Sitting cage-side at almost any boxing or MMA event in the Chicagoland area you are bound to see one person; Tom Barnes. He’s the hired photographer who goes about his business quietly and produces some of the most memorable photos in the sport. We see his pictures fly across facebook, being shared and tagged and commented on, all with a little gold watermark of his company, Tomba Images somewhere on the picture.
It is rare to see Barnes get miffed even in the slightest, but it is easy to see him light up when he reminisces about some of the pictures he has taken. He also has a sense of when a fight is going to be larger than life, even if it is at a smaller stage, and you can see him go into his zone.
They say that it doesn’t matter what the equipment is, you have to have an artistic eye in order to truly capture the best moments. Sure the top of the line camera and lens will help, but like the fighter who has been inside the cage for twenty some odd fights, there isn’t much that Barnes isn’t aware of.
His story for shooting combat sports starts over a decade ago, but Barnes has been shooting photography for much longer. He was always a freelance photographer, shooting the odd job here, the wedding there, but one day he got tired of shooting people. He just didn’t see people with an artistic eye anymore.
So he moved on and decided to focus on architectural photography. Buildings are things of beauty, but given the right framing, angle, and focus, they shine. Barnes grew up on the west side of Chicago, and decided to shoot both the exterior and the interiors of buildings.
One day, he entered the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, a place he had been before. He went from room to room, shooting his subject with both large and medium format film. He thought he knew the building pretty well until he found a room he had never been in before. Inside the windows were all covered up, there was an American flag hung up, and also a boxing ring. The ring fascinated Barnes so much so that he went back the next day. And the next. And the next.
He struck up a conversation with George Hernandez, one of the top boxing trainers in the Chicagoland area. That lead to Barnes going to other boxing gyms such as the old Windy City Gym and Jab Gym. That lead to him shooting at the Golden Gloves, and back to shooting people again.
The transition from boxing to MMA was an easy one as there has been a lot of crossover between the sports. And while there are technical issues to shooting a boxing match or a cage fight, it is all the same for Barnes who enjoys them both.
What was harder for him was switching from film to digital. The speed of the sports world and the now of today forced him to change. But back in the early days, he was a film guy through and through. He developed his own film, worked in the traditional dark room, and printed all of his own stuff be it color or black and white. He wanted nothing to do with digital photography.
His wife Deb, whom at the time wasn’t his wife, was a photographer as well. Though she was of the digital variety instead of film. Barnes stated that he tried to shoot boxing with traditional film but it was kind of tough. He tried out her camera and then quickly upgraded to have better digital equipment.
Equipment it seems is the crux of any photographer. It seems like every week there is a new piece of equipment that can help. But it isn’t cheap. In the early goings, Barnes recalls that cost and how there isn’t an easy answer for how to purchase $30,000 worth of equipment. And ironically enough, that equipment is needed for the smaller shows, the ones in front of hundreds, not thousands of people. These shows tend to be poorly lit and require the power of the equipment. The larger shows are televised and have a lot of light, making it much easier to shoot.
And while he has had some thoughts of moving on from combat sports, he has never lost his passion or been tired of the shooting the sport. His interests are expanding, wanting to shoot other action sports such as watersports, but likely he won’t move on completely.
Why would he? He has so many memorable moments. From shooting any of the UFC, Strikeforce or Bellator events that he has been to, to the local events, there is always something for him to shoot. Being able to turn around and see the thousands of fans at these events, all cheering and screaming, it excites him.
When you ask him what his most memorable shoots were in the industry, two come to mind. The first deals in the little known studio side of the sport. These photos are rarely seen with his logo on it as they are commissioned pieces that then sometimes get enhanced. It could be a weigh-in or a promo piece, but these are the candid shots of the fighters.
His favorite of these was seeing a concept from inception to completion. Felice Herrig, a fan favorite and one of the voices of women’s MMA, was the subject. The idea seemed simple at the time, shoot her as the famous Rosie the Riveter. The night before he was running around, buying clothes and trying to figure out how to make a bandana. The entire day was spent shooting to get one shot, but it quickly became famous.
Of course if you ask him what event was most memorable to him, he lights up like a kid waking up at Christmas to find a room full of presents. The event was Manny Pacquiao taking on David Diaz in Las Vegas in 2008. That night as he says, is burned into his head.
For more information on Tom Barnes, find him on Facebook under Tomba Images Photography or at http://www.tomba-images.com/