Zenfolio | Scott Cushman Photography | "I don't look like the guys you usually shoot, but ..." (Pt. 1)

"I don't look like the guys you usually shoot, but ..." (Pt. 1)

December 20, 2016  •  15 Comments

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: 

Side-by-side photos of a muscular young man with different lighting.

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. 


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Thanks for your post. I’ve been thinking about writing a very comparable post over the last couple of weeks, I’ll probably keep it short and sweet and link to this instead if thats cool. Thanks.
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Thumbs up guys your doing a really good job.
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