MMA Behind The Lens: Part 1 – feat. Esther Lin and Ryan Loco

Editor’s Note: Like all sports, MMA thrives in the visual space. Articles can be written, interviews recorded, calls made by announcers watching live. But,…

By: Tim Bissell | 5 years ago
MMA Behind The Lens: Part 1 – feat. Esther Lin and Ryan Loco
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Editor’s Note: Like all sports, MMA thrives in the visual space. Articles can be written, interviews recorded, calls made by announcers watching live. But, all those things only serve to add depth and nuance to the stories that are told visually in the moment of competition. Two athletes in the heat of battle, testing skill against skill along with raw physicality.

It’s because of this visual nature that photography will always be an integral part of sports media. An ability to highlight specific moments in time, to bring the stories in those moments to life and let the mind fixate on them when video would otherwise pass them quickly by. For the best photographers, each photo spins its own narrative. They capture and pinpoint the essence of athletic competition. And because of this, for us as writers, those pictures stand as an integral companion to all the work we do. — Zane Simon

MMA is chaos. Watching a fight – be it live, at a bar, or at home – borders on sensory overload. The athletes are quick (for the most part), the action is often esoteric, and the end can come in a split second. In the mayhem that encapsulates three rounds – and sometimes five – the real story of the fight is often lost. To tease out what happened between the bells, fans can pore over replays, listen to experts, or debate wildly with their peers. And in doing so, they might find that winning blow, a crafty tactic, or the indefinable display of ‘guts,’ ‘heart,’ or ‘soul’ that won the fight.

However, all those methods of postmortem pale in comparison to what can be revealed – and thus learned – in the moments from a fight that have been frozen for all time. Photographs, that isolate the bend of an arm, the ripple of a cheek, or the feral yell of a combatant, give us the most telling, and intimate, windows into the sport.

Who are the people who capture these stories in a millisecond and preserve them for the ages? How do they do it? What is racing through their minds as they watch – and snap at – the most intense sport on Earth?

To initially guide this exploration of combat sports photography are two shooters who, thanks to their enormous skills and enjoyable punditry, have crossed-over into the land of recognizable MMA personalities. They’ve been kind enough to share the nitty-gritty of their life as photogs: what’s in their kit bags and what settings they use to capture action in the moment. But, there’s more to the art than science.

They’ve offered their philosophies behind what makes a great – or even perfect – shot, as well as how it feels to get just the right image. They’ve also discussed the challenges of taking pictures through a chain-link fence and given advice for anyone who wants to get on the road with them, to try and permanently capture the sport’s most electrifying moments.

First up, Esther Lin, resident shooter for MMA Fighting – and provider of pics for Showtime Sports. Lin does much more than photography at the consistently award-scooping website (and sister-site of Bloody Elbow). She, along with E. Casey Leydon, also contributes to the outlet’s video productions and Lin occasionally appears in front of the lens as a presenter/analyst. Lin is based in Los Angeles, but largely lives on the road, covering the UFC, Bellator, and the biggest boxing matches of the century.

Also lending his perspective is Ryan Loco, who has shot for numerous outlets (including Bleacher Report and Fighter’s Only Magazine). Loco has produced countless portraits of famous fighters, especially those frequenting South Florida MMA fight camps. Outside of work in the gyms, Loco also shoots plenty of live MMA, covering the UFC, Bellator, PFL, and WSOF. He’s a popular follow on social media, and has lent his voice as one half of the MMA Curmudgeons podcast with veteran MMA journalist Jonathan Snowden.

Between them there’s not much Lin and Loco haven’t seen in the sport. Fortunately, most of that is captured on film and inside memory cards.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting and Showtime Sports

Q. What camera equipment do you use and why?

A. Typically I take a Canon 1D X and a Canon 5D Mark III. And sometimes, if I know I’m going to be taking a lot of portraits, I’ll take a Canon 5DS. And then I take a 70-200mm zoom lens, 24-70mm, and then I have a couple of smaller portrait lenses. I use Sigma lenses for my portrait lenses because they are less expensive, but also good. They have a particular look I like. I have a Sigma 24, an 85, and I have a 14mm. And I have a fish-eye sometimes, depending on how big I think the event will be and if it will warrant a very wide view.

The 1D X is specifically for shooting sports. It has a very fast frame rate and, while I just don’t sit there and burst, it responds faster to my pressing the shutter. The 5DS is specifically for portraits. It’s extremely high-res but it’s very slow. And I just use it when I want to take a nice portrait.

