Lighting and Style Choices for Shooting Athletic Wear

Lighting and Style Choices for Shooting Athletic Wear

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.  

Fashion has always been about aspiration. Making athletic models appear powerful and determined without looking like they're miserable or suffering through a workout is also part of the balancing act.

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.

For the above shot, I’m using a 3 stop ND filter, allowing me to shoot a 70-200 lens wide open at f/2.8. The main light is sunlight filtered through the window, a gridded head for rim, and a very low power strobe for fill double diffused through a 6 ft octa and 12x8 diffusion silk.

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.

2 white V flats, parallel to the windows on either side, bouncing backlight right back onto the model.

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. 

The gridded strobe across the model's back is just there to highlight and define, not overpower or raise eyebrows

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. 

Jean-Claude Vorgeack's picture

Jean-Claude Vorgeack is a Los Angeles - based professional photographer working in fashion and athletic wear

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Very nice, the secret is to make it look natural. Yes?

Depends on the art direction...Some clients might want very sleek, stylized lighting. But if sunlight is involved, I always prefer to let that light "speak" the loudest, and use my light to enhance rather than compete. Thanks for checking out the piece!

I really like your style of making the models look natural and not over processed. The way you use the light, to me, resembles like having another set of windows in the far walls of the room, and then adding just the tiny bit of diffuse fill light to keep an high key aesthetics, that I found perfect for this kind of shooting. Congratulations and keep it on!

Thank you!

No, thank you, for sharing such a great work with detailed explanations of your creative thinking. Is a great source of learning for amateur point and shooters like I am. These are the kind of articles that I like reading on Fstoppers.

great post and work Jean-Claude Vorgeack , Do you also work with gels to slightly colour balance your flash, or just work on powering to get it right ?

Very interesting perspective and insights. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with the community.

Thank you! And yes, once late afternoon hits, and the light becomes very warm in color temp, I will often throw on a 1/2 CTO or Amber to warm up the strobe. This way, if I chose to cool the overall image in post, the strobe side doesn’t turn too blue.

These are so good! I especially love the last one. Is that really just sunlight on her face to camera right? It seems a lot softer than I would expect from the sun! Is the lighting setup for that one the same as the diagram you posted? Thanks so much for sharing these...really great work.

It really is the sun. The fill helps reduce the sharp falloff you would associate with hard sunlight. Thank you!

Great article! This is the exact style I try for!!

I have an upcoming shoot but its expected to be not sunny-- just dreary cloud coming through the one main window. My lighting kit consists of a 4 ft parabolic softbox and Godox AD600... any suggestions how to light my models for the same sort of effect?? Thanks!!