Behind the Scenes Shooting With Toyo Tires and UFC Fighters

John Pangilinan

Words and Photos by: John Pangilinan

One of the perks of being a photographer is the ability to work with various companies and people and within different industries. Toyo Tires is the official tire sponsor of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as the UFC, and is able to reach a diverse fan base of MMA fans because all have a need for tires for their vehicles.

Toyo asked me to shoot their latest campaign involving their Team Toyo athletes. The campaign would call for some traveling within a short timeframe and would require some logistical organization. Often, the planning and prep prior to the actual shoot is the most difficult part of the project. The goal would be to shoot three different athletes located in three different areas within a week and keep a consistent look and feel for the images captured. With travel and schedules in place for the photo team, the client, and the fighter, we only had to ensure that the product would arrive to each location on time. Luckily, Toyo was able to take care of this part of the project.


First up was a drive down to San Diego, CA to shoot former UFC bantamweight champion, Dominick "The Dominator" Cruz. With this being the only local shoot, we were able to use this initial session to determine the look and feel for the rest of the campaign in which it called for the athlete to be shown using a new Toyo Tire within his workout regimen. At the time, Dominick was recovering from knee surgery and prepping to return to the Octagon, so we didn't want to ask him to strain himself for this shoot. So it was determined to feel him out and ask what he would be comfortable doing. He said he felt fine and was up for anything. So we asked him simply to jump up and over a stack of tires, similar to a box jump.

In order to get a consistent look and feel without ever having seen each location in person we pre-determined that we would create a dark background with the use of a large black fabric. The reason for using fabric over a roll of seamless paper was the ease of packing for travel for each shoot. It's much easier to fold up fabric than pack and ship or even purchase large rolls of seamless while on the road. The key element for this shoot would be the lighting. Not only did I want to light the athlete for a gritty and raw look, but I also wanted to light the tire itself to show off the tread.

We were given a back room area at the gym in which it was the easiest to turn off the lights without disturbing others that were training at the time. After covering the wall in the back in the black fabric using a lot of gaff tape, we determined an area where we would have enough room to set the tires and have Dominick jump over them while also setting the camera with a 50mm 1.2 L lens. I chose this lens for its low light capability. Next up would be setting up multiple strobes. I shot using a pair of Einsteins and a Canon Speedlite 580EX II. One Einstein was place overhead with a large softbox to light the subject; the other Einstein with grid created a soft rim light; and the Speed Lite was used to light the tires. I always suggest doing test shots with a secondary subject to get the light to the proper settings before using the main subject. This shows a degree of professionalism by not wasting the subject's valuable time. Setting the camera on a tripod ensures a couple things. First it keeps everything consistent and you can pre-set the focus to your liking, especially with moving objects. Second you are able to use multiple shots together using Photoshop if needed.

As a true professional, Dominick was up for the task and jumped multiple times. Each time he moved his body slightly to give various looks and expressions. Sometimes you need to experiment as some natural movements simply don't look the best for the shot, and you need to be able to adjust. I was able to show Dominick a few shots, and he adjusted accordingly.

To utilize the shoot's time effectively, we shot quickly and after getting exactly what we needed for the campaign, we even had the chance to capture additional portraits of Dominick for the client to be used for their social media and website. It's these little extras that keep clients happy.

The second shoot took place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at the famed Roufusport Mixed Martial Arts Academy with UFC lightweight champion Anthony "Showtime" Pettis. Setup was very similar, but lighting conditions in this new location varied slightly. Anthony was also recovering from surgery, so we wanted to limit his action to avoid any injury. It was decided to have him pull on the tires with a rope to show his strength while training.

Again, not wanting to waste too much of the athlete's time, we pre-shot everything and only had to have a couple takes to get it right, leaving us with time for a couple portraits.

While on location, as a bonus, his management asked ahead of time if I would shoot a couple extra portraits for one of his sponsors, Cyclone Cups. So I was able to kill two birds with one stone, and also gain a new client in the process...not too bad. Of course, I cleared it first with Toyo Tires to ensure they were okay with that. 

The final shoot took place in San Jose, California with UFC #1 featherweight contender Chad "Money" Mendes. This particular shoot would prove to be the toughest.

The area given to shoot was located in the back of his strength and conditioning gym, which worked out perfectly. The concept for this shoot would be to showcase the strength of Chad by having him carry a tire and throw it.

Now for obvious reasons this created a couple issues for the shoot. One was the consistency in setting up Chad's body in relation to the tire and, upon throwing the tire, where it would end up without harming anyone or any gear. Luckily, Chad is another true pro and was able to control his throws and his body each time...

...even when asked to do it over and over again. It's no surprise that this guy is one of the most well-rounded athletes in the UFC, as he didn't even break a sweat. His photos were actually my favorite from the trio.

After the select shots were chosen by the client, the final edits were then done before being sent to Toyo. Toyo produced a beautifully printed poster, which they used at the UFC Fan Expo in Las Vegas. They had each of the three fighters present to sign autographs, creating an awesome collector's item.


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