What’s “sportraiture?” you ask? Simply put, unique portraits of fervent athletes showing them doing what they do best. Pro photographer and SmugMug educator Levi Sim has a place in his heart for the passion and thrill of this type of portraiture, and today he’s sharing the three key tips on how to make it happen for you.
By Levi Sim
When I started photography four years ago a local photojournalist, Eli Lucero, opened my eyes to sports photography. He said, “You know when you make a great portrait that shows emotion and it’s awesome? Athletes are finally performing what they’ve been practicing, and powerful emotions show on their faces all day. It’s great to be a sports photographer.”
Ever since then, I take every opportunity I can find to shoot sports.
Still, I’m a portraitist at heart, and I can’t help making portraits of people everywhere I go. Here are three tips that let me maximize every opportunity I get to shoot great sports portraits.
1. Know Your Game
Athletes spend many hours every day for many, many years to learn to perform flawlessly. They have worked incredibly hard to have the body and the skills to do what they do. It is disrespectful to put them in front of your lens and then mess around with your camera, trying to figure out the best settings. You owe it to them to be proficient at what you’re doing because you’re photographing other passionate people.
Now, I’m not saying you have to be a pro who knows everything before you photograph someone. I’m saying that you do your practicing before you shoot the athlete. At the very least, grab a kid from the sidelines and practice your setup right before you invite the athlete over. Then you can be confident that you’ll get a good image from that same setup.
I’d also recommend quitting while you’re ahead. If you’ve just taken a good picture with a test setup, don’t say, “Let’s try this other thing,” unless you’ve also practiced the other thing, too. They’ll think you’re the best photog in the world if you fire off two frames and have a great picture; if you mess around with the unknown, they’ll be frustrated and disappointed.
Practice your setup, take a good picture and say thank you.
2. Seek Passionate Subjects
I’m not likely to get the opportunity to spend a few minutes photographing a famous athlete, like John Elway or Danica Patrick. But, if I go to the open track day at the local race track, I’ll definitely be able to photograph some very passionate people, and they are likely to let me spend more than a few minutes taking pictures of them.
This is my pal, Jeremy. He’s the one who told me about the open track days, and his wife’s a member of my local SMUG, so he invited the group down to make pictures. Now it’s become an annual event on Memorial Day for the club, and we have a great time.
The track is crawling with guys and gals who are so passionate about racing motorcycles that they travel across the country to race on a world class track.
These people spend their lives working to earn money so they can blow it on a few tanks of fuel and a few sets of tires in a single weekend. They aren’t the kind who ride because it’s cool. They ride because they can’t not. These are the kind of people you really want in front of your lens, and they are the kind of people who will be pleased to help make a picture.
All athletes fit this category of Passionates. I hope you do, too.
3. Use Technique, Timing, Lighting – Anything It Takes to Create a Memorable Shot
It’s interesting that when talking to athletes they can describe the winning goal of a game they played ten years ago. Passionate athletes remember the intricate details of a split second for their entire lives. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what we do as photographers, too.
When you make a picture after a game, that picture will be part of their memory, and an important piece of the experience. I recommend that you prepare a few techniques that will allow you to create a memorable image –something your subjects will be happy to show off to future generations.
In these motorcycle portraits, the guys just got off the track where they broke speed records passing others around the turn, one knee dragging on the ground and sending sparks flying. They have the courage to get back on their bikes after tipping over and sliding through gravel for a hundred yards. I’m just taking it for granted that you have the courage to approach them and ask to take their picture.
After chatting for a sec about the bike, or the game (or whatever), I usually say, “There’s some really good light right over here, and I wonder if you’d let me make of picture of your bike — yeah, with you in it!”
I’ve never been turned down.
Now, put on your widest lens and get in close. No, closer! These portraits were made within inches of the subject, almost touching their bikes with my lens. I used the incredible Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8. When you get in close with a wide lens you make a picture that is distorted and absolutely not normal. And not-normal makes it memorable.
