5 Tips for Getting a Winning Portrait of a Sports Star

February 9, 2015

By Brienne Walsh


Randi Berez photographed professional beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings for Oakley.

Photographing top athletes comes with a unique set of challenges. The subjects typically bring all of the trappings of celebrity — publicists, entourages, tight schedules — but unlike famous actors, have no training in performing in front of a camera. A portrait shoot with a busy sports star requires the ability to work fast, as well as the directing skills to elicit a spark of personality from the subject quickly. 

We asked three photographers — Randi Berez, JJ Miller and John Huet — for tips on how you can get the nuanced and interesting shots you want from a professional athlete.

1. Be Prepared

Berez, Miller and Huet all noted that you need to be ready to shoot the moment the subject walks on set. Miller estimates that he usually gets between five and ten minutes to capture 25 shots, as well as to create video footage. Increasingly, he also needs shots for social media and viral content. As a result, he makes sure he has drawn up not only lighting set-ups, but also sketches of poses he’d like the athletes to try. “If you plan well in advance, ten minutes actually seems like a lot of time,” he notes.

On a recent cover shoot for Sports Illustrated with P.K. Subban, a defenseman for the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, Huet encountered some resistance from Subban’s publicist regarding timing. He was scheduled to shoot at the same time as another publication that dropped out at the last minute. When he asked for the 15 extra minutes the cancellation freed up, the publicist told him he could have five. “Their schedules are so busy that every minute counts,” he says. 

Whether Berez is shooting for advertising or editorial clients, she makes sure that a blueprint for the shoot is created and distributed so that everyone knows what to expect on the day of the shoot. “I usually show up with something in hand I can show my subjects as a starting point,” she says.

2. Be Aware That Their Bodies Are Their Equipment

As a photographer, Berez is always looking for an iconic image. However, she is acutely aware that an athlete’s body is their job. As a result, she is mindful not only of the poses that she asks them to take, but also of the fact that she often shoots them in between work-outs, or on a day when they’re supposed to be resting. In essence, that she’s asking them to work when they’re supposed to be recuperating.

On a recent trip to photograph soccer player Graham Zusi for Men’s Fitness, she received an email notifying her that Zusi had been injured in practice. “Nobody wanted to cancel the shoot, but we needed dynamic shots,” she explains. She considered a number of options, including having a teammate do the action while Zusi posed for a portrait. In the end, she had her assistant buy a crash pad. Although Zusi was not at 100-percent capability when he showed up for the shoot the next day, after seeing the crash pad, he was more than willing to give a few high-energy action shots. 

3. Get Familiar With the Language

Before he became a professional photographer, Miller played baseball in college. As a result, he’s familiar with the language that professional athletes, and especially baseball players, use when being coached. He is able to utilize this lingo when he’s asking them to assume poses in front of the camera. “I explain it to them in terms they understand,” he says. He doesn’t believe it’s necessary for a sports photographer to have been an athlete, however. “You just have to understand how the body moves,” he says.

Berez notes that professional athletes have an uncommon degree of physical self-awareness. “Once you break down an action and determine which part of that action you want to capture, [your subjects] are able to make minor adjustments in body position that make a huge difference on camera,” she says.  

4. Do Your Research

Professional athletes are not particularly known for their ability to emote. While music can create a more relaxed atmosphere, it’s sometimes not enough. In order to prevent any awkwardness — which ultimately leads to time wasted — Huet does his research. “I try to find out a little bit about that person. If I need a little juice, I try to use something he or she’s familiar with, or something they’ll react to.”

On a shoot with Michael Phelps for a Mazda commercial, for example, Huet relaxed the athlete by giving him playful crap about the Baltimore Ravens. “He’s a big Ravens fan, and I’m from Pittsburgh, so I like the Steelers,” he explains. The challenge soon became keeping Phelps focused once he was riled up.

Researching an athlete in advance helps Miller determine whom he should have on his crew, to make sure there is someone on the set the subject can relate to. Sometimes when Miller is shooting a female athlete, for example, he’ll have a female camera assistant on set.   

5. It’s No Time to Be Starstruck

Being talented is no longer enough for a professional athlete to be successful. They need to approach their profession, their public image and their relationship with their fans with gravitas. “A lot of these people are at the tops of their fields,” notes Huet. “They are professionals, and they want to feel that the people around them are the same way.” He adds, “Just understand it’s another person you’re directing. It’s no different than the portrait of the computer engineer you’ve done the day before, even if that person is a sports legend.”

Related: Chris Burkard: From Transworld Surf to Apple and Microsoft 

Dylan Coulter Puts Sports Portraits in Motion

Mike Arzt: From Snowboard Photographer to Brand Storyteller 

Matt Slocum’s Rise to the Top of Sports Photography, Via the News Wires 

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