• The beginning of my Martial Arts photography in 2010.

    This image from 2010 would have been sharper if I’d been better with my flash technique, and used a smaller f/stop. But hey, I was learning.

  • 2014 - Better composition and feel, but flash would have helped.

    While I was pretty happy with the composition showing the upper cut and feel of this image, it would have been better if I’d used flash instead of upping the ISO which resulted in a lot of grain in the shot. Lastly, if I did this shot over, I would have taken the plug out of the background, but this was an action shot in a class not a studio portrait.

  • 2015 - A big step up in my lighting from a few years ago.

    John "The Bull" Marsh demonstrating an arm bar. I was pretty happy with the way this image was lit and composed. At this point in my lighting journey, I know I can light the shot well, and I can work on the composition of the image.

  • 2015 - Getting there, flash made this image sharper.

    This is one of the first images I took at Triton where I turned off all the overhead lights and controlled the light pretty well with flash and modifiers. The light on the back wall was a little hot for me, but I was moving in the right direction with this shot.

  • 2016 - A portable strobe and power pack helped keep this image clean and sharp even at 1/6400th of a second and f/2.8.

    This image was shot with a 600 watt strobe at 1/6400th of a second and f/2.8. The image is super clean with little if any noise. The color and mood are what I wanted it to be, and it’s a great example of powerful front kick. Ironically, the shutter speed is so fast, this almost looks like a posed shot instead of the dyanmic kick that it was. When you have a powerful flash you can use high speed sync a shallow depth of field and still get crisp photographs with little noise. Canon 7D MK II | Tamron 15-30 | Xplor 600 w/softbox. Martial Artists: John Marsh and Aaron Swenson.

Photograph Your Passion and Improve Your Lighting by Kevin Gilligan

Photograph what you are passionate about, and clients will find you

Photography clients want great photos. Photographers want to produce great photos, and get paid for them. Photographers that incorporate their passions into photography will develop their skill set faster and continue to grow because they are enjoying the process. Along the way you will meet others who share that passion. Photograph what you love, again and again until you get it right….or at least get much better at it. I love martial arts, and have used this passion to help me improve my lighting knowledge and skills.

Photography Improvement Starts with Honesty

About four years ago, I became determined to improve my lighting skills. I don’t remember an “aha” moment, but I realized that my lighting skills were not where I wanted them to be. At that point I’d primarily photographed landscapes and outdoor sports like soccer and surfing, and had not needed much supplemental lighting. I was already using off camera flash and reflectors for portraits, but I wanted to improve what I felt was a relative deficit in my skill set.

Learn the Photography Technique and Practice, Practice, Practice!

As a self-taught photographer, improving my lighting skills would be a two-step process. First, I had to learn about lighting from an intellectual perspective. My head was swimming in terms like broad lighting, short lighting, watts and lumens. Second, I had to practice my lighting as much as possible. Since there is limited opportunity to use lights in landscapes (light-painting anyone?) that meant portraits and indoor sports photography. Since I am a practitioner and fan of martial arts, this meant martial arts photography. Having an understanding and passion about martial arts made it easier for me to envision the kind of shot I wanted, and made it easier to recruit models and pose them. I speak their language, and I’m passionate about creating sports photography.

Understanding Light in Photography

Before I could start practicing my lighting with martial arts photography, I had to learn about lighting. I read every blog I could find on lighting, read many books, studied the work of photographers who take great portraits (check out my buddy Hernan Rodriguez), I volunteered to haul gear and assist others so I could watch and learn. I braved Los Angeles traffic, (YIKES!) time and time again to go where I could learn. I visited museums (the Annenberg Space for Photography is incredible). I attended many workshops and lectures on lighting. In the past few years I’ve bought and acquired all kinds of lights: speedlights, LED’s, strobes and multiple types of triggers. Next came modifiers: reflectors, umbrellas, softboxes, snoots, gels, stands, you name it.

Martial Arts Photography, Putting In The Work

Just like in martial arts, you have to put in the work to get better at lighting. One of my clients, UFC veteran John “The Bull” Marsh owns a gym, Triton Mixed Martial Arts. It’s a terrific gym with all kinds of classes: boxing, kick boxing, Krav maga, MMA, Ju-Juitsu and fitness, providing lots of variety. I’ve taken thousands of images at Triton, in all kinds of lighting conditions, using many different types of lighting and lenses. I’ve taken shots in natural light, with flashes, with LED’s and strobes. Only recently have I begun to “create” images at Triton.

At the beginning I let the lighting in the gym control my shots. I used the existing overhead lights or natural light. Next I supplemented the light with flashes. That turned out ok, but the color was often difficult to correct in post. Next I started adding more flash with modifiers, which controlled the lighting better, but it often had too many hot spots for my taste.

Eventually, as I started paying better attention to how my lights impacted the environment. I learned which walls reflected too much light, and which walls and angels gobbeled up the light and needed more power. Things really started to click when I trusted myself enough to turn off all the overhead lights and completely control the lighting.

Relaxing & Composing Images When Technically Competent

Once I was more comfortable with my lighting skills I was able to relax and spend more time on my composition. This made the shoot more fun for me and the subjects, resulting in much better final photographs. Photographing something I am passionate about made the learning curve fun. I wanted to keep improving my shots and capture the dynamic action and athleticism.

It was a steep learning curve, and I expect to keep learning as long as I’m shooting. Empty your cup, my friends and shoot what you love!

Kevin Gilligan is a landscape, portrait and sports photographer from L.A.'s South Bay. His work has been displayed in museums and published nationwide.  To learn more about Kevin you can read his bio HERE.

You can reach him at

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