Ian Spanier: Fitness Cover Shoot Lighting – On Location!

January 13, 2017

By Ian Spanier

Ian Spanier

I’ve never loved shooting in a studio. Perhaps it’s just too controlled, too easy, or dare I say boring? What I do like about shooting in studio is that it offers an almost completely controlled environment, which makes shooting portraits, magazine covers and advertising campaigns much simpler. Eliminating the uncontrolled world makes for a much easier day.

One of the most common requests I get it is to create a studio on location. The beauty of shooting in studio is the control, however, shooting on location means you lose some of this control. As such, I’ve developed a plethora of tricks to tackle these challenges. Let me break them down:

For an assignment from Muscular Development and FitnessRx for Women magazines, I was asked to shoot a series of professional bodybuilders at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding show in Columbus, Ohio. For most of our subjects, we were tasked with photographing their workouts at a local gym. However, for those that were standout athletes, we had to shoot “cover-try” shoots, which are essentially cover shots that may or may not get used by the magazine.


With the gym’s plastic windows barely holding back the 15-degree cold, plus a model showing more skin than not, we needed some heat, and fast. Thankfully my makeup artist had a nice hairdryer which doubled as our space heater. © Stephen Newport 2017.

Managing The Uncontrollable Variables

The assignment took place during winter, and with the temperature outside barely cracking the 15-degree mark, the gym was cold. This, of course, can be problematic when shooting scantily clad models. Goosebumps are not a retoucher’s friend. We tried to get a portable heater but had no luck. As seen in the image to the left, we managed to use a hairdryer to provide steady heat instead.

Location. Location. Location.

The gym wasn’t what I’d call a photographer’s dream. There were very distinct red walls and large plastic windows along opposite ends of the gym. Our options were to expose for the available light and adjust the shoot so as to hide the bare trees and cars in the parking lot, or to overpower the available light, which would surely show the less desirable exterior views. Instead, we chose to use a backdrop.

Floors at most gyms are typically linoleum flooring, hard rubber padding or cement. Unfortunately, this particular gym had carpet that, when working with seamless paper, creates an issue. Even with sneakers on, my subjects would wrinkle or sink into the paper—not ideal. If time and budget had allowed, I would have placed plywood or hard plastic underneath, however with a tight budget, this was not going to happen. We searched around for anything we could scavenge and ultimately found some spare pieces of plastic flooring material. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to give our subjects a place to stand.


You can see here how our location was tricky. Big natural light windows are great when you can use them as your light source, but with matching windows on both sides of the gym, there was literally no good direction to face. The backdrop in this case was very helpful. © Stephen Newport 2017.


Finding power on location is almost always an issue. We were shooting up to three subjects per day in various parts of the gym, so dealing with extension cords would have just been a pain. Instead, I’ve made it a practice on most of my location shoots to be completely portable. It’s easier, faster and less intrusive particularly when working in tight spaces. The downside is that portable gear requires a lot of extra batteries, so I always make sure to pack plenty.


The reason studios work so well for many of us is that they come in many sizes to fit anything from a small portrait shoot to cars, trucks and more. That said, fitting a 9-foot seamless backdrop in a gym can prove very tricky. Even trickier is trying to squeeze in a 12-foot seamless backdrop for two-subject shots. I always ask the client first if there is an open racquetball court or basketball court, side classroom or anything that is one step closer to a controlled studio space, but with nothing better to work with, we’d have to make due with a small amount of open floor space on the gym floor. As you can see from the behind-the-scenes image, we were packed in with just enough space.

Shot list.

I always ask my clients for a shot list. Often they don’t have one, so I make sure to have lots of suggestions ready. For this shoot, I suggested to my client we shoot the workout on the same background as the cover. We were struggling with space in the gym, and with so many shoots in one day this would save us a lot of time.


Convincing the client to let me shoot the workout on a white background made for an easier time with our packed schedule, and, given the nature of the workout, hiding the gym environment made for a great look. © Ian Spanier Photography 2017.


Rentals and Lighting.

Depending on where the shoot is, I try to rent and pick up my lights locally. This isn’t always possible outside of bigger cities, but it’s worth investigating. Regardless, in almost all cases, I bring my modifiers with me (at least the main ones, including speed rings).

If I can’t get the lights locally, I try to travel as light as possible (which is becoming easier to do with some of the great advancements in portable lighting options today).

Oftentimes, less is more. As you can see from the behind-the-scenes photos, I am using just three lights. A Photoflex Small Octadome acts as my key light, a 72-inch Photoflex Silver Umbrella is boomed over the back of the seamless backdrop and a Photoflex Medium Softbox was used under the camera as a two-stop under fill light.

Whenever possible, I add two Photoflex 77×77-inch LitePanels with black fabric to use as edges to my set. I’ve found this to make for better separation on this kind of shoot and they replace the 4×4-foot black floppies or 4×8-foot foamcore that I typically would use in a studio. For this shoot, we couldn’t get 4×8-foot foamcore at the local shop, so we left them out.

Take a second look at the cover shot that starts this article. I would think that most people would never know this was shot in a tightly packed, freezing cold gym outside of Columbus, Ohio.

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: To see more of Ian Spanier’s latest advertising, editorial and personal projects, visit his site at He is represented by Big Leo.