The key to these pictures is the lighting. These are all made within a half hour of noon, so the sun is straight overhead, and there is no light in their eyes to fill the raccoon shadows on their faces from their eyebrows and ball caps. My solution is to use a speedlight to pound some hard light back into their faces and the shadows on their bikes. These are hard looking guys with sunlight casting hard shadows all around, so using a bare bulb speedlight really fits the scene.
Remember: the speedlight is not mounted to the camera–that would be obvious in the picture and ruin the look. The flash is off to the side, and high, as if it’s a little more sunlight from a slightly different direction. Whether you use your camera’s proprietary speedlights controlled by the camera, a radio trigger or an extension cord, you’ve got to get the flash off the camera to control the direction of the shadows. When using a very wide lens (shorter than 35mm), you can even hand hold the flash to the side and it will be enough. I prefer to have my buddy or my subject’s buddy hold the flash.
One More Thing…
For best results in sportraiture, bring a friend. Or two. The more the merrier! You’ll have more people there to help make your vision happen, and more visions to make things happen. You help each other hold stuff, ask each other questions, make the rest of the town jealous by talking about “that great time you spent at the track,” which then gets more people to join in next time. Photography is always better with friends.
All photos by SDesigns Photography
The Sportsman: Kicking Off a Second Career and Having a Ball
Name: Kent McCorkle
Company: Kent McCorkle Photography, LLC
Location: Metro Atlanta, GA
Market: Sports (professional, college and high school), plus local news and company-sponsored events
Bragworthy Factoid: Earning back his initial investment in his SmugMug site within a few months of launching his business.
SmugMugger since: 2004
- First time being accepted by a media wire service to cover sports.
- Breaking into Division I college and professional sports.
- Seeing his work published in Sports Illustrated, on ESPN and in other national publications.
- SmugMug’s shopping cart for print sales
- Percentage-off Coupons
- Choice of print labs
- Proof delay
- Dgrin community
- Digital downloads
Making the most of a moment
Kent McCorkle knows the exact moment he became a photographer. After more than 30 years working in the corporate world, raising a family and flirting with image-making, everything changed with a single email. Although he had enjoyed capturing youth sports, vacations and other personal moments for years, he hadn’t thought seriously of working for profit. Then he was contacted out of the blue by an architectural design firm about photos he’d shot and posted of antebellum homes during a family holiday. Interest sparked, McCorkle quickly sold them the images for publication in a book. Fast-forward to today: McCorkle has settled firmly into sports photography, fashioning a second career out of his passion for capturing exciting moments in youth athletics. Riding the digital photography wave and fueling his interest with online support resources, he honed his skills and bided his time. “The idea of selling photographs had never crossed my mind…[but] after the surprise of selling my first photographs, I began to wonder if parents might be interested in purchasing the sports-action photographs I had been taking of their kids.”
Fit to print
Along with technical mastery, McCorkle has acquired a deep knowledge of the byzantine world of sports photography. His advice for the aspiring and uninitiated? Get your feet wet covering youth sports before attempting Division I college and professional athletics, both of which require extensive credentialing. “The first step is to gain lots of experience photographing sports at lower levels,” he says. “Develop a portfolio that shows your best work. Standards for acceptance by wire services are very high. Compare your work to what you see in major sports publications. You can also visit media wire service websites and see examples.” Photographers must be affiliated with approved media companies to shoot higher-level sporting events; the sports governing associations license the images for distribution. McCorkle suggests honing your craft by connecting with other photographers. “Even at high school games, you may have opportunities to pick up tips and learn techniques from more experienced photographers.”
