Sports as Art: Photographing Athletes is Different from Sports Photography

Much to the surprise of many, photographing athletes doesn’t always mean you are a sports photographer. Truthfully, I don’t know much about sports at all.

My photography of athletes is best captured through the way they look and how my lighting enhances it. In many ways, my lack of interest in sports has given me the advantage of not getting starstruck by any of their accomplishments. How does this work when your model doesn’t play the exact sport you want them to?

This was the challenge I faced when photographing a male model for a sports drink. After casting, it became clear that he was the most attractive of all the basketball pictures ,. With an abundance of enthusiasm and willingness to work hard to get the right looks, I, along with the creative director, took to coaching him (no pun intended) to the right form of the sport. It was an approach that leans heavily not on playing basketball, but in hitting the right mark so that the lights did the rest. Think of it more of how a theater would pre-light a set so that a play can convey the proper mood to the audience.

We knew that with an extensive light setup (approximately 15), the highlights would carry the image to the viewer with hard angles making for a lot of crossing lines in the frame to capture them. Being on set was more like watching a dance being choreographed than a sports-based shoot. We had marks on the floor for everything from counterpoint for light metering to take off and landing spots so that the model was stretched enough to sell the motion. We always ensure that all are equal in photoshoots. In doing this, we make sure that everyone feels comfortable having input towards the final image. On this photoshoot this was key to a collaboration of art and athleticism that produced these images.

Blair Bunting Basketball Photo

In many ways having the team work together to direct the athlete allowed me to focus completely on the lighting. To prevent highlights from dripping onto the models’ heads, I repeatedly walked through the set with my lightmeter. The split look was important because the colors separated the athlete from the background and allowed him to stand out more. Instead of going with red and teal, which is getting all too common, we went with a harder red-blue combo. Combining non-gelled, hard lighting with darker colors allows you to see more depth. However, the shadows can be better absorbed by using a darker color combination. With all the lights on set, we actually found that nearly 75% were behind the subjects’ plain and 25% in front in the form of keys and fills.

As far as the action in front of the camera, being in a closed studio and coaching a model to the positioning allows a photographer to worry less about motion blur on full-powered strobes. Professional athletes often take on a familiar form, but it is extremely fast and cannot be stopped by cameras that have high shutter speeds. With this production we had the model essentially freeze in the action at a point where there was a bit of a delay. The movement is more like a ballerina leaping than a basketball play driving to the hoop. The slowing down of the motion allowed me to shoot the camera closed down to f/16 for maximum sharpness. This is something I have learned over time, particularly with athletes in track and field. Many runners believe that sprinting fast on the set means you must look fast in front. This is actually not the case, as finding where the form looks fastest for a runner is more effective than them being fast in the first place.

With lighting set, we spent time together as we leapt in front of the mirror to check out the form that we had created. This also helped me to see what minor details in his jump could be perfected for the shot so that I can get as much of it in the camera as possible. One mannerism that I notice whenever photographing an athlete in the air is how their hand sells the shot. For some players (usually football receivers) the hand opposite the ball clinches up into a fist and can be distracting. Basketball players tend to do the opposite in that their hands are wide open, but also this can catch the viewer’s eye. This shot allowed me to assist the model in finding a hand position that would flow into jumps and make the shot seem a little more graceful.

Blair Bunting Basketball Photo

The final piece to creating a realistic-looking basketball piece with a model that doesn’t play basketball is their sightline. When a jump shot or layup is being photographed in studio, there are a couple of ways to force a perspective of a real basketball game. The first is rather obvious in that the photographer needs to be a low to the floor as can be, and when possible build a stage to allow shooting angles below ground level. For this photoshoot, we didn’t construct a raised stage, and instead raised the lights significantly higher than they would be on a standing portrait. This frees up the space of movement and softens the key on the model/athlete. Over the years, I’ve found that model movements are more influenced by the environment around them than the confinement of the photograph. For this reason, we taped a mark on the lower part of the key light for the model to direct his body towards. We aligned his head and eyes at the taped “X” on the key to ensure that the lights were on the right axis with the model’s body.

Hopefully this will help those photographers who shoot athletes. And I also hope this helps photographers that aren’t into sports know that they don’t need to limit themselves because of this. Sport is the expression of the human body as an art form. Being able to navigate the lighting dynamically is a way of calling out that expression and making it into art.

About the author: Blair Bunting is a Phoenix commercial photographer. You can see more of his work on his website, blog, Facebook, and Instagram. This story was also published here.