Behind the action: a guide to sports portraiture

From building trust to always striving to improve, Canon Ambassador Łukasz Skwiot explains his approach to capturing an iconic sports portrait.
A muscular, shirtless athlete with a handlebar moustache grimaces with effort as he grips on to gymnastic rings.

As a sports portrait photographer, Canon Ambassador Łukasz Skwiot's goal is to capture the drama and passion of sport, connecting viewers both with the athlete and the environment in which they perform. "We wanted to show the muscles and athleticism of this model, so I chose a lighting setup that would create a lot of contrast," says Łukasz of this striking image. "Often the sharp play of lights and shadows is not desirable in commercial images, but this time I had a free hand." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 80mm, 1/250 sec, f/4 and ISO160. © Łukasz Skwiot

While some sports photographers work in exotic, glamorous locations, sports portrait specialist Łukasz Skwiot can often be found in a small dressing room with just a few minutes available to capture a striking cover image.

Łukasz's career has taken him from the sidelines of football, handball and basketball games to intimate portrait sessions where, with time usually limited and expectations always high, he must produce compelling pictures in any setting. "It is up to me, as a photographer, to create a concept that will produce an amazing final effect," he says.

"I like working with harsh, contrasting light, to create sharp, saturated photos," he continues, "and I often use special effects like smoke, dust or water to create images that are difficult to pass by without noticing."

However, Łukasz emphasises that each shoot concept is shaped by both the sport and the personality involved. "Each sport is different, each discipline is different, so each session is created from scratch," he says. "I try to capture the dynamics of both the athlete and the discipline."

An American football player, cradling the ball in one arm and looking as if he's charging towards the camera, surrounded by white smoke and dust.

"One of the most difficult photos I have taken in my career," says Łukasz of this image, which was shot as part of a marketing campaign for the Polish American Football League champions Panthers Wrocław. "It shows a competitor leaping over rising dust, illuminated by three external studio lamps. The use of the 50.6MP sensor of the Canon EOS 5DS, along with a high aperture, delivered a perfectly sharp photo suitable for large-format advertising." Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO320. © Łukasz Skwiot

Professional footballer Robert Lewandowski, wearing a leather jacket and dark grey shirt, holds a gold trophy in front of his chest.

Łukasz's career has been boosted by successful photoshoots with one of Poland's top footballers, Robert Lewandowski. "This was a cover session with Robert for Pilka Nożna magazine. I had only a few minutes to get the shot, which is stressful enough, but when you're working with top players, it's extra stressful," Łukasz says. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO320. © Łukasz Skwiot

The personal touch

While his images have a distinctive, bold look, they are always personal. "In my opinion," he says, "emotions are 60% and light is 40% of a perfect photo."

How does he capture the emotions and the personality of his subjects, though, especially under pressure of time?

"I work with athletes, not models," Łukasz admits. "It is different from working with professional models. Athletes don't know what to do with their hands or how to stand, so it can be hard to capture natural emotion. The most important thing is to build trust, then it's easier to control and pose the player."

To do this, Łukasz takes a personal approach. "It's important to know the athlete. What are the habits they are best known for? If they have tattoos, maybe it's worth showing them. Maybe they have a trademark goal celebration? I always prepare and know something about the person because I need to make a connection with them to remove the shyness."

Łukasz's approach grows out of his experience of overcoming his own inhibitions in order to establish himself in the industry. "I've always been a very shy person and avoided taking pictures of people, but being a photojournalist at the magazine Piłka Nożna convinced me to continue with sports portrait photography.

"I just needed to take photos," he explains. "The first time I took a portrait of a football player was very uncomfortable for me. It was like jumping off a rock into water, but I needed to do it. It wasn't perfect, but it opened me up for the next session and the sessions after that."

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Athlete Marcin Lewandowski, wearing a green, sleeveless sports top, standing with arms outstretched in a cloud of chalk dust.

Łukasz used a Canon EOS R5 to take this photograph of Polish middle-distance runner Marcin Lewandowski. "The EOS R5's brilliant resolution allows you to capture individual dust particles," says Łukasz. "In addition, the AF kept Marcin's eyes sharp and didn't lose them in the dust. With this type of photo, there are no second chances – the camera has to work first time." Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 47mm, 1/200 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © Łukasz Skwiot

Athlete Marcin Lewandowski, wearing a blue jumper and light grey jacket, poses for the camera in a small room lit by strong backlighting.

Another image from Łukasz's portrait session with Marcin Lewandowski, this time with the athlete in formal wear. "I used strong backlighting to let the light outline the silhouette of the model," Łukasz says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 60mm, 1/200 sec, f/9 and ISO100. © Łukasz Skwiot

Planning and lighting

As his confidence grew, Łukasz was tasked with increasingly demanding commissions, including the ultimate test – front-cover shoots. "I tend not to tell athletes that we are taking a front-cover photo, because it usually stiffens them up, which I want to avoid," he says. He has also learned not to focus too much attention on shooting with a particular layout in mind. "You have to remember your framing and leave space for the magazine title and coverlines," he explains. "But it has happened that the planned cover shot wasn't the most interesting and editors can change the magazine layout, so I try to keep all my material at the same level."

