“En garde” they say as you see two individuals fall into a ready stance, about to participate in swordplay. Incredible and exciting photography opportunity, fencing is a sport that offers a chance to capture real sword fights on camera.
This isn’t as easily achieved as point and shoot, a bit of effort is certainly involved! The first is ensuring the safety of yourself and participants, then come the settings, and finally comes the storytelling.
What is Fencing?
Fencing is the sport of fighting with swords, especially foils, épées, or sabers, according to a set of rules, in order to score points against an opponent. Layman terms, sword fighting! This makes for a very exciting photography subject.
Safety First- What To Keep In Mind
But truly, keep in mind that weapons are being used. They may be swords and not guns, but they can still cause onlookers (and in this case, photographers) damage if you’re not being careful. Make sure to use longer lenses and equipment so that you don’t find yourself too close to your subjects. Being attentive is equally important, as there have been instances in which weapons fly out of hands.
Keep a safe distance and listen to safety protocols and briefings.
This is also true for ensuring that the actual participants of the sport are safe as well. If you’re bouncing around with your camera too close, they can easily get distracted and an accident can happen. Make sure that everyone is aware you’re going to be photographing, to make sure that your shutter click isn’t a distraction either.
Of course, it all comes down to the gear! The gear will help make your job easier or more difficult depending upon its capabilities.
Now, fencing can happen indoors or outdoors. Most commonly it is done indoors in a controlled environment. The location can be important when determining the best camera for the sport of fencing.
If you shoot more indoor sports, you’ll want a camera with great low light capability. Low light ability relates to the camera’s ease in capturing subjects in dimmer lit situations as well as how far you can push the ISO before it becomes noisy.
As a photographer, all you need to know is that the lower the ISO number, the less ‘sensitive’ the camera is to the light. This means that images will generally turn out a bit darker. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light. Low light capable cameras can bump the ISO a bit higher and have less noise. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive the camera is to light (but the less noise the photograph has). The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light (but the more noise the photograph has).
But, regardless of location, a really important factor in fencing photography is the frames per second. This remains universal regardless of where the action takes place. Every camera has something called FPS, or Frames-Per-Second. What this discloses is how many pictures a camera can snap per second of shooting. The more shots you can take, the more action you can capture.
Ideal FPS would be around 30 frames per second, with the minimum being 15.
As for the lens, that’s a wee bit trickier and we can’t disclose the exact type of lens you need to have. The lens you use really depends on your location and your proximity to the action. For safety, it is suggested to shoot with a longer focal length, such as a telephoto lens, so that you can be further back. A minimum of 85mm should be good, but really, it depends on where you’re located!
What you may want to look into are lenses with wider apertures, however. Fencing locations can be a bit distracting or not very flattering. Wide apertures pertain to depth of field, the wider the aperture, the shallower the depth of field. What this means is that a shallow depth of field will have the subject in focus and everything else blurs away! This helps isolate the subject from the location and make sure that all of the attention is directed to what you’re photographing.
Do You Need Lighting?
Generally, using artificial lighting is distracting to the sportsmen. It is not suggested to use artificial lighting.
Now, on to the settings!
Shutter Speed is King
Shutter speed pertains to how fast the camera takes the shot. Larger numbers equal faster shooting speeds (freezing the action) while smaller numbers are slower speeds.
To be on the safe side of motion being frozen no matter what, going higher than 1/4000 is recommended, with 1/8000 being the maximum. Many sport photographers shoot at 1/8000.
But that being said, lighting may not always be ideal and you’ll often need to go to a somewhat lower shutter speed in order to maintain proper exposure. The shutter speed you need to freeze action depends on how fast your subject is moving.
But what if you’re indoors and having a rough time with the lighting? By activating FPS, you can actually keep your shutter speed at a lower value than expected, which successfully lowers your ISO value. You see, ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture all pertain to the Exposure equation, and much like math, if you adjust one variable the rest are affected. In this case, a fast camera equals lower values all around which helps remedy noise.
If you have to use a slower shutter speed due to low light but still want to freeze the action, set the speed to something higher than 1/50 and then make sure your camera is in Burst Mode / High Speed Continuous Shooting. If you keep firing off and taking advantage of the FPS, at least one of the images will be perfectly still with no motion blur solely because of how fast the camera is able to take photographs!
Switch to Continuous Focus
This is important- switch your camera focus mode to continuous! By default, your camera is set to One-Shot right out of the box. You need to switch your camera over to Continuous Autofocus (AI Servo in Canon, AF-C in Nikon, Continuous AI in Sony, etc.). Continuous Focus is when the camera’s focus keeps refocusing on the subject as it moves.
This allows you to follow a battle without losing focus.
Now, cameras aren’t always 100% accurate, so do remain diligent in checking your focus and simply refocus if the subject gets ‘lost’.
Tell a Story
Fencing is almost like a choreographed dance, each move is deliberate and can actually tell a story. As a photographer, your job is to capture that moment! Play with perspective, composition, and (if possible) vantage points to express what is happening. Maybe you stand behind one opponent and shoot over his or her shoulder? Maybe you capture it all parallel to you by panning? Maybe you shoot from a lower vantage point pointing up? Whatever you decide, keep the story in mind.
In conclusion, the above guide should help you capture extraordinary photographs of fencing!