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Lighting Breakdown for Fitness Portraits
Written by: Erik Valind
When all the fitness models on your Instagram feed are in peak shape, you know it must be that time of year again – Show Season! Show Season is when all the countless hours in the gym, the crazy calorie counting and insane work ethic of these athletes all pays off. They’re lean, and mean (especially after prep week with little to no food) and basically bronzed gods. So what better time to sculpt them with light!? That was exactly the case for this recent shoot I did with an Aussie fitness model who was hot off earning her WNBF Bikini Pro Card and NGA Figure Pro Card just days before she walked into my studio.
For a fitness competitor portrait like this, I approach it less like a classic portrait and more like a still life. I want to explore, illuminate and accentuate the form of my subject, by lighting each piece of them. After all, that form is the pinnacle of what my subject has been working so hard on all year. To accomplish this I like to break my lighting down into layers. Each light will carve out (though shadows) or highlight a part of the body, starting with the sides and working around to the front. Then when they are all combined we’ll have successfully defined the strength of our subject.
Like an artist with a blank canvas or block of stone, I started this shot with an empty sweep of black seamless paper. The first order of business was to cut our subject out of this background. This required both the proper light coverage and control, so I used two Broncolor 30 x 120 Stripboxes, with Grids, on a pair of Siros 800 S monolights. The strips were the perfect height to cover the model from head to toe giving us the separation we needed. I love the precision of a stripbox, likening it to a scalpel in its ability to precisely carve out a subject. Using the grids also gave us maximum contrast in the image by ensuring that the light didn’t spill onto the background, or shine into the camera lens.
Now to start illuminating the front. When creating a standard portrait normally I would employ broad soft light modifier, to minimize hard shadows and create a more forgiving quality of light. The lack of contrast and control with this approach wouldn’t achieve our goal though. After all the key to precision lighting is control. So rather than opting for a softbox as the main light, I chose a Para 88. The Paras offer a ton of control from the Focused Position to the De-Focused position, and creates a unique 3D quality of light. I positioned the Para 88 overhead and set a MobiLED head in the Mid-Focused position. This did an awesome job of sculpting the models cheeks, chin and abs while still being broader and more forgiving on the face than a standard reflector would have been.
Beauty Dish + Grid
At this point the image is almost done. We created depth and dimension to the shot but it needs the finishing touch. While we have successfully cut up our model, I wanted to add just a touch of beauty and femininity to the photograph, without sacrificing any of the definition. To do this we simply add a controlled fill light which slightly lowers the contrast on the face and adds a spark to the eyes. I placed another MobiLED in a Beauty Dish below the subject, and aimed it upwards. By adding a grid and carefully aiming the light we completed the “clamshell” lighting setup without spilling light anywhere else. Combined, our front lights have a heavenly glow to them while still maintaining their punchiness.
Then all we had to do was turn on the rim lights again and get to shooting! We even added some haze in the end to as well.
Broncolor ambassador Erik Valind is a freelance photographer, born and raised on the Florida beaches, now living in New York City. Specializing in commercial lifestyle photography and environmental portraiture – airy and energetic imagery defines the style and vision of this top pro photographer. You can see more of his work at erikvalind.com and follow him on Instagram as @erikvphoto.