Five things to love about sports portraits

Updated: May 18

Full confession time.


When I started out as an aspiring photographer in 2015, making portraits of athletes never entered my imagination.


Weddings? Yes. Family portraits? Yes. Senior portraits? Yes.


I spent years chasing glory in those genres. And I loved them, I really did, but they never truly lit a fire inside me.


Early one summer evening, I brought two of my sons and their friend to a grass field along with a studio light. They wore soccer uniforms and brought soccer balls with them.


I've been enraptured with sports portraits ever since, which led to the start of Creative Sports Photography here in Lancaster, Pa.


A 13-year-old boy holding an ice hockey stick.
Luke Arms | Ice Hockey | Palmyra

What is it about dynamic portraits of athletes - whether elementary age or high school varsity, college competitors and even adults - I find so appealing?


I've had time to reflect on it, and I've drawn up five things I truly love about working with athletes and their families.


And I think you'll find as clients these are reasons to love sports portraits, too.


No. 1: The challenge of on-location shoots


I've yet to participate in a sports portrait session where the location doesn't present a unique challenge.


At a youth baseball shoot, tall grass shot up through the infield dirt. It'd been a while since someone showed the field some love.


At a ice hockey rink, I made portraits of a middle schooler who played for a rival of the team who regularly used that ice. That meant the wrong color banners and logos hung all over the place.


At a soccer session, the popular park we used also attracted a large number of others who wished to use the fields. That meant a lot of people (and a few dogs) in the background.


Boy baseball pitcher standing on the mound
Devin Connors | Baseball | Penn Manor

When you go to hire a professional photographer to make portraits, any kind of portraits, make sure they love the challenge of a location rather than hope everything is perfect.


I love showing up to a location a half hour or more before a shoot, scouting the lighting and the little nuances of each place.


Then I make a plan so clients receive the best images we can make no matter what field or arena we're using.


And each location brings something unique. Whether that's the name of the school on the scoreboard or the color of the logo on the field, it's something special to the client.


That spurs a photographer's enthusiasm and creativity.


No. 2: The color of the uniforms


My photography style celebrates color. Bold color.


Always have.


When I used to photograph high school seniors, the best locations for portraits could be found in urban environments because you could find brick walls painted all kinds of cool colors.


High school tennis player holding a racket
Matthew DeBord | Tennis | Lancaster Catholic

Whenever I photograph an athlete now, excitement comes from knowing no matter what, the client will be wearing a uniform with color that pops right off the photo.


Even most black uniforms have a color like red or yellow incorporated in them.


When the studio lights illuminate those uniforms, those colors come alive.


No. 3: The variety of sports means more unique experiences


When it comes to creating portraits of athletes, no two sports are alike.


I mean that.


As a portrait photographer, when planning a session, I consider a host of different factors such as how the sport is played, what equipment is used, and where the sport is played.


A field hockey portrait session will be unique compared to golf. Swimming and softball? Not the same.


And that's awesome.


Weddings tend to follow a routine. There's prep, the first look, the ceremony, portraits, toasts, dance party.


Sports portraits, though, are anything but routine. It fuels a photographer's creativity.


How are we going to use a football helmet? How are we going to incorporate the spectator stands? How can we show action?


Each of those decisions also comes with consideration of where to place the studio lights.


Creativity. It keeps sports portrait photography fun for the person holding the camera, and that leads to better portraits for a client.


No. 4 - A person's passion merged with great photography


When it comes to sports portraiture, we're capturing more than a singular moment.


The image reflects an athlete's dedication, diligence, aspirations, passion.


That's truly inspirational for a photographer.


You want to harness that person's passion and channel it into a creative portrait.


Can it happen in other portrait genres like weddings and families? Sure!


Just not quite like this.


I photographed a 13-year-old ice hockey player recently, and as he skated around or stood for a portrait, you could sense the energy around him.


A boy ice hockey player ready to face off.
Luke Arms | Ice Hockey | Palmyra Black Knights

He was on the brink of realizing a child's dream. Very cool to be photographing that young man in that moment.


I'm soon going to photograph a pair of high school swimmers, a few years older than the ice hockey player and so in a different place of their journey.


And yet, in talking with them, you have the sense of dedication. I want the images to be as much a reward for the effort and time they've put into being competitive swimmers in multiple swimming events.


For a photographer, it's truly inspirational.


No. 5 - The athletes themselves


No matter what - all the camera and lighting gear, all the training, the know-how, the creativity - none of it matters if a photographer doesn't respect the fact there's a person on the other side of the lens.


Creativity springs from many places, especially when you make a personal connection with a client.


My favorite people in the world to photograph are my wife and our three sons. A camera gives me a chance to show them how my eyes see and my heart adores them.


Because I know their hobbies, their likes, the moments they look forward to, I anticipate and want to capture all of it as a way to show my affection.


It's incredibly important to connect with an athlete before a sports portrait.


A session isn't about Creative Sports Photography or me as the photographer.


It's about you.


Girl high school soccer player sitting against a goal post.
Ava McBride | Soccer | Pennsylvania Classics

It's about learning about your drive and passion for the sport you play and for the non-sport interests you have.


A photographer should respect the person on the other side of the lens as if they are the most important person in the world at that moment.


Because for me, you are.


One of the reasons I coach youth sports is because how uplifting it is to meet and mentor young kids.


And because with the beating heart of a Dad, I connect with other parents who are experiencing similar highs and lows as me.


Sports portraits provide the same experience.


I try to channel all that energy into creative lighting and photography technique, always remembering there's a person in front of the lens with dreams, who's willing to work hard for it, who may have had a set back but they keep going.


That's all a photographer like me could ever ask for in a client. Someone who loves what they do as much (if not more) as I love portrait photography.


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