James has been a long time friend, and it’s been great seeing how much he’s grown as a photographer in such a short amount of time. In a few short years he’s gone from photographing his friends at local gyms and shooting small fights, to traveling all over the globe shooting some of the biggest names in MMA as the head photo editor for Transworld’s “UFC 360”. We sat down recently and talked about how he got his start, and what he did to rise so rapidly while dealing with the challenges of working in an overcrowded field ruled by an aesthetic that’s quickly become standardized:
Matt: So how’d you first come to photography?
James: I, when did i start? I was going to UCSD in 2006, and a guy who lived down the hall was the photographer for SDSU’s newspaper. He had a Nikon D50, and he showed me how to work it. I always wanted to shoot and be artistic, emulate fun shots and document my adventures, so I went on Craigslist and bought a Nikon D70s. Then I bought a 12-24 and I’d use that, and then I got a 50mm which really helped me grow. My first inspiration came from a Swedish photog named Felix Winvqist
Matt: How did you come to Mixed Martial Arts?
James: Well I always loved karate growing up, watching John Claude Van Damn triple kick people and Bruce Lee and even the bootleg Chinese videos. At that time I always appreciated the mystical aspects of martial arts and moved out to SD in 2000 and did “Choy Li Fut” Kung Fu which is Southern style, and ended up getting turned off by it, so I traded a guy Kung Fu lessons for Brazilian Ju-Jitsu lessons which I loved. It was so functional. I started a club for it over at UCSD, and took lessons over Roy Harris Academny in Mira Mesa. Then I decided I wanted to do stand up so I started doing Muay-Thai, did a couple local amateur fights, got two knocks outs.
Anyways the guys at my gym started doing their own portraits with crappy point and shoot cameras so I said fuck that, let me shoot this! People started hitting me up to do their photos after that. Together with one of my very best friends and also on of the most inspiring guys I know started shooting our own projects and with a little exposure on his youtube show “Loco Life” a new sports website called me and said “Hey James, want to come shoot Strike Force?” (which is like the baby UFC). I took the day off work, drove up to LA to shoot. I totally thought I was going to get cage side but they put me way up in the rafters and didn’t have the right lenses for it so I was out of luck. I ended up making my way down to cageside for the last fight and manual focused with my D700 and nailed almost every epic shot. Since that day, I put my day job aside and have shot about 50 UFC’s all over the world.
Matt: Everyone can relate to shooting the portraiture you see in UFC but shooting a cage fight must be a unique experience. What were some of the challenges you faced starting out, and how did you overcome them?
James: Early on I worked with a guy named Al Powers, he shot a lot of boxing, and a lot of his stuff revolved around being very technical and employing tight composition. The standard stuff you have to contend with when shooting cage side is weird hot lighting in certain spots, shooting through the cage which isn’t really a problem, if you have a good setup you’ll be fine but you’ll run into it a lot. You’ll miss focus. Having a good strategy going into that is key, but most of it revolves around composition. Like how do I want to shoot these fights? You know everyone’s shooting 24-70, everyone’s using 70-200, so my thing was I liked more of a cooler looking shot on the blue side while everyone else gravitates towards the warmer tones, so in post I’d go more with a creative composition and shooting a little cooler.
I think the big thing is you’re stuck in one spot, so it’s hard to differentiate yourself from others. Some how in 4 fights my shots were seeming to get more recognition online then most of my peers. Five fights is like a summer, so I went from not doing anything to pretty much shooting full time. Quit my job and started traveling, did Brazil, Japan, NYC, Canada. This was 2009-2011.
Matt: You said it’s pretty standard to bring a 24-70 70-200 at a fight, is there anything unique you bring amongst photographers?
James: I find that when you’re shooting portraits I’m more drawn to those in between shots when someone’s not doing a pose I’ve asked them to do, you know, readjusting or looking to the side, so I’m trying to find those same kinds of moments in a fight. When someone’s walking out, or the refs checking them to go in the cage, I like to use an 85mm f/1.2 a lot, 50mm f/1.4, and nobody’s using prime lenses cage side. People look over at me like I’m crazy, it’s like if you don’t have a 70-200mm on the cage people are like “Are you feeling all right?”
Matt: Do you think that’s because with your work there’s more of an active voice in your framing then unbiased newspaper shots?
James: Yeah definitely, I did it so much there was no difference between each fight. It’s one thing to have the ability to be consistent, but with my work I run the risk of being different.
Matt: How do you prepare yourself for catching those moments that are so quick? Like the knock out punch?
James: You know it seems like either you have the newest equipment which will consistently shoot 11 frames a second, and when you’re doing that you’re going to catch pretty much everything. But when you’re shooting a little bit slower and know the sport and how they fight.
… for example one of my most famous shots, the Anderson Silva kick shot when he knocked out Vito Belfor, everyone was waiting and everyone got a version of that shot, but you know I saw something and went for it. It’s funny the three shots preceding that, milliseconds before, were soft and out of focus, the exact shot was so dead on sharp, and the next two were out of focus. I remember squinting trying to focus cage side on my camera like “did I fucking get this?” and I get to the back and this guy Pete Yulatan who was shooting up in the rafters was going around checking everyone’s shots and when he saw mine he said “nobody else has it like that
Some people will shoot 2,000 shots a fight but I shoot on the higher side, like It’s almost like there’s no over shooting, maybe like 5,000 shots is overshooting.