SmugMug and sports
Citing SmugMug’s “remarkable” customer service, continual innovation and “flawless” order processing, McCorkle considers the service foundational to his business model. From the outset, SmugMug helped McCorkle streamline his burgeoning business needs. He especially likes the one-stop shop aspect. “I started with SmugMug because it offered the ability to create a gallery-based photographic website and sell photos. Order placement and fulfillment were the clinchers for me,” he says. He continues to add SmugMug features to his arsenal, sometimes evolving his workflow to take advantage of SmugMug’s conveniences. “I was slow to get on the Proof Delay bandwagon because every image uploaded to my galleries had been fully post-processed and I considered them print-ready,” he points out. “But then I started using it in order to allow me one last chance to make sure everything is right.”
Pounding the pavement
McCorkle’s business acumen has proved invaluable since his transition to photography. Underscoring the importance of building multiple revenue streams and diverse customer segments, he has cultivated clients ranging from athletes’ families and high school booster clubs to local news outlets and national publications including Sports Illustrated and ESPN. “In all but one case, my freelance work with newspapers resulted from my making initial contact with either the editor, sports editor or publisher,” he says. “Sometimes a simple email expressing your interest in working with the paper is all that is necessary to get the ball rolling.” McCorkle adds that persistence and patience are key. “Each time that I’ve expanded the types of sports I photograph or my customer base, I’ve followed a simple principle from my corporate career. Stated simply, it is ‘gentle pressure, relentlessly applied,’ ” he says with a smile. McCorkle markets his business in creative ways, ranging from hardcopy business cards he passes out while shooting games to requesting links to his portfolio on booster club sites to emailing booster officers gallery links and asking that they forward them to coaches, parents and fans.
Love what you see? Check out our other incredible SmugMug Success Stories.
The Master: SmugMug Helps a Seasoned Pro Adapt to Cycles of Change & Finish Strong
Name: Graham Watson
Name of Company: Graham Watson Publishing, Ltd.
Location: Lives in Hampton, Middlesex, UK, but works globally
Market: Professional Cycling
Bragworthy Factoid: One of just 4-5 pros worldwide who cover cycling at this level
Website: www.grahamwatson.com and gw.smugmug.com
SmugMugger Since: 2009
- 30-plus years photographing cycling
- Apprenticed to society photographer Leonard Green as a teenager (Green, AKA “Lenare,” was the UK’s leading mid-century celebrity portraitist)
- Authored or co-authored 20-plus books
- Offers online, same-day race coverage of more than 160 racing days/year
- Quick and easy file uploading
- High-quality print fulfillment through EZPrints
- Full fulfillment; overall time-saving
- Super-fast customer service, 365 days/year
Portrait of a master
Watson attributes discovering his life’s passion to impoverishment. Signing on to study photography as a teen in 1970s London and unable to afford the train, Watson invested in a bicycle to make the 15-mile trip into the city each day. He points to the 1977 Tour de France, his first as a fan, as pivotal in his journey from portrait to cycling photography. “It’s one big adventure. The photography purists would be horrified if I said that. My passion, if anything, is the adventure.” Purists aside, Watson clearly had the chops: Following the event, he won a photography contest sponsored by Cycling Weekly and his career took off at a sprint.
Blocking with the best
Watson’s business includes magazines, books and online print sales for race fans. He brought his online business to SmugMug in 2009 after it was recommended by a developer with knowledge of both cycling and photography. Watson relies on SmugMug to leave him free to do what he does best — take brilliant photos. He likes leaving printing in SmugMug’s capable hands and concentrating on other areas of his business. Citing cycling’s worldwide following and the need for quick turnarounds — globally, fans number in the millions — Watson takes his role in fan appreciation seriously. “You entertain people. It means a lot to see pictures of the sport they love. It’s a responsibility.” SmugMug’s platform has allowed him to make prints available to a bigger audience at a more competitive price; it helps him stay in touch. Watson links to SmugMug from social media to deliver a race-day postmortem, tracking the day’s happenings through pictures. He loves focusing on his commentary while SmugMug takes care of post-race ecommerce, enabling fans to order directly from the site.
