Alexis Cuarezma Explains How He Photographed IFBB Bikini Professional Athlete Ashley Pfaff

Alexis Cuarezma is back again sharing the "hows" and "whys" behind one of his latest shoots: fitness portraits of IFBB bikini professional Ashley Pfaff. He has graciously included a very in-depth video where he explains how he set out to accomplish these shots, and he also provided his mood board, gear list, and lighting diagrams along with extensive commentary on the "whys" and "hows" of it all. You absolutely don't want to miss any of what he has to say! Start with the video and then dive in below!

Cuarezma has shared with us some other incredible behind-the-scenes sports portraiture how-tos in the past (Shoot Two Completely Different Lighting Setups with One Push of the Shutter Button | Alexis Cuarezma Explains the 'Whys' behind His Sports Illustrated World Cup Preview Issue), but this time we get to learn how he shapes light around a female subject. It’s quite a similar process, although he does incorporate more female-flattering clam shell styled lighting in some of the last of the set-ups he shot.


Alexis isn't afraid to travel heavy at all, but he does it with clear intention as he explained here:

For my creative process I always follow this: I try and give myself no limit, no boundaries to what’s needed to execute what I have envisioned (e.g. 15 Lights, 2 assistants, stylist, HMUA, Fog/Rain Machine, 8×10 View Camera, MF Camera, etc. or bringing $100K+ worth of lights like I did HERE). In other words, I put my vision first and that dictates what gear I need (not the other way around). Then, after assessing the situation/shoot, the time frame, and budget, I start making a list and seeing what’s best-available and work from the top down. If your vision is really important to you, and you figure out what you need first to make it possible, you’ll be amazed at how resourceful you can be and hone in to get what you need and make it happen. Also if you share your ideas and can clearly & quickly articulate your vision, people will want to help make your vision a reality. A lot photographers work the other way around, or even worse, they can have a favorite lens, or camera, or light. There’s nothing wrong with having a favorite lens, camera or light modifier, but when you do, you have to be very careful to not let that piece of gear dictate your vision.

Once I figured out everything I needed, I locked-in the gear. Since we were on a tight schedule (I was flying in Saturday night, shooting all day Sunday, and flying back Monday morning), I had to fly with all the gear. One HUGE key factor that made this shoot work that’s not listed above is Morgan. Having an assistant with you is an imperative asset which no amount of gear can replace. We both flew out from Oakland Airport and he was tremendous help which I needed because here’s all the gear we took:


Take a look at some of his behind-the-scenes set-ups before I show you some of my personal favorite images he created and see if you can imagine how the finish photograph could look:

Here are some of my personal favorites of his finished photographs - from outside to indoors, he killed it with edgy yet flattering light. Check 'em out:


You're definitely going to want to read through everything Alexis has to say about this shoot at his original blog post. He writes in a very clear but conversational manner that explains very complicated ideas yet is easy to digest.

Be sure to stay in the know with everything he’s up to at his website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Images used with permission.

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Spy Black's picture

Nice work. Nice of him to share his techniques also.

Aaron Brown's picture

He's a very down to earth guy who loves sharing his process. It's very refreshing!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Aaron, appreciate you so much writing this up as oppose to other places that only like copying and pasting my entire written blog post and plastering on their site. Hope to connect sometime soon.

Aaron Brown's picture

Lol - those copy & paste blogs are the worst and shall remain nameless :)

Alexis Cuarezma's picture


Scott Mosley's picture

This i the best, honest light breakdown bts i have ever seen, what a great share!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Thanks so much Scott, Really glad you liked it. cheers!

aaronbratkovics's picture

Awesome man! Love the preproduction. And neat trick with the beauty dish from below! Thanks for sharing!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Thanks Aaron! Planning is always nice specially when things can stick pretty close to what you prepared for.

Sergio Tello's picture

The second to last image is my favorite.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

YES!!! Mine too :) it's my "hero" shot from the shoot

Sergio Tello's picture

I have a friend with almost that same kind of physique, I'm going to complete steal your light set up and see what I can come up with. It's going to be my challenge for the month. Thank you much for sharing!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

A lot of what I do and how my images look is something that I develop over time from shooting, testing, shooting more and tweaking until it's developed to what it is. I don't mind sharing what I do and people think that's a favor or plus to them but the huge downside to that is that I rob them of discovering their own creative process and discovering what they like to do. My main goal for each shoot that I do is to treat my subject with the respect they deserve and visually create an image that represents them best for the given situation with my personal style. I personally love light with a passion and it's reflected upon my work. One the hardest things IMO is teaching someone how to developed their own style. I see some many photographers that take workshop or intern and they end up developing into mini clones of that photographer which is horrible. That's built upon a very weak foundation because it's based on someone else's vision instead of developing internally.

