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Why I use studio lights when making sports portraits

Updated: May 18, 2022

Photographers often classify themselves into two broad categories.

One group prefers using ambient light.

These photographers will make the best use out of the light nature gives them.

The vast majority of portrait photographers fall into this category, and understandably so.

The ones who do it best make truly stunning, beautiful images whether they’re in a city or a park or a field.

It’s not at all easy. The photographer still needs to know how to handle their camera, how to pick the best, most flattering light, and how to do that consistently.

Girl soccer player smiling
Ava McBride | Soccer | PA Classics

Then there’s the other category, reserved for a few brave image makers who dare to tread into a high-reward genre of photography that takes an extra effort, even a little bit of risk.

We are off-camera lighting photographers.

What is off-camera lighting

You might have noticed my images have a certain look.

Many have deep blue skies, dramatic clouds, and athletes illuminated by some interesting light that might cause you to wonder how a photographer does that.

It’s not by accident.

I use one to two studio lights on tripod stands that a person might otherwise find in a photography studio.

Boy baseball player from Mountville
Ryan | Baseball | Mountville

But the little secret here is they can be used outside. Yup, even in the middle of the afternoon. They make some of the most amazing portraits you’ll ever see.

The lights are more often than not located inside soft boxes which use diffusion panels.

These soften the light, make it beautiful, even when done well appear to look exactly like sunlight.

I use a remote on top of my camera that signals to the studio lights when to fire their flash.

Otherwise, I could plant a camera flash on my camera or use no flash, but in each instance, they don’t create the images my clients expect.

Off-camera lighting provides directional lighting. I can move the lights around so that they point in a direction that is most flattering to the athlete and capture texture in something like a baseball glove or a hockey player’s uniform.

That’s not possible when the flash is on top of the camera pointed directly at the athlete.

And, those amazing blue skies or dramatic arena backgrounds, they aren’t possible either without off-camera lighting.

How off-camera lighting makes amazing sports portraits

Most cameras come with light meters inside their viewfinders. We use these to basically determine at any time in any location the optimal camera settings like shutter speed.

If I want deep blue skies or, if we’re inside, a dramatic arena or basketball court background, I use the light meter. It helps me figure out if I need a faster or slower shutter speed.

Without off-camera lighting, to achieve a rich blue sky, I’d have to use a fast shutter speed. Like super fast.

The trouble, though, would mean the athlete would appear as if he or she was in darkness. Fast shutter speeds let in less light, and the athlete in the photo wouldn’t be appropriately illuminated.

On the other hand, if I changed my settings so the person in the photograph was perfectly lit, it would mean washed out details in the sky.

A great example is this silhouette of Matthew, a high school senior tennis player. The sky looks amazing, a nicely captured sunset color.

But he appears as if in a shadow, even though he’s under a perfectly clear sky on a tennis court.

High school boy tennis player serving at sunset.
Matthew DeBord | Tennis | Lancaster Catholic

Now take a look at this portrait of Matthew taken just minutes before we made the silhouette.

High school boy tennis player laughing
Matthew DeBord | Tennis | Lancaster Catholic

Same time of day. Same sunset. The tennis player is the same. With an added off-camera studio light, we made a portrait where Matthew’s personality comes out.

Creating on-location sports portraits with studio lights is hard work for a photographer.

They’re heavy, bulky, and it takes a minute or two to set up.

But that’s okay. I love the work (and honestly, it’s not that hard, it just takes effort, like any sport).

It’s what a photographer like me does to provide families and athletes the kind of creatively lit portraits they won’t find anywhere else.

And ultimately, that’s what I aim to provide at Creative Sports Photography. Heck, it’s in the name!

To book a sports portrait experience, use the form below. Tell me about the sport you play, why you love it, whom you play for, and anything else you feel is important.


Good stuff. What lighting set up would you use for a typical outdoor sport shoot?

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