One of the most rewarding parts of photography is choosing the right type of light for an assignment. The light that will best help convey what we’ve been hired to shoot. Nowhere is that more true than in shooting athletic wear.
Be it apparel for working out, yoga, or hardcore triathletes, athletic wear is becoming increasingly technical. Coming from a fashion background, this is the part of particular interest to me. From the way it’s stitched, the choice of panel shapes and sizes, to the very fabric itself, activewear has become some of the most interesting clothing any photographer, fashion or otherwise, will get to shoot.
It’s our job to not only make the person wearing this high tech gear look awesome, but to make the pieces themselves stand out from the competition. Sportswear comes in materials that are patterned, matte, glistening, mesh, stretchy, reinforced, sheer, textured, opalescent…plenty of fun challenges in this genre.
Often, I find that a light (or lights, more accurately) on the harder end of the spectrum are the way to go for this type of job. Soft light has it’s place too, or maybe in tandem with, but it’s usually hard-ish light that really makes things pop.
The second part is where that light goes. When I’m shooting this type of material, I often find myself thinking in shapes like X and Y, with my subject at the center. Flat, on-axis light isn’t as interesting for this type of work. A strong, raking light is going to help me sculpt and define the muscles of a model, and make the fabric pop if it has any sheen at all. I want to light up those beads of sweat (usually from the makeup artist’s spray bottle) and stronger light is the one for that job.
I wouldn’t hesitate to include the shot above in my client deliverables. It’s a perfectly usable shot. But that flat light isn’t doing much to convey the fabric’s texture and that alone makes it a little less interesting information-wise.
I’ve also found that I prefer at least one of my light sources coming from an angle a little lower than 45º in relation to the floor. Be it late afternoon sun, a hot light, or a strobe, that low, cutting light helps shape and define.
I’m a huge proponent of balancing natural light with strobe in a way that doesn’t obviously look like strobe. Whenever I catch that, it’s like seeing a ventriloquist moving their lips.
It might sound funny, but I've actually had this thought when going into an athletic shoot: “How would I light a superhero?”. And then I let that be the starting point for inspiration.