Lighting Recipes: Sports Portrait- In the Studio and with a Composite

Today we’re taking a behind-the-scenes look at an athlete shoot I did in the studio that captures a bright, edgy look.

Sports Portrait Composite and Studio

Scott Kelby

This was shot on a white background, but I wanted the option to turn off the background lights and let the white turn gray to make it easier to remove him from the background and composite him on a different background. (If you remove light from a white background, it becomes a gray background.) Because his hair was pretty close-cropped and easy-to-select, even if I left all the lights on and shot on pure white, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge to remove him from the background in Photoshop.

For most of my work, I use one or two lights, and occasionally three. To get the high-key look I wanted, I needed to add two background lights and two edge lights from behind, bringing the total for this shoot to seven lights. Keep in mind that our subject is really lit by just three lights.

Figure One

Sports Portrait Composite and Studio

Here you can see the entire setup. I’m using an Elinchrom BXRi 500 strobe for my main light, which is a 500 W strobe with a built-in wireless receiver. To get the edgy look I want, instead of using a softbox, I went with a 17″ beauty dish with white inside. You can get them with a silver interior to make it even punchier, but since I also use beauty dishes on women, I stick with white. The beauty dish is directly in front of my subject, Stephan, up high on a boom stand and aiming almost straight down (it’s tilted back just a little bit toward the subject).

The other two lights in front are also BXRi strobes, and they’re positioned to light his lower jersey and pants. I want everything really well lit from top to bottom. I’m going for the bright look that Tim Mantoani creates. He’s the photographer I want to be when I grow up. He shoots the EA SPORTS game covers, such as the Madden Football franchise, and he does a brilliant job with his lighting and postproduction.

These two lights have FJ Westcott strip banks in front, which give a tall, thin rectangle of light. To keep that light from spreading too much, I have an egg-crate fabric grid over the front of each. I use FJ Westcott 1×3′ strip banks instead of the Elinchrom models because the Westcotts come with a Velcro strip all the way around, which makes attaching an egg-crate grid (which also has Velcro all the way around) incredibly easy.

Figure Two

Sports Portrait Composite and Studio

In this alternate view, you can see the position of the two back edge lights. These are both bare-blub flashes with a metal reflector on each one, and that allows me to easily snap in a 20° metal grid in each one (those are made by Elinchrom) which focuses the light from those two back lights in a very tight circular beam. You can also see the two lights lighting the background (they’re more visible in the next production shot).

Tip: When you’re using multiple lights like this, the trick is to turn all the lights off, then turn on one light; get it looking good, then add another light. In this setup, I’d start with these two back lights (one at a time), and get them aimed at the side of his face (one on the left, one on the right) and get that looking good first. Then, I’d add the main light (the beauty dish) up front, and keep building by adding the two front strip banks and finally the background lights.

Camera Settings

Switch your camera to Manual mode (so you can set the f-stop and shutter speed manually, which makes working with flash easier), and set the shutter speed at 1/125 (a safe and popular flash-sync speed). I want everything in focus, front to back, so I’m going to use an f-stop around f/11 so everything is sharp. For this particular shot, I actually wound up using f/14. Just remember, if the light is too bright or too dark, you can either change the power of the light itself, or you can change your f-stop. With this many lights going at once, I’ll usually change the power of the light that’s too bright or too dark, because changing the f-stop changes all the light in the scene, not just the main light. For the cleanest looking image with the least noise, I set the camera to ISO 200, the native ISO for the Nikon camera I was using. The lens is a 70–200mm f/2.8. By the way, I’m triggering the flashes wirelessly using an Elinchrom Skyport wireless remote, which is built into the strobes I’m using, and the trigger sits right in my camera’s hot shoe.

Figure Three

Sports Portrait Composite and Studio

This is the original from my camera, but I turned off the back lights to make the background gray, knowing that I wanted to composite this shot onto a different background image. The rest of the lighting is the same—just the background lights have been turned off.

Figure Four

Sports Portrait Composite and Studio

Scott Kelby

Here’s the final composited shot. The background is from They sell fantastic royalty-free stock backgrounds designed for compositing, and I thought this background worked well with the image.

Figure Five

Sports Portrait Composite and Studio

Scott Kelby

Here’s another final image. I wanted to get some really tight close-up head shots, so I had Stephan sit down, and then I climbed up on a small ladder and shoot down at him. I had him looking up at the camera, and for some other shots, I got down at eye level. I turned off the back lights using the Skyport transmitter to get a dark gray background (remember what I said about lighting a white background—if the lights aren’t on, it’s a gray background). Of course, I converted the final image to black and white using Camera Raw. I turned that gray background to black by dragging the Blacks slider to the left. I also increased the Clarity amount in Camera Raw quite a bit to accentuate the edge effect to create the final image.


Here is a quick Lightroom Tip from Scott on our LightroomKillerTips blog. For a tip on using Smart Collections in Lightroom, see this post by RC Concepcion. If you want to see some of the in-depth courses we have on Sports Photography, check out the great and diverse list of courses we offer!