Q. What is the typical itinerary for shooting a live MMA event?

A. We’ll shoot for however long the media events are scheduled for and then edit after. Then when I’m done editing photos and sending them out, I add graphics to the photos for MMA Fighting. So any of the videos that we have, I’ll fill with graphics or titles for them using the photos. And then we get up fairly early and go to the official weigh-ins. We get up early to make sure we are there ahead of the crowd and get a good seat. And we’re there for a couple of hours and then submit photos and then find somewhere to eat lunch and get back for the ceremonial weigh-ins in the evenings.

On fight day I generally try and wake up kind of late knowing that I’m going to be up all night. Generally, about an hour before the fights start we’re allowed into the arena so we’ll go to the media door. Generally there’s some kind of dinner and after that I’ll walk down to the cage. In terms of where you’re assigned or where you’re going to be, the UFC decides that and they give you a number. One side of the cage, where the fighters exit, is the A side. The other side, with one judge sitting on it, is the B side. So depending on where your outlet is on the hierarchy, in terms of the UFC’s importance, like Getty versus USA Today or whatever, that determines where you get to sit. So for me, being a part of a website, it’s not as important to them as local press or the Associated Press or Getty or something like that. So generally I get B1 or 2, which is like the post on the B side.

In between the fights I will basically sit down on the bench and try and get a couple of photos out. I’ll load the photos from the fight and, usually about five to 10 minutes between each fight, I will basically edit as quickly as possible and upload them to the site. Sometimes you’ll see me, if you actually look when the camera pans around, looking at my camera. I’m basically editing right then. I’m scanning through and marking the ones that are decent or decent enough for me to take a second look at. When I actually load it into my computer, at one glance I can see which ones I’ve marked.

By the end of the night, I only really have to do the main event and then I’ll grab all my gear, do the main event really quickly, and then head to the press conference. I’ll photograph the press conference while doing a second pass on the photos to see if I missed anything good.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting and Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

Q. How many pictures do you take during a fight?

A. It depends, if it’s lower on the card and a three round fight, I take about 100 photos per round.

It ramps up as the fight gets more important. For maybe the first seven or eight fights I shoot at low speed. Mostly so I don’t overload myself with editing work. But then say, for a big fight, like McGregor vs. Alvarez, even though it was only a one and a half round fight, I shot 1,000 photos, but that’s pretty rare.

Note: Lin said they typically take around 4,000 images per event.

Q. What for you are the most important images to capture during a fight?

A. For me, my perfect shot is something that captures not only the action and the story-line of the fight, but also the emotion. So I hope that it has all three of those things together. Hopefully you have a strike landing, but above that I want to be able to read from someone’s face whether or not that was painful or like maybe we can read a little more into that.

For me, a perfect example of that is the shot of Ronda Rousey losing to Holly Holm. You can read the pain on Rousey’s face. It looks extremely painful, to me. I wish that I could’ve seen all of Holly, but to me the perfect thing about that photo wasn’t seeing the impact, but for me, it was more the pain of that image.

My favorite photo is from 2009, which sucks because I hate to think that I’ve peaked, but it’s Gina Carano versus Cris Cyborg. And I think because you can see the pain on Gina Carano’s face, you can see the intensity on Cris Cyborg, in her eyes, all that’s showing is her eyes and her fist. You can’t see the rest of her face. You can see her eyes and they look extremely focused and intense. And Gina’s face is completely turned around because she’s trying to get away. And there’s like a perfect combination of all the things and that one photo told the story of the fight. Not only is it that one great shot, but it encapsulates the entire bout for you.

Esther Lin / MMA FIghting

Q. MMA is an exciting and visceral sport, do you feel that when you are photographing the action?

A. When you’re as close to the action as I am, you feel it. It would be weird if you didn’t. I’m generally excited, particularly if I know there are some really exciting match-ups on the card. I mean, I also have to build graphics, I have to write about the fights, I have to sometimes comment on the fights through the Facebook features we do or whatever, so I have to pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. I read a lot of articles in the lead up. I get excited for good match-ups. I have to calm myself down.

Q. While you are photographing an event, are you able to take in what is happening in the actual fights?

A. Photography is about storytelling, so it’s important for me just to feel the story of the fight or the momentum shift, and that kind of stuff. And to notice when Nate Diaz is taunting McGregor, or when McGregor puts his hands behind his back. I want to be able to notice all these things so I’m not just looking at punching or kicking.

