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|| News Item: Posted 2001-02-26

Sportrait: Getting Out of the Mug Shot Rut
By Bryan Kelsen, Pueblo Chieftain

Who of us can actually say that they haven't heard a sports editor or writer whine for an image to go with a feature that they are doing on a particular athlete? I work for a small to medium sized daily in Southern Colorado and have heard this more times than I care to remember. And
Photo by Bryan Kelsen/Pueblo Chieftain

Photo by Bryan Kelsen/Pueblo Chieftain
after about 10 years of digging through photos of the last game or finding a "mug shot" to illustrate the story I began to think that there must be a better way to do this.

We'd all love to make some of the wonderful photos that Sports Illustrated shooters get the time and resources to make of the athletes that they cover. But at a paper the size of The Pueblo Chieftain that just isn't realistic. So I have come up with a compromise. I call it the "Sportrait".

The Sportrait is a way to use minimal time and equipment to make photos illustrating sports feature stories. I would say that it is a combination environmental portrait and photo illustration. The hardest thing about doing this kind of a picture is getting the word-types to be able to communicate just what it is that they are writing about. I have found that after a couple of stories get illustrated in this manner it can be much easier to get a reporter to think about what his (or her) angle is going to be for a particular story. Once you get past this part it is up to you.

Coming up with an idea can be a toughie, but not impossible. Personally, I like to look at what everyone else is doing. Nothing wrong with stealing an idea for a photo if it fits your subject matter. I have to admit that from time to time I have used ideas taken from several different sources. Sometimes just throwing my own twist into someone else's basic idea can give me the image I am looking for. And contrary to popular belief, I have had an actual idea of my own from time to time!

Photo by Bryan Kelsen/Pueblo Chieftain

Photo by Bryan Kelsen/Pueblo Chieftain
I know that we have heard this a hundred times, but keeping things simple can make the best photos. I use available light whenever possible, but a portable lighting kit or even just getting your strobe off-camera can do the trick.

Then there is the added dimension that Adobe's Photoshop brings to this type of illustration. Sometimes I just make it a straight photo, and sometimes my creative juices just keep flowing even after I do the shoot. In which case, the image becomes a photo illustration and is always labeled as such.

A recent image of prep football players was shot in a fire station with two lighting kits. I just tried to light them pretty evenly and separate them from the background, which I dropped out later in Photoshop. I added flames from an old photo that I had shot of a fire at a ruptured gas main.

I just put the two together in Photoshop using the layers function and one of our graphic artists did the type. The photo with the players dressed in firefighters' turnouts and flames as a backdrop was used as a preview to the high school football season. The type dropped into the final image "Speed to Burn" completed the "Sportrait."

I photographed a local hotshot swimmer who was basically on the team by herself since none of her teammates could even come close to the kind of times she was logging. I posed her in a pool with her floating on her back and just her face out of the water and I used a single strobe with an umbrella to produce a dramatic look. I shot the photo from a lifeguard chair on the side of the pool so I was looking straight down onto the water.

In Photoshop I desaturated her so that she became black and white while the water kept its blue color. This one of my favorites because of the mood I think it produces and because I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to come up with as a final image.

Our sports desk was planning on using just a mug shot for a feature on a local wrestler. But I offered to go over to the school and try to come up with something better. The kid was really up for it and he had a buddy who didn't mind being an opponent getting squished in the photo.

I used one light with an umbrella --- an off camera strobe with any type of a diffuser would have worked just as well. While this photo is nothing special, it does get the point of a dedicated and serious athlete across a lot better than a mug shot ever could.

This last photo was one where I borrowed an idea, gave it my own slant and was able to come up with fun image.

We had story was on a local high school running back who was going to break the all-time high school rushing record in our area.

Photo by Bryan Kelsen/Pueblo Chieftain

Photo by Bryan Kelsen/Pueblo Chieftain
This is an instance where communication with the writer helped make the photo. Our writer wanted to do a Superman theme and I was thinking about a photo that I had seen of Terrell Davis caught in mid air for GQ magazine. I was able to find a trampoline and combine both the idea of superman with that of a football player in mid air. The type that ran on the photo where I left room proclaimed him, "The Man of Steel (city)". It worked because Pueblo is a steel town!

This assignment was one where I borrowed an idea, gave it my own slant and was able to come up with fun image. I lit this one with two light kits while constantly trying to catch the subject at just the right height for the blast of light.

I have to admit that after years of covering high school, college, and pro sports shooting this kind of image has renewed my interest in photographing athletes. It is nice to be able to make a photo from time to time that isn't just the same old thing year in and year out. So with a bunch of preparation, experimentation and imagination you too can spice up your sports section.

(Bryan Kelsen is a staff photographer with The Pueblo Chieftain and all-around good guy. This is his first contribution to Sports Shooter.)

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