I always try and stay outside of my photographic comfort zone as much as possible and this latest fitness shoot is no exception. I have done a fitness shoot before but not nearly as involved and definitely not in an actual gym. In this blog, I will walk you through the shoot with examples on what went right as well as tips to look out for if you plan on doing a similar shoot.
For those of you that know me personally, your first thought is probably one of concern. Me? Walking across the threshold into a gym? Yeah, I know. I had the same concern. I feared I would burst into flames or my camera bag would break open spilling out nothing but Twinkies. It’s very similar to the concern I have at the threshold of a church. Much to my surprise, I crossed the threshold without a single flame or puff of smoke. The model for the shoot is a friend I had met earlier in the summer at an outdoor sand volleyball tournament so we already had some familiarity with one another. I had originally approached her to be a model for a triptych image (which I will probably still do with her if she is willing) and she suggested a fitness shoot as well. She knows the owner of a gym and we scheduled the shoot when the gym was closed to the public. If you can get access to a gym after hours, I would highly recommend it.
There are two basic ways to do a fitness shoot. You can use natural light or use flash/strobes. After trying both in the beginning, I found I preferred using off camera flash over natural light for one very important reason, SHADOWS! A fitness shoot is about accentuating muscles and the best way to achieve that is with dramatic high contrast lighting. Unless you are doing your shoot right by a large open window, it is very difficult to control natural light enough to create great contrast. As with any shoot that I do, I researched lighting specifically for a fitness shoot. Some sources suggested soft boxes whereas others suggested large reflective or even shoot-through umbrellas. I started with soft boxes but preferred the more direct and harsher light from a reflective umbrella simply because the light was more ‘contrasty’. However, be very aware of your background(s) as there are mirrors everywhere in a gym. I love how the model is lit in this image but I captured my entire umbrella (and myself as well) in the mirror in the background. No bueno. It's also not a good idea to have shadows falling on your model's face. Multiple light sources (or even a well placed reflector) can be used for rim or back-lighting but I wanted to keep the shoot as simple as possible. I did use multiple lights later in the shoot simply because I had them available.
Another trick many photographers use for fitness photography is the use of baby oil. Having your model rub down all exposed skin with a very thin layer of baby oil will give the skin a glow that really helps the muscles pop out in the images. Be careful not to use too much oil in any one area. In this shot, you can see that the oil was applied heavier around the knees than the rest of her legs. The amount of shine just above her tattoo is perfect. This was completely my fault. She had asked if she had applied the oil correctly and I simply forgot to check the images to see if there were any areas being blown out because of too much oil. Simply towel off areas where the oil may be on too thick. Obviously it can be corrected in post, but I want to share an example of what to watch out for when using oil. I would still rather fix areas in post than not use the oil at all. It does make a huge difference. This trick is also helpful in boudoir/lingerie photography as well.
A fitness shoot is not about glamour and glitz. It is all about gritty, sweaty, exertion of energy. That being said, I wanted to get her entire body in focus. For the most part, I stayed around F8 to get a good depth of field on her entire body. This small of an aperture obviously decreases the amount of light your lens will collect. You can compensate to some degree by increasing the power of your lights as well as increasing your ISO. With a crop sensor camera (Nikon D7100), I did eventually bump up my ISO to a little over 400 to get a good looking histogram. I typically do not like going over ISO 400 if I can keep from it (unless I'm doing astrophotography) but the ‘luminance’ noise reduction function in Adobe Camera Raw made me comfortable going higher than I probably normally would.
During the different exercises, I would watch to see where her muscles were most pronounced and would place a light about 45 degrees to the side of that area. I would then take the shot anywhere from 45 degrees to the light source up to almost the opposite side of the light source – almost to the point of getting some light glare in the lens (which happened on occasion). You want to get a good cross of both the lighted top portion of the muscle group as well as the deep shadows on the bottom or opposite side of the muscle group. You typically do not want to shoot from the same direction as the light as you will lose most of the shadowing effect.
After finding good areas in the gym to shoot and having a good base for my camera settings, we moved from exercise to exercise trying to get the best images. Neither one of us had any time constraints so we could go at whatever pace worked best and with it being an empty gym, we didn’t have to worry about bothering anyone else. At the end of the shoot, we shifted gears from a workout theme to more of some basic portrait images, again trying to keep the muscles the focus of the images. For close up shots and a few portrait images, we simulated sweat with a spray bottle with one part glycerin to two parts water. The glycerin helps the water droplets keep their shape and stay in place as opposed to simply running down the skin. If you try this ‘sweat’ recipe, make sure your model is not allergic to glycerin (or baby oil for that matter).
The shoot was a blast both taking pictures and in post processing! Having a model that is very down to earth, fun, and incredibly easy to work with makes all the difference. She was patient when I constantly needed to move my lights around and she would even suggest certain poses to highlight certain muscles. She came with several different wardrobe changes which helped keep the images looking fresh and new. In addition to getting the images she wanted for her own purposes, she made sure I got the images I wanted for my portfolio as well. If only every model were as easy to work with…. Post processing the images is almost the opposite of what I normally would do for portraits. Instead of softening the image by reducing clarity, I pushed the clarity up. Also, if you have never used dodge and burn tools in post processing, a fitness shoot is a perfect time to learn those tools. Dodging highlights and burning shadows will greatly help the muscles pop. I found myself dodging and burning less than I thought I was going to have to simply because of the great shape of the model. She had very well defined muscle groups making my job a lot easier. I am anxious to work with her again!
Be it a powder, underwater, fitness, firewall, paint toss, or any other unusual shoot, stay out of your comfort zone! The more you push yourself the better you will become as a photographer. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing to specialize in an area or two, but I find photography more interesting, challenging, and fun when I am picking up my camera bag on my way out of the door thinking to myself, “I hope I can pull this off”. Do I now consider myself an expert fitness photographer? Ha! Not by a long shot. But should I attempt to do another similar shoot, I will be able to use my experiences to get even better images. For me, photography is about the process of learning and getting better over time and not necessarily about trying to get that 'perfect' image. You may get some images along the way that are absolutely stunning but that shouldn't be the end of the hobby or process. Keep learning and growing. Special thanks to my wonderful fitness model for donating her time and body. She may also be creating a fitness blog of her own and I will provide a link to her blog as soon as it becomes available.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.