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How I Shot a One-Light Fitness Shoot

June 15, 2017

By Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

This was the first shot of the day. I love starting off shoots with a winner! It sets my subjects at ease and kicks things off in a good direction. By keeping the lighting simple, it was easy to make changes to the first setup, and at the same time create a mood for the shoot.

© Ian Spanier

Small changes in position can alter the feel of a portrait significantly. By moving the subject to the ground, we simply lowered the key light to match.

© Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

This shoot started with still portraits, then transitioned to some more fitness-based images.

© Ian Spanier

One more benefit of the single strobe light is the flexibility to move from still to action shots seamlessly.

© Ian Spanier

With a simple change of position, the same exact light is now positioned to camera right and changes the mood of the portrait.

© Ian Spanier

For a more poppy look, we made a quick change to a Photoflex XS Octadome. The harder light makes for a different feel to the images.

© Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

I like to be prepared. I always say: Bring what you need, have a plan and keep it simple.

At the same time, I like to push myself so that, in situations where things are not going as planned, I have solutions—particularly on personal shoots. When I was asked to put together a fitness shoot for a stock agency featuring athlete Katie Ryan, I planned to shoot as I would any other assignment: I sketched out a plan and packed my kit.

Before my photo shoots, I sketch out a plan. It allows me to have a good starting point, and if I need to change gears, it’s easy to adjust or eliminate an idea.

My initial plan was to shoot with a three-light setup. I would place my Photoflex 72-inch umbrella over the back of my subject, use a Photoflex Small Octadome as my key light and then use a Photoflex Medium Multidome as fill light. All would be used with Profoto B1 heads (my go-to for most smaller shoots).

I was surprised when I arrived at the gym and found the room to be quite narrow, and pull-up bars protruding from the walls made it difficult to light the subject from behind. We were going to have to scrap my initial three-light plan.

Small changes in position can alter the feel of a portrait. In this instance, when we moved the subject to the ground, we simply lowered the key light to match.

The gym was quite dark, so I decided I would start with a single light and use my large 72-inch Photoflex umbrella with cover.

The Photoflex 72-inch umbrella with shell set. Set photography by John Manzonni

We started by placing the large umbrella and cover on my hefty medium riser with a Matthews Baby Boom so I could extend the light out. This also enabled me to shoot underneath the umbrella in both a standing position and from the ground.

The single light also enabled us to make four set-ups rather quickly. We primarily went with our key light straight on to the subject. From the side, the soft-yet-hard quality of light produced a great result and changed the mood of the portraits very easily.

When we were down to our last 20 minutes, we decided to shift gears and tried using a small light source. Instead of the larger Octadome, I went with Photoflex’s XS Octadome and aimed for a looser style, which essentially has more of a reportage feel. Our makeup artists sprayed the model for the last shot to complete the package.

So, the next time you are taking on a personal shoot, or just testing, challenge yourself to make a single-light setup work for you. There are a bunch of looks you can create (check out the photo gallery above), and I always tell people, much of what I learned about lighting comes from the original one-light set up: The sun.


Ian Spanier began taking photographs at six years old when his parents gave him his first point and shoot camera. After majoring in photography in college, Spanier worked in publishing as an editor, but making pictures never left him. Having only known 35mm, he taught himself medium and large format as well as lighting.

Clients include: MTV, Comedy Central, A&E, HBO, Runner’s World, Fast Company, Shape, UFC, Conde Nast Traveler, Danskin, Field & Stream, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Fitness, Marie Claire, Time Out NY, Psychology Today, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, AirTran’s Go Magazine, The New York City Economic Development Corporation, Bank of America, Gerber Knife Company, This Old House, WP Carey, Time Inc. and Simon and Schuster, FLEX Magazine, M&F HERS,  Price Waterhouse, LowePro, FujiFilm, and 2Xist.

Ian’s first full book of published work, “Playboy, a Guide to Cigars” arrived in cigar shops November 2009 and the public version hit retail stores Spring 2010. The book is a collection of his photographs made in six countries spanning two and a half years. His newest book project, “Local Heroes: America’s Volunteer Fire Fighters,” came out to critical acclaim in the Fall of 2012.

Ian is a member of the Lowepro, “Loweprofessionals” Team and The Photoflex “Light Leaders,” a brand ambassador for Hoodman USA and Imagenomic.

The original masters of photography have always inspired Spanier as they shot what they saw. For him, there is no “one” subject that he photographs; he also chooses to shoot what he sees.

Although he works anywhere and everywhere, Spanier recently left NY for the sunny coast, and now lives with his wife and two sons in Los Angeles, CA. Questions or comments, e-mail him at: ian@ianspanier.com. To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising, editorial and personal projects, visit his site at www.ianspanier.com. He is represented by Big Leo.


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