- Publication/Client: Private Commission
- Talent/Assignment: IFBB Bikini Pro Athlete Ashley Pfaff
- Location: Las Vegas, Nevada – Charlie Frias Park, City Athletic Club
- Photographer: Alexis Cuarezma
- Assistants: Morgan Bellinger
- BTS Interview Video: Mindy Lyseng-Crawford
I was really excited when I checked my inbox in December and saw I got an email from Ashley Pfaff asking if I was available to shoot in Vegas the weekend of Jan 31st. She was going to be in Vegas that week competing at the NPC Legends event championships. It would be a prefect time to make portraits of her since she would be in top physical shape for the competition. Fitness athletes train extremely hard and also have an extraordinary dedication and commitment to their craft and a very strict diet. Photographing Ashley the day after the competition would be great. She wanted to shoot inside City Athletic Club, which I was familiar with because I photographed Janet Layug and Phil Heath there for Gifted Nutrition last year during Olympia. After e-mailing back & forward a few times, we locked in all the details. I suggested we should start outside and get some outdoor photos first and then head inside the gym. I actually love shooting at noon or midday. The schedule would be a bit tight, because she was flying back to Florida the night we were shooting. However, that’s no problem as I can work quickly. Since we would be outside and then heading inside, a lot of ideas of what we could do were going through my mind. So one of the first things I did was create a mood board for our shoot and I sent it to Ashley so she could visualize what I had in mind and we could be on the same page.
I drew ideas and inspiration from other shoots I’ve done in the past and put together images I really liked that I’ve made. We exchanged ideas and I had a pretty good per-visualization of what we were going to do. I was really excited because once you know what you’re going to create you have a solid foundation of your day and can progress forward with executing your vision. I planned out a really ambitious mood board with a lot of different looks. I knew we would be outside (with no power) and also indoors later on the day. And once inside we were going to shoot in about 3-4 different rooms in the gym. This all played a factor in the gear I decided to use & take. Since we had about 5-6 different visual looks planned which required a lot of light and we still needed to be mobile, I decided to use battery power packs. They save a lot of time because you don’t have to worry about finding power, and most importantly you don’t have to run a bunch of extension cords which kill a lot of time (which we didn’t have a lot of) when you tape/secure them down and coil them up. I also like to control and modify the light a lot, so the solution was the Profoto B1 & B4 lights. I was able to write down everything I would need based on what I had envisioned. I also color coded the mood board with the gear required for each look so my assistant would have a heads up on how we would use everything and that also helped me get organized too.
For my creative process I always follow this. I try and give myself no limit, no boundaries to what’s needed to executed what I have envisioned (e.g. 15 Lights, 2 assistants, stylist, HMUA, Fog/Rain Machine, 8×10 View Camera, MF Camera, etc. or bring $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:
We flew South West, but I strongly recommend that if you ever have to travel with a lot of gear, that you fly with Virgin America. They are not only super friendly, but charge only $25 per bag checked in which is a huge saver when you’re checking in a lot of bags. Once we landed in Vegas we checked into our hotel, checked all the gear and went to sleep as we had an early start the following day. We were originally going to meet Ashley at her friends house where she was staying at. I had virtually scouted an outdoor location near there before flying out, but the morning of the shoot I got text from her asking if she could meet us in our hotel room. No problem at all. I quickly did another google search and found a park near the Vdara hotel (where we were staying). I came across Charlie Frias Park which worked perfectly and I was really happy. The last thing I wanted was to burn time driving around looking for a place to shoot. We loaded everything we needed up in one car, and headed out. This is all the portable power we took to the park.
The original plan was to just take the B1’s to the park, stay light and mobile and then head to the gym. But we decided to take B4 packs just in case we wanted to try something more creative with 4 lights or needed more power. For what I had originally planned the B1’s were perfect. I love lighting at noon and the afternoon and do it with two lights. I use one small narrow light source up high which in this case was a Profoto Narrow Beam reflector with a 10 degree grid, and also soft box. I took my 30×40 Chimera Soft Box which I love. It’s not too big or too small and works perfect for my needs. Even though I’m using two lights, I don’t use them in a traditional sense of a “main” and “fill” light. They both can work independent of each other. Meaning if one fired and the other didn’t, you would still get a proper exposure. I pretty much have them set on a 1:1 ratio. I love putting the narrow source up high. I call it a “texture light” because since it’s small, it throws a lot harsh shows on your subject. I than use the soft box to quite those shadows almost all the way down. But there’s still a hint of them there and it gives the image an extra weight that I really love. I also wanted to get a star burst from the sun. In order to do that, you need to push at least F16 if not F22. So the B1’s were set at full power.
