April 1, 2016

Shooting Bodybuilders for the Body Photographer

In regards to my approach to shooting bodybulders, I remember seeing a documentary about the sculpture of Ancient Greece. It showed these clean white statues of muscular athletes posing, flexing, throwing a discus or a spear. The statues were on a turn table and slowly revolved, causing light and shadow to move across them revealing details of their surfaces, like the sun moving gradually against a landscape so that light and show played across hills, valleys and canyons. Of course, looking at this sculpture in this way gives us a false impression of how they looked to the Greeks. In those days, they were not pristine white but painted in bright, gaudy colors. The "classic" look we know today came about over time as the paint wore off and the culture that created the statues was no longer around to tell us things had once been different. However, in truth the Ancient Greeks did create this classic look. They just didn't know it at the time.

Sometimes art is created when people are actually intent on doing something else. The modern bodybuilding physique is also a kind of sculpture. Male and female bodybuilders, with the necessary genetic gifts, exercise their muscles using a very specific system of progressive resistance training and then diet away a high percentage of body fat to reveal the muscular detail underneath. They also work at learning to pose and flex the muscles in a way that creates a highly dramatic effect and draws attention to what aspects of their physiques they feel represent the highest level of achievement. The job of a photographer creating images of bodybuilders also involves capturing the best aspects of the body being photographed. Sometimes bodybuilders are photographed on stage during a competition.

The photographer in this circumstance needs to try and shoot the image at the point where the bodybuilder is fully flexed and posed - just as in any sports photo where you need to stop the action just as the most important and revealing instant. Nowadays, with digital cameras that can function using a very high ISO, most competent stage photos should look pretty much alike, differing mostly in terms of where the photographer was siting. Doing photos outdoors there is the ever-important question of direction and quality of light. The bodybuilder needs to be posed with the light coming from a revealing angle, which can be very different depending on season, latitude, time of day, amount of overcast and whether there is a reflective surface near by like a wall, sand, pavement, body of water and so forth. This is where the photographer's eye becomes the most important element. You choose a place to shoot and an orientation to the light that looks best to you.

One aspect of control you have in this case rather than on stage is you can work with the bodybuilder on creating the most effective pose for this particular shot. You can ask the bodybuilder to turn or twist one way or the other, to look up into the light or down, to move an arm that is casting a shadow - whatever it takes to compose the most effect shot. Shooting in the studio gives you even more control. Here you can work with the bodybuilder to create the most photogenic and revealing poses possible (some bodybuilders are very creative when it comes to posing; other have their set poses and you have to work basically with those). Plus you have total control over the light. Some bodybuilding photographers use more elaborate lighting set ups than others. For example, multiple strobes from the front (upper and lower body), side lights, rim lights, fill lights, a hair light, light on the background and so forth. Others take a much simpler approach using fewer lights with perhaps some reflectors. The point is whether or not your lighting allows you to focus attention and highlight muscle mass and shape, detail, definition, striations and any other aspect of the physique you are most interested in.

I get asked often about bodybuilding photography and the best problem for others wanting to get into this field is the availability of suitable models. There are bodybuilders and there are bodybuilders. The girl next door is probably not going to photography like a supermodel. I have been able to shoot the best amateurs and pros in the world, even Mr. Olympia champions like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Many lower level bodybuilders, although they may be impressive in terms of everyday bodies, simply don't have the genetics, the degree of development or of ripped definition, to allow for really great bodybuilding photos. Furthermore, many art directors at bodybuilding magazines will tell you even the best bodybuilders can show up for a shoot not in their best shape and the resulting shots are disappointing.

So by all means learn what you can about posing and lighting for the best bodybuilding photos but be aware that you may have to use a different approach when your model is not the best or at his or her best.

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