Lighting Techniques

How I Got That Shot: Shooting with Daylight and with Strobes for Fitness Campaigns

October 9, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Christopher Malcolm

Christopher Malcolm.

Client: DK Publishing
Senior Acquisitions Editor: Brook Farling
Art Director: Nigel Wright, XAB Design

Christopher Malcolm was a screenwriter and director before he became a photographer, and when he plans his still shoots, he thinks about creating a narrative. As he thinks about his lighting, casting and locations, the Los Angeles-based photographer asks himself, “Who is the character and what’s the story I’m trying to tell? If I’m working for a client, I say: Who’s the buyer for the client, and what’s the story they want to learn?”

Malcolm, whose clients include Nike, Lululemon and other fitness brands, wants his lighting to serve the story. “When I light, whether it’s with natural light or strobes, I like to start small,” he says. “I like to use minimal equipment and have equipment do multiple things.” By using his favorite modifier, he can have one or two lights serve multiple purposes. He tells PDN that on two recent projects, he used bounced light to create very different moods.

For the book Yin Yoga by Kassandra Reinhardt, to be published in December, editor Brook Farling at the publishing house DK hired Malcolm to shoot models doing yoga outdoors, and to use only natural light. Malcolm and the publisher’s production team chose locations on beaches and wooded areas in Topanga Canyon and Malibu. Over the course of the five-day shoot, he says, “The challenge was creating a consistent, harmonious and inviting look, whether it was early morning or high noon.”

For a portfolio piece he called “Warrior Academy,” he wanted shadowy, cinematic lighting. He imagined the characters in his story as competitors, each skilled in a different physical regimen, such as Crossfit. He photographed his models inside a warehouse in Los Angeles, and placed his strobes where the practical lights would be.


Both the Yin Yoga book and the “Warrior Academy” project required Malcolm to produce numerous shots within a tight time frame. To make the most of his time on location, he plans ahead and prepares a document he calls his “pre-shoot.” “It’s a combination mood board and shot list,” he explains. In the document, he lists each of the shots he wants to make, the lighting set-up he wants, and some reference images to show the mood or look he wants.   

“For most shoots, I’ll tend to walk in with 30 to 40 pages of plans. It’s incredibly specific,” he says. For the “Warrior Academy” project, his document was 100 pages long. The warehouse he had chosen “was massive,” he says. It gave him room to set up several scenarios, but “I had to do a certain amount of planning to minimize moving lights back and forth.” On the pre-shoot plan, he listed the order in which he would create each shot, and also the variations he would try with each lighting setup. With the document in hand, he says, “if something goes wrong, I have a plan B,” as well as a plan C and a plan D.

© Christopher Malcolm

For the forthcoming book Yin Yoga, the publishing house DK hired Malcolm to shoot for five days in multiple locations using only available light. © Christopher Malcolm


During the Yin Yoga shoot, the sun was Malcolm’s only light source. “Sometimes the location is fantastic but the sun isn’t where you need it to be,” he says. Malcolm’s kit contains a 4×5 California Sunbounce reflector, which allowed him to reflect and redirect the sunlight. The Sunbounce he owns is silver on one side—to deliver a clean, white light—and a gold/silver zebra pattern on the other. “The zebra introduces more warmth into the photo, which was good for Yin Yoga, where you have that warm, southern California light.”

Malcolm says he prefers to work with soft rather than hard light. With the sunlight coming from behind or to the side of his model, he could bring the reflector close to the subject but just to the side, to feather the reflected sunlight. “If you bring it in close, and feather it, you can create a softer light.”

For “Warrior Academy,” he used his standard kit: a Profoto Acute 2 2400W/s power pack, three Profoto heads, a 3×4 Profoto softbox and a 5-foot octabank. “Those are usually what come out of my bag first,” he says.

In many of the images, “I’d put the strobe in a softbox behind the subject at an angle,” he says. “It creates a bit of a rimlight as it’s passing the subject. Then I’d use the bounce in the front to throw the light back.” In a shot of an athlete holding a medicine ball while performing a lunge, for example, he had the softbox on a stand about ten feet in the air, and placed at camera left. The bounce is to camera right, bouncing light back into the model’s face and torso.

In some shots, Malcolm used lights with no diffusion. In one instance, he put two heads with standard zoom reflectors  behind the subject, then pointed them towards the camera so they created some flare and the appearance of haze in the air. For a few shots, he used a technique copied from film noir: He placed a head high on a stand, and pointed down, so it created a pool of light. “In film noir, they did it because they didn’t have the money to create a whole set,” he says. “In still photography, it’s useful for directing the viewer’s eye.”

Behind-the-scenes from Malcolm’s “Warrior Academy” shoot.


Malcolm shot the outdoor Yin Yoga photos using a Nikon D800 and a 50mm f/1.4 lens, shooting at f/4. The 50mm, he notes, “is close to what the human eye sees,” and suited the naturalism he wanted. He shot tethered, and art director Nigel Wright and editor Brook Farling were on most of the shoots to review images. Reinhardt, the author, was on set to ensure the models’ poses were correct.

For his larger projects, such as “Warrior Academy,” Malcolm rents a Phase One IQ350, to get “depth and detail.” He used a Schneider Optics 55mm f/2.8 lens, and shot tethered. He handheld the camera, he says; “It’s about using the moment and finding something unique, and that’s easier if I’m able to move with the moment.”

Post Production

Malcolm saves his images in Capture One: “That’s where I do all my color toning.” Once he’s done color corrections, he makes his initial selection of images, ranking them with 3 stars, 4 stars, 5 stars. “The gold standard whenever I’m shooting is to ask myself, ‘Would I hang this on the wall?’” After he’s made his edits, he brings selected images into Lightroom.

“Most of my post is just cleaning up zits,” he says. “I kind of see my work as trying to celebrate the beauty of that individual.”

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