As I've gained experience and a larger Instagram following, I've started hearing the same opening line in a lot of messages: "I know I don't look like the guys you usually shoot, but I would really like to shoot with you."
Usually this is coming from a very handsome fellow who looks better than I have ever hoped to, and it always makes me laugh, or at least smily wryly. Here's the truth: no one I shoot looks like that most of the time. That's the whole point of shooting with me instead of taking selfies. It's why I've invested a lot of time, money and brainpower into my craft.
There are so many things I want to say to them in reply, but Instagram messenger does not lend itself to long and involved explication. So, I'm going to blog about the issue here in stages. In this first post, I'm going to illustrate how a few tricks can transform how a person looks: lighting, pose, camera angle, and getting a pump.
Let's take my recent shoot with Devin as an example. Let's start with what he looks like with his shirt on.
After shooting for about a half hour, we took a break for me to move the lights to the black background, and he used the opportunity to start lifting the 35 lb. dumbbells I had in the studio. When I turned around a couple minutes later, my thoughts went something along the lines of, "Holy ... What the ... who are you and what happened to Devin?"
I'm no stranger to the power of the pump. I mean, the dumbbells were there for a reason. Working out increases blood flow, which in turn makes muscles look significantly larger. Every body is different. For some people, it can take an hour at the gym before they really notice a difference. Some guys take pre-workout supplements before a shoot to help out the process. For Devin, it literally only took a couple minutes of bicep curls, and he went from a linear, model/swimmer/basketball player look (albeit shorter) to hulking out with veins popping on his biceps, shoulders and chest. I've never seen anyone transformed so much in so short a time. Here's a comparison. Both images have gone through the same editing process:
In the first photo, you can see Devin pumped up. He had just put down the weights a minute before. I also told him to push his hands against each other to activate his arm, shoulder and chest muscles. On the right is a photo from the end of the shoot, about 90 minutes later. We had been shooting him in his bulky sweatshirt before this, and he had lost much of his pump. Both look good, but it's almost as if I were shooting identical twins with different fitness goals instead of the same model on the same day.
Of course, it's not just the pump. If that's all it took, no one would need me. The lighting is completely different too. On the left, the key light is bounced off the white floor for underlighting with strobes behind Devin on either side. Underlighting is particularly effective for people whose abs stick out from their bodies (which is largely determined genetically; it's not always something that can be achieved by more ab workouts or lower body fat). Under lighting tends to produce a soft glow overall with hard highlights.
In the second, there was only one light, positioned high (about 9 feet up) and several feet from Devin's shoulder. You can see it also bounced off of the white wall, giving a few highlights on the otherwise dark side. You'll also notice the camera angle is different. I'm very tall, and you could say I am genetically predisposed to look down on people. You see that in the angle on the second. But on the first, part of why Devin looks bigger is because I was kneeling on the floor to get a lower angle (don't try this if your model has more than one chin). He looks good in both, but it's hard to believe it's really the same person.
In both of the photos above, you can see I positioned the lights at an angle that creates shadows and highlights on the abs. Now let's compare a similar pose with different lighting. For the sake of accuracy, I haven't retouched these. I used the same developing settings in Camera RAW. I didn't smooth the scars and acne. I didn't mask out the background with a more fun color. I left the contrast and sharpness alone. It's a bit painful for me to share out-of-the-camera photos, but here we go:
I looked up the timestamp; these pictures were taken less than one minute apart. You can see how flat the light looks on the left and how much more shadow is on the right. The only thing that changed was positioning the key light beside Devin instead of in front of him. That's it.
When I tell models I'm going to try to create bathroom lighting, they usually understand what I'm talking about right away. Most people who have taken a selfie know the power of light coming down from a high angle, and for many of us, the easiest way to do that is to take the selfie in the bathroom. It makes shadows under your chin, and for fitness folks like Devin, it also makes shadows under your muscles. Basically all I do in the studio is try to arrange lights to give you that bathroom lighting effect.
So really, there's no trick to it. I can't make abs where there were none before, I can just make them look a little more defined. Any photographer can produce similar results given the right equipment and time to practice. The only magical element is the feeling I get when I help someone see themselves differently. A personality test once told me I'm a "maximizer;" I like taking good things and making them better. I can definitely see that part of myself shining through in every shoot. I'm constantly looking for different angles, flash arrangements and camera settings to portray people literally in their best light.
Tomorrow is election day in the United States, and for the last several months, it has been impossible to log on to Facebook without seeing paranoid ravings about "the media." Usually, the person assumes that everyone who disagrees with them has been brainwashed, while they themselves are immune to influence from the wider culture.
Such world views have a hint of truth to them. Media messages are powerful, and their power to influence culture relies on people accepting their narratives and symbols as true.
