Kaila Pearson: Volleyballer

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

The funny thing is, she isn’t even a volleyball player. A self-described “child of the water,” Kaila told me she loved everything having to do with the sea: swimming, surfing, and SUPing. But volleyball? Not her bag. But when a tall, beautiful, athletic blonde volunteers to pose on the beach for you in December, you don’t let a little thing like reality stand in your way.

Inspired by shots by the likes of Joel Grimes I wanted to create a dramatic sports portrait. Given that I had a ball and had access to the nets at main beach in Santa Cruz, volleyball seemed like a logical choice. Kaila and I had been trying to get together for a shoot ever since we first met back in October. Finally, a few days before Christmas when neither of us were busy and a storm front was rolling through Santa Cruz, we had our chance.

Nowadays the common practice to create a shot like this is to shoot the model in the studio where you can control all the elements, and then composite her into a background. But as much fun as compositing is, it’s usually a lot simpler to shoot the whole thing all at once, provided you have a good background of course. Which we did thanks to the clouds.
Volleyball net Santa Cruz, California

The first step in creating a photo like this is lining up the composition, so after I had positioned the net and the clouds in my frame how I wanted them, I had Kaila jump in front of the lens.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Since at this point I was shooting using ambient light only Kaila was very dark, as expected. But that dark base was exactly what I need to start sculpting a portrait using my speedlights. Because of the storm it was actually quite windy that day and so I didn’t want to bother with big softboxes or octobanks. Instead my key light was simply a small softbox LTP positioned about head high at camera left. Maybe a bit harder light than I would normally use, but since I was going for drama I didn’t fuss.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

This was a good start but there’s nothing like a little rim light to separate your subject from the background and give the image a 3D feel. So I set up a bare speedlight behind Kaila off to the right and blasted it back at her to give that nice edging.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Now that the lighting setup was dialed in it was time to get shooting. Kaila, trooper that she was, disrobed and set about looking like a badass despite the goosebumps. But as soon as she took her sweatshirt off it was clear we had a problem on our hands: the wind. It kept blowing her hair all over the place, up into the air, and into her face. (Note: this is one of those things that’s so easy to control in the studio).

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

We quickly realized we weren’t going to be able to get a shot where we were thanks to the wind, so Kaila got dressed while I made a mirror-image of the lighting setup on the other side of the net. That way, Kaila would be able to look into the wind and have it blow her hair out behind her.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Success! With the lighting design sorted and the wind working in our favor, Kaila ditched the sweatshirt again as I started snapping.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

From here it was just a matter of trying a couple of different poses and expressions until we got something we both liked. And here was the final shot:

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

But remember that I said I wanted this to be a dramatic portrait. And while the straight-out-of-camera shot above is nicely lit and has some awesome clouds in the background, it doesn’t quite have the punch that I was going for. That aspect was added in Photoshop: some contrast adjustments, lots of dodging and burning, and some gradient maps later, this was the final result:

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed the process!

6 Responses

  1. Echo what Van said. It’s not easy to imagine the diversity that you go through to get just the right shot. Although I suspected as much, it’s fun to read along and confirm ones suspicions.

  2. Hey, really cool portrait! I really appreciate you showing the steps you took to get the final product! Normally I’ll shoot with just a speedlight and available light to create a natural feel but what you just showed is something I’ve wanted to experiment with for a while.

    1. Thanks, Van. Yeah, what’s so cool about off camera flash is the huge range of looks you can create, everything from natural to super dramatic. Have fun experimenting!

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