I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lululemon for almost 7 years now and I can say that it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my professional career. The photoshoots are always a fun experience and every single one of them presents a new challenge that I get to solve and turn into something creative and inspiring. That’s the beauty of working with these ambassadors as that they are purely an inspirational extension of the Lululemon brand, so their personalities exude nothing but pure sweat, joy, and motivation. It’s my job to make sure that I capture THAT personality so it is ever-present on the walls of the Lululemon stores they represent.
Of all of the different personalities and fitness gurus I’ve photographed, I don’t think any have been more difficult than photographing Cycling Instructors and so that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about in today’s blog!
Let’s just start with the environment you’re going to walk into. If you’ve never been in a cycling studio, they are equipped for you to focus on nothing but the music, the bicycle underneath you, and the person that is motivating you to keep going and pushing those pedals as hard as you can for as long as you can. So, it’s dark, there are lots of mirrors that are typically positioned behind the instructor, and they are packed to the walls with stationary bikes. In camera, that translates to dark, reflective, and cluttered.
Now, I don’t know about y’all, but when I think of “great photograph” I don’t think “dark, reflections, and clutter”. So the first thing you have to do is figure out how you’re going to use this room to your advantage. How do you set yourself up for success? The most obvious first step to me is to remove the clutter. So, I typically clean up the stage space as much as possible (there is typically some kind of equipment up there for the instructor to be able to control the lighting, music, and any other digital extras that particular studio might have. I also like to start thinking of my framing where I’m going to see as little as possible outside of the instructor and any extras I might have on bikes to make it look like a full studio.
The next obstacle to overcome are the mirrors. Since they are directly behind the instructor 99% of the time, I try to choose a composition that is about 45 degrees off of center so that I’m not getting any reflection in the background of the shot. My second composition that I like to try and find is one where I can see the instructor and their reflection in the same shot that creates a cool graphic with the reflection. Finally, I try to find a way to photograph them head-on in a way where they are blocking any reflection of me, the lights, or anything else in the room that might be distracting.
The final obstacle to overcome is the lighting. Some studios have really cool RGB lights that can change to any color you want and create a nice ambient light in the room, and others are going to be some of the darkest caves you could ever imagine walking into. I like to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. So, my initial lighting setup is to bring in two lights: the main light with either a 3’ Octabox on it or a Beauty Dish (with or without a grid) and a second light that I may or may not use as a kicker light or a fill light. If I want it as a kicker light to create some separation, I will boom it over the top of the instructor as high as possible to keep it out of the frame. If the light is going to be a fill light to bring the overall ambient light of the room up a bit, I’ll put a large umbrella or octabox on the light and set it back away and up high to light more of the room as evenly as possible. Each setup can have its positives and negatives, but those are the two setups I like to use for these shoots and you can see the entire lighting diagram on my new Photography Education Site for this behind the scenes video!
The beauty of this is that the main light being directly across from the instructor creates a nice beauty light and spotlight to create some awesome depth throughout the image, and also act as it’s own separation light! Because you’re setting it across from a highly reflective surface, the light bounces back and creates another light source automatically. Not only that, but because it’s coming at the mirror from a 90 degree angle, you have a fairly wide range of compositions where you won’t see a light source reflected in the mirrors! Now you can position your second light as either a top-down kicker or a fill light no problem! I personally prefer the top-down kicker because it looks like the lighting in the studio is the natural source of the light. A fill light can look like somebody just opened a door to the outside world and let some light in. It fills in the shadow some, but to anybody who has spent time in one of these studios, the top-down light looks the most realistic to what you’re seeing when you’re in a class.
The final piece of this puzzle – and this can be the most difficult piece to solve – is getting something genuine. Most of these instructors have big personalities that are made even bigger by interacting with their classes. Good instructors feed off of their class, so an empty room can be a real downer if you don’t manage it correctly. I like to try and get a few people in the class and place them strategically around the room so I can tell the instructor I’m photographing who I want them to point to or interact with. That gives them somebody to motivate, it helps their comfort level, and I am now getting their faces up and in a position that sets me up for a great photograph with great light. Win, win, win!
So, like any photo shoot, working in a Cycling Studio has its challenges, but if you break down the issues and take them on one-by-one you can overcome them easily and find setups and compositions that create some amazing photos!
If you want to learn more about creating these photographs and how I approached the lighting, be sure to check out the BTS Extras on the Learning Site. You can get access to the lighting diagrams, pro tips, gear lists, and finished images as well as the same type of content for ALL of my BTS videos. This is an awesome resource I’ve tried to put together to help photographers around the world up their game and learn from my own triumphs and defeats. I hope y’all have enjoyed this look at photographing Cycling Instructors and be sure to check out next week’s blog about my photo shoot with actress Isabel Arraiza!