Shoot High-Impact Photos of Sports Athletes

Athletic portraiture primer


Combine the dual disciplines of sports and portrait photography for athletic portraits! It's a great way to for athletes to show off their moves and their strength.

Capturing sports action photographs is a great challenge, but so is taking portraits of athletes. The advantage of athletic portraiture is that most athletes love the camera, and if you get them involved in their particular sport you are going to provide them with a fantastic, personalized momento.

Athletic photography has its special challenges. It's a combination of action and portrait photography and so many of the principles that apply to portrait photography also apply to athletic portraits...and many of the things you would do to capture the action will help you create better portraits.

Let's take a look at 10 different athletes and the different ways in which they are captured. Your approach may be different, but hopefully these images will inspire you. The basic rule is: Get them involved in their sport.


There are several approaches to photographing soccer players. You can do a classic at-rest with the ball photo, or you can do a full-length shot as they kick the ball. In this photo, a an wireless flash was placed to the left of the camera on a stand, to fill in the shadows cast by the hard sunlight coming in from the right. Lighting ratios were adjusted until the flash output equalled the ambient light, something that can easily be accomplished using TTL flash in auto exposure. The camera was placed on a tripod at a low angle, about 2 feet off the ground. A kit lens at its widest zoom setting should work here.

When photographing a soccer player kicking the ball around, know that it may take a lot of tries to get just the right moment of action while also catching a good expression on the player's face. In this case, the player's look of concentration and eyes on the ball, combined with his open position with his body turned towards the camera as well as the slightly tilted horizon, all come together successfully to provide a dynamic portrait. Photo © arekmalang/iStockphoto

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This is a dramatic image. Getting it right requires split-second timing and, for the photographer, nerves of steel. Or does it? Putting a camera so close to the bat as it is being swung at full speed at an oncoming pitch would be fraught with danger! Of course, this shot wasn't made quite that way.

The trick here is to make it look as if the batter is swinging the bat. Carefully pose the batter holding the bat in place, standing still. This way you can compose more carefully and get repeatable results and the right expression on the batter's face, and not have to worry so much about timing. In the case of this image, the composition is greatly simplified by using a wide-angle lens to distort the relative size of the bat and ball, and shooting at a low angle to use just the sky and get rid of distractions in the background.

Choose a shutter speed around 1/30-1/60 second. Now, bring in the pitcher, but don't let him actually pitch. A soft toss from a few feet away aimed at the bat will give the feeling of motion while depicting the moment of contact. The resulting image should be a grand slam with your subject. Photo © Tomwang112/iStockphoto


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You could, of course, shoot a portrait on location. But if you have access to a studio (which could be a simple window and a seamless white background, or an off-camera wireless flash or two on lightstands shooting into umbrellas), you can get a good classic head-and-torso portrait of your tennis star holding her racket. A normal or short telephoto lens will yield the most flattering results here.

In this photo, there are two flashes, with the key (main) light source to the right of the camera at approximately a 45-degree angle and set at twice the power of the fill light, which is placed roughly 90 degrees to the left of the model from the camera's point of view. The interplay of this cross-lighting creates dimensionality on the model's face. A third flash is aimed at the seamless at the same power intensity as the key flash to give it a pure white look. Photo ©  Sandernl/iStockphoto

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Voleyballers look great doing what they do best, hitting the ball. For this setup, the photographer deepened the blue sky by using a circular Polarizer filter, and supplemented the overhead sunlight with a fill flash that is located to the right of the camera. The flash was bounced off an umbrella to soften and widen the light and avoid any harsh shadows.

The photographer here chose a composition that places the net at an angle that creates several diagonal lines—which connote action. Once all of that is set, the rest is all about capturing the ball and subject in the right position. To make a shot like this succeed, the subject should stay in a fixed spot, and either hit the ball herself or get a friend to throw it towards her. (You could also cheat it and photograph the ball separately and add it in post production, but you may want to keep it real.)

To freeze the action, choose a fast shutter speed—at least 1/250 sec, and keep trying. As with so many athletic portraits that incorporate action, it takes many tries to get everything just right. Photo © andresrimaging/iStockphoto

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At The Gym
When photographing people at the gym (be sure to get permission from management!), be aware that many are rehabilitating themselves from injuries, fighting weight problems, or just looking to improve their overall physical well-being. They have set goals and are accomplishing them—and are proud of what they've done. This is a great place to start when approaching photographing people who work out at the gym.

Whether it's pumping freeweights, using the eliptical or stationary bike, or doing floor exercises on a mat, there are plenty of ways to depict people who do workouts but one expression you can try to capture is pride over personal accomplishments.

In this photo, the light is ambient, and the hardwood floor kicks up pleasing warm light into the subject's face. Use the largest-sensor camera you have so you can produce a clean image even in low light at a higher ISO. You may want to add a pop of fill flash here but it may not be necessary. Be aware of the lighting and adjust your white balance accordingly. You may want to shoot in RAW so you can fine-tune the color in post-processing.

