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Sports photographer Andrey Golovanov's top tips for taking sports portraits

Andrey Golovanov's portrait of figure skaters Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin shows their personality and uses props in a fun way. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 75mm, 1/125 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100. © Andrey Golovanov

Good sports portraits combine the passion and emotion of sports photography with the composition and lighting of a standard portrait. The difference between other portraits and a sports portrait is the ability of the photographer to express an athlete's energy and chosen discipline through props and posing, and often in short timeframes.

Russian sports photographer and Canon Ambassador Andrey Golovanov has more than two decades' experience shooting every type of major sporting event. Here he shares his top tips for taking sports portraits, from lighting and backdrops to poses and props.

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1. Consider your sports portrait backdrop

"The backdrop is very important," says Andrey. "It's crucial that it's uncluttered, because nothing should detract attention from the main subject. When I shoot indoor portraits, say in a training facility or a gymnasium, I take my paper roll backdrop and set it up behind the athlete to give me a plain background to work with."

Andrey prefers using a grey backdrop, sometimes with a slight cloudy texture. "Grey is the perfect mix. If I want to make the backdrop a little lighter or darker, I can either aim my lights on or off the paper roll, or adjust the distance between the backdrop and the subject," he says.

The exception to the rule is when Andrey is shooting outside. "If an athlete's sport is based outdoors and we have the opportunity to do so, then I'll shoot them outside. In this case, I'll give extra space to the background, to capture the subject in their element."

Two female gymnasts lie on a grey backdrop surrounded by ribbons and balls.
The grey backdrop means there's nothing to detract attention from rhythmic gymnasts Arina and Dina Averina. Andrey finds that grey is also the most flexible shade when balancing exposure and lighting. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 25mm, 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO125. © Andrey Golovanov

2. Adapt to outdoor lighting

If you're shooting outside, you can't always rely on a perfect cloudy sky to diffuse the light on your subject. On bright, sunny days, Andrey uses his Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT (now updated to the Speedlite 600EX II-RT) to combat harsh shadows.

"I place the sun behind me, so that my subject is lit broadly and brightly. Then I might place the Speedlite behind the athlete, or off to one side at an angle, to highlight the shape of the body. If the sun is making the athlete squint, I either ask them to look in a different direction – usually off to one side – or to shut their eyes until I'm ready."

If he has the option, Andrey will move his subject into a shaded area. Or, if he has time to set up a stand or has someone to hold it for him, he'll use a reflector to bounce natural light into shadowy areas. Most of the time, though, he relies on his Speedlites.

"I have three Canon Speedlite 600EX-RTs and they can be integrated into their own wireless network. I'll trigger them either with a Canon Speedlite Transmitter ST-E3-RT or by placing a Speedlite 600EX-RT on my camera to act as a master trigger. My default lighting technique outside is to place one camera-left and one camera-right, setting one brighter than the other to highlight one side of the subject. If I need to emphasise the contours of the body, I'll place another light behind the athlete."

Volleyball player Yekaterina Gamova holding up her hand with red, white and blue tape around her fingers.
Andrey managed to take this distinctive shot of Russian volleyball player Yekaterina Gamova in a corridor at Rome airport. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III (now replaced by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) at 160mm, 1/250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO400. © Andrey Golovanov
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3. Get creative with indoor lighting

To light indoor sports portraits, and if he has access to a power supply, Andrey uses studio strobes combined with big softboxes to emulate the diffused quality he gets from natural light on a cloudy day. "I'll place a studio light either side of my subject and, with the softboxes added, I get even, soft lighting. This adds dimension to the shapes and textures of the athlete's body."

Sometimes he gets an opportunity to shoot indoors with natural light, and that's exactly what happened while travelling back from a tournament with the Russian female volleyball team. "I had seen Yekaterina Gamova competing with coloured tape matching the Russian flag over her fingers and it stuck in my mind," he explains. "When I finally came to shoot her and the team at the International Women's Volleyball Tournament, the match wasn't going so well and she had swapped to white tape.

"At the airport, while we were waiting to fly back, I said: 'Do you remember those coloured tapes?' She put them on and I found a place where the sun was passing through some windows. Luckily, the light was quite uniform and not too bright. I framed the shot so the long, dark airport corridor faded into darkness, adding depth. It worked so well I didn't need any other lighting."

Russian artistic gymnast Artur Dalaloyan rests his chin on his right arm, which has a tattoo of a cross on the bicep.
The tattoo of the Armenian cross became a focal point in this portrait of Russian artistic gymnast Artur Dalaloyan. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM lens at 110mm, 1/500 sec, f/4.0 and ISO800. © Andrey Golovanov

4. Have subjects strike a pose

If time is short, Andrey asks his subject to stand naturally and try some poses. Then he guides them into something that looks a little more considered. "First I ask the athlete make a three-quarter turn to one side. That gives them personality and avoids that glaring 'passport photo' look, because it adds dimensionality. They look more natural and relaxed.

Andrey also uses subjects' distinctive physical features such as tattoos in his portraits, to portray an athlete's history or background. "I take some time to look at the person to see what stands out. A boxer might have bruising, or a rower might have calloused hands; these convey the effort they've put in to be where they are. I saw Russian artistic gymnast Artur Dalaloyan performing on TV and noticed a tattoo of an Armenian cross on his arm. I discovered that Artur considers this tattoo as a source of support and a symbol of protection. Clearly, it has a lot of meaning for him, so when shooting his portrait, I wanted to include both his face and the tattoo. We tried a few options, but the shot above was my favourite."

Synchronised swimmer Natalia Ishchenko rising from the water with medals draped over her extended arms.
A fun but tough aspect of sports portraiture is coming up with a concept. For this shot, Andrey wanted synchronised swimmer Natalia Ishchenko to emulate one of her routines, with her medals draped over her arms. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark III (now replaced by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) at 85mm, 1/250 sec, f/6.3 and ISO125. © Andrey Golovanov

5. Use props

It's not just about the body positioning and the subject's pose. "I also like athletes to do something meaningful with their hands," explains Andrey. "The arms shouldn't just be hanging at their sides. I use standard poses, such as folded arms, when time is limited, but if I have the chance, I draw shape from their sporting equipment, such as gloves or helmets."

"I had seen the synchronised swimmer Natalia Ishchenko doing a routine where she leaps out of the water with her arms in the shape of a flying bird. I knew I wanted to emulate this, so I asked her if she could do the same with all her medals hung over her arms. I lit her with a studio light and it worked excellently."

Napisal Jason Parnell-Brooks


Andrey Golovanov's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their sports portraits

Andrey Golovanov's kit including two Canon EOS-1D X Mark II bodies, several Canon lenses and Speedlite flashes.

Camera

Lenses

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM

A portable telephoto zoom that delivers professional performance, with 5-stop IS and fast USM focusing. "These athletes are busy, so our photoshoots are quick," says Andrey. "The last thing I want to be doing is fiddling with equipment and changing lenses. I can grab any camera body, pair that with this lens and be good to go."

Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM

This new version of the classic wide zoom offers stunning sharpness throughout the zoom range. "It covers the lower end of the focal length range and also comes with a zoom function and great optics," says Andrey.

Accessory

Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

A powerful flash gun for use both on and off the camera, offering creative off-camera lighting from any direction using radio wireless control "They're small, portable and run on batteries, which means they can be set up anywhere," says Andrey.

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