How to shoot a fitness magazine cover shot: prep, poses & lighting for a great fitness shoot

Have you ever thought about shooting a fitness magazine cover? You know, the ones with the white background, clean, crisp commercial lighting, three quarter length pose, really fit and sexy subject who looks really happy….sound familiar? You see these all the time when you’re in the checkout line at the supermarket.

Those shots are actually pretty easy to do with the right gear and planning. So let’s talk first about why you might want to try it the next time you are working with a model on his or her portfolio. Then we’ll go into the prep, the poses and the lighting that go into shooting a classic fitness magazine cover.

 
Let me be clear: when I say model, I am referring to someone who is either signed with or planning to sign with an agency in order to get paid professional work. I am not talking about someone with tattoos on 60% of their body who has a profile on an amateur modeling website and is modeling for fun.

If you are a photographer that works with models, this type of fitness shot can serve several purposes in a model’s portfolio.

  1. It looks like a tearsheet. I am not suggesting you add a title and words and make a pretend magazine cover. Please, don’t be that photographer. I am simply pointing out the psychology. Since the photo looks like one of those shots you see on the magazines, it has a subliminal effect of making the model look experienced. But remember, we are not saying that he or she was actually on a cover.
  2. This shot is a great body shot for the model’s book. Contrary to what Tyra Banks and Janice Dickinson claimed in their reality TV shows, a model doesn’t have to pose nude. In fact, a model doesn’t have to pose in lingerie or even a swimsuit if that makes them uncomfortable.  From a business perspective, it is an economy of scale: the more things the model is comfortable with, then the more opportunities that may exist. All that said, if you are working with a model that is uncomfortable being photographed in swimwear or lingerie, the fitness shot is a great way to be able to show off body proportions without showing too much skin.
  3. It’s a great way to show that the model really is in great shape. Action/fitness poses are often not the most flattering. Even though this type of shot is very commercial and even kind of cheesy,  it provides a modeling agency and potential client with a LOT of valuable information about the model.

A few warnings about doing this kind of shot for a modeling portfolio:

A lot of models or potential models will come to you thinking that because they are skinny and go to the gym regularly or because they just lost 40lbs and are working out every day that they are prime candidates to be fitness models. You know, because they are fit. Fitness models are REALLY fit and very beautiful/handsome.

Understand that most fitness models only model for one type of sport or activity. In other words, a person who looks convincing as a weightlifter doesn’t look like the models you see doing yoga in the magazines. A person who is a cyclist is probably not built like a volleyball player… and the list goes on.

Also, understand that those magazine covers that you see in the supermarket generally don’t have models on the cover. Models don’t sell magazines. Famous faces sell magazines. The covers are usually reserved for celebrities.

PSA

It IS your responsibility as a photographer to be honest with your subjects.  Don’t take their money and let them think they are going to be a fitness model if they are actually not in great shape or are still 10lbs overweight.

Prep

Now that you have decided to do a fitness magazine cover shot, you need to discuss outfits with your subject. They need to be solid colors – no prints, patterns or florals. They need to fit well and be flattering. Be sure to show off the stomach. If your model feels the need to cover his or her stomach because it still needs a little work, then you shouldn’t be doing that shot.

Props are important, but go easy. This shot is about showing the model’s build and personality. Too many props and too much detail will take away from that message. So Kiss it! Keep it simple stupid.

Of course, you are going to use a makeup artist because you want your model to look his or her best.  For the women, if they have a lot of hair, make it full bodied. Even consider using a light fan. Don’t make it look like she is in a windstorm, use just enough to get a little motion on her hair. Remember: messy hair equals messy picture.

If your subject has great muscle definition, have them too a few curls or squats or sit ups before they walk onto the set. Don’t let them overdoverdo it; you don’t want them to be sweaty or ruin the hair and makeup.

If you want a little sheen to their skin, use a water-based lotion right before they walk onto the set.  Water based lotions like Suave are soaked into the skin quickly, so it won’t cause you lighting problems and doesn’t stain the clothing.

Setup for fitness magazine cover look

These shots in the video at the top of the page were done with a clamshell lighting setup with two 320ws Paul C Buff Alienbee B800s mounted in medium sized Photoflex softboxes. One is placed on the floor in front of the model and the other is on a boom arm in front of and slightly above the model’s head. Generally, the top strobe should be a bit brighter; you do still want a very soft hint of a shadow on the bottom of things like the nose and jawline so that things look natural.

I also have two Alienbee B800s set on either side of the white background and they are powered to be approximately two stops brighter than the light that is reaching my subject, who is posed 7 feet in front of the background.

Last, I added two more Alienbee B800’s, one on each side and behind my subject to create the rim lighting that gives the shots a little pop. Turning the model sideways  will also add to the muscle definition in the stomach. The rims are only about a half a stop to a stop brighter than the front lighting.

This setup also works really well on a black background by simply turning off the two background strobes and using a four light setup.

Shooting Tips

Take your time and do lots of test shots while setting up your lighting. I said previously that this is a simple lighting set-up. It is simple in that it creates a lighting style that is all about the subject, not your lighting. It is difficult, though, in that if you are not careful, your background lights can be too bright. Your rims can be too bright or misplaced so that they are making your subject’s nose glow, or your bottom box on the clamshell setup can be too bright and causing shadows on top of things instead of below.

So if you have a flash meter, use it.  If not, chimp often while testing this set-up, even while you are shooting. This ensures that things are balanced the way you want them. The mistakes that I just mentioned are difficult to fix in post.

Also remember these subjects are attractive and physically fit. Don’t shoot down on them and diminish their strength. For the three quarters length shots shoot from just below the eyes – I generally line my lens up right around the collar bone. For full-length shots shoot at the midpoint of the body or slightly lower. Ideally you want your camera’s sensor to be parallel to your subject’s body so that you are showing them with realistic proportions.

Poses for fitness magazine cover

Remember, the fitness magazine cover shot is about two things: personality and looks. Without props, hands on the hips, above the head or even on the neck are easy and work great. Keep the legs shoulder-width apart, and the model can shift her hips a little to the side, but not to much.

With props, it’s not about realism, it’s about looking good. Keep the props simple and small and don’t let them hide the body.

For shots with the model turned to her side, bend the leg closest to the camera to keep the butt curved.

If you are going to have your model sit, turn her slightly – no need to make it a crotch shot.

Other Options

You can, of course, do this fitness magazine cover look with speedlights, and if you are really in a pinch you could leave out the rim lights and just work with one strobe for the background light. It will take a little more work to set it up just right, but it is doable if you have enough space.

You can also work with different colored backdrops or add a strobe with gels on the black background for a colored glow if you want the shot to be a bit more creative.

As always – the possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.

To learn about another cool white background lighting technique, be sure to watch this video: Studio Lighting Tutorial for AWESOME Glamour Lighting – Glamour Photography Tutorial.

I hope that sparks some ideas for you, so take this idea and run with it! Go create and show me what you come up with.

And don’t forget, your BEST shot is your next shot!  So keep learning, keep thinking ,and keep shooting. Adios!

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