Law’s Anderson Silva’s knock out kick shot above shots from photographers shooting at the same angle, showing the importance of timing in cage shooting
Matt: Are you shooting JPEG?
James: I’ve never met a person cage side that shoots RAW
Matt: It’s just not practical?
James: With the buffering and getting the images onto the card it’s just not worth it.
Matt: So how did you first begin working with Transworld?
James: The editor of UFC magazine had to take the online magazine down and UFC wanted to relaunch a new magazine, so the editor had the chance to move the offices to any of the Transworld offices and decided to move to San Diego. On his way out Ryan Loco told me about it so I emailed him and said “Hey I would love to get on board, but not as a shooter doing second hand stuff, but as a photo director.”
Matt: So it was as simple as you taking initiative and asking for it?
James: Oh yeah, a lot of the stuff for me has happened that way – I think it’s imperative to be proactive
Matt: How does your job work now a days as photo editor? Do you self assign your work?
James: As the photo director its my job to determine who is going to be a good fit for what – we work in a creative flow with the Art Director, the Editor and with UFC corporate. The covers are the biggest thing, we like to utilize the big name guys – Guys who are experienced with big advertising campaigns or editorial campaigns with celebrities. One it’s eye catching, two you can generate buzz by hiring these guys, they do great work and they’re notorious for it. Luckily I get the opportunity to produce these shoots, coordinate it, the team and I will story board everything we want to shoot. I’ve shot three covers so far and for the rest we’ve hired very talented photographers.
It’s fun but it’s stressful too, I do the budgets and contracts as well. If you have 30 people you’re paying, that’s also 30 people emailing and calling you about their payment. You know how that does.
Matt: Yeah, did that twice today. What’s been a couple “murphy’s law” situations on shoots you’ve done for the magazine? Situations where everything seems to be going wrong.
James: Most of the guys I’ve worked with have been so awesome, but the problem happens that you have to work around their schedule. Their training is super important. You also have to worry about where your shooting, and finding a good assistant.
The craziest one was I went to shoot at the Ultimate Fighter studio, and they were filming twice that day, and my assignment was to shoot Urijah Faber doing a work out and the cover in two hours which seems doable. We get there an hour early and they tell us that filming is running a little late, and everything started encroaching on my time. Every five minutes felt like an eternity because I still haven’t set up the lights, haven’t run any chords, haven’t done anything. Not even a chance to scout it. Forty five minutes into it they give me the green light, luckily for me the Ultimate Fighter crew knew I was waiting and became friends with them so they gave me a hand, helped me setup the lights super fast. Got through 8 of the work outs in 22 minutes then break down, wait two hours, and then got another 45 minutes to shoot, and that’s with setup and break down. 20 minutes to shoot a cover. That was my “make it or break it”, they were taking me for a test drive because I wasn’t the photo director yet.
Matt: Whats your favorite go to lighting setup?
James: I take a little bit different approach. I like to use a gridded beauty dish high with an angle, stark shadows, I’ll use sometimes two profoto d1 air heads on either side for nice edge lighting. That tends to be pretty awesome, but I’ve been narrowing it down to one or two lights. It gives it a sort of remarkable enough look without too much “stand up shirt off fight guy” that I’m trying to avoid.
I’m trying to make it look clean, sharp, deep in contrast, not standardized as it’s become.
Matt: How do you combat the monotony of how it’s been standardized?
James: For us it’s not about the monotony because for us it’s about pushing the lifestyle. We develop themes about these guys, for instance I hired a guy out in New York to hire this dude Jim Miller, he has a beard and all he likes to do is kick people’s ass and hunt. We planned out this apoloclypse looking thing where he went out in the forest in New Jersey with a bow and arrows making him look like man vs. wild. We try to make every feature look unique, we want to have the appeal of a lifestyle, incorporating what these guys are all about.
When you’re shooting an athlete their capacity to sell a shot can be tricky, but if you can incorporate something authentic into it then they’re down to do it.
Matt: What advice would you have for someone starting out?
James: For me the biggest thing was recognizing that I’ve got some ability, I’m tapping into people that can help me grow, every single time I’ve had a huge jump is when I’m proactively set up my portfolio and my shot and I’ve planned in advance what I want to go after, then go from person to person to person in charge of magazines, clothing lines, news papers saying “hey here’s what I’ve done and I’d love to shoot for you guys.” not like “hey keep me in mind”, I’m approaching them initially from a different perspective.
I think when you can frame up the work, your own unique personal projects, and then can show that in a compelling way to somebody, you have the chance to really wow someone. That’s what you want to do with your work. It’s about separating yourself from everyone else, and putting your pride aside because a lot of people will say no. Stay humble. I hate people will ask you about your gear and then tell you what you should do with your gear, but the people who essentially aren’t willing to learn, those are the guys that are going to be left in the dust.
You can’t be afraid by how many people have the ability to get their hands on a camera. If you brand yourself, take risks, and take great shots, you’re going to kick ass, so let’s kick ass.