There's so many articles and photographers who say that going to art school and formally learning photography is a big waste of money. I unfortunately see many of those photographers lack visual creativity (even though they may be very successful because they are amazing business/people skills and are good at networking). For me, one the biggest assets I feel I had was going to college. I studied Art, Graphic Design and Photography. Although the photo dept in my school wasn't the best and I ended up dropping out. The classes that personally helped me the most were art history, painting, drawing (I loved drawing since I was a kid), and history of Photography. I got exposed to things I otherwise would never had.

I was strongly influenced by artist like Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, Corbin Lapel (my drawing 1 teacher who gave me a C-), John Cage; all who are pretty famous and well known. But studying and learning about them over the course of a year was invaluable. That's pretty unheard in photography workshops b/c a 5 day one is considered "intensive". I've also been personally influenced by poets Ruben Dario and Rigoberto Lopez Perez and that's a direct reflection of who I am and my heritage. Even just dropping those names is a dis-service b/c if you don't know about them, what most people will do is a quick google search, read 2-3 paragraphs about them (if that) or just skim the wiki page and read someone else's opinion about who they are instead of forming their own opinion.

It's one thing to learn a technique and execute/copy it but it's much more satisfying developing and arriving at your own style that comes internally and reflects who you are as person. That's my personal challenge as long I continue to shoot and live. Best of luck!


Sergio Tello's picture

Well said.

Reggie Green's picture

This was great!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture


Jason Ranalli's picture

Wow, what an awesome BTS run through. In just seven minutes he went through and clearly explained like 10 different scenes and lighting setups? I felt like I was on a lighting speed-dating gig :)

But really....great stuff he is doing. I'm sure there are other folks out there doing this but I've yet to see anyone quite as ambitious with trying to do SO MUCH in a single payed gig. With all those different looks it seems like he provided a huge value to the client.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

I love what I do and that can make me very ambitious. I'm glad everything worked out well with this shoot. Ashley was amazing to work with and I'm fortunate she hired me.

Mike McGevna's picture

Great BTS, thanks for sharing Alexis. I saw he did the mist effect with a spray bottle, I didn't see how
he got the "fog" effect as in the last set of images, if anyone knows or has their own methods,thanks for sharing....

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hey Mike. I never said "fog" in the video or post. I said it was Haze. If you do a quick google search on "haze machine" you'll find plenty of options. Cheers!

Zach Wagner's picture

Wow. Just... wow. Very interesting video, very unassuming professional attitude, exceptional pics. Killer.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Thanks so much for the kind words Zach! I appreciate it.

Anonymous's picture

What we call in photo schools in Europe 'American Lighting' even when its soft its hard as nails.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Jesus, I'd say that a good majority of the time I personally prefer hard lighting. But that's a personal preference for me. There's plenty of photographers here who shoot with super/soft/diffused lighting. And technically, I'm not "American" as that term is used for people born in the USA. I was born in Nicaragua. So that would make this "Latino Lighting"? ha!! thanks for the comment, cheers!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Everyone, thanks so much for the comments and kind words. sorry for the delay reply, I was in Vegas for the week at WPPI and just got back today.

Tomas Pospichal's picture

Its so amazing, I had to register to Fstoppers to write Its amazing. Thx for sharing Alexis.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Tomas, thanks so much bro!! I really appreciate that and glad you enjoyed it. Mad props to Aaron for featuring my post

Mike Yamin's picture

Had to comment, because while I really-really like the studio shots, I hate the outdoor locations. Were they chosen because of logistical constraints?

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

Hi Mike, sorry you don't like them. I explain the entire shoot process and locations in the full written blog post.

Mike Yamin's picture

Thanks Alex. I understand that time was a big factor and admittedly, hate was a strong word anyway. I just thought that for all the effort you put in, the park was a bit too boring a location.

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

We were looking for a desert type location and of course everything is subject to interpretation. There were other location but they were about 1-2hrs away and we still had to go to the gym and shoot about 4-6 more setups. 1-2hrs easily burns 2-4hrs total just on driving.

Had she had the budget it would have been ideal to fly out a day early and do a location scout. But she already flew me, and an assistant out to Vegas, put us in a hotel, paid all expenses (including gear/lights/meals etc.) plus the creative fee all on her own dime. Instead of burning time driving around, we picked a location that worked.

thanks for your comment,


follestphoto's picture

Awesome! Thanks for sharing your technique and writing the article to both of you

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

You're welcome Joe. Glad you liked it.

Justin Haugen's picture

Alex, you're a madman. I'm glad the photos are as impressive as your travel pack!

Alexis Cuarezma's picture

ha! thanks man. I don't take it unless I need it. With that being said, I often over pack because I'd rather take something and not need it, then the other way around :)

Oscar Machado's picture

Excelente trabajo Alexis, felicitaciones! Voy a tratar de probar alguna de tus técnicas con deportistas acá en Uruguay. Abrazo! Oscar.-