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Sports Photography Tip for Experienced Photographers: Mastering Impeccable Technique for Sport Portraits

In this excerpt from Adventure Sports Photography: Creating Dramatic Images in Wild Places, Tom Bol shows you how to achieve but impeccable technique with your flash portrait photography.
From the book

Impeccable technique is just what it says. You need to be in control of your camera, not the other way around. In order to bring your creative vision to life, you need to know how to operate your camera. You may get some nice available-light portraits just shooting away, but flash portrait photography requires more technical know-how.

Depth of field

Choice of aperture and the corresponding depth of field is a major choice in any portrait. I choose my aperture based on two variables: subject sharpness and background sharpness. First, I need to use an aperture that will ensure my subject is sharp. If I’m using a 70–200mm lens and photographing my subject from a distance, then I can use a wide aperture opening like f/4 and get a sharp portrait. But if I use that same lens and aperture close to my subject and zoom in, then I need to focus on the subject’s eyes. If I focus on her nose, the nose may be sharp, but the eyes will be soft. The other choice is to use an aperture with more depth of field like f/8 or f/11 to ensure both nose and eyes are sharp in a tight headshot using a telephoto lens.

The other important depth of field aspect is the background. When I create an environment portrait, I want the background to play a part in the image. I don’t want my background so blurry no one can tell what it is. I choose an aperture that will either keep my background sharp, or make it slightly out of focus. The viewer will still be able to recognize the background, but it won’t distract from the subject (FIGURE 8.15).

8.15 Choose the right aperture for the desired depth of field when shooting portraits.

Creating separation between your subject and background is important. You don’t want to have your subject merge with background elements; you want him to “pop off the canvas.” Using an aperture that blurs the background but keeps the subject sharp creates separation in the image. Position your subject in the frame so that he’s not in front of distracting elements, and eliminate eye magnets (distracting elements) in the shot. Adding flash to your subject and underexposing the background also helps create separation and a clean shot.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed is important for controlling the speed of background motion and ensuring a sharp photo. I normally prefer fast shutter speeds to freeze the action and eliminate camera shake during the shot. The exception to this is when I have moving subject matter in the background (FIGURE 8.16). I might decide to use a tripod and shoot at 1/4-second to render a background stream soft and silky.

8.16 A fast shutter speed helps freeze the snow in this shot.

Flash sync speed also affects what shutter speed I use. I like to stay at the maximum sync speed of my flash unless I need high-speed sync for the shot. Using your camera’s flash sync speed doesn’t require as much power as using high-speed sync. But if I need high-speed sync to darken the background or freeze the action with fill flash, I choose a fast shutter speed, such as 1/1000 and higher.

White balance

White balance controls the color temperature in your shot. Cameras have presets such as Auto, Sunny, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten, Fluorescent, and Flash. Auto white balance works well for many situations, especially mixed lighting indoors. But if I’m shooting outside, I normally set my white balance based on the conditions. I use Sunny on sunny days and Cloudy on cloudy days. I use the Flash setting when I am using strobes. Matching the white balance to the environmental conditions results in a neutral color cast in the image. But neutral can be boring in portraits (FIGURE 8.17).

8.17 Choose your white balance based on the effect you want. A warm white balance was used in this sunset portrait.

Sometimes I want my subjects to have a warm tone so I use the Cloudy white balance setting. This is similar to using a warming gel on your flash, but instead setting it on your camera. Other times I will add orange gels to my flash and set my white balance to Tungsten to produce moody blue backgrounds (Chapter 4). In the end, choose the white balance that supports your creative goal.

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