For this week’s blog post I thought I’d walk you through an unusual shoot I had while visiting Havana in Cuba.

I was invited to join Academy member Linda and her husband John on their tour of Havana.  They had booked a local guide, Angel, who is also a photographer (http://www.phototouringcuba.com/).  As part of the tour, they had arranged to visit Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym to photograph a training session.

On arriving at the gym we were told that initially, we could only photograph from the bleachers as there was a documentary crew filming the training session.  That was not the only problem that faced us as photographers.  We were there in the mid-day sun and as you can see from the image below, part of the training area was in the shade and part in the shadow.  Both of these factors made the shoot very tricky.

This image showing the training area was captured with my 12-24mm sigma lens set to 16mm so that I could capture the whole area that they were using.

In post-production, I used Lightroom’s ‘upright’ feature to correct the vertical distortion that the wide angle lens introduced.  Then in the develop module I lowered the highlights and increased the shadows without which it would not have been possible to see details in the darker areas and the much of the brighter areas would be blown out.   This kind of adjustment is only really possible because I shoot in RAW which captures a larger dynamic range than shooting in JPG.

Because of the adjustment, the resultant image has a bit of an HDR look to it.  In this case, it doesn’t bother me and the final image, I think, captures the conditions under which we were shooting.

I had made a few quick attempts at capturing the action of the boxers sparring and training, but very quickly I came to the conclusion that some of the more interesting shots were to be had during the breaks between the short training/sparring sessions.

Using my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, I looked for the scenes where the boxers were all in the same light, thus reducing the need to over boost shadows and dramatically reduce the highlights.  The above scene of three boxers resting was all in the shadows so there was a pretty consistent exposure across the image.

In post-production, I chose to convert the image to black and white to give the image more of a reportage feel to it.  As part of the conversion, I boosted both the contrast and clarity a little.  I often have to bring up the black slider a little when doing black and white conversions however in this case that wasn’t necessary.

Most of the cropping decisions for this image were made in camera – I shot at 150mm, but in post-production, I did need to straighten the image a little.

This next image of one of the boxers is a significant crop of a larger horizontal image.  However the sharpness of the image – the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens is amazingly sharp even at wide apertures – meant that even after a significant crop the image still looks amazing at screen resolution and a quick calculation of the image size of approximately 2500 x 3150 pixels means that it will still produce a 10x8in print at standard 300 ppi.

With hindsight, however, I was only using the 70-200mm lens at 120mm, so I had I zoomed in more and used the camera in vertical format I would have got a much higher resolution image.

This next image, by contrast, is cropped exactly as it was in camera

Still shooting with the 70-200mm lens, I decided that this image worked best in colour.  The black, blue and red of the boxer compliments the same colours in the background.  His expression and the way he is leaning on the ropes of the boxing ring shows how tired he is from his training.

It is worth pointing out at this time that it was a hot day, even in the shade of the boxing ring.  Post production work was limited to a slight increase in contrast and boosting clarity to +65.

I was initially annoyed with myself that I had framed the image with his left boxing glove just exiting the frame.  Now, a couple of weeks after the shoot, it doesn’t bother me quite as much, and in some ways, I quite like the way in which it ‘grounds’ the image.

The red and blue theme also works with this next image so again I chose to leave it colour, and again no cropping in post-production.  I was struck by how the poses of all four boxers were different but yet all showed how tired they were from their exercise.

After this, I added my 2x converter so the lens effectively became a 140-400mm f/5.6 lens.

As you can tell from the very first image in this set I was quite some distance from the boxing ring, so the 2x converter enabled me to get in close.  Initially, I continued to concentrate on the boxers between their exercise and sparring bouts.

The boxer above would sit slumped in the corner of the ring each time break was called and I was particularly keen to capture the pose.  The image hasn’t been cropped and the only adjustments in Lightroom are an increase in contrast and shadows plus a similar reduction in the highlights.

As the shoot progressed I would keep trying to get some ‘good action shots’ and I did find myself improving the more I tried.  Some of my earlier attempts were ‘OK’ but it is these last two images that are my favourite action shots.  Both created with the 70-200mm lens plus 2x converter.

It took some time to be able to predict when to press the shutter release so that I captured that peak of the action.  Initially, it was a press and hope approach, but the more I watched and concentrated on a single pair of boxers – instead of moving the camera from one pair to another – the better I got at getting my timing right.

The above image shows the moment of impact.  Although it looks dramatic with the boxer on the right being hit in the face, my memory of the event was that it was more sparring rather than out and out hitting as hard as they could.  Even if they were ‘pulling their punches’ I still would not want to be on the receiving end of that blow. The final image from the selection shows why:

Here we see the same two boxers and it was only when I had completed the conversion to black and white that I saw just how muscular the aggressor was.  Even though he is the thinner, lighter boxer, every inch of him is covered in muscles.  No wonder the larger boxer on the right was frequently up against the ropes as they sparred together.

This whole shoot was an amazing opportunity – I would never have thought to shoot a boxing gym as part of my travel photography.  My thanks to John and Linda who invited me to join them and to Angel our guide for one of my most memorable travel shoots.

You can see the full set of images from this shoot here:  http://photos.imb.biz/cuba/havana-boxing

Until next time, keep MAKING great images,

Ian.