Łukasz's attention to detail begins well before the shoot itself. "An important stage is planning the session and creating a mood board," he explains. "My girlfriend Angelika, who is the artistic director on many of my sessions, helps me a lot. The type of lighting, the number of lamps and the type of modifiers are selected according to the session concept and the effect I'd like, or the effect the client would like to achieve."

Łukasz prefers to work in the studio, where he has control over lighting, but also frequently shoots on location. "Outdoor sessions are weather dependent and usually more mobile, so I take less equipment," he says. "Working in a gym or fitness club means it is often challenging to select a composition that doesn't distract from the athlete. Gyms are created for exercise, not photography, so it's the photographer's job to make the final effect as interesting as possible."

A portrait of a model in a white jacket in front of a busy but blurred street.

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Polish UFC fighter Marcin Tybura, with fists raised as if ready to fight, glares at the camera.

Polish UFC fighter Marcin Tybura poses for Łukasz's camera. "For this session, I used a background with backlit orange stripes in the colours of the sponsor for whom I was creating this advertising campaign," says Łukasz. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Łukasz Skwiot

Choosing equipment for the job

When image size isn't the priority, Łukasz opts for the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III. "Its amazing speed of 16fps combined with fast studio lamps helps me create incredibly dynamic images," he explains.

Lately, however, Łukasz has been opting for Canon's full-frame mirrorless EOS R System technology, with his favourite combination being the Canon EOS R5 with the Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens. "The 45MP sensor provides the brilliant resolution needed for advertising campaigns, and great tonal dynamics," he says. "The biggest difference for me, though, is the autofocus, which allows me to concentrate on framing rather than on the focus. I can put the athlete in the corner of the frame and be sure it will focus perfectly. Having autofocus points across the whole frame is so much easier – I now have to think only about the framing, and because of this I work faster.

"The RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens gives me the perfect distance from the model to help communication, and it has no distortion, which makes the proportions perfect. More importantly, it is a brilliant optical design – I love the sharpness of this lens. I also use strong counter light directed towards the camera, so I appreciate the lack of glare and flares."

When a moving subject is involved, Łukasz adds, the AF's ability to follow the subject across the entire frame, combined with the EOS R5's 12fps continuous shooting speed, "gives me the biggest chance to succeed at the first attempt."

A monochrome image of an American football player diving through the air with the ball in his outstretched hand, in a stadium under a glaring spotlight.

Whether he's in a studio or out on location, Łukasz always plans his shoots meticulously. "I very rarely give my client black and white photos, but when creating this session, I came up with the idea of creating a very contrasting set – a white outfit complemented by strong spotlights in the dark night sky. Switching to monochrome emphasised this idea, adding drama," he says. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 31mm, 1/200 sec, f/5 and ISO640. © Łukasz Skwiot

Changing minds

Successful shoots with the captain of Poland's national football team Robert Lewandowski and Polish American Football League champions Panthers Wrocław have certainly boosted Łukasz's profile. But he's not slowing down.

"If you want to achieve something, you have to believe in it and keep improving," he says. "At the moment, the market is very dynamic, so you can't rest on your laurels. I try to make each successive session better than the previous one. I'm constantly trying to broaden my knowledge, improve my use of light and perfect my way of processing photos in order to provide my clients with the best quality."

Łukasz's passion for photography is matched by his pursuit of new challenges and opportunities. "I haven't had a chance to photograph athletes with a disability yet, but it's very important to show diversity in sport. I hope in the future I'll have a chance to work with one or two disabled athletes from different disciplines, perhaps as part of a personal project. I think it would create very powerful images."

Mark Alexander

Łukasz Skwiot's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Łukasz Skwiot's kitbag containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

The EOS R5's uncompromising performance will revolutionise your photography and filmmaking..Łukasz says: "The EOS R5 provides me with great image quality, high resolution and dynamic range, while the Eye AF makes your work easier by letting you concentrate on the framing, not on the focus."

Canon EOS 5DS

Providing critical sharpness when it really matters, the Canon EOS 5DS will transform the way you look at the world. "The EOS 5DS offers a powerful resolution – up to 50.6MP. The sharpness and detail is incomparable," says Łukasz.


Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM

The ultimate portrait lens for next generation imaging. Łukasz says: "I love the sharpness of this lens and, as I often use strong counter lighting directed towards the camera, the Air Sphere Coating, which eliminates glare and flares."

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this compact, high performance 50mm standard lens can be relied on for superb performance in any field of photography.

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