Riding the pegs
Like a lot of seasoned pros, Watson initially had mixed feelings about the industry shift to digital. Now, they’re gone. “Digital prints better in a magazine than slides ever did. Digital photos go straight to press (no 15 minutes sending one image!). The romance is gone, but it’s efficient.” Watson says the increased competition enabled by digital technology has changed the game. “Most of us thrive on the challenge of staying ahead of everybody. It’s very expensive and [digital] has more people getting involved, so I try to find extra ways to keep pace with my rivals.” He points to SmugMug handling print fulfillment as a benefit that allows him to focus on his core competency: capturing exciting sports moments. Watson’s studio relies on SmugMug for every aspect of order processing, from selection and payment to delivery and customer service. They are pleased to have had exactly zero issues with fulfillment since they became a client. One favorite feature is the ability to link directly to an individual order with full details after payment is received, via the Tools button on their homepage.
Bagging the peak the smart way
Because digital is making access easier for non-pros, Watson says it’s important to move with the times. This means recognizing what’s good about digital. “Even 10 years ago working with film, the day never ended. It was eight hours of shooting cyclists and another eight getting film scanned and emailed. With modern tools, you’re in bed by midnight.” He likes that clients can get their images very quickly following events, view their full archive and choose what they need, without having to contact him and wait for source images. “I use Twitter as a way to entertain and promote my work,” Watson says. “It’s proven to be a commercial tool. You get low-res pictures on the website, and, true, it’s not the same as being published in print. [It’s] a different medium, but a very important one.”
Interested in seeing more SmugMug Success Stories? Look here!
Today’s guest post is by sports shooter and Smugger David Evertsen of Phabulous Photos. Any event shooter understands how tricky it is to manage and organize large volumes of files, particularly when parents, friends and fans are beating down the door to see photos and buy prints. Since the fall sports season is ramping up, we thought this post would help you manage your workflow and feed happier customers. Here’s how he used a program called Photo Mechanic and SmugMug’s Smart Galleries to give his fans the pictures they want to see.
For the past 3 or 4 years that I have been shooting high school sports there’s been one hurdle: Parents only want to see their own child when looking through sports pictures on my site. While they enjoy looking through the galleries, it’s a completely different story when it comes to choosing prints to buy. Sports galleries are quite large and it becomes a chore for parents to look through everything to find shots just of their child.
Then think about how one photographer shoots many games per sport, several sports at a time and the problems start to multiply.
I’ve used Smart Galleries from time to time on my site combined with simple keywords assigned in Lightroom, but I needed something more powerful that could help simplify the keywording process without writing a sentence for every image. Here’s a solution that worked for me.
Step 1. Build your Code Replacement file in Photo Mechanic
I started working with some other photographers that are required to caption and upload images to a newspaper or press site and noticed they used a product called Photo Mechanic from Camera Bits. Photo Mechanic uses something called Code Replacement. This feature is perfect for photojournalists and sports photographers: they create a simple code replacement file that acts as a library, so that they type a few keystrokes and the info (like name, position, team and number) is automatically entered into the captions. This means fast, consistently accurate information with minimal work.
First I need to show you what code replacement is and how it saves me time. Code Replacement is a form of short hand that allows you to enter in anything you want by only pressing a few keys.
Here is an example of five of keywords I put on an image:
1; bk1 ;Kevin Kyle; Boone Varsity Baseball; 2010-2011
And here’s what that means, so you can do something similar for yourself:
- 1 – Players Jersey Number (used for reference in file)
- bk1 – A SmugMug keyword I use to build my Smart Gallery
- Kevin Kyle – The player’s name.
- 2011 – Year, also used to build my Smart Gallery.
Now what keys did I press to get the bold line above added as a keyword in Photo Mechanic for the picture?
“1” and “\“
How this works: You build a master list of shorthand codes you want to use and define which keyword terms you want entered when you type each code. This is just a simple text file that Photo Mechanic will use to automatically plug in keywords when you type the right codes.
Tip: Remember that SmugMug keywords have to be an minimum of 3 letters to work unless you enclose them in quotes.
