Crafting High-Energy Portraits

portrait photography

When assigned to capture a portrait of an athlete, the most obvious photographic solution is to photograph them on the field (court, track, etc.), but various restrictions and challenges might not make that practical, and often these environmental portraits aren’t what the client is looking for. A “traditional” portrait session is naturally a possibility, but many times this fails to capture the raw strength and energy of an athlete.

To make a studio portrait of an athlete more compelling, consider adding energy by way of running, jumping or swinging. In the studio you can control the light and pose, and use compositing to make the individual elements of the subject and the background exactly as you’d like. This is the technique I used to create the athlete portrait shown here.

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A smart use of lighting and effects can convey the speed and power of an athlete.

The Lighting Setup

I liked the idea of photographing an athlete in a running pose, stretched out and striding. I wanted a dark background, but nothing too flat and plain, so I tested to determine exactly what the background would be. I considered swirling dust, water and smoke to add texture, but decided to test a few approaches—sprayed water and baby powder would be most effective and least messy.

My shot was going to be on a predominantly black background, so photographing my subject on a black
background made the most sense. I started with the camera on a tripod, locked down in position below waist level. A lower camera angle helps give the athlete a bit of a “hero” perspective.

To light the background…well, since it’s black you don’t want any light. I used a black seamless paper and positioned my subject at least 10 feet in front of it. This way when I did add a frontal light, it would be close to the subject and would fall off significantly by the time it reached the background—making it much easier to maintain a deep, dark background and making selections easer as well.

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The background water spray image I used for the composite.
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Edge lights positioned behind and to the side. The subject is illuminated with a thin bright line that defines her shape.












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Adding a frontal light, I determined this output was too strong and detracted from the drama of the edge lights.
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I turned down the fill light to make a more ideal balance with the edge lights. The subject is standing in position on her mark for the shoot.












To light the athlete against the black background, I find that bright edges not only separate the subject from the background, but they tend to highlight the muscles and shape of the athlete’s form. To create edge lights, I positioned two strobes, one on each side of the subject and about 10 feet behind her. I raised the strobes to about a foot above head level and focused them with grid spots. You could also use snoots or even strip boxes. A test shot with just these two lights set up would reveal a silhouetted subject with brightly illuminated and well-defined edges, not a bad place to start.

I used V-flats as flags to keep the backlights from hitting the camera directly. You simply slide them into place until the shadow from the flat falls on the camera in the shooting position. Next, I added a large soft light from the front as the key. Really, though, it acted as a subtle fill to the edge illumination from the backlights. Having exposed correctly for the edge lights, I simply adjusted the distance and power of the main light until it provided an appropriate amount of illumination for the subject. Too much is no good. The right amount in this case was ƒ/6.3 at ISO 100 with the strobes at a fairly low output, around 200ws each.

One major consideration when it comes to freezing action with strobes is the duration of the strobe illumination. Better strobes have a shorter flash duration—that’s the time it takes the strobe to go from off to fully on and back off again. In my image, for instance, there’s evident motion blur around my subject’s face, hands and feet. It fortunately adds a little to the sense of motion, but much more blur would have been problematic. To help shorten the duration of the flash, set it to its lowest power output, and you’re effectively photographing your subject with a high-speed shutter.

With the camera set to a reliable sync speed—like 1/125th of a second—I make sure I’m shooting at a sharp aperture, say, ƒ/8 or ƒ/11. This will also provide enough depth of field so you’re more likely to get the subject sharp as they move through the frame. Have them stand in position and use manual focus to prefocus. When you set the camera this way, you can use the ISO to dial the exposure up or down rather than changing the aperture. It’s time to shoot.

The Shoot

Whether your subject is running or jumping, dribbling a basketball or swinging a bat, you’re going to need to take a few practice shots to get your timing dialed in with the subject. I find that counting down—three, two, one—is a great way to get in sync. Just be sure you’ve given them enough room to safely do what you’re asking and that nothing dangerous is in their way. All trip and slip hazards (like cables and stands) must be taped down or cleaned up and completely out of the way. I was able to execute this shot in an area of about 15 feet wide and less than 20 feet from camera to background.

When it comes to the composition, frame wider than you think you’ll need to. A jumping/running/swinging athlete takes up a lot more space than you may imagine. The worst-case scenario is to capture the perfect moment—minus the subject’s head, hand or foot that has crept outside of the frame. I shoot wide and crop later, as necessary.

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The “good” arm from another exposure is shown here, selected with a rectangular marquee.


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Painting on the layer mask of the original image of the subject, I removed most of her arm from the image.
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Setting the arm’s layer mode to Difference makes aligning layers easy. Where the top layer matches the layer below, pixels turn black.
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The arm work is complete.

















You’ll likely have your best luck shooting a single frame at the peak of the movement and simply repeating it over and over with your subject, even if you have a high-speed strobe designed for multiple exposures in rapid succession. More than one sports photographer has told me it’s a better way to ensure they capture the peak moment rather than getting the split second immediately before or after. Keeping an eye on the LCD, once I knew I had a few good candidates, I dismissed the subject.