One example of this is the false binary I grew up accepting of brains vs. brawn or jocks vs. nerds. It's a myth perpetuated by every teen movie of the '80s and '90s. As a "smart" kid, I never felt like I needed to be physically active, despite growing up in a religious tradition that emphasizes the connection between the mind and body.
I have few regrets, but accepting the exclusivity of physical vs. intellectual roles is one of them. Getting to know so many fit guys has shown just how wrong I was. Most are smart. Some are brilliant, like Andrew (pictured above). He's a doctor, can build his own computer, plays several instruments, and can hold his own in conversations on most topics. Plus, as Zoolander would say, he's "really, really ridiculously good looking." Howard, who you can see below, has the sort of physique a comic book artist wouldn't believe. But he also has an MBA from an elite university and could teach you a thing or two about accounting and tax codes.
The media messages with which we need to concern ourselves are not those we fear others will believe, but those we have accepted ourselves and may be holding us back from living a more abundant life.
Guys are often reluctant to do classic bodybuilding poses like this for fear of looking "douchy." I figure if you put in that much work into something, you might as well show it off to your best advantage.
If I baked a pie that turned out perfectly, you'd better believe I would let the world know ... with perfect lighting, angles and an attractive plate. And that achievement would have only taken a couple hours. Guys like Charlie and Chase spend at least a couple hours a day working to build the version of themselves they've decided to become.
There's a reason the classic poses exist, and it's because they really do make people (with muscles) look amazing.
I don't understand why anyone would begrudge someone else the chance to take pride in their accomplishments. Maybe it's jealousy? Some sort of emotional armoring? A belief that the world is a zero-sum system? Whatever it is that makes people want to put down the achievements of others, I think one of the best lessons we all can learn is that whatever we do really well ... whether it's baking, bodybuilding, photography or unicycle riding, don't ever let fear of judgement stop you from taking pride in being great and becoming greater.
"A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.” -Gloria Steinem
There was a time I would have seen someone who looks like Josh and assumed we had nothing to talk about. Which would have been my loss ... our conversation during and after the shoot ranged from photography to economics and living abroad, a few of my favorite things.
Yet, there were too many times in high school and college and probably this morning, when I made unfair judgements, assuming people were dumb because they were athletes or stuck up because they dressed well.
Getting to know models, I've found that such prejudice is just the beginning. I've heard horror stories of sexual harassment, manipulation, body shaming and even attempted rape--the actions of people treating them as commodities.
This is not a post about the plight of pretty people. There are definitely privileges that come with looks, just as there are increased risks. Rather, my point is snap judgements based on a set of enculturated assumptions are a waste of time. I have friends now who I could have gotten to know years before if I hadn't been trapped by my prejudices and fear of rejection. The lost opportunities were mine.
I realize my photography feeds a culture of objectification, one of many manifestations of bias. And yet, for me it's been quite the opposite. Photography has given me the opportunity to know so many interesting and complex individuals--not just as collections of abs, biceps, jawlines and sundry other parts. I have shot with geeks and nerds, caregivers and poets, scientists and men of faith ... who happen to be ridiculously good looking.
I wish I could convey all that through a photo alone ... personhood and personality rather than object or art. But I'm not sure the medium lends itself to that--or perhaps I'm just not good enough. So I'm stuck with a rambling blog post.
Walking on water is easy. All you need is someone to show you the rocks.
When I got my first real camera seven years ago, I had a reputation in my family for taking really bad photos. I would probably still be in that boat if it hadn't been for the helpful tips and constructive criticism of other photographers showing me the stepping stones. The best advice I could give someone starting anything new is to look for those in the field who metaphorically walk on water, and ask them for pointers. Most people who are truly good at something love sharing their expertise and obsession. Just ask where the rocks are.
Spencer and Anup in the gym.
We've all had those moments when we suddenly realize we might actually be good at something we've never tried before. This photo I took almost two years ago represents one of those minor epiphanies for me.
The Health and Human Performance Program at the college where I work decorates their office with poster-sized photos of their students which they update each year. My coworker would normally have taken care of this kind of photo shoot, but he was out of town. The responsibility fell to me to make these action portraits happen.
I'd done a lot of sports and event photography before, and a few head shots, but nothing quite like this. I brought an SB-700 flash, an umbrella and a stand, and convinced a student worker to come along as a second shooter in case it all went wrong.
There are a lot of things I should have done differently, but the results of this shoot far exceeded my expectations. A lot of the credit goes to Spencer and Anup, the two student models. They were really easy to work with, and can make even a technically bad photo look good.
I had thought about trying my hand at fitness photography before, but it was while editing the photos from this shoot that I realized I might actually be good at it.
Spencer is graduating this Sunday, and we will miss him at Union College. Fortunately for Lincoln though, he isn't going far ... he'll be a full-time personal trainer at the Cooper YMCA. So, if you're in Lincoln and looking for a trainer who gets really excited about helping people reach their goals, look him up.