Athletic Portrait Lighting Techniques

Two photographers brainstorming over what should be the correct exposure setting for a studio athletic portrait photography session, Joe McNally and Daniel Norton join forces. McNally attempts to recreate the same lighting he used to shoot one of his iconic Sports Illustrated for Kids covers:

When you have a subject like an athlete, the common perceptions and rules of portrait photography go straight out of the window. You don’t need soft lighting. You want to chisel out the athletic bodies using rim lighting.

So, where do you start? What’s the ball park settings for an image like that? McNally says, “Honestly, I don’t know. That’s, you know, part of the discovery process, coming into the studio or any location, figuring it out.”

McNally explains that in order to take full effect of the rim lighting setup, you need to be able to make the ambient exposure as dark as possible. You start with any reasonable exposure setting and then work your way trying to suppress the ambient exposure. For this shoot, McNally started off with ISO 100, f/5.6 and 1/200, before adjusting it to f/11 which gave him the result he was looking for.

Once the ambient exposure is dialed down and it’s no longer affecting the image, the final ingredient is to bring in the lights to shape and chisel out the athlete in the image.

backlighting athlete portrait

Profoto B1 with a Zoom Head

The most important light is the rim light—or the backlighting in this case. Once that is correctly in position, the other lights will fall in place. It’s always a combination of what you see, your gut feeling, and properly using the resources at your disposal. McNally started off with a couple of B1s with zoom reflectors. The light was hard, but it also spilled onto the walls and ceilings of the studio and bounced back onto the model.

how to backlit subjects

Even with backlighting, there was a lot of spill.

To counter this, he brought in some V Flats, as well as Profoto Beauty Dishes with grids to make the light more defined and edgy.

Speaking of edgy, a strong backlight/rim light can create blown out highlights and loss of details. Keep an eye out for this.

rim lighting tips

Rim lighting can cause blown out highlights.

From there on, it’s a series of trial and error to get the ratio of lights just right for the perfect exposure.

athlete portrait shoot

athlete portrait shoot lighting tips

Building your lighting from the ground up in a studio portrait session is preferred over a fixed ratio based guideline. Use your gut feeling more than numerical formulas to get the best results.

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2 responses to “Athletic Portrait Lighting Techniques”

  1. Andreea says:

    Thanks for this interesting article, I hope to help me.

  2. Florina Borsan says:

    Nice article, thanks for sharing!

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