Getting someone to pose in the middle of a pushup or plank may be challenging to the person doing it, but if you can get a shot like this, it's worth it. Photo © monkeybusinessimages/iStockphoto


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Track and Field

Stretch those hammies! Any athlete should do stretches to help reduce the chance of injuries, most likely in the form of torn or strained muscles. Some stretches are easy, others can be somewhat painful (if you've done a hamstring stretch the right way, you know what I mean!) While you may not want to capture someone grimacing in pain, you certainly can show the intensity in their faces.

Stretch time is a great time to photograph runners because they're sitting in one place. Keep the background simple (in this case, it's just grass and sky). In this mostly-profile shot, a normal lens was used to reduce optical distortion. A flash placed to the right of the camera filled in the shadows—which can be unflattering in the mid-day sun. You can use any camera—even a compact digital camera—for a shot like this.

This type of photo falls under the "athlete-at-rest" category, and infers the physicality of the athlete. It's a nice trophy that this runner can hang on her wall. Photo © Yobro10/iStockphoto

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With all the intensity and action in this photo, the key thing about this picture of a Black Belt Karate master is eye contact. That's what makes the shot not just compelling, but it inviting to the viewer. The airborne subject with his flying belt and white outfit, results in a wonderfully active moment.

This is a carefully choreographed photo. The subject is jumping and kicking, and it certainly took many attempts to get everything just right. Whether you use a white background and a studio or are in a gym, you can get this shot! A couple of wireless flashes at equal power, bouncing off umbrellas or light boxes, should be placed on either side of the subject. He will likely need to run into the shot to build up the the jump and kick so determine in advance where he needs to be at the moment the picture is taken, and focus on that spot manually. Choose a middle aperture—around f/8—to ensure he's in focus. A normal focal length lens is fine for this kind of shot.

Take it further: Since you'll be taking many variations during the session, consider presenting your subject with a framed three-photo sequence of him in action. Photo © fotokowalski/iStockphoto

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Skateboarding can be a gritty inner-city kind of sport, or it can be a colorful competition in specially-designed skate parks. It has always had an edge to it. Black and white is a great way of showing this.

The classic skateboard photo is shot from a low angle with the skater airborne in the midst of doing a move. To catch this halfpipe, the photographer chose a near-fisheye lens at an extreme low angle, to give the impression that the skater is higher up than he actually is. A wireless flash to the left of the camera provides illumination to emphasize the subject against the subdued but somewhat cluttered background. Enough of the foreground included to convey a sense of grittiness.

A well-executed Ollie, Frontside, or Half-pipe is a source of personal pride for a skater. Catch that move, and you'll have a very appreciative subject. Photo © ponchikz/iStockphoto

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The problem with capturing a portrait of a biker while biking is, well, you have to catch 'em. It's possible, but the path of least resistance may be to shoot a simple environmental portrait that emphasizes the bike.

For this photo, the photographer chose an unusual angle by laying on the ground in front of the front wheel and shooting up. The face is illuminated by a TTL wireless flash held just to the left of the camera, with the sun providing natural backlight. The angle of the shot creates a dynamic diagonal line by the wheel and handlebar shaft, which also gives the photo energy and implies action. The contrast between her bright pink helmet and the deep blue sky is striking without being distracting.

Be careful with exposure here—flash helps balance the subject light with the ambient light. Without flash, the subject might be in too deep a shadow. Expose for the background, then add in enough fill flash to balance it.

The advantage of such an extreme shooting angle is that the girl is framed by the sky—a simple background—and enough trees to suggest that she's on a ride in the country. The best part? While an off-camera flash can help, you can do this kind of shot with whatever camera you have at hand! Photo © Elenathewise/iStockphoto

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According to Wikipedia, Parkour is "a holistic training discipline using movement developed from military obstacle course training. Practitioners aim to get from A to B in the most efficient way possible." A sport that is just starting to gain popularity and has a certain aspect of danger, Parkour is practiced in abandoned buildings, on city streets, parking lots or wherever there is a variety of walls to climb or vault over, windows to jump through, cars to jump over, and so on. Many Parkour participants will trespass abandoned buildings to find interesting places to use. Others stick to public places.

The ideal portrait of a Parkour practitioner should combine action and grit. Ruins, graffiti, and debris are all part of Parkour's unique and risky appeal. A common move in Parkour is a vault, and capturing someone vaulting over an obstacle is a great way to capture the essence of this young sport. Since you can work with your subject and plan for him to vault at a specific spot, you can be pre-composed and focused. Encourage your subject to practice the move and look towards the camera. Even though there is a lot of improvisation in Parkour, make sure to rehearse and repeat moves in order to capture the right combination of expression or moment.

Although this image was shot with a telephoto lens at a distance, you can get right up to an obstacle and shoot with a wide-angle lens to take in a greater sense of place, since that is an important aspect of the sport. Remember: Grit is good!  Photo © olexa_/iStockphoto

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These are just some examples of how you can shoot portraits of athletes and are just a starting point. Do you have a special technique? Share it in the comments.

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