Sports as Art: Photographing Athletes is Different from Sports Photography

Blair Bunting basketball photo

To the surprise of many, photographing athletes doesn’t always mean you’re a sports photographer. To be honest, I have absolutely no idea about sports.

My photography of athletes is best captured by the shape they create and how my lighting can accentuate them. In many ways my lack of interest in the sport has given me the advantage of not being impressed by any of their performances. But how does it work when the person you are photographing is a model and not playing the exact sport you are supposed to be portraying?

That was the challenge I faced when photographing a male model for a sports drink. We created a series of basketball pictures and after the casting it was clear that he had the best look of all. With a lot of enthusiasm and a willingness to work hard to get the right look, I along with the creative director (no pun intended) brought him into the right shape of the sport. It was an approach that relies heavily on not playing basketball but hitting the right mark so the lights do the rest. Rather, imagine how a theater would pre-light a set so a play could set the right mood for the audience.

We knew that with an extensive light setup (around 15) the highlights would carry the image towards the viewer at hard angles, leading to lots of crossing lines in the frame to capture them. Being on set was more like watching a dance being choreographed than an athletic shoot. We had markings on the floor for everything from counterpoint for light metering to takeoff and landing points, so the model was stretched enough to sell the movement. As always with my photo shoots, we make sure everyone is equal, from the assistant to the client to the photographer. In doing so, we ensure that everyone feels comfortable contributing to the final image. In this photoshoot, it was key to a collaboration of art and athleticism that produced these images.

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Blair Bunting basketball photo

In many ways, the team’s collaboration in directing the athlete allowed me to focus entirely on the lighting. I went through the set over and over again, measuring and measuring with a light meter to keep highlights from spilling over the top of the model. We wanted to have a split feel where the dynamic of the color separates from the athlete and gives him a stronger accent in the background. Instead of red and teal, which is becoming all too common, we’ve opted for a harder red and blue combo. The shadows are better absorbed with a darker combination, but when combined with non-gelled hard lights it allows for more perceived depth in the photo. In fact, with all the lights on set, we found that almost 75% were behind the subjects’ plane in the form of keys and fills, and 25% were in front of them.

As for the action in front of the camera, when a photographer is in a closed studio coaching a model in positioning, he has less to worry about motion blur with fully charged flashes. All too often in professional athletes, they go into a form that they are familiar with but is very fast and can only be frozen by cameras with extreme shutter speeds. On this production, we essentially froze the model in action at one point where there was a small lag. The movement is more like a jumping ballerina than a basketball game driving to the hoop. Slowing down the motion allowed me to shoot the camera closed at f/16 for maximum sharpness. It’s a trick I’ve learned over the years, especially with track and field athletes. Often runners think that in order to quickly look in front of the frame, you have to sprint as fast as you can on set. This isn’t actually the case, as it’s more effective for a runner to figure out where the form looks fastest than to be fast at all.

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The lighting kit allowed me to spend time with the model as we hopped in front of a mirror in the studio and saw the shape we had created. It also helped me see what little details in his jump could be perfected for the shot so I can get as much of it on camera as possible. One quirk I notice when photographing an athlete in the air is how his hand sells the shot. For some players (usually soccer receivers), the hand opposite the ball clenches into a fist and can be a distraction. Basketball players tend to do the opposite, opening their hands wide, but that too can draw the viewer’s attention. With this shot, I was able to help the model find hand positioning that would flow into the jumping motion and make the shot look a little more graceful.

Blair Bunting basketball photo

The final piece to creating a realistic looking basketball piece with a model not playing basketball is their line of sight. When photographing a jump shot or layup in the studio, there are several ways to enforce the perspective of a real basketball game. The first is quite obvious as the photographer needs to be as close to the ground as possible and if possible build a stage to allow shooting angles below ground. We didn’t build a raised stage for this photoshoot, instead raising the lights significantly higher than they would be in a standing portrait. This frees up space for movement and softens the tone of the model/athlete. However, over the years I have found that models sell a movement base on the space around them and not on the invisible boundary of the photograph. For this reason we glued a marker on the bottom part of the key light for the model to align its body with. By aligning his eyes and head with the “X” on the key, we made sure that all the lights around him existed on the correct axis from the model’s body line.

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Hopefully this will help those who photograph athletes on set. And I hope that helps photographers who aren’t interested in sports to know that they don’t have to limit themselves because of it. The human body is an art form and sport is its expression. Being able to dynamically control the lighting is one way to evoke this expression and turn it into art.

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

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