I’m really just looking to see what the story-line of the fight is and how it’s presenting itself. I’m just watching and enjoying. Making sure I’m not getting too caught up in it and still being able to watch objectively, while also making sure I’m not totally cutting myself off from the feeling of it. Because if you do that you’re not really feeling it and what are you doing? You’re just taking clinical photos. I should hope that you’re in it to really tell or relate what is happening in front of you.

Q. Do you know it when you get that ‘perfect shot’ and how does that feel?

A. I don’t know it instantly in a fight, not necessarily. Sometimes I do, but say for the Gina one, I didn’t know. I just knew that they had come towards me and I remember feeling my heart racing. For that one I had an editor. And I remember after that round was over, I handed the card to my editor and he ran back three minutes later and yelled at me from the floor, because I was on top of the cage. He yelled at me from the floor, ‘You got the most amazing shot!’ He was all excited, he was like jumping up and down.

For the Rousey one, I thought that I got the moment, but I also thought it was blocked. At that point I was right behind the door so the post was in the middle. So I was just nervous that it was blocked by the post. I knew that I had the exact moment of the strike, but I couldn’t tell you if it was going to be good enough because there was no way of knowing if it was visible behind the post. So I went through the photos really quickly right after the fight ended and I was getting all the hand raises and all that stuff. And I remember, right when I saw that photo, a friend of mine called me from New York because he was watching it from a bar.

Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

He called me and said, ‘That was really crazy,’ and I said, ‘I know!’ and I was screaming at him because I was looking at that photo right when I picked up the call. Normally I wouldn’t pick up the phone, but it was such a crazy moment and I was wrapped up in it. I felt like expressing it to someone else and he just happened to call me.

Q. What important lessons have you learned during your time photographing MMA?

A. I think the main thing I’ve learned over the years is to tell a story. I think when I first started I was very obsessed with just making sure that I understood the movement and that I got the right timing.

When I first started I had really bad equipment. I had one of the cheapest cameras you could have and it was old. It was something my dad had given me, so I figured out how to work within my limitations. I figured out pretty quickly that my camera was not going to get the best action. Everything was kind of motion blurred, I just couldn’t get the shutter speed high enough given how high the aperture had to be, for my cheap lens. So I learned to start taking the photos that I could within my limitations. I started working more on getting the atmosphere, getting expressions and reactions.

Each year I would invest more into equipment, so once I started getting paid more I was able to pay more for equipment and I just got one piece of equipment at a time. One of the main things I’ve learned is that equipment doesn’t really matter a ton. Like, obviously if you are specifically a sports photographer and you just need to get clear action shots, yeah equipment does matter, but for me that was never my goal.

So for me, it was just about getting what I needed to get what I wanted accomplished. And people would always ask me, ‘What do you have? What’s your equipment?’ And all that stuff and I kept reminding people that it’s not that important. What is important is to get what you need to do your job and what you want to get accomplished.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you encounter when trying to capture the images you want at an MMA event?

A. Unfortunately I miss a lot of things, but it’s not something I have a control over. I have to remind myself not to get too worked up about things I can’t actually see. The entire first round of McGregor vs. Alvarez, Big John was in front of me for the two knockdowns in the first minute. So you have to accept there are parts of the fight you will never be able to see.

Esther Lin / MMA Fighting

Q. What advice would you like to give to people who are considering a career in photographing combat sports?

A. I have a hard time considering myself successful at this. It’s hard for me to give advice. I don’t know if I’ve done everything I could have done or if I could have done everything correctly.

This isn’t a job that pays a lot or anything. And there’s so few positions. The UFC has 16 photography spots around the cage and I would say five of them are taken up by UFC type staff or Getty staff, maybe six spots sometimes. And some shows there are only 14 spots, all depending on the size of the cage. And also, cameramen and other factors. There’s not really a lot of opportunity.

I don’t want to come off like an a**hole, I understand people admire the work that I do, but at the same time I don’t think of it as particularly important in any way. I just do what I do because I like doing it, but there’s just a crazy amount of circumstances that have to come together for it to work out. And I would hate to see someone entering into it and not making any money and not even get paid or sink a ton of money into it. It’s expensive, you don’t really make any money either, so you’re really only doing it because you really like it. So I hope if you’re going to do it you really really like it because if you don’t, it’s going to wear on you.

