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Lighting Recipe: Brian Bloom’s Gritty Boxing Gym

By David Walker


Female boxer Keisher
© Brian J. Bloom

Brian Bloom’s photograph of boxer Keisher “Fire” Wells evokes the dreams of glory lurking about in urban boxing gyms. Wells shadowboxes with determination under what appears to be a bare light bulb, as her trainer looks on with a gravelly eye. Bloom’s camera is positioned to give the sense of a ringside view of the action.

Bloom, who shoots portraits as well as still lifes and landscapes for clients including Lenovo, Alcatel-Lucent, American Way and Runner’s World, shot the image in 2011 at Gleason’s Gym, near his home in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He’d been visiting the gym in search of boxers willing to model for him. “I was looking to add some more women to my portfolio,” he says. He was also trying to add images that demonstrated his ability to light.

“It’s hard to get work that shows production value unless you have work that shows production value,” he explains.

Wells caught Bloom’s attention the first time he saw her working out. As it turns out, Wells had been a professional model. She agreed to model for Bloom, so he rented the gym for an afternoon. Working with two assistants and a digital tech he paid out of pocket, he set up and shot nearly 800 images.

Bloom learned to light as an assistant to Norman Jean Roy and Stephen Wilkes, among other photographers. He says he doesn’t have a particular lighting style. “For me, it’s more about solving the particular problem. I always use the existing situation and try to recreate that to make the picture believable.

“Boxing gyms are not well-lit. They all seem worn out, and I wanted to portray that [in the] image,” he says.

In this case, the challenge was to recreate the dim lighting with a moving athlete. “You’re fighting shutter speed. If you need to turn the ISO down to 100 and you have a person moving, these are limitations of the camera that need to be amplified in the strobe lighting,” he says. He also needed to stop his lens down enough to portray background detail in the gym.

Without much lighting equipment of his own, Bloom ended up borrowing $5,000 worth of equipment from an equipment rental studio he does business with. He told them it was for a personal project on a Saturday afternoon. The loan, he says, “was a goodwill gesture to me.”

The package included a lot of equipment to cover contingencies. But Bloom says, “The way I light is to start with a key light, take a picture, look at it and then start to add what I need.” His key light for this image was a Profoto ProGlobe on the end of a boom over the model’s head. “I wanted a source that was overhead and non-directional” to recreate the bare light bulb effect, he explains.

From his first test images, he saw that the background “needed a little help,” so Bloom brought up the detail by bouncing light across the back wall with an umbrella strobe at either end. He also placed a fog machine in the background, creating slight puffs of smoke “to obscure and diffuse the light of the background” and to “ding-ify” the scene, he explains.

Bloom saw that he needed fill light on both subjects, so he placed the white sides of two V-flats (4 x 8-foot reflectors) in front of the boxer to bounce light from the key light.

Looking at another test shot, he saw that the V-flats reflected too much light onto the subjects, so he subtracted some of the light by positioning the black side of another V-flat just to the right of the camera, and opposite the reflective white V-flats.

Bloom also wanted to bring attention to the trainer’s unruly hairdo, which added an element of character to the scene.

“I didn’t want [the trainer] to be too noticeable, but I wanted him to be part of the picture, so I skimmed his hair a little bit,” Bloom says. He did that by positioning a strobe above and behind the trainer, focusing the light with a seven-inch Profoto 20-degree grid, and directing it down onto the top of the trainer’s head at a 45-degree angle.

Bloom shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II set at ISO 100 using a 24-70mm lens. He ended up with two or three portfolio images from 775 shots. The action shot of Wells shadowboxing was shot at f/8 at 1/200 of a second, with the lens set at 58mm.

After the shoot, Bloom sent his selects to a retoucher, who moved the boxer “a couple of feet” to the left so the image could be presented as a double-page spread. “We had to move her to get her out of the [page] gutter,” Bloom explains.

His retoucher also removed a logo from a punching bag in the background, and desaturated some background colors to make them less prominent.

Bloom isn’t sure whether any clients have hired him on the basis of the Gleason’s Gym images, but he says, “I’ve had a lot of positive response to this image” of Wells shadowboxing. And this past year has been his most successful to date.

Brian Bloom's lighting diagram from the shoot:

Brain Bloom Photography Lighting Diagram


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