How to Photograph Wrestling (A Case Study)

How to photograph wrestling matches

The following case study on photographing a wrestling tournament was submitted by Ron Richardson.

A couple of months ago, I was asked by a friend to be the photographer at a local middle school wrestling tournament. I had never shot wrestling before, but I had spent some time photographing my sister-in-law’s football games, so I had a general idea of how to photograph sports. I figured I might as well give it a try; hopefully, I’d get some print sales out of it from the parents.

Now that the wrestling tournament is over, I wanted to share what I learned, including several handy tips and tricks to help you get top-notch wrestling photos of your own. Whether you’re a parent of a wrestler and you want to photograph your child’s matches, or you’re looking to shoot wrestling for a publication, or you just love the sport and want to capture local matches, this article should help you out!

Let’s dive right in!

1. Work with a (reasonably) fast shutter speed

The wrestling matches took place in a high-school gymnasium, with 4 mats placed in a grid. The lights in the gym were bright, so I didn’t feel like I was shooting in an ultra-difficult low-light environment. The problem, however, was that these wrestlers were not going to be standing still. If I wanted sharp shots, I knew I had to keep my shutter speed high enough to freeze the competitors as they grappled.

Now, the key to shooting sports of any kind is speed. You have to have a quick shutter speed to freeze the action. You do have the option to slow down that shutter speed, but you will have to pan with your subject. This can lead to some interesting shots (like the one below, which I took during one of my football photoshoots), but it isn’t a reliable technique to count on.

How to photograph wrestling matches
What happens when you use a slow shutter speed but pan with the subjects? You get (relatively) sharp subjects and a blurry background.

So what is a good shutter speed for wrestling photography, and how do you achieve it? I like to have my shutter speed one step higher than the reciprocal of the focal length I’m shooting at. (This is similar to the Reciprocal Rule, though it’s slightly stricter in order to ensure I can keep moving subjects fairly sharp.)

For example, if you’re shooting at 200mm, the ideal shutter speed would be 1/250s. If you’re shooting at 50mm, the ideal shutter speed would be 1/60s. But I’ve had success shooting at 1/50s, even at 200mm. It all depends on how steady you are with the camera, how slow the action is, and whether your camera and/or lens offers image stabilization technology.

In a moment, I’ll discuss the shutter speed settings that I used during my photoshoots. For now, however, just bear in mind what I mentioned above as I share my next tip:

2. Widen your aperture and raise the ISO

I went into the shoot with my 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens, but I knew that such a lens wasn’t the best for wrestling photography. Instead, a lens such as the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L would be a much much better choice – the f/2.8 maximum aperture would have made it easier to achieve faster shutter speeds. I can’t afford such a lens, so I shot with what I had.

I set my camera to Aperture Priority mode and dialed in an f/5.6 aperture. I chose that setting because a wider aperture results in more light hitting the sensor. Plus, a wider aperture provides a shallower depth of field, helping to blur the background (which was filled with the crowd and coaches).

Even with the f/5.6 aperture, however, I wasn’t getting a shutter speed that followed the guidelines I mentioned in the previous tip. Therefore, I bumped up the ISO from 100 up to 1600.

(I personally don’t like to use a high ISO – it produces unpleasant noise in the files – but I felt it was better to err on the side of some extra noise in the image rather than have card after card of blurry images. Plus, noise can be reduced fairly effectively in post-processing software, and today’s AI-powered algorithms have been getting better and better.)

3. Use continuous focusing and Burst mode

Once I had my camera set at f/5.6 and an ISO of 1600, I set it on to my camera’s AI-Servo focusing setting. (On some cameras, this is AF-C, or continuous focusing.)

Continuous focusing is an absolute necessity for any sports photography. By holding the shutter button down halfway and following the action, the lens will automatically update its focus to lock onto the subjects, even as they move.

Note that you’ll also need to pay careful attention to your AF Area mode. This determines how your autofocus points are arranged around the frame. Different camera models have different AF Area modes, but if your camera has some sort of tracking mode – especially if it offers Eye AF, where the autofocus points lock onto the subject’s eye – this is generally worth using.

If you can combine continuous autofocusing with an well-chosen AF Area mode, you’ll find that you can often keep the wrestlers sharp as they move. Sure, you’ll have plenty of out-of-focus images, but the goal isn’t to be perfect; it’s to end up with a nice selection of photos to tell the story of the match!

Also, setting your camera to a continuous shooting mode is very effective. You don’t have to stress too much here, but if your camera can shoot 8+ frames per second, that’ll definitely help nail some of those action moments.

