Behind the portrait of basketball star Jalen Smith

The assignment: to photograph basketball star Jalen Smith, one of the top high school basketball players in Maryland and The Baltimore Sun’s basketball player of the year.

My plan was to photograph Jalen in the gym at Mount St. Joe’s, where he attends high school. Before getting to my portrait sessions, I like to generate a concept and visualize what the perfect picture would look like.

  • Where the subject would be?
  • What lens would I use?
  • What kind of lighting?
  • What would my perspective be?

I call this, Plan A. Even if everything is thought out, sometimes you are thrown a curveball and you have to adjust on the fly.

My Plan A was to capture Jalen’s profile while flying through the air en route to the basket for a dunk. I asked him to demonstrate this for me so I could see where I needed to be in order to execute the portrait. While watching him dunk, I realized my Plan A was not going to work. Jalen is 6’10” and does not need to jump very high to reach the basket. The concept would have been better suited for a shorter player that would need to jump higher off the ground.


So, now it’s time to move onto Plan B. With my two remote lights in place, one far left and one far right, I laid down flat on the ground below the basket with my wide-angle lens looking right up at the rim. Then, I had Jalen leap up and dunk the ball above me. The ball came through the net and then flew right out of the frame. The problem: I was still not getting the height and the dramatic feel I was looking for.

Plan C: I laid down under the basket again, only this time I asked Jalen if he could hang on the rim for a few seconds after the dunk. This concept provided the two things I needed for the picture to work: it elevated his entire body above me and the extra few seconds gave the ball a chance to bounce back up into the frame.

Once I felt I had what I needed from the angle under the basket, I tried a few other pictures with Jalen before finishing the photo session.

An overview of the lighting setup for the photo shoot of Jalen Smith.
An overview of the lighting setup for the photo shoot of Jalen Smith. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

About the equipment setup

Most of the photos were taken with a 17-35mm wide-angle lens. This was effective in ensuring I was able to get Jalen’s entire body and the basket in the frame and also to capture his reflection off the floor.

The portrait of Jalen with basket in the background was taken with a 60mm lens. This choice allowed me to compress the space between him and the basket and differentiate it from the other photos. Longer lenses compress the depth of field therefore making your subject and background appear closer to one another.

I used two Dynalite Uni400Jr. lights that stayed in the same location throughout the entire shoot. I changed perspective, lenses and location in order to create different images. The Dynalites are useful because they can be plugged into a power source or run off batteries and you have complete control over the light output.

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