Dylan Coulter Puts Sports Portraits in Motion

February 3, 2015

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Photographer Dylan Coulter’s success and reputation are due in part to his ingenuity in finding distinctive ways to capture familiar subjects. Last year, for example, his technique for creating multiple-exposure images of an athlete’s form, which he first developed on assignments for ESPN The Magazine, landed him a job shooting a still and video package on World Cup soccer stars for The New York Times Magazine. He parlayed that experience—and his skills at creating polished, stylized portraits of athletes—into assignments for entertainment and advertising clients. Looking back on the assignments he shot in 2014, he says, “This has been a rewarding and successful year for me, and a lot of doors have been opened.” 

Coulter first explored new ways of creating images of athletes more than a dozen years ago, while he was working as an art director for Adidas in Portland, Oregon. Though he had studied photography and shot frequently for himself, he had decided to pursue a career in graphic design, and landed a job with Adidas as the sports apparel company was rebranding itself. “I was interested in pushing the kind of sports photography they did,” he recalls. At the time, most sports photography had a “photojournalistic” look. His own photography, he says, was inspired by portraiture and fashion work. “I was interested in taking lighting from those genres and applying it to sports work.”  

He began making studio portraits, “taking the athlete off the field of play, [which] you wouldn’t be able to do if you were on the sidelines covering action.” His experiments inspired him to leave his job and pursue freelance photography assignments. At the time, he says, photographers such as John Huet and other commercial shooters were beginning to redefine sports photography. From his base in Portland, Coulter was able to land shoots for several outdoor and sports clients—including his old employer, Adidas.  

It took a while for Adidas’s rival, Nike, to take a chance on him. On one of his first jobs for the company, he was hired to photograph runners in Nike running shoes, showing them from the waist down, and in motion. Based on the success of those shots, Nike hired him again for what started out as a small job: making portraits of speed skaters who would be competing in the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. “They were evenly lit, with no dramatic shadow. They were crisp, frozen moments of them on the ice,” explains Coulter. The campaign was featured in the PDN Photo Annual and won other advertising awards, bringing wider attention to Coulter’s sports work.  

Though he had several enviable commercial clients, Coulter was only landing a few editorial assignments, primarily from magazines that hired him when they needed a portrait of someone in the Portland area. “By certain magazines, I was perceived as too commercial,” he says. His decision to move to New York City in 2006 was inspired by many factors, including a desire to be closer to magazine editors. “It took a while to get to know the world of editorial and form relationships,” he says, but he gradually landed assignments, shooting both sports and non-sports stories, for Slam, Vibe, Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness.

When ESPN the Magazine launched a section devoted to analyzing an athlete’s form, they contacted Coulter. He photographed a tennis player’s forehand, capturing multiple frames to show each element of her form. While traditional multiple-exposure technique captures a series of frames—with each frame given the same weight—Coulter had a different idea. He wanted to create “a visual hierarchy, where parts of the images are more opaque and some more transparent, so you know where to go with your eye.” He developed a post-production retouching technique to make the preliminary stages of the swing more transparent, leading towards the final step.  

Last year he used the technique on an assignment for ESPN to photograph the form of nine pitchers for the Arizona Diamondbacks. His images reveal startling differences. “Every pitcher wants to get the ball in the same place—the strike zone—but the way that pitchers do that is so different,” he says. “Some have a crazy windup, some no windup, one had scrapes on his knuckles from grazing the ground.”   

The pitching story elicited a positive response from Kathy Ryan, the director of photography at The New York Times Magazine. Coulter had been sending his work to Ryan for years. “She’s someone I’d always aspired to work with,” he explains. “She’s been very supportive in recent years.” Before the World Cup in 2014, Clinton Cargill, then associate photo editor at The New York Times Magazine (and now photography director at Bloomberg Businessweek) contacted him about doing multiple-exposure images of some leading soccer players. Coulter had only a few minutes with each player, but managed to capture enough frames for his multiple-exposure technique, and some video. The results were published as a package both in print and on The New York Times website.  

The multiple-exposure work he’s done with athletes lead directly to a recent assignment from Entertainment Weekly to photograph the cast of The Walking Dead (doing zombie walks). That story, in turn, has landed Coulter work for other entertainment clients. Editorial work, Coulter notes, remains his best promotion, demonstrating to clients both his skills and his interests. “I’ve always felt that there are building blocks, and one thing leads to another,” he says. 

Last fall he also got to photograph former president Bill Clinton for The Atlantic. The assignment—photographing multiple portraits in less than 10 minutes—was tricky, but Coulter says all his years photographing sports stars prepared him well. Coulter says professional athletes are among the most difficult subjects to shoot. Like many celebrities, they come to shoots with handlers and publicists who have thoughts about their clients’ public personae. Yet unlike actors, Coulter notes, “They’re not real comfortable in front of the camera.” And because he only has a few minutes with a busy athlete, Coulter says, “It’s taught me to elicit something from them quickly.” Shooting athletes, he notes, “has been a great training ground for all kinds of portraiture.”

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