How to Make a Cool Sports Cover Portrait

In honor of the final game day of the 2012 season, I thought our baseball player ought to have an image like the guys in the big leagues. There’s a bit of manipulation in Photoshop, but most of this is done with light. It was quite simple to do. Find out how, below.

The harshly side-lit photo has almost become a cliche. Even so, thinking about the light and being able to shape it is a worth-while exercise. In this installment, I’ll show you how to get the same results inexpensively and quickly.

Game Day Photo - SI Style

The Light

The usual setup for this kind of image looks like the following diagram.

Hard-Light Game Day Lighting Diagram

Typical Lighting Setup for Hard Side-Lit Photos

The subject is in the center of the diagram with a background and camera. That’s standard for almost every image. There’s a camera, a subject and something beyond.  The additions for this setup are these:

  1. The two black lines next to the subject represent gobo’s (GO BefOre light) that block light from spilling onto the lens. These can be foam core, flags or bi-fold doors like Zack Arias did in his white seamless paper setup. 
  2. Two lights oriented to illuminate the subject from the side and rear. This gives the light on the side of the face and some rim lighting on the hair and shoulders, which serves to separate the subject from the background.
  3. The light behind the camera can represent and number of types of lights from a small flash to 72″ octal soft-box. This light fills on the face and gives the catch-lights in the eyes.  Don’t have a third light? Use reflectors—or the foil sun shade out of your car.

That’s the text-book setup. I didn’t use it.

Light Alternatives

I’m married with three children. That means that I often need to improvise more than I’d like. Strangely, I’ve gotten used to it and now see it as a challenge.

Look at my photo. Look closely.

Game Day Photo - SI Style

I don’t call that hard light. It’s moderately hard, at most. Here’s the original (before Photoshop):

GameDay - original

See how the light outlines the shoulders and wraps around the face? Hard light would have more rapid transitions to shadow. What I see tells me that the side lights are large lights relative to the subject, not small (relatively) strobes.

What did I do?

I put him in front of a double-width window. Here’s the setup:

Moderately hard lighting diagram for Game Day photo.

Elijah is standing two feet in front of the window with a piece of black foam core behind him. The foam core is two inches in front of the window. Elijah is two feet in front of the foam core.

Let’s talk about subject position for a moment.

Is there a reason that my subject was only two feet away from the background?

Yes. It’s called a bed. A large, heavy bed. I’m not moving it for a photo. Sorry.

Otherwise…  I framed the shot so that the foam core would block most of the direct light from my lens. The only light I want getting into the camera is light that is reflected by my subject. Sure, some ambient slips in, though, at the aperture I was using, not much.



Nice result?

I think so.

Back to lighting…

Here’s a labeled version of the diagram above:

SI-style One Light Photo Diagram - Labeled

SI-ish One Light Photo Diagram

No, the diagram is not to scale. You’ll have to determine your own relative placement based on your setup. The dimensions for my setup are

  • Camera to subject: 4ft.
  • Subject to background: 2 ft.
  • Background to window: 2 in.
  • The white foam core is laying on the bed in front of the subject…call it waist-level.
  • The ceiling is a typical US 8-ft ceiling in a textured white finish.
  • Camera info: Nikon 70-200, f/4 AIS lens, Canon 60D, 1/20″, Aperture…I think it was f/11. It’s not in the camera info file because I used a manual-only lens.
  • The flash is mounted on the camera (HORRORS!!!!!!), but aimed at the ceiling. No, I can’t tell you the angle. Chimp* it. Find what works for you.

All that’s left to do is

  • Focus, and
  • Shoot.
  • Oh…and….


Yes. I use Photoshop and other software packages without remorse.


Raise your hand if you remember working in a “darkroom”?


Raise your hand if you’ve been inside a “darkroom”?


Raise your hand if you’ve heard (read) the word “darkroom” before.


Software can be used for evil, deceitful tasks, but so can the old-fashioned darkroom. You could burn, dodge, colorize and composite there, too. The computer tools are powerful and easier to learn. They also smell better. The ethics involved in making image, however, remain the same. That depends on how you intend to use and represent the image.

What I Did…

There are a few things that I always visit Photoshop, Lightroom or GIMP to adjust with my photos. You should note that I almost always shoot in RAW. Frequently, I’ll capture both RAW and small JPEGs to quickly toss snapshots on to social media sites. For images that matter, it’s usually RAW or bust.

I’ll save my RAW workflow for another article. Here, then, are the things I often do once I get to Photoshop and which I did in the above image:


I usually move the black slider to 15 or 20 and the white slider down to 235, then adjust the middle slider to taste. Yes, this drops the dynamic range of the image, but your monitor and most printers can’t reproduce either end very well.


Adjust contrast for a desired increase. The image of Elijah was adjusted for Strong Contrast.


I used Unsharp Mask with this image. I also did a High Pass Filter, sharpened it (Sharpen tool), and over-laid it at about 20% opacity. For sharpening, I use a variety of techniques depending on the image and the desired outcome.


The extra bit on this image was to duplicate the image layer, desaturate it, and overlay it just under the High Pass layer in Normal mode. I then adjusted the opacity to achieve the desired effect.


The only exposure adjustment was done using the Burn tool. I set it to 11% exposure so as not to make too much of an adjustment on each pass and lightened up the eyes and nose.


I added some vertical grain to the image because I wanted a grittier film feeling, too.


Your Turn

I was able to shoot and process this image in much less time than it took to write and illustrate this article. With practice, you’ll see the light opportunities around you.

I’d enjoy your comments, so check in, below!



Flash (bounced off ceiling)


Black Foam Core

White Foam Cord

Clamps / large paper clips to attach black foam core to window blinds.


Note: Chimping is the lazy practice among photographers with digital cameras that sport large-ish LCDs on the back. Shoot. Look. Adjust. Yes, you should use a light meter, if you have one handy.

BTW, Off-camera flash rocks. See my favorite photography blog for confirmation of that. OTOH, one can use an on-camera flash to power what is, effectively, an off-camera source.


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