8 Tips for Attention-Grabbing Professional Athlete Portraits

via Backdrop Express |

Professional athletic portraits are in a league of their own. More than a vanity statement, professional sports photography functions as a calling card and a marketing tool. Professional athletes, athletic managers and sports agents seek the highest levels of quality in professional athlete portraits. On or off the field, professional athletes (as well as their managers and agents) are always on the lookout for new opportunities for advancement. The professional athlete portrait can be key to building an athlete’s brand, reputation and career.

The ideal athletic portrait will effectively depict who the athlete is and magnify their persona to the viewer. The portrait should convey the true spirit of success the athlete embodies, allowing it to radiate from the photo to their fans, coaches and teammates. Bending and even breaking the rules is encouraged in the most innovative sports photography. Consider these eight tips for creating striking, compelling and iconic athlete portraits:

1. Unexpected Perspectives

While most sports portraits are taken at around the eye level of the subject, trying a different angle from above or below give your portrait an unexpected “WOW” factor. Try getting up high for a few shots, then get down close to the ground and shoot upward to give the athlete a monumental quality. You can still do traditional eye-level shots, but you just never know when an innovative angle might pay big dividends.

2. Eye Contact

The direction of the eyes has tremendous impact on an image. Try having the athlete look off camera while thinking about winning the championship. Get them to show emotion in the shot — laughter, surprise, intensity. You could also have them look at something within the frame — a ball or other gear, a trophy, a ring — anything that can create a relationship and/or second point of interest within the shot.

3. Innovative Composition

“The Rule of Thirds” is a popular compositional structuring technique, but it’s also a great “rule” to break. Try placing your subject dead center or off to one edge. Give your subject space to look into on one side of the composition. This can be especially powerful if you use a solid color backdrop or seamless paper in a color that enhances their skin tone and uniform color. When in doubt, a black backdrop can be a powerful and versatile counterpoint in sports portraits.


4. Lighting for Athletes

While there are unlimited possibilities for lighting in portraits, a bit of drama goes a long way in an athletic portrait. Experiment with side-lighting, back-lighting and silhouetting the subject. If you see an existing athlete portrait you admire, try and emulate their lighting setup. Reverse-engineer how they achieved their effects by looking for highlights and shadows that indicate light source, how many lights were used and how studio lighting was positioned. Softness or hardness in shadows can give clues about what light modifiers were used.

5. Post-Production

Use your computer to enhance and perfect the lighting effects you used in the studio. Use Adobe Photoshop to correct any blemishes or distractions such as strange shadows or folds in the uniform. Next, use Adobe Lightroom to correct lens distortion and exposure, pop the darks, add contrast, tweak white balance and perfect the highlights. Using a green screen backdrop in the studio can allow you to add your own backdrops later.


6. Candid Shots

While portraits are all about the posed shot in pre-arranged conditions, don’t be afraid to keep shooting “between shots,” such as while the athlete is adjusting their pose, tying their shoe, playing with gear, or laughing at one of your jokes. “Unexpected” shots can be a great way to capture the athlete’s true personality without the “stiffness” that sometimes occurs in nervous subjects or in shots that are over-posed.

7. Props

Props such as balls, sticks, gear, uniforms and awards can create points of interest that accent and enhance athlete portraits. Be sure and find the balance between taking too much focus away from the subject and adding a compelling sense of relationship, story and drama to the image.

8. Focus In

A lens with a long focal length can be just what’s needed to take your sports photography from ordinary to innovative. Get in close on the athlete’s eyes, hands, mouth or feet for a few shots. Have them bring a prop up close to their face and allow their facial expression along with the prop to help tell the subject’s full story.

Backdrop Express Photography Team