To succeed as a photographer, you have to follow your passion. And that's just what Canon photographer James Musselwhite has done, drawing on his love of wrestling to capture this weird and wonderful world with verve and style – as well as a kitbag full of Canon L-series lenses.
But despite being a fan of the sport from a young age, finding a way into its tight-knit fraternity was by no means easy for the photographer, based in Portsmouth, UK. "I spent six fruitless months trying to contact wrestlers and offering to shoot them," James says. "But I was getting nowhere. You must understand: the wrestling community is super closed-off – they only let in the people that they want to let in."
So his emails were ignored and phone messages went unanswered. But James persisted, and finally his big break came when he saw a newspaper article about 'The Fearless Flatliner' (aka Chris Manns): a wrestler who'd had to retire from the sport due to illness, but was now making his return to the ring. "I saw the article, contacted the newspaper and said: 'This is my number, tell him to call me if he wants a photoshoot.' Five minutes later the guy calls me in this deep, growling voice, saying: 'Alright? It's Chris.' I'll never forget it."
James drove 10 miles to pick up the wrestler from his caravan and then took him to his photo studio. "He looked like a bouncer – a huge guy, with this bleached beard and piercings all over."
By the time he'd got home, The Fearless Flatliner had recommended me to two other wrestlers.
Having spent seven years working in baby and family portraiture, it was all way outside James' comfort zone. But the shoot went like a dream. "The guy was so generous with his time, and in trying out ideas. I was playing with different styles of lighting, and he was so patient with me. By the time he'd got home, he'd recommended me to two other wrestlers. Those two wrestlers recommended me to two other wrestlers, and off to the races we went."
James was soon making a name for himself: for his shots of wrestling action, his promotional portraits, and his equally dramatic images of life backstage.
"I did a series called Through the Curtain where I shot wrestlers immediately after a match," he explains. "They'd come through the curtain and just stand there: no posing, no direction. The pictures were shot with just one light, the background was just a wooden store cupboard door, which was gritty, black and broken. And it told the story of what these guys were putting themselves through. I had one who couldn't get a splinter out of his eye."
The beauty of working with wrestlers is that they're natural performers.
"With wrestlers, anything's possible," he stresses. "I've shot guys on the roof of [London's] Brixton Academy doing somersaults. I've had guys stand in the sea. The beauty of working with wrestlers is that they're natural performers: they understand their character, their gimmick. My job is to get that times 10, through the lens, to tell their story."
To do so, he relies on his Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. "It's so robust," he says. "When you're working in small spaces, things can get knocked. You can be too close to the canvas floor – and that thing bounces, it has a real bump to it. But this camera, honestly, has never let me down." And his L-series lenses haven't either. "There's a reliability in the focusing, the speed and the sharpness that gives me one less thing to worry about."
He uses three L-series lenses in his work: the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. When shooting ringside, he'll usually choose the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. "The idea is to get as wide as possible," he explains. "So when I'm sitting on that canvas floor, with it bouncing up and down in front of me, I need as wide a range as possible to get maximum depth of field.
"But [when not shooting ringside] at shows, I'll go the other way. I'll take the superzoom lens, the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, and go up to the back of the arena. I'll try to create shapes, compositions, a different style that sets me apart from everybody else. That's what I'm trying to do: make a statement with my work and not imitate others."
James says he's always shot on Canon cameras, ever since he got his first camera for his 15th birthday. "My entire experience of Canon lenses has been flawless. From creating rich colours that are as I remember on the day, to the reliability, the focusing, the sharpness – everything I've done with them has been as good as, or better than, my expectations."
In fact, one of the biggest financial commitments he made when first setting up his portrait business was to invest in an L-series lens – a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, which he bought in 2014. "It was a big risk at the time because money was tight – we'd just become [parents], at the same time as going self-employed," he says. "But I still use that lens to this day. As a photographer, the quality of the images sell you, so it's probably one of the best investments I've ever made."
James shares his tips for making the most of your L-series lenses when photographing interesting characters.
1. Use a simple setup
"I only use one light, a softbox and a black background, and I think the simplicity helps to make the character’s personality stand out," says James. "With no distracting elements, the eyes are drawn straight to the character. The light tends to be on the left, probably because I hold the camera in my right hand."
2. Pack a piece of cloth
"My black background is usually just a 2m x 1.2m piece of matte black cotton that I tape to the wall. It’s much easier to transport than a professional background because I can fold it and put it in my bag. It’s important that the fabric is matte, so it doesn’t reflect anything."
3. Use soft light
"I try to make the light as soft as possible, by having it close to the model. Because I work backstage at wrestling shows, there isn’t much space. A feathered light source gives you even lighting without hard shadows."
4. Use a lens that lets you open wide
"When I photograph ringside, I need to use a high shutter speed in order to capture the action, so I find it useful to have a workhorse zoom lens such as the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, which opens up to f/2.8. It’s got that L-series glass, which gives the best quality in terms of clarity and colour, and the focus is quick and reliable."
5. Go into detail
"If I’m doing a headshot, I like using the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. It’s the most detailed lens I’ve ever used for close-up portraits. You get so much coming through in the RAW file, even at the smaller apertures such as f/16 and above – it’s utterly mesmerising."
6. Use a reliable telezoom
"If I’m further away from the ring, maybe in the crowd, I use the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM to get close-ups of the wrestlers in the ring. I like that it has double image stabilisation, which enables me to capture pin-sharp images in low light."
7. Use this bluffer's version of the inverse square law
"You don’t get a lot of time with the wrestlers backstage, so instead of re-metering and changing the power of the light every time, I move the light closer or further away from them – it’s much easier to change the aperture on my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. If I move the light one metre closer or further away, I know that’s roughly one stop. And because I’m shooting RAW files anyway, even if I’m one third of a stop away from where I’d like it to be, I can still bring the detail back in when I process my shots."
8. Use natural light where you can...
"For the Through the Curtain series, where I photographed wrestlers coming backstage straight after a match, I didn’t want any lights to get in the way. Instead, I stood with my back against a doorway, which was wide open, letting daylight fall flat on the subject."
9. ...or use a Speedlite
"I often use my Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT on a stand with a softbox instead of lugging a studio light around. It takes up less space, and it’s completely wireless so there are no leads to worry about. Because the light is always close to the subject, it still allows me to shoot at ISO100, giving me the best quality image."
10. Experiment with modifiers
"Experience teaches you what not to do – so many of us get stuck in our comfort zone doing what works. I don’t ever want to do that, so I try to change it up a bit. At the moment I’m experimenting with taking the modifier off my octabox so you can see the silver reflective mesh inside it. It gives a different catchlight in the eyes of the subject."