Step 2. Choose Your Keywords
Let me show you what I had to think out before I built my code replacement file. You’ll want to write up keywords and macro codes that make it simple for you to remember but are specific to each event you shoot. I had to create a master list of sports that I use all year round so I don’t mix up the schools and sports. That would cause disaster!
Here are a few additional example sports in the same format as the above example:
bl Boone Boys Varsity LAX
bjl Boone Boys JV Lax
bgl Boone Girls Varsity Lax
bt Boone Track
bs Boone Varsity Softball
bjs Boone JV Softball
Make the codes easy to remember – after all, the point of this is to make your job easier.
What does the Code Replacement file look like? My file is really long and includes all the sports I shoot. As the seasons start the numbers and names of the players per sport are added. The final file can contain many schools and many different sports. Here are just a few other examples:
bk1 1; bk1 ;KEVIN KYLE; Boone Varsity Baseball; 2010-2011;
bk2 2; bk2 ;FRANK THOMAS; Boone Varsity Baseball; 2010-2011;
bk3 3; bk3 ;TRIPP CABLE; Boone Varsity Baseball; 2010-2011;
bk4 4; bk4 ;MITCHELL BOMBER; Boone Varsity Baseball; 2010-2011;
Tip: Use semicolons between the terms to ensure that they get entered as complete keywords in the SmugMug gallery when I upload.
Step 3. Create your Smart Galleries
Smart Galleries are an easy way to automatically group together your photos by keyword. At the beginning of each year I go in to the season and set up a team subcategory (Under a custom school year category) and then individual Smart Galleries (one for each player). In this case, I’ll use one Smart Gallery to pull in the photos with the “bk1″ and “2010-2011″ keywords in one place.
I make one gallery for each player on the team. Then I go into settings for each gallery and add Rules to pull in the keywords:
Rule #1: Include > My Photos > Keyword > 2011
Rule #2: Include > My Photos > Keyword > bk1
Then I’m done. Setting up the Smart Galleries takes a little time at first but you only have to do it once.
Step 4. Apply your codes in Photo Mechanic
Next I finish my post processing. I do my adjustments and use Lightroom’s bulk keywording feature to automatically enter the first portion of the Code Replacement macro, bk\ , to all of my files. This saves me time later.
I then open Photo Mechanic, click on the folder I created when I exported and double click on the file information. Up pops the info window where I can save and change the keywords. Then I press “1\”. The opening “\” (added by Lightroom to all my files) and the closing “\” (that I just typed into Photo Mechanic manually) means, “look up in your designated code file and insert the following line.” The string of keywords gets entered:
1; bk1 ;Kevin Kyle; Boone Varsity Baseball; 2010-2011
When I am done with the keywords on each individual image I click the Save button in the info pane and it brings the next one up. I do not keyword every player if I can’t tell who they are or if they are on the opposing team; they are not the primary focus of the shot.
It takes only about 10-15 minutes at the end of my processing to add the keywords.
Step 4. Upload Your Photos
I then use Photo Mechanic to upload to the team gallery and my work is done. When all the images are uploaded I make a lot of customers really happy because the Smart Galleries automatically pull in the specific photos I’ve set for them. I did the initial leg work but SmugMug does all the heavy lifting for me. I realized how important this was for sales when I set the Gallery Download price for my galleries and sold a bunch of player-only photos.
Each sport is different and the complexity varies by how many players are on each team. But even if a player plays only a few times in the season, you can easily find them by keyword. Then you can keep looking to shoot more shots of them later in the season.
I hope this helped you learn how to do something that will make your customers able to find the pictures they want to see and purchase them easily. I have talked to people on the Digital Grin forums that are using this workflow for all types of sports where the participants have numbers. Quick Code Replacement combined with Smart Galleries saves you time and helps drive up your sales.
