Lighting Setup: The Athlete

Lighting Setup: The Athlete

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For this shot, only the strip box was used, to camera left. The back light was also used, but I turned the kicker light off for more dramatic lighting.

For this shot, only the strip box was used, to camera left. The back light was also used, but I turned the kicker light off for more dramatic lighting.

I was contacted by a local model who also happened to be a tennis player, and she wanted to do a tennis shoot for her portfolio. We discussed ideas, as well as location.  A tennis court was the obvious choice for location.  I had decided I wanted dramatic lighting, similar to what’s seen in sports drink ads, or athletic apparel ads.  I knew that would require two or three lights, and a darkened overall scene to get the look I was after.

Since the shoot took place in the later afternoon, when there was still plenty of daylight, in order to get the darkened look, I needed to play around with my exposure. I was using the EOS-1D Mark IV, which has a top sync speed of 1/300. For lighting I used two Canon 580 EX II speedlites off camera in softboxes. One softbox was a Westcott Apollo 28″ softbox, while the other was a Westcott 18×42 strip box.  For the shots where the model was backlit as well, I used a Canon 430 EX II speedlite on a light stand with no modifier.  The 18×42 strip box is asymmetrical offers the ability to light a full length figure with soft falloff at the lower legs, while the 28″ Apollo softbox lights the upper half well when close up, or when pulled back can light a full length figure.  I used the strip box to light the model from the front, and the 28″ softbox as the kicker light from the right rear. For the dramatic backlight, I used a bare Canon 430 EX II speedlite pointed back towards the camera.

In order to allow the speedlites to be the main source of light, I needed to deaden the daylight.  I did this by setting the flash to E-TTL, and the camera to shutter priority.  I then dialed back the camera’s exposure compensation to -3.  This served to darken the ambient exposure, allowing the speedlites to provide lighting at the proper exposure.  This made it appear I was shooting at night, or in a darkened stadium.  It’s important to understand that there is a difference between exposure compensation and Flash Exposure Compensation.  Exposure compensation will affect the exposure of ambient light, but will not affect flash output. This allows you to balance the flash exposure with the ambient exposure in any way you prefer. The speedlites were set to ratio their exposure based on E-TTL metering.  Canon speedlites can ratio A:B. If a third group of speedlites is set to Group C, these can be adjusted using flash exposure compensation.  The main ratio used was 4:1, but I did vary this throughout the shoot.  The backlight was set to E-TTL, Group C, with Flash Exposure Compensation set to +3.

For athletes, in order to give them that larger than life look, it’s best to shoot from a low angle. I instructed the model to vary her poses between intimidating looks and stances.  I used tennis balls to add to the theme, and by sending the backlight through the net, added a dramatic shadow to the foreground. This ended up being a set I was really happy with, and the model was happy with her shots.

In this shot, the backlight was turned off, and the 28" softbox was positioned behind and to camera right of the model. This created a dramatic shadow to the front of the model while strip box lit her left side. The backlight was turned off for this shot.

In this shot, the backlight was turned off, and the 28″ softbox was positioned behind and to camera right of the model. This created a dramatic shadow to the front of the model while strip box lit her left side. The backlight was turned off for this shot.

For this shot, all three lights were in play.  The backlight caused the dramatic shadows and a highlight effect, while the kicker illuminated the model's right rear, and the strip box lit her face and front side.

For this shot, all three lights were in play. The backlight caused the dramatic shadows and a highlight effect, while the kicker illuminated the model’s right rear, and the strip box lit her face and front side.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in Freeport, Maine, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick leads photo tours for World Wide Photo Tours and his work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page and on Instagram at @rickberkphoto.

Some Older Comments

  • Rick Berk May 7, 2013 11:44 am

    Hey all... lemme try and answer the questions...

    @David Moore- Use a reflector. You can put the softbox to the rear of the subject and use the reflector to bouce the light onto the opposite side of her face.

    @William- I've used a 580EX II in the Westcott Apollo 50" softbox with good results. I don't think I'd go much bigger though.

  • Stanley Parrish Jr May 4, 2013 11:39 pm

    Nice post! For those complaining about expensive gear, Just rock what you have and you can come up with similar results.

  • William May 3, 2013 05:01 pm

    Rick,
    Newbie Strobist here, and I was wondering how big a softbox can you use with a single 580 flash? At what point do you need to consider adding a second flash unit to the modifier?

  • Ayekay May 3, 2013 03:56 pm

    A great article Rick! It simply deconstructs and explains the lighting setup for some gorgeous shots - well done!

    In respons to Roy's first comment... These shots can also be created using cheap speedlights bought from places like ebay (i have a few YN560s that i picked up for about £30 each!) in manual mode. It's the technique that's important, not the equipment! Give it a go and I bet you'll amaze yourself at the results!

  • David Moore May 3, 2013 05:30 am

    Rick,
    i am doing my first photoshoot of a female physique competitor. We will be doing the shoot in the gym at night. We have the ability to turn some of the overhead lights off. I was planning on using just one softbox for split shadows. She wants black & white. I don't have a speedlite. Any suggestions?

  • Violet Cloutier May 3, 2013 04:48 am

    In answer to lighting, try available lights or. House lamps, flashlight be creative!

  • boloto May 3, 2013 03:54 am

    I feel like i need a dictionary to understand that article, especially the first half:(
    I like how the hair is back lit though:)

  • Carlos Comesanas May 3, 2013 03:52 am

    They were indeed excellent shots, however, my personal opinion, and I don't want anybody biting my head off, despite the facts that they look great, don't you think that, being the model so obviously illuminated by the front, and with such intensity, the shadows from the balls, coming towards the camera and against the light, look a bit weird?

  • Eric May 3, 2013 02:18 am

    Great illustrations Rick I have been looking to take pictures like this of my daughter who is a gymnast ,

    And for Roy try making the softbox and stripbox yourself out of inexpensive items (I did works great).

  • Jim Woolsey May 2, 2013 04:25 am

    Very cool article! I was always curious on how photographers go about a photo shoot like this. Neat stuff!

  • Ed Boulter May 1, 2013 12:28 pm

    Thanks for sharing all the details, very generous.

  • Rick Berk May 1, 2013 11:03 am

    Thanks Michael. The first shot was Shutter Priority 1/300, f/6.3, ISO 200. The second shot was Shutter Priority 1/250, f/20 ISO 400 (taken earlier in the shoot, so there was more ambient light). Last shot was Shutter Priority, 1/300, f/8 at ISO 200.

  • Michael G May 1, 2013 06:24 am

    Nice shots Rick - thanks for the details. Since you were shooting in shutter priority mode, do you mind me asking what aperture the camera arrived at for these shots? Thanks.

  • Rick Berk May 1, 2013 12:14 am

    Ooops...sorry. Camera position is always bottom center.

  • Jessica April 30, 2013 11:15 pm

    It would be helpful to include the camera position in the lighting diagram.

  • Louis Blythe April 30, 2013 03:38 pm

    Nothing beats two point lighting!

    Having a willing model always helps as well!

  • Cramer Imaging April 30, 2013 01:00 pm

    Good article. I have been doing some research into some more dramatic lighting techniques. Thanks for sharing. The overpowering of the daylight with exposure compensation and flash is a useful tactic that I was glad to see included.

  • Roy April 30, 2013 06:20 am

    Nice article, but I was a bit disappointed when I realized creating these photos required much more expensive equipment than I have. I guess I'll keep looking for a "low-cost" solution. Thanks for the information, though.