4. Experiment and adjust as needed

I arrived to the tournament early, and I was glad I did; some teams were warming up, so I took that opportunity to take some practice shots myself. It gave me a sense of the settings I would need (see above!) and helped me figure out how the space was arranged.

The first matches began and I took about 50 images. Then, before too much time had gone by, I made sure to check the results. A lot of the images were blurry – the shutter speeds my camera was choosing ranged from 1/5s to 1/60s. (I was shooting on Aperture Priority, as mentioned above, so my camera was automatically selecting a shutter speed in response to my aperture and ISO settings.)

Basically, all the shutter speeds were too slow, which meant that my images were prone to both blur due to camera shake and blur due to the moving wrestlers.

Since the light in the gymnasium was relatively even all around, I decided to make a change: I switched from Aperture Priority to Manual mode, which let me dial in a shutter speed, an aperture, and an ISO independently. Specifically, I chose a shutter speed of 1/50s while keeping the aperture at f/5.6 and the ISO at 1600. Because the light was consistent both across the gymnasium and from match to match over the course of the tournament, I could comfortably shoot that way for the rest of the day without running into exposure issues. (And that’s exactly what I did!)

Now, my chosen settings still weren’t completely effective, as you can see below:

How to photograph wrestling matches
Notice the blurred arms as one competitor tried to pin the other. That’s because my 1/50s shutter speed was on the slow side.

However, a 1/50s shutter speed was still quick enough to freeze most of the action:

How to photograph wrestling matches

Basically, I accepted that 1/50s wasn’t enough to freeze the fastest action, but that it would get me a decent number of acceptable images. I could have raised my ISO higher in order to boost the shutter speed without overexposure, but I didn’t want more noise in my images.

Note that many modern mirrorless cameras do offer outstanding sensors that can work at ISO 1600, 3200, and even 6400 with minimal noise, so this will really depend on your model! The more you get a chance to experiment, the better.

5. Zoom in on the action

The trickiest part about shooting sports is capturing close-ups of the athletes’ faces. That’s because the action moves fast, and when you’re trying to shoot up close, it’s very difficult to keep everything in the small field of view.

Additionally, close-up shots require either close positioning to the athlete, or an ultra-long lens. But I love close-ups, so I made a real effort to get some of those intense, in-your-face images.

Fortunately, I found that with wrestling, these shots are a little bit easier to accomplish. The mats are approximately 38 feet by 38 feet, and you can safely stand at the edge of the mat without worrying about messing up the competitors or getting hurt yourself.

Here, I was zoomed in at 200mm and was able to get a decent shot of both wrestlers:

How to photograph wrestling matches

6. Shoot with both eyes open

My final wrestling photography tip isn’t as hard as it sounds!

Most of the time when we shoot, we have one eye closed and one eye looking through the viewfinder. If you keep both eyes open, you can still see through the viewfinder when you are zoomed in close – but with your other eye, you can see just how far away the athletes really are.

That way you can get out of the way if they are coming near the edge of the mat! (Note that you may not be able to get as close to the competitors as I could at this tournament, and you should always ask where you’re allowed to position yourself before the matches begin.)

Shooting with both eyes open has another benefit: It can help you anticipate the action. With one eye, you can see the shot you have framed, but with the other eye, you can see if anything is about to move in or out of the shot!

My final thoughts

How to photograph wrestling matches

If I had a chance to do something different, I would have had a faster lens. That is a given. A lens with a wider aperture would have been much more effective – it would have prevented me from needing to shoot at 1/50s and ISO 1600. A lens with an f/5.6 maximum aperture is okay, but shooting at f/2.8 is much better (especially when making the athletes “pop” out from the background crowd).

Shooting sporting events can be fun, especially if you are near the action. If you are shooting a day-long tournament like I did, take lots and lots of memory cards (I had five cards, which ended up filled to capacity). Also take a snack and water. You will be moving all day.

One more thing:

You might be wondering, given the slower shutter speed, why didn’t I just use a flash to brighten things up?

But I don’t like using flash, especially with sports. A lot of parents were at the wrestling tournament taking photos with flash, but as an athlete myself, I don’t want to see lights flashing in my face all the time. Therefore, I would recommend against using a flash, especially if you are on the sidelines. I was typically only 15 feet away from the competitors, snapping shots off the entire time, so it felt inappropriate to use my flash.

Well, hopefully that helps – and the next time you’re photographing wrestling matches, keep these tips in mind. I can’t guarantee that your situation will be identical, but some of my experiences will doubtlessly be relevant!

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