Expert Lighting Transforms Boring Gymnasiums into Epic ‘Sportraits’
December 6, 2023
With skillful lighting, Alison Carlino is able to transform bland gymnasiums and fields into the epic imagery she calls 'sportraits.' (Scroll through to see examples of Carlino's work.)
The average high school gymnasium is a large echoey room with uneven florescent lighting and ceilings too high to bounce lights—or basketballs—off of. But, armed with expert lighting, including gels and spray fog, photographer Alison Carlino of Carlino’s Photography walks out of even the most basic gymnasiums with colorful ‘sportraits’ that leave athletes feeling like superstars. How? Carlino explains how lighting, posing and special effects have become part of her iconic brand look — and how other photographers can up their lighting game.
While Carlino is the sole photographer, she works with two assistants to help with moving lights and adding fog. Her sportraits, which she calls Stills & Skills, are add-on options to her volume sports photography work and are designed for media, teams and families to use. She asks all athletes to prep as if it were a game day, bringing full uniform, protective gear, and balls to the session.
Inside the gymnasium, her lighting set-up typically includes 3-4 lights. For the main light, she uses a Elinchrom FIVE strobe with a Phottix G Capsule softbox and grid. She typically places this key light 45 degrees to the left of the camera, directed toward the subject’s face. Positioning the light so that the athlete gets the full softbox effect is essential, she says. “Make sure the athlete is positioned at the back edge of the softbox with his/her closest shoulder lined up to the edge of the box so when the light fires, he/she gets the full advantage of the box size and light quality,” Carlino says.
The height is also key for the main light, placed so that the center of the softbox is about eight to 12 inches above the athlete’s eyes. She explains that, besides creating catchlights, this also ensures the shadows fall correctly across the athlete’s skin.
For the rim lights, Carlino uses two more Elinchrome FIVEs, both placed 45 degrees behind the athlete, one to the right and one to the left. For these rim lights, she uses reflector dishes as well as colored gels to add color to the light and spray fog.
While sometimes those three lights are exactly what the image needs, Carlino will sometimes add a fourth light as a fill. This light is placed in front of the athlete, but opposite the main light, on the right and lower to the ground. She explains that this fill light is used to prevent the athletes’ legs from being completely lost in the shadows.
While commandeering four different lights will seem a daunting task for many photographers, Carlino says photographers should always add one light at a time to see how it affects the model and the scene before moving on.
Along with working with one light at a time, Carlino says she always buys the grid when picking up a new softbox. While the softbox creates a larger, and therefore softer, light source, the grid helps direct the light exactly where it needs to go. With the grid, Carlino is able to avoid light spill, which helps highlight just the athlete while the gymnasium fades into the shadows. The shadows, she says are often more interesting than the highlights. “Look for ways to create shadows as they help tell the story better than the brighter parts of the scene,” Carlino says.
Carlino’s lighting strategy helps create dramatic images in gymnasiums that highlight each athlete while adjusting the pose or skill, colored gels and sports gear all work together to create a unique image. While her three – four light set-up is ideal for gymnasiums, she utilizes different lighting set-ups to fit the field and pose, like a single light football set-up. The three rules to live by when lighting, she advises, is to add one light at a time, always buy a grid with each softbox and utilize the shadows to add interest.
5 Lighting Tips From Alison Carlino
- Add one light at a time to see how it affects the model and the scene.
- Never buy a softbox without buying a grid to control the spill of the light.
- Look for ways to create shadows as they help tell the story better than the brighter parts of the scene.
- Make sure the athlete is positioned at the back edge of the softbox with his/her closest shoulder lined up to the edge of the box so when the light fires, he/she gets the full advantage of the box size and light quality.
- Make sure the center of the box is raised to about 8”-12” above the athlete’s eyes where the catchlights will fall between 11 AM-1 PM in their eyes. This also makes the shadow patterns fall correctly on the skin.