing, and we started getting together every time there was a fight. I got into it as a fan and became more involved in later from the business side of it. I had to build a website for one of my classes in college, and I chose martial arts. In the process of doing that I interviewed a couple guys and went to a couple shows and looked at it more from the journalistic side. And I thought, why not try shooting it? It sort of snowballed from there.
Fstoppers: What do you shoot with?
Joshua Hedges: I use all Canon gear. My two main cameras are 1D Mark IVs, and I also have 1D Mark IIIs, which I mostly use for backup and remotes and things like that. And then the main lens that I use for 70-80% of the shots is the 70-200. I also use the 16-35, 24-70, 24-105, 15mm, 14mm, and I’ve been using the 8-15mm fisheyes recently that they just came out with. But the 70-200 is really the main one for me.
Fstoppers: Where do you typically stand during the fights? Are there certain spots that are better for angles?
Joshua Hedges: There are two primary positions that I shoot from: the photo box, which is standing on a box looking directly over the fence, and behind one of the posts on the cage, which is the main position. You can also stand down below in the photo pit, which requires shooting through the cage. I don’t do that a whole lot, but every once in a while I do. And as far as remote cameras, the main place I mount them for almost every show is directly overhead in the lighting grid. You just come off one of the posts in there and rig it with pocket wizards and stuff. Depending on the arena, we do other remotes if we have catwalk access or a spot where the general public is not going to get to them and mess with things. I might put a 400mm off in the corner and have it centered on the center of the cage so it’s shooting the same thing I am, but from a different angle.
Fstoppers: What is the most difficult part of shooting the UFC?
Joshua Hedges: The moment. You get one chance at it. If it’s a knockout shot, and you don’t get it, you can’t go back and tell them to do it again. You have to stay focused at all times. There’s no lapse, there’s no relaxing. You tend to want to do that if it’s a boring fight that drags on, and toward the end you’re like, “get it over already,” but you have to coach yourself not to do that. You have to stay awake and always be ready.
Fstoppers: How do you feel like shooting the UFC is different from shooting other sports?
Joshua Hedges: The big difference is that it’s indoors and the lighting is very controlled. You have to rely on the subject to be your creativity. You can’t play with shadows or do things with light that you could do with an outdoor football game at noon with the position of the sun or whatever. As far as the action, it’s not that much different. I think anyone who is a seasoned sports photographer could probably shoot it pretty well. It’s mainly that you have to try to find the emotion. It’s not necessarily worrying about the composition of the shot. It’s a little more complex, it’s a little tougher because of the limited lighting possibilities.Fstoppers: Does the violence of it ever effect you? Does it ever catch you off guard while you’re shooting?
Joshua Hedges: No. I’ve been doing it for so long. Maybe in the beginning there were a couple times where it was like, “Whoa, this is crazy!” But now I’ve had blood splashed on me, I’ve had guys right up in my face almost knocking me off of the post. It’s just kind of like any other shoot for me.
Fstoppers: What’s been your favorite moment or favorite fight?
Joshua Hedges: It changes from time to time, but I still think my favorite was when Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva finally fought at UFC 79. It was a fight that everybody had wanted for years and they were both past their prime, but it still turned out to be such an awesome fight. I got so many great shots from that! To this day, a couple of my favorite shots that I’ve ever taken were from that fight. There was one moment when they were doing the intros for the guys that I got goosebumps for a minute. It was like “Wow, this is really happening! This is crazy.”
Fstoppers: How much time do you spend editing? How many shots do you normally take per fight?
Joshua Hedges: Too many? It really varies. For a full round of a decent fight, probably 200-300 images per round. Obviously I try to keep it down as low as possible to try to help with editing. For a really good main event that goes the full 5 rounds, it could be 800-1000 images for that fight. As far as the edit goes, it really depends on the fight. If it’s a fight where I have an editor there with me, I really don’t spend much time at all until I get home later, and then I’ll just go back through them later and see if there’s anything the editor missed. If it’s something that I have to edit myself, which happens quite a bit, I’ll try to do as much as I can between fights. There’s really not much of a break, though, usually only enough time to download the cards. It probably takes me 2-3 hours after the fights, maybe 4 hours for a main event.
Fstoppers: What qualities do you look for? What makes one shot more powerful than the others?
Joshua Hedges: The first thing I look for is good connections on punches and kicks, where you can see that the guy’s face is distorted from the punch landing and there’s sweat flying off, stuff like that. After that, the second quality is the emotion. I like to find something that shows the emotion: a guy grimacing in pain or sitting on his corner stool between rounds just completely exhausted with this look on his face like, “I can’t go on.” I always try to find shots like that because they help tell the story of what happened. If it’s a 3 or 5 round fight, you’re going to have tons of good shots of punches and things like that, but it’s the emotion shots you want, and you may only have one or two for a whole night or - if you’re lucky - one per fight. These guys, even though they’re in there going crazy nuts and stuff, they still have poker faces on. It’s really tough to get that out of it. You have to look for a cut or bruise or knot on the thigh or something like that, but the main thing is the connections and the emotions.
Fstoppers: What is your advice to aspiring sports photographers?
Joshua Hedges: Shoot as much as you can. Learn as much as you can from anybody that you can. Don’t ever think you know it all. I learn stuff all the time. The more you shoot, the more that you work hard, the more opportunities will come to you. You’ll find that it just kind of happens. When I first started doing this with the UFC, I never really thought of getting into other sports or being considered a sports photographer, but now here I am working alongside some of the best guys in the business and learning from them and helping to teach them things. There are things that I know that someone else might not know. When you have the opportunity, always try to pass your knowledge on to somebody else. Teach people, help them improve their skills, and it can only benefit you.