And here’s a screen grab from the behind of the scenes video of the setup from the images above:
We were going to stay in the same area and do some running/action photo of Ashley. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s extremely important and a huge asset to have a great assistant with you. Morgan spotted a nice tunnel across from where we were and suggested we go there. I had him stay with the gear and quickly went to go scout it out as Ashley changed outfit. It looked awesome, so we relocated down there and took all the gear.
Since we would be shooting at the entrance of the tunnel, we needed more than just two lights. Luckily, we brought the B4’s with us too. The edge of the tunnel would be easy to light, however, since it is a tunnel it’s blocked off from all the light. Therefore it would be completely dark. To solve that problem and also provide extra separation for Ashley from the dark background, I put a B4’s pack in the tunnel with a narrow beam reflector to back light her and give her a nice glow. The front of the tunnel was all in shade but I still wanted to give the images a feel of direct sunlight. So I decided to light her in the front with a Profoto Hard Box. The hard box does a great job in simulating direct sun light. It was placed on a B4 head as we needed a lot of power because you loose about 1 stop of light with it. I used it as texture light and flooded the entire scene with the softbox on a B1. Although I wanted to give the images a feel of direct sunlight, I rarely light for a motivational ambient/natural feel to my images. 95%+ of the time I’m lighting for impact and rarely have proper motivation for my light sources.
To some people, it’s difficult to understand the difference between really expensive gear/lights vs inexpensive. The best analogy I can come up with for lights is comparing them to cars. A 2015 Rolls Royce, and a 1971 Ford Pinto will both get you from point A to B. However, one will just be a lot nicer, have more features/power, and be a lot more reliable. And that all plays into how selective and picky you are (with making your images). The above image of Ashley stretching is a perfect example of using the precise light control you get when using higher end tools. As I mentioned earlier, I used the Hardbox as a texture light to throw harsh shadows across her and than quieted them down with a softbox. However, when she leaned her hands against the wall to stretch I was getting a crisscross of double shadows near her hands which I didn’t like at all. The Hard Box was throwing two harsh/hard shadows being cased by her arms. It looked really sloppy and I wanted to get rid of them. However, I still wanted to have the hard shadows on Ashley so turning off the light wasn’t the solution. If you look just below her chin on her left arm, you can see the hard box is hitting her, along with the shadow on her left leg. However, we got rid of the harsh shadows on the wall. That was possible because the hard box modifier itself, comes with an extra modifier. Barn doors! That means you can precisely flag off where the light falls giving you a lot of control without having to use extra flags. One word, AWESOME!!! That precision came in handy and was put to use here and I was very happy with the results.
Once we got done shooting in the tunnel I had Morgan setup the lights nearby so we could get a running image of Ashley in a desert setting. While he did that, I noticed some beautiful shadows being thrown by the sun against a grey wall near the tunnel which you can see above to the right of the image. The railing above was flagging off the sunlight making for some dramatic lighting that would work great for a nice sexy/mysterious image. So I had Ashley change outfit to just a simple tank top and took a few images of her. Then afterward, we did the running images which had the same setup as when we started but we used the B4 packs instead of the B1’s.
The running image was the final one we did outside. We packed everything in the car, went to grab a quick bite to eat then headed to City Athletic Club. We had a few hours left and still a lot of looks to do. So the game plan was to start upstairs and photograph Ashley doing different exercises while Morgan started setting up our 2nd look down stairs in another room. She had a lot of exercises/poses she needed to do so that meant we had to move around a lot. I wanted to keep my setup simple as my assistant would be tied up in another room setting up. I originally planned to do these images with a white beauty dish + sock and another light with a narrow beam reflector to provide a nice separation and highlight on her. After photographing only two exercises I noticed that the beauty dish would cause problems. It provides very nice shadows and directional light, however Ashley need to do some exercises where her arms would be in front and that would cause her face to in shadow. To keep the beauty dish as a light source the solution would be to add a third light and quite those shadows down but since I wanted to remain mobile that wasn’t an option. I made the decision to switch out the beauty dish with the 30×40 Chimera softbox as it provides a much softer light and the shadows are softer. Problem solved. Using the Profoto B1’s was an absolute joy. It was a dream not having any cords or plugs to worry about yet still have the power & light control of a studio strobe and be completely mobile. We were able to move around a lot and get many images done quickly.