I would say, something that most people don’t talk about, but I hate when people do this job for free. I think it’s very detrimental to the rest of the photographers, but also to yourself. If you’re trying to break into this and you agree to do this for free and you’re being used by a promoter or whatever, it will hurt you in the long run because you’ll never get paid and at some point you’re going to ask them for money and they’re not going to pay you. Because why would they pay you when they’ve been getting it for free and they can hire another up and comer who wants to do it for free. That’s one of the main problems facing photography today. There are too many people willing to do the job for free. It cuts into the people who have been dedicating their lives to it or are professionals because they’re giving it up.

Ryan Loco, (WSOF/PFL), freelancer (UFC, Fighters Only Magazine, various)

Q. What camera equipment do you use and why?

A. I always get asked what camera I use or what camera to get and really, the best camera is the one you have on you. You can take fight photos with any camera. I don’t want anyone thinking they are limited due to their budget. In poker you just need a chip and a chair. In photography you just need a camera and a good eye.

Q. What is the typical itinerary for shooting a live MMA event?

A. I explain to my wife how I have to leave and she gets sad and then I tell her I will buy her a Givenchy bag when I get back and she smiles and we remain married.

Since I have to do the studio session in whatever small room the hotel gives us, I order backdrop paper to be shipped to the hotel the day before I get there. I toss my light stands and cords and lights in my travel case, unless I get lucky and a friend lives in a town where we are going and then I just use all their stuff and I tell them how wonderful they are.

I usually charge everything, and make sure the cards are in order the night before studio day in my hotel room, as I eat some awful hotel food and drink an energy drink (don’t tell my wife). I only drink energy drinks on the road. Monster preferably, since I have shot for them before and my loyalty runs deep.

Studio day usually never goes according to plan, as people show up late and sometimes not at all. Then I have the folks in TV yelling at me because they need images of the one person who didn’t show up for their bottom graphic that’s running on NBC Sports. Always fun. Weigh-in day is my favorite, because it’s super simple and basic and I get to sleep in and also I’m usually done by mid afternoon and can then go roam around the city and take photos; unless I am in Everett, WA or Trenton, NJ, because I fear for my life.

Night before fight night I am charging everything, checking memory cards, and making all my folders for my hard drive as well as the Dropbox so the social media team can grab images for twitter/Instagram, as well as to share with media outlets.

Fight night comes and I will get to the arena about an hour and a half early. Scope out the scene and find a spot for my laptop. I’ll have an assistant on fight night who will edit and upload images for me after each fight. Drop off a card after a fight, grab a new one, and we continue that dance until the end of the evening.

Q. What are your goals when it comes to shooting a live event?

A. I try to tell a story for a fight when I can. Shoot the walk in. As they enter the cage. Maybe the pacing in front of their banner before being announced. The bread and butter for social media are the action fight shots, but for me it’s the little things I love best. I’ve gotten an email before saying, “Where are the rest of the photos from the fight?’ and I have to explain it was a 20 second submission and their back was to me so four photos is all we got. Them’s the breaks.

Q. How many pictures do you take during a fight?

A. No idea, it’s always dependent upon where the fight is. If I’m shooting over the cage, when there’s a ground battle going on right below my post, there’s not too much I can grab. Also, there’s only so many photos I can take of someone in guard before every photo looks the same. After I grab a couple just to have them, I’ll usually just be sitting and waiting for some other action to happen as opposed to filling up my card with a ton of photos that I know I won’t use anyways.

Note: Loco said he tries to stick to around 1,500 shots per event, “But one event in China I took around 4400 because I’m an idiot. Also didn’t help that there was something like 20 or 75 fights.”

Q. What, for you, are the most important images to capture during a fight?

A. Everyone loves a good face smash or a boxing photo with all the sweat and water shooting off under the lights. Beginning of the round is always best for that one. But, for me it’s the emotional moments; the ones that maybe people weren’t originally looking for or didn’t know happened. One of my favorite photos is of Ian McCall after losing to Demetrious Johnson. He’s kneeling by himself after the decision was announced, looking absolutely heartbroken. Don’t know if TV caught it, or if people in the arena saw it, but I did. I could feel that pain. Those shots to me are the important moments.