Other links you’d like:
Spring has nearly sprung, sports fans! If you’re a fair-weather photographer, you’ll soon be blowing the dust off of your gear and heading to the track, course, court, or diamond. We’ll offer some tips we hope will make your photos a home run. Today’s Photog Tip of the Week comes from Master Support Hero and sports pro, Steve Mills of Downriver Photography.
What makes a great sports photo?
In a word: Drama! With today’s amazing digital cameras shooting in excess of 10 FPS, it’s tempting to be a ‘machine-gun-mama’ holding down the shutter release anytime there’s action, rattling off shots from your dSLR Uzi. Fight the urge and use it sparingly! After your memory card stops sizzling and your batteries return to something below 500 Kelvin, you’re almost certain to have some ‘keepers’. You’ll likely capture the bat hitting the ball, but it takes practice, restraint and discipline to look beyond, to the player’s wide eyes and the self-satisfaction of their first home run and capture the shot you really want. Drama.
Know your sport!
For great sports photography, it’s essential to know your sport so you can anticipate the decisive moment. The swing on the pitch, the slide to home, and the frustration of a strike-out are all important decisive moments not only to anticipate the action, but the emotion of each. If you’re not sure what a flag on the field means, or what a feat running 100 yards in 9.4 seconds is, you’re sure to miss some drama.
Isolate your subject(s)
One rule of composition says, ‘If it doesn’t contribute to the scene in some way, it’s best left out’. This is especially true in sports photography. Nearly every sport has tons of distraction. From refs, to spectators, to sponsors, they all compete for attention in your frame. Don’t let a screaming spectator steal the scene from your slugger. Use a respectable telephoto lens to fill your frame with drama and adjust your aperture to control the depth of field, blurring out the blight. If most of your shots show the whole infield and cause viewers to hunt for the action and drama, it’s time to upgrade your lens.
Get a Proper Exposure
Most cameras have a number of different exposure modes including spot metered, center weighted, and evaluative metering. Most are pretty reliable if you understand how they work. I’ve often heard, “It was such a bright, sunny day, but all my photos came out dark!” followed by cursing their camera. Regardless of the exposure mode you choose, the camera will look at the metering area you defined (a spot, the center, or the whole scene) and crunch some numbers to come up with a value for that area. That value will be considered the middle value for the scene. This means if your metered area consists mostly of bright clouds, sky, or player uniforms, the camera will now consider them the mid-tone! This turns your bright whites into something near middle-gray, and your whole scene turns dark. To combat this, add exposure compensation to let your camera know, ‘these whites should be white!’ then check your camera’s histogram for proper levels (see Canadiann’s histogram tips from last week).
Optimize Camera Settings
ISO: The old standards still hold relatively true with 50-200 for bright sunny days, 400 for overcast, and 800-3200 for downright gloomy, with even 6400+ for twilight sports. Newer dSLRs can handle high ISOs with surprisingly little digital noise so don’t be afraid to push it.
Shooting mode: Just say ‘No’ to sports mode! AV (Aperture Priority) is my favorite for outdoor sports. It allows you to control the depth of field [depth of focus], and lets the camera worry about shutter speed. Consider bumping up your ISO for a faster shutter speed if needed.
Shutter speed: How fast is enough? This depends on three things: Mood, Sport, and Lens.
- Mood: A fast shutter speed will freeze action. If you want to convey motion or speed with some motion blur, a slower shutter speed will be required. (1/60th of a second will blur most bat swings, where 1/250th will freeze most)
- Sport: Formula-1 racing will require a faster shutter speed than badminton, to freeze action.
- Lens: For hand-held photography, your shutter speed should exceed the focal length of the lens to prevent camera-shake. Example: With a 200mm lens, you’ll want to shoot at a minimum of 1/250th. Many cameras and lenses now have image stabilization that compensates for hand jitters that cause camera-shake, which allows you to shoot at even slower shutter speeds without noticeable blur.
I hope these tips inform, inspire, and encourage you to get out there and get shooting. We’ll be looking for all your action-packed artistic drama on SmugMug!