I wanted my background made in the studio, as well, so I killed the front light and left the back lights in place. I used a spray bottle to mist a cloud of water above the set and let it fall through the scene, triggering the shutter remotely each time. This was a trial-and-error approach, and I checked the camera LCD regularly to gauge my progress. Once I felt like I had the ideal background, I shot another one just in case.

Making The Composite

After downloading the images into the computer, I selected one for the subject and another for the background. I used Lightroom to organize and browse my image files, and to add a bit of sharpness, contrast and what I think of as “edginess” with the Clarity slider. You can adjust the clarity anywhere from +10 to +100; the higher the number, the more you’ll increase the midtone contrast and increase the definition of all sorts of unflattering skin elements—splotches, blemishes, wrinkles, etc. So be careful of the diminishing returns that come with increased clarity.

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This screenshot from Lightroom shows versions of the composite as well as the individual images that went into the composite.

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portrait photography
After removing the blue from the subject’s pants, I decided the image appeared too drab, so I undid the change.
portrait photography
With the piping selected, I added the blue from her pants to its own layer and created a mask. Shown here is the blue color prior to switching the layer mode to Color.

Next, open the images in Photoshop and use the background mist image as the background of the image. Duplicate it to create a working copy of the background, then copy and paste the subject image onto a new layer above that. Because the camera was locked down onto a tripod, the images should be fairly well aligned. If not, it shouldn’t matter, as you’ll be isolating the subject entirely.

To select and mask the subject, I used the Magic Wand and Lasso tools to select the background. Use the Select and Mask controls in the Selection menu to refine the selection (by painting the edge with the Refine Edge brush), then converting the selection into a mask. With additional passes of the Select and Mask tools, I refined the selection even further. I did final touchups of my selections with the regular Paintbrush tool, making sure the layer’s mask is selected in the Layer palette. A hard-edged brush came in handy here to eliminate some of the extra motion blur around the subject’s head and hands.

My subject’s pose was almost perfect. Her right arm, though, was extended a bit too far from her body. I knew other shots had her arm in a better position, so I decided to replace her arm. First, I used the Marquee tool to select a chunk of frame surrounding her good arm, then copied and pasted it onto the hero image. I set the layer mode to Difference in order to align the arm in the correct position. As pixels on that layer line up with their duplicates on the layer below, they turn black. This method makes aligning layers very easy. Once it was in place, I returned the layer to Normal mode and masked out the old arm by painting on its layer mask, then selected the new arm with the Lasso tool and Select and Mask controls to refine the selection. Finally, I created a new layer mask from the selection (by clicking on the Quick Mask icon on the Layers palette) to remove the unwanted background elements surrounding the arm. A bit of painting on the arm’s mask and the subject layer’s mask allowed me to fine-tune the blend until it was seamless.

With the subject now well isolated against the misty background, I used the Scale controls (found under the Edit menu’s Transform heading) to resize the mist in relation to the subject, and then I used the Liquify tool to push around background elements, distorting them slightly simply to make them more appealing in the way they surround the subject. I then used the default Photo Filter Adjustment Layer to add a bit of warmth at about 15 percent.

The next action I took was to alter the color of the scene. I thought the model’s leggings were too bright for the otherwise fairly monochrome scene. They were grabbing all the attention. So I used the Replace Color tool to make them gray. This looked too bland, so instead I decided to add some of the blue from the leggings onto the subject’s top. I selected the piping around the edges of her top using a combination of the Magic Wand and the Lasso tool. Once the piping was isolated, I created a new empty layer above the subject layer and clicked the Quick Mask button on the Layers palette to make a mask corresponding to the piping on her top. Then I selected the Fill tool, option-clicked on her blue leggings to choose the blue color, and clicked on the empty layer to fill it with blue. Because of the mask, the blue appeared only over the piping on her shirt. Adjusting the layer mode to Color allowed the detail from below to show through, and now the shirt had a hint of blue to unify the entire composition without bringing it all down to a too drab gray.

I wanted the subject to merge a bit more into the darkness of the background, so I took two steps. First, I created a
Levels adjustment layer that was pinned directly to the layer below it. I then adjusted the levels to make the image appear darker before finally ensuring the layer mask was active, then I set the Fill tool to Gradient Fill and clicked-and-dragged to position a gradient mask on the layer such that it would hide the levels adjustment from most of the subject but allow it near her feet. In this way her feet slightly recede into the background, forcing the focus upward into the scene and helping to visually merge the subject with the background.

Step two of this process was to create a new layer filled with 50 percent gray and set to Overlay. To do this, I option-clicked on the New Layer icon on the Layers palette, and then selected Overlay for the mode and clicked the now-active “Fill with overlay-neutral color (50% gray)” checkbox. Then I used the Burn tool to darken bits of that layer over areas of the scene that I wanted to recede or turn darker. I made the subject’s right arm darker. I also painted around the edges of her arms, legs and abdomen to help blend them with the background. It also provided a slightly more cinematic effect as the edges fall into shadow.

In the end, it doesn’t require much in the way of specialized studio tools or overly specialized Photoshop technique to make a high-energy athlete portrait. It just requires a bit of attention to detail, an understanding of the lighting techniques that will produce the look you want and a willing subject who won’t mind repeating her pose again and again.

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