Guide to Sports Portraiture


Head shots are an essential part of a sports photographer job.  Personally, I dreaded taking head shots until I learned two secrets:  how to do it well and how to make it fun for you.  This article is intended to share the first of those secrets: doing it well.  A follow-up article will describe how to make it fun. 

The Setup


Your primary consideration in portraitures is the lighting.  The lighting sets the tone.  Hard light is edgy, most often used in competitive environments like sports and business.  Soft light is friendlier, used family or personal portraits. 

The position of the light is critical.  Light positioned farther from the object is harsher, while light closer to the athlete is softer and will fall off quickly. 

Light positioned in front of the athlete is flatter, casting less shadow and providing clean edges.   Light to the side of the athlete has greater depth, creating more shadow and catching the facial contour. 

Figure 1 - Example of a one-light set-up with light source is from the side, creating more shadow and catching the facial contour of the athlete.  

Multiple layers of lighting can be used when taking portraits.  The first layer is the main light.  It provides the foundational layer of light of the athlete in the image.  The second layer is the fill light which fills some of the shadows created by the foundational layer.  The third lighting layer is for accents, also call rim, edge or hair light.  And the final layer of light is to illuminate the background.   

Figure 2 - Example of a one-light set-up.  Light source is from the side, creating less shadow and forming cleaner edges. 

Each layer of light is created by a separate light source, be it a flash or a reflector.  Sports portraitures are usually taken using one or two light sources for the main and fill light.  Suggested one- and two- light configurations are presented in Figures 1 and 2. 

The height of light should be 30 to 35 degrees above horizontal of the athlete head.  This angle helps catch the twinkle in the athlete’s eyes and eliminates any shadow that may appear behind the athlete’s head.  Remember to adjust height of light as the position of the athlete changes, or as new athletes are photographed. 

Flashes can be either SpeedLites or strobes that are set on lighting stands.  Never use an on-camera flash.  An external battery pack is recommended for SpeedLites to reduce the cycle time between flashed and to increase the number of flashes per charge. 

Light from flashes at close range is often uneven.  A lighting umbrella or softbox uniformly scatters the light from the flash.  I prefer umbrellas with a diffusion sock because it is easier to transport and setup. 

Flashes are triggered by wireless receivers attached to each light and controlled by a transmitted attached to the camera shoe. 


Any solid or uniformly patterned material can be used as a background for portraits.  A solid white background is most commonly used for sports because that white is also the background color commonly used on website’s roster page and stadium display.  Colored or patterned backdrops require greater post-processing.  

Figure 3 - Example two-light set-up with a reflector as a fill light.  This configuration will produce shadowing on the left side of the athlete’s face.  

Your next biggest consideration is the background material: fabric or paper.   Fabric backgrounds can be folded and easily transported, but must be ironed or steamed to remove wrinkles.  Soiled fabrics can be washed.  Rolls of paper avoids the problem with wrinkles, but transporting a nine-foot long roll is awkward. Soiled sections of paper can be torn away and discarded.

I prefer solid white backgrounds using paper rolls. 

Background are usually hung from a 9- or 12-foot wide support system consisting of two stands with a connecting cross-bar. 

Tethered Shooting

Nothing is worse than doing an entire photo-shoot and getting images that are not absolutely perfect.  Checking the screen on the back of your camera helps, but is often is not good enough.  Tethered shooting overcomes the dread of taking less than perfect portraits. 

Tethered shooting connects your camera to your computer with a cable to display the real-time images being produced by your camera.  Most image processing software packages support this capability. 

This is especially helpful when you are experimenting with light to achieve dramatic shadowing affects.  These affects are achieved by reducing the intensity of the fill light as measured as f/stop with a light meter.   Images can be examined in great detail and the necessary corrections make to camera and lighting settings. 

I review the images with the athlete during the session and let them eliminate shots they don’t think flattering.  I can then decide if more images are needed. 

Tethered shooting allows you to custom name the file with the name of your athlete as you are 

Figure 4 - Example two-light set-up.  The intensity of the fill light can be adjusted to produce no- to moderate- levels of shadowing on the athlete’s face.  

shooting.   This level of organization is very helpful when you are working with dozens of players.

The Session

Charge all your equipment and test the entire setup the day before the session.  Arrive early on the day of the shoot to set up your equipment.  I usually begin setting up 90 minutes before the session, allowing 60 minutes to setup with a 30-minute cushion in case something goes wrong.  Take test shots and review them on your computer, not the back of your camera. 

Ninety percent of the people you’ll be photographing are probably intimated or dreading having their portrait taken.  They may be uncomfortable because they don’t know what’s going on, or they don’t think they can take a good photo.  One of your jobs is to eliminate these worries. 

Strike up a conversation with the player.  If you don’t know the team or the players, do some research beforehand.  Get them to talk about themselves.  You’ll be surprised how it will loosen them up.  

Figure 5 - Photo session with Darrun Hilliard of the Austin Spurs on October 30, 2017 at the Toyota of Cedar Park automobile dealership (Andy Nietupski). 

I’ll never forget the session I did with Brett Nicholas, catcher with the Texas Rangers.  I knew Brett and his wife recently had a baby, whom I asked about.  It changed the entire session.  Brett ran to locker room to retrieve his catcher’s equipment for some non-traditional photographs. 

Tell your athlete exactly what’s going on and what you need from them.  Professional models know what to do in a photo-shoot; athletes do not.  Tell them where to stand, how to stand, which way to look, how to space their legs, how to turn their bodies, how to tilt their shoulders.  Tell them when you are taking a test shot.  And give them a 3-2-1 count down before you take a photo. 

If you are shooting tethered, enter the players name in the customer naming field.  My first shot is always of their jersey number, or a piece of paper with their name on it.  This may seem redundant, but it eliminates a lot of confusion when you are editing the images.  

Figure 6 - The photographer's perspective of the Austin Spurs team Media Day at the Toyota of Cedar Park automobile dealership on October 30, 2017 (Andy Nietupski).

Despite their swagger, most of these players have the same insecurities as the average person and don’t want a bad picture. I tell the athlete that they can review every image at the end of the session and eliminate any photos they don’t like. 

The entire photo-shoot will take two or three minutes per player for routine roster headshots.   Ten to fifteen minutes per player are need if you are doing something more elaborate. 

Odds and Ends

There are a few more tips to make the entire experience less stressful. 

You will be transporting a lot of equipment for this photoshoot.  Bring a collapsible cart to transport the equipment. 

Bring a stepladder.  Your athletes may be significantly taller than you.  You will need the additional height to taken a straight-on image. 

Bring tape and clamps.  Use the tape to secure cables, cords, the edges on backdrop on which the players will stand.  Use the clamps to secure the backdrop to the sides of the stand, and to give loose-fitting clothing a form-fitting look. 

Sandbags or weights to secure the lighting stands.  An extension cord with a multi-socket adapter can also come in handy. 

About the Author

Andy Nietupski founded Through the Lens Sport Media in 2015 while on a creativity sabbatical from the corporate work of business start-ups and turn-arounds.  TTL Sports Media helps sports organizations optimize their business results using the latest digital sales and marketing techniques.  TTL Sports Media publishes 1,000’s pieces of content annually and curates a catalog of more than 100,000 items.  On behalf of its client interests TTL Sports Media annually publishes nearly 200 articles and makes greater than 1000 social media posts.  

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