When it comes to taking sports photography portraits, capturing dynamic energy is the name of the game. Sports portraits often convey a sense of action and energy with dramatic poses and lighting, the latter of which often relies on using off-camera flash. While some photographers try their best to avoid using flash, it’s really not that complicated, especially when shooting with today’s user-friendly lighting gear. That said, we’ll show you in four simple steps how to create dynamic athletic photos with a 3-light sports portrait setup that you can use on your next photo shoot.

Let’s get into it.

Video: Dynamic 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup

Gear Checklist

Here’s a quick overview of the gear used in this video/article:

While the setup is easy, it does take a little bit of time, and there is a strategy involved. Follow these steps to get setup efficiently and effectively.

Step 1: Setting Up the Background Lights

Let’s start with the background lights.

3-Light Sports Portrait Setup background lights

We’ve placed two Westcott FJ400 strobes into a couple of Rapid Box Switch 3×4 soft boxes and set them on two black C-stands at an identical height. We went with black C-stands so that they would not show up in the background.

backside shot of the background lights for a 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup

The lights are positioned at a relatively low angle because we’re photographing youth athletes for these portraits. Over the top of the soft boxes, we’ve added the Wescott Pro Light Mods (3×4) for the purpose of functioning as a black gobo with perfect circle cutouts.

It’s worth noting that this is a Velcro-based system, so set up the softboxes first and then add the Pro Light Mod directly over the top of them. If you use a gobo like this, make sure to seal the edges to minimize light spill.

Next, we’re going to dial in our ambient light settings in-camera.

Step 2: Positioning and Camera Settings for a 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup

For step two, we’re going to cover positioning and camera settings. We’ll also look at what we want to do in terms of power and handling external effects like the fog machine. At this point, with our background lights set up, we can bring in our subject, who is wearing basketball attire. We can place our subject roughly into position and then determine our camera settings.

Camera and Flash Power Settings for Dynamic Sports Portraits

To begin, we’ll open up the aperture to f/2 to add some depth to the image and separate our subject from the background. It really is a stylistic preference, but that is the reasoning behind this chosen aperture setting. Next, we’ll set our shutter speed to 1/200, so that we don’t need to use high-speed sync. Finally, we’ll keep our ISO at ISO 100.

In terms of setting the power level for our background lights, we’ll set the FJ400 strobes to “6,” which should land somewhere around 1/8th of the strobe’s full power.

BTS for 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup with test shot for the background light
Test shot at 1/200, f/2, ISO 100

Direct your subject into a pose and take a test shot to check your exposure and flash power settings. In the image above, we arrived at a pretty decent photo to start. The lights are straight across and the lighting looks good, but we can still make adjustments, which in this case will be to raise the ISO to 200.

Why Raise the ISO?

Camera Settings: 1/200, f/2, ISO 100 (Left) and 1/200, f/2, ISO 200 (Right)

You might wonder why we’re going to raise the ISO rather than bump the flash power. Here’s why. Usually, when shooting these types of portraits in-studio, we prefer keeping our flash power at a lower setting. If we can bump the ISO a bit, this gives us a lower flash power and better/faster recycle times. Granted, going up one stop will not make a huge difference at this point, but it’s how we approach these situations.

A Special Note on the Black Backdrop

You’ll notice that because we have a black backdrop, we don’t see any of the background when shooting with a tighter frame. If we shoot at a wider angle and capture more of the scene, you can start to see the white walls and other elements in the room. Without the black backdrop, these elements would reflect light back into the camera and we wouldn’t be able to black out the background entirely. If you’re shooting in a darker area or where you don’t have white walls, you wouldn’t necessarily need that backdrop.

Step 3: Setting Up the Main Light

For the main light, we’re going to use another Westcott FJ400 and position it just off to the side of our subject. This brings our total to three lights for a three-light setup. We’ll place the third strobe into a Rapid Box 1×4. If you want more light control, add a grid to the softbox. For this example, however, we’ll be fine without it.

Light Groups for the 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup

We set the first two strobes to Group B using our on-camera remote. These were set to the same group because they both need to be at the same power setting. We’ll set the third strobe, which is our main light, to be in Group A.

Test Shot and Adjustments for the Main Light in the 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup

Flash Power at 6

Right out of the gate, our test shot is too bright, which means we need to lower the power setting on our main light.

We set it at 6 power originally, so we’ll take it down by half to 3.

Flash Power at 3

The second shot is closer to where we want to be.

Highlight Alert

One trick that you can use is to turn on your camera’s highlight alert. This will help ensure that only the lights themselves are blown out and not the subject.

Bounce Light for Fill with a V-Flat

3-Light Sports Portrait Setup final image v-flat

You’ll notice that we used a V-Flat to bounce a bit of fill light back onto our subject and fill in some of the shadows. If you notice that you need to add fill light to your subject, you can set up something like this using whatever surface or material you have available.

Step 4: Adding Fog to the 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup

Okay, we have one last thing to do before capturing our final images. We’re going to add a bit of fog into the scene using a Roscoe Mini Fog Machine. You can find newer, smaller, and more efficient fog machines, or even cans of Atmosphere Aerosol, but this is what we had on-hand for this shoot.

Whichever route you go to produce fog, place the source of the fog behind your subject. You don’t want the fog to get too far in front. Otherwise, the fog can block out the light source and create a low contrast look that doesn’t align with the dynamic nature of the shoot. When placed far enough back, in this case five to six feet behind our subject, the lights produce a blooming effect in the fog.

Once the fog dissipates to an adequate level, you should be good to start capturing your sports portraits.

More Dynamic 3-Light Sports Portrait Setup Examples

3-Light Sports Portrait Setup final image hockey

3-Light Sports Portrait Setup final image basketball

3-Light Sports Portrait Setup final image hockey

3-Light Sports Portrait Setup final image basketball


We hope you found this tutorial on a dynamic 3-light sports portrait setup helpful. This is the exact setup that we used to create all the images above. It’s very versatile and it’s pretty easy to do. Just get your lights set up, direct your subject into various dynamic poses, shoot from a variety of angles, and have fun with it.