This is the best of a series of shots taken of an athlete model. The image does no justice to the model because it lacks the peaks and valleys the model worked hard to get. there was a clear 6pack on the model that's invisible for the most part in the image what configuration works best for this type of shooting?

in detail i would like to know: 1. what light setup? i used a (not so) dim light off to the side 2. what aperture? i was wide open at 1.4 and 1.8 on my 50mm

I wanted a nice low light shot to get a nice soft image of the muscles and outlines made by the light and dark highlights off the muscle...

enter image description here

  • \$\begingroup\$ If you really want to show off ripped abs, veins, muscles - then have them do a bit of working out with heavy weights, become dehydrated, and spray them all over with cooking spray. \$\endgroup\$
    – dpollitt
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 14:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ The muscles were clear as day to my eye, just not so much to my camera. \$\endgroup\$
    – kacalapy
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 19:33

2 Answers 2


There are two problems with the picture (or three, depending on what you are trying to accomplish with the image as a whole).

First, the light is too soft for the kind of definition you are describing. Soft light is generally flattering, but it's flattering precisely because it minimises the difference between highlight and shadow. In this case, you want to emphasize (without going overboard) the contours, and harder light will help a lot. That doesn't need to mean going to a bare bulb or an unmodified flash—using a strip bank (perhaps with an egg crate) rather than a softbox or umbrella would do, as would moving a soft light source (softbox or brolly) further away from the subject (although the falloff characteristics will be different). No strip bank? Block off (flag) part of the softbox/umbrella output to narrow the source.

(A strip, by the way, will emphasize contours in only one direction without an egg crate; you get a combination of softness and directionality, but each is in a different axis. That characteristic is what can get you the "fitness beauty" shot, where the definition is good, but so is the skin.)

I should add—and therefore am adding—that if you are already using a bare bulb or other small source, and the softness is coming from room reflections, then flagging off most of the light that isn't headed directly for your subject will help an awful lot. I rarely shoot in my own little hovel because it really is too small to light properly (at under 90 square feet) unless I can jam the light right up to the subject and just barely out of frame.

The same goes for the fill—you want it to just be there, without having much of an effect on the contours. A harder fill close to the lens axis will fill in the shadows without softening the contours appreciably if you keep the levels low. If the fill is both high-level and very soft, it can undo most of the work you've put into the key light.

An approach I've seen work well at times is to use a hard light coaxially with a soft key light. The "straight from the box" version is a beauty dish with its central part (normally a reflector pointing back into the dish) replaced with a grid spot. I've also seen an ordinary reflector head used just in front of and at the center of a large softbox. But now we're starting to talk about "big production" and the haemorrhaging of increasingly large amounts of money—great if you're a pro who can earn it back with a click of the shutter button; not so great for the hobbyist.

Second, you may need to allow for a bit of extra contrast. High key and muscular definition don't always go well together. Letting some of the shadow tones fall lower can help a lot, but only if the shadows are there to begin with. In the case of this photo, monkeying with the levels and curves may increase the overall image contrast, but not in a way that adds significantly to muscular definition—it just looks like a badly processed picture with funny skin tones.

The third thing you can do will radically change the picture, so it's probably not what you're looking for. You can make the body very specular using something like baby oil (for an extreme version) or a fresh coat of some slightly less shiny moisturizer. Cranking that effect up to eleven would involve artificial perspiration (a water/glycerin mix—warm, please—spritzed on your subject). That effect looks great in a very high-contrast, low-key image, but it is a whole lot more athletic than erotic most of the time. It may be the sort of thing that's worth giving a shot at the end of a shoot, though, once you have your main intent captured, since it can have a certain intensity that's missing in the gentler approach, and that intensity may be just the ticket.

  • \$\begingroup\$ good points about the lighting. whats an egg crate? also what aperture is best? can i get away with very wide like 1.4 or 1.8? \$\endgroup\$
    – kacalapy
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 20:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kacalapy - an "egg crate" is a sort of grid spot attachment for a softbox, usually made of fabric (but sometime rigid). It restricts the spread of the light, and makes it more directional, but since the source is big, it still has some softness to it. The aperture is up to you—f/1.4 is too wide when you're that close unless you want only a part of the body in focus, but again it depends on the picture you're trying to take. Experiment to see what works for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – user2719
    Commented Aug 1, 2012 at 7:08

I would consider 5 things off the top of my head:-

1) Ask the model to tense those muscles first, to try to raise them as much as possible.

2) Think about your lighting. Too much, or too much reflected light will minimize or fill in the natural shadows in the muscles being shown, and reduce or eliminate their impact. Try to have the front lighting from a lower angle, and light the area behind the model without actually casting any light on her from behind (if that makes sense). This will make her stand out more.

3) Camera position - you have a high angle here, perhaps bringing the camera down a little would also help capture the shadows?

4) Bronzing lotion - I don't mean fake tan, but you can get moisturisers and sun tan lotions etc that have a very subtle bronzed look to them. Using this may also help enhance the definition of the muscles.

5) Post production - consider the clarity slider (or equivalent) and try to give it an S curve in the levels to increase contrast. Play with the colour temperature and darken shadows to try to get the look you want.

Hope that helps. I am not an expert in such things, just offering my ideas ... :-)


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