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Sport Portrait Composite part 2 of 3 | How I Got the Shot

This article is part 2 of a 3 part series on How I Got the Shot

Part 1: PLAN
Part 2: PHOTOGRAPH
Part 3: PROCESS

The first article of this series explained the planning phase and how the composite was envisioned. This gave me a clear direction on how to pose the athletes,what gear was needed and how to build the set. I did a few test shots to ensure I had everything ready. Once the athletes arrived, I photographed them individually using the same settings. This article will focus on the technical aspect of photography and what settings were used that lead to how I got the shot.

Quick Settings Overview

  • Nikon D700
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens
  • Shot at
    • f/stop 5.6
    • 1/125 sec shutter
    • ISO 200.

I normally like shooting portraits between f/2.8 and f/4. For this set, I shot at f/5.6 to have a deeper focus or a larger depth of field. This kept the uniform’s edges a little sharper and made it easier to extract the athlete from the background. An 85mm f/1.4 lens is light weight. Hand holding at 1/125 sec using flash is easy. I chose to hand hold instead of using a tripod. This gave me freedom to move around the set. I kept the ISO at its native value of 200. This produced the cleanest image possible without noise.

Lighting Setup and Ratios

This style of processing requires harsh light to produce strong shadows for a powerful image. To achieve proper light ratios, a light meter was used. I supplied the shutter speed of 1/125 sec and the ISO value of 200. The Light meter returned the proper aperture or f/stop.

  • I used the Rapid Box beauty dish as the main light at power.
  • I tweaked the Light to Subject distance to get a meter reading of f/5.6 at 1/125 sec.
  • I set the Stripbank to ? power and positioned them at a 45 degree angle behind the subject.
  • Using egg crate grids, I focused the light as a rim around the subject until I had a meter reading of f/4.
  • The black background fell completely black by moving it away from the subject until I had a meter reading of f/1.4 at 1/125 sec.

Tweaking the light just right

Speedlights have many benefits, having a modeling lamp is not one of them. A good way to see how light falls on the subject is to light the subject one light at a time. Before the athletes arrived I took a few test shots. I started with just the ambient light. I dialed in my camera settings of f/5.6 @ 1/125 sec ISO 200. Taking the first shot produced an almost black image, Perfect. This indicated the overhead lights in the room had no effect on exposing the image. This eliminated mismatched color temperatures as well as light scattering everywhere. Next, I turned on one rear stripbank, took a meter reading then a shot. I reposition the light slightly, took another meter reading and shot. Once I was happy, I left the light on and powered up the second stripbank. Doing this showed me how the two lights worked together. I repeated the process; a meter reading then a shot. Finally, I added the main light. This process seems longer than it really is. Once you do this several times, you are able to predict where the light will fall and what settings are used.

Why this Style of Light and Modifiers

I used a beauty dish as the main light; commonly known as the Key light. A beauty dish is in-between a direct flash and a softbox. It gives a photograph a wrapped, contrasted look which adds a more dramatic effect.I chose to use this to concentrate light on the athlete’s upper body. I kept the diffusor (the white material) on. This spread the light evenly plus controlled the amount of harsh light.

Light to Subject Distance can be compared to a fan. The further away the fan, the less breeze you feel. The closer the fan, the more breeze you feel. If the fan is too close, the effect is felt on a small area. Lighting is the same way. Using a light meter, I moved the light closer to the subject until I had the proper meter reading I was looking for. If the light was too close or in my frame, I increased the power of the light and moved it away from the athlete. The trick is to lock down as many values as you can and only focus on one value. In this case, I knew I wanted a meter reading of f/5.6 at 1/125 sec, and an ISO of 200 for the key light. I also knew I wanted to conserve battery power so I powered the speedlights to 1/4 power. The distance of the light to the subject was the final element I needed to complete the formula. I simply moved the light stand closer or further away from the athlete until I had the proper meter reading. that produced the correct exposure I was looking for.


A Stripbank produces a narrow beam of light. Adding an egg crate grid keeps the light even tighter. I chose to use two stripbanks on a 45 degree angle as accent lights on the athlete. To produce a harsh light, I removed the exterior diffusion panel (the white material) and keep the stripbank close to the subject. This extra light helped shape the athlete plus separated them from the background. In a few of the shots, the stripbank doubled as a prop.

Using a black background gave me several options. Knowing the final image was going to be a composite on a dark background, made it easy to matched the overall tone of the image. This made the edges of the image blended well with the new background. An added bonus, individual images of the athletes came out of the camera ready to print with very little editing involved.

What Would I Try Differently?

Its always important to learn from each shoot. Here are a few things I would want to try or improve on for the next shoot:

If I only shot the composite for the team portrait, I might have tried a tripod with a prime 85mm lens and a cable release. Keeping the camera in a fixed position, I would take the normal shots of each player. This would have helped in post when I had to figure out the height of each player to keep a proper prospective.

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