Q. MMA is an exciting and visceral sport, do you feel that when you are photographing the action?

A. It varies from fight to fight. You definitely feel a different energy before a big fight is about to start. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. I’ve only had one instance where it was, and that was when I was in China. It was the hottest venue I have ever been in, no air conditioning, and no food or drink was allowed in the arena. The main event comes on and I’m dying. Sweating and just completely dead. It’s over and I’m so happy. And then they inform me that there are 10 more fights; they do the main event before intermission. I left to get water and some guy stole my spot and I didn’t even care. I was too tired and my brain was mush. No idea how I finished the event.

Q. While you are photographing an event, are you able to take in what is happening in the actual fights?

A. People usually ask me who I thought won a fight or what it was like to shoot a specific fight, and usually I don’t remember. I have no real recollection of what happened. I’m just focused on trying to get the best photos possible.

Q. Do you know it when you get that ‘perfect shot’ and how does that feel?

A. Yeah, usually you have a pretty good idea if you got ‘the one.’ And then you’re just waiting for the round to be over so you can review real quick and then you see it. And you breathe a little sigh of relief. Or, you realize you didn’t get it and you wonder why the hell anyone hired you in the first place!

Q. What are some fundamentals of photography which you find you use often when photographing MMA?

A. Everyone is different. I mean, you want to go to a high shutter speed (I’m usually at 1/800 or 1/1000) to capture the action, but after that, it’s all just a personal preference. Usually you’re at the mercy of the lighting for the event. And, unless you’re at a bigger show, chances are you are going to get stuck with some junk lighting and will need to make do with what you have. It’s pretty awful and bums me out that promotions don’t see the value in quality lighting. Looks better for everyone involved.

Q. What would you say are more advanced techniques that you utilize often when photographing MMA?

A. It really comes down to seeing it before it happens. Having trained BJJ back in the day, before I became an old man – and also kickboxing with Henri Hooft – I can sort of see tendencies and patterns emerge that help as the fight is going on. Along within a split second realizing, ‘OK, the round is going to end. The guy on top won. He will probably do something to signify that while the opponent is down. Can I get both of them in the shot?’ After a fight, I’m usually completely drained because my brain is going through all that for all aspects from the walkout to the end of the fight.

Q. What important lessons have you learned during your time photographing MMA?

A. That fighters will bug you for photos about two seconds after you take them? For studio stuff, it’s all about building a rapport with the athlete. I like to have fun. Music is playing in the studio and it’s just a couple people chilling, snapping shots, cracking jokes. For fight night, even with a staff credential, the security will still give me grief sometimes. So I learned a long time ago for just photography in general: Take the photo. Just go and take the photo and get yelled at after. Never ask, ‘Can I go around the velvet rope?’ Because once you ask, you get on their radar and they realize, ‘Hmm, maybe he shouldn’t go around the rope.’ Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Also, if you get paid on time, cherish that moment.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you encounter when trying to capture the images you want at an MMA event?

A. Being stuck behind a post when you are shooting cage side is quite the pain. Also, the damn referee. I’ve had events where I swear they knew where I was at and they purposefully stood in front of all the shots I needed. Unfortunately I can’t yell at them to move. [The last WSOF show I shot] I had a fight where it seemed like all the action happened in a straight line directly in front of me, so all I got was the back of some guy’s head. Very frustrating.

Q. What advice would you like to give to people who are considering a career in photographing combat sports?

A. Shoot everything you can. It’s still a fringe sport, in that you can get access that you wouldn’t be able to in most other sports. You can’t walk into a practice gym and ask to shoot an NBA team, but there is a possibility you could walk into an MMA gym and get photos of Stipe Miocic. Also, study. I’m constantly looking at photos from all different areas in order to get inspired or to learn. Jonathan Snowden, from Bleacher Report, recently gave me a huge book of boxing portraits and I constantly go back and look at it and soak it in.

In Part 2 of MMA Behind The Lens three more photographers – who have shot live events from the UFC, Bellator, Cage Warriors, LFA, ACB, and beyond – share their know-how and experiences. That group includes a veteran who has spent their career covering traditional stick and ball sports and two photographers who also work regularly as journalists in the MMA industry.

Other feature articles by Tim Bissell include Blood Sports n’ Body Paint: an interview with the infamous ‘Just Bleed’ guy, Taekwando and Terror: a story of two brothers’ disparate paths, Behind The Pain: the scoop on how STEMM and Dana White created the sound of the UFC, and The Male Gaze in Women’s MMA: a five-part series on how female fighters’ appearances have shaped the sport.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

Tim is also BE's lead (only) sumo reporter. He blogs about that sport here and on his own substack, Sumo Stomp!

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