Breaking Into Volume Sports Photography

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by Alison Carlino

While I truly appreciate and respect those photographers that can thrive in a niche genre, I am exceptionally thankful that my business is well diversified after 17 years in the industry. Over the last 5 years, we’ve exploded into the sports market which includes team, individual, and banner images. It’s created a priceless avenue to get in front of those high schoolers to book their senior and family sessions!

For the years before sports, my studio was well known for modern posing and lighting off-camera using grids, gels, and a crisp, defined lighting style. About five years ago, we had an opportunity to break into team sports. My sons both played soccer for a private club and the photos were less than awesome. We quickly found that my lighting and posing skills easily transitioned into sports and, in fact, separated us from the previous company. Taking the time to fix the uniform, straighten the hair, and allowing the coach to check out an action image to confirm that the skill was performed correctly got us noticed by everyone involved. Creating that experience on volume day is challenging due to it being a faster paced environment but it’s crucial to the final image.

Three years ago, we moved into a white screen/extraction only model with the end result of compositing into graphics using Photoshop. We attempted cutting out the athletes ourselves but quickly found it to be very time consuming and chose to outsource the task to Retouchup. That price is built into our packages, as well as the in house labor by my staff to drop the png file into the final graphics.

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Lighting the image correctly is a key factor in Retouchup being able to consistently cut out the athletes. For example, the two gridded strip boxes behind and left/right of the athlete produce a gorgeous highlight down their arms and legs which separates them from the backdrop, making extraction easier. For the last year, I’ve been using the Lastolite HiLite and white vinyl train on the floor. There’s a strobe firing inside the tent not only to “white out” the backdrop but to give that defining rim light to the body. As long as my ceilings are high enough for my main light, I can (and have) set up in hallways before! This set truly goes anywhere I do.

So much of the job training happens on photo day! We’ve revised our processes, poses, and marketing to the point where the workflow is seamless. As you discern whether Volume Sports is your next move, I would ask you to consider two things:  your business and the market around you. It is my intent to give you ideas and a “Carlino 101” mini course that can springboard you into this genre!

Considerations for Your Business
• Consider a separate name from your portrait/wedding business. This is a lesson I wish I would’ve put into place before I jumped in. Some say that volume schools/sports tends to cheapen your portrait/wedding side. If you side with that, perhaps having a name that has nothing to do with your other work would be best. I went into it thinking, “folks know the Carlino’s Photography brand and that will get us in the door.” That wasn’t always the case in the sports world. We weren’t known because we hadn’t played in those waters yet.

• What kind of support staff do you have in place for pre photo day, on site, and post workflow? Hint— it’ll take a small village if you intend to take this division into the big leagues. I have an assistant with me 100% of the time and any bookings where parents are present or there are more than 50 athletes, I will pull 1-2 more of my staff from their studio work to assist on photo day. Being uber organized and efficient will keep the business flowing when heavy bookings pile up. August, November, and February tend to be the three months that high school sports teams book in mass numbers with us. Most want to shoot 2-4 weeks before their season starts so they not only have an idea of team divisions (freshman, jr varsity, or varsity splits) but also to be able to hang that 8ft team banner up on the fence line or gym wall before the season starts.

Expect a bottleneck of sports all at once with all having a deadline more important than the next guy! Have someone ready to go that knows Photoshop well and can crank out individual, team, and banner graphics no more than 3 weeks from the shoot date. Our back end process looks a bit like this: shoot/process files through Lr/upload to Retouchup/drop png files into graphics in Photoshop/load to PhotoDay/place orders that came in via envelope on day of proof banner graphics with coach over email. Like I said, it takes a village.

• What can your business bring to the table that others aren’t doing or offering? Carlino’s stands out by offering a smooth photo day experience for the coach, modern products and graphics for the clients, and defined lighting and attention to posing.

• What market or school do you want to break into? Do you have any clients with kids that play sports on your target team? Start asking friends or long time clients if their kiddos play sports of any kind. In trade for their time and use of images in marketing, print a package or banner for their athlete. Start with 5 sports. If you don’t know the sport, google it and find sample poses until you have enough png files to make your own guide.

• Do you actually have a solid lighting and posing foundation? Can you pose from the toe to the head correctly on a female? Do you understand the workings of a 3 or 4 light set up, including modifiers? Flat light or natural light would be discouraged if you are trying to stand out in this genre.

• Are you going to design the final graphics or purchase from a master artist like Ben Shirk (Game Changers)? As Owner and Photographer, my minutes are best spent being the face of the business and photographing, not working in Photoshop. I’ll buy from Ben all day long! His graphics truly complete my vision and many times, I choose/buy the graphic first in order to light in the correct direction of what he has designed.

Considerations for Your Marketing
• Research the companies that are currently booking teams. Consider reaching out to those teams/coaches to see if there are existing contracts in place.

• Know what style they’re selling (natural light or flash control)

• Are these companies taking real time photos of a football player kneeling in the grass at his stadium? Are they shooting green/white screen already? Are they trying action shots?

• Are the graphics outdated or are they pushing the envelope to create collegiate style marketing posters?

• What kind of products are they offering? Do they match the current market’s desires?
• Do parents receive a paper order form? Is there an online ordering option?

• Are coaches currently receiving any donated items or headshots as part of allowing you to book?

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Tips to Get You Moving
• Need to build your portfolio? Put out an athlete call and limit slots to just the type of sport or team you’re targeting. Make sure you charge for your time, the extraction fee, and the design work.

• If you’re able to get a meeting, be brave enough to ask what the coach/director’s number one complaint about photo day is. Be prepared with a number of answers on how your company can remedy this.

• Consider attending one of their games/matches/meets and capture action from the sidelines. Combine that with your posed sample athletes and you’ve got a solid starter portfolio.

• Make sure you have a strong online vendor like PhotoDay as part of your backend workflow. Partner with a gallery provider that has a solid, consumer friendly mobile platform. Modern families with millennial or Gen Z parents like convenience and that phone is often the tool of choice.

• Understand social media enough to know when your market is looking at Facebook or Instagram. At Carlino’s, we’ve done enough research to know that Thursdays seem to be a hot time for folks to notice our work. Consider scheduling posts that regularly remind parents and coaches you are here for them when they are ready to book. Consistently point out one fact that separates you. Keep it short (attention spans are quick these days)…

Volume Sports has truly brought a new clients into my business and it’s opened doors to family portraits and custom senior sessions, making this a worthwhile venture to consider.

Alison Carlino, Cr. Photog., CPP, is from Richmond, Texas. She will be teaching a class on “High School Seniors from Portraits to Sports” with an emphasis on lighting, posing, and marketing at the 2021 Texas School of Professional Photography. To learn more about Alison and her class,
go to www.carlinosphotography.com or www.TexasSchool.org.