3 Rules For Photographing Fit Models

3 Rules For Photographing Fit Models

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Photographing Fit Models
Image by Alexandre Vanier

Fit models and bodybuilders have one thing in common, very well defined muscles and body shape. That is obvious, really.
If the model shoots are for fitness magazines or anything connected to fitness and bodybuilding, the main emphasis will be on the muscles themselves. This means that you’ll need to adapt the light and composition towards that while still keeping the portrait look good.

Getting Your Light Set Up

Unlike glamour, and regular portraiture, where you would probably use one key light, one rim light and a fill light (where most of them will be soft and nice in order to be flattering), here you will need to do lighting quite differently.
Depending on which muscle structure you'd like emphasized, you’ll need to adjust the light accordingly. If you want to emphasize the abs, then you’ll need the light to be top down and quite harsh in order to create decent shadows which will accentuate the muscles.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.
If you want all the frontal muscles emphasized, then it is wise to put the light at 45-degree angle from one of the sides, without too much diffusion to create harsh shadows (but not too harsh).
You could combine this with one soft light acting as a fill light from the opposite side under the same angle (or a tad upwards), and, of course, you’ll need a quite powerful rim light.
The whole idea is to create local contrast around the muscles in order to show the depth and relief they have. It's tricky, and since some of them are quite small harsh light is used.
If you were to use a soft light source it wouldn’t provide enough definition to them. Often, you’ll have to incorporate more complex light setups to increase the contrasts and emphasize certain muscles which will be covered in shadow from other muscles and so forth (the top abs are usually covered in shadow from the chest muscles if the light is too far up).
Have a look at this – “Understanding Light” is a fantastic book written by professional photographer Kent DuFault, which focuses on you becoming the master of light that you've dreamed about. It's a tricky topic to learn, but it's a foundation of all photography, so it's definitely worth investing your time and energy into understanding if you want to produce stunning photographs, rather than good ones!

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.
On the other hand, for female fitness models, the light will be more complicated since the female body structure is more curvy by nature and it requires much more attention to the light.
When it comes to female models, you’ll need to use softer light compared to male models. While the light needs to be harsh enough to draw out the muscles and the muscle groups, it also needs to be soft enough to be flattering.

Preparations For The Shoot

Even though most fitness models will do this anyway, before and during the shoot they will need to work-out a little in order to increase the blood pressure in the muscles and to basically “pump them up” simply to gain more volume and definition.
If you want to have veins pumped up and clearly visible as well, tell the model to eat some chocolate, it makes the veins stand out. Of course, they will probably know this, but it never hurts for you to know too.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved. Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.
Most fitness models who do competitions use certain oils and products that make the skin look a little tanned and oily, in order to increase contrast and muscle visibility.
Personally, I wouldn’t recommend this during a photoshoot since on camera it looks fake, and almost always looks bad. You can use water though, sprinkled from a vaporizer in order to look like sweat. This would give the feeling of working out, spending some energy – the freshly worked-out look!

Post Processing Your Images

You wouldn’t be able to use filters to smooth out the skin since they will do harm on many levels when it comes to the muscle structure and definition. This means that in order to have the whole picture look good, you’ll have to do the skin softening all by yourself.
Additionally, you’ll also have to correct for the light around small and large muscle groups with dodging and burning in order to achieve the proper form and structure, and increase the contrast around the relief of the muscles themselves.
Be careful not to overdo it, however, since it can turn out quite bad if you don’t understand the body structure and if you aren’t consistent with the dodging and burning.

Summary

Photographing fitness models properly, requires practice, some skill, and an understanding of the body geometry and what the muscles should look like. Moreover, you should understand that the light should be harsh for the muscles, but soft enough to be flattering for the face, regardless of whether it's a male or female model in question.
For female models, you need to use softer light to achieve a more flattering look generally, since subconsciously, somehow that is expected from the viewer's perspective.
In the post process, you need to be careful to keep the geometry and shape of the muscles realistic while correcting the light, as well as having the skin smooth while retaining the texture and relief at the same time.
“Understanding Light” is a fantastic book written by professional photographer Kent DuFault, which focuses on you becoming the master of light that you've dreamed about. It's a tricky topic to learn, but it's a foundation of all photography, so it's definitely worth investing your time and energy into understanding if you want to produce stunning photographs, rather than good ones!

Further Resources

About the author

Dzvonko Petrovski

Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

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