Below is a side by side compassion of the difference between the beauty dish & the softbox. Above is all the lights/mods I used to make all these images.
I was really happy once we got done doing all the images upstairs because now came the fun part! It was time to make images I really love doing. The next setup was more elaborate and required all the lights I brought. I wanted to make some nice lit images/portrait of Ashley with visual impact. There’s many ways to create visual impact with light, color and abstraction. For these I wanted to use purely light and Ashly. So I wanted to eliminate everything from the environment and setup a grey seamless (well, Morgan setup the seamless while I was shooting upstairs). Then to isolate her and make her pop, and I wanted to surround her with separation lights all the way around. So I put 2 B1’s as edge lights with a narrow beam reflector plus a 10 degree grid in each. I also placed a third separation above her (otherwise known as a hair light which I don’t like calling it that) and that was a nice crisp light from the hard box. So now she’s lit all the way around except in the front. One of my absolute favorite ways to light is up lighting (otherwise known as “monster lighting”). In my personal opinion, up lighting is very beautiful. And I love using it all the time. So I up lit her with a beauty dish + sock and also lit her from above with lupe lighting by using a 20 degree grid as a texture light. The texture light is opposite the up lighting and contrasted it nicely. This is also not your typical “main & full” light as they both can work independent of each other but just wouldn’t look as good. With all this, I had real precises light control where the light went. Meaning my grey background would go completely dark. I wanted the grey background to show, but already had used every single strobe I brought. The solution, light the background with the speed light I have in my camera bag for a total of 6 lights. We put it in place and lit the background. We did a few images like that but I wanted to add something more interesting and dynamic to the image. So I got rid of the 6th light, let the background go dark and instead added mist. The beautiful fine focused light from the narrow beam reflectors and the hard box illuminates the mist and makes it pop real well against the dark background. And of course, the key to all this is having an assistant to spray the mist.
After I was happy with what we got from this setup, I wanted to make some black and white images. We stood in the same exact area and just changed around the lights. We replaced the narrow beam reflectors on the B1’s with umbrellas and pointed directly towards the grey seamless at full power overexposing it to make it look white. They were also feathered to hit Ashley and provide a slight rim light on her. The main light was the Hard Box hitting her from above creating some beautiful deep dark shadows which look amazing when converted to black and white. For my black and white images, I like my blacks to be absolute black and my whites to absolute white. With no other light to quiet those shadows from the Hard Box they just scream and provide beautiful visual impact.
We had about an hour and half left to shoot so we broke everything down and went to our final location which was another room in the same gym. For these images, I wanted an overall warm feel to them. The reason for switching rooms was because the other room had wood floors which come complement the warm tone we were going for nicely. I like to get all my color tones right in camera. Even though I shoot digital I always carry gels with me. In my opinion wrapping you strobe head in a CTS or CTO gel is one of the best things you can do to your light. I absolutely love warm light and enjoy watching the light when the sun sets. Changing the temperature of your light with CTO/CTS gels give that sunset tone. Every single light I used for this final setup was gelled. I started by placing a light in the back. I wanted really harsh shadows to be thrown into my lens so I decided to back light her with the Hard Box. I also wrapped it around a full CTO gel. This light was placed on a Profoto head and B4 pack at full power (1000 w/s). One of the reasons why I usually need a lot of power and use studio strobes as oppose to speed lights is because I like to modify my light a lot. Placing a full CTO gel on your light causes you to loose an entire stop. Using a Hard Box causes you to loose another stop. Now all of the sudden your 1000w/s just lost a lot of power. TWO FULL STOPS to be exact!! If you start with a low power light you’re limited on much you can modify it or put in front of it. If you start with powerful lights, you can always turn them down.
For the front, I wanted to give her slight light direction from the light source. So I lit her with a the white beauty dish + a sock and a full CTS gel. The CTS gel has a more slight yellow tint to it and CTO is slightly more red/orange. Canon cameras tend to give a slight magenta tint to skin tones so I prefer using CTS gels to get better skin tones right out of the camera. The white beauty dish with a sock would provide a nice light source and shadows that are not to dramatic. But I still wanted to quite them down more so I flooded the scene with a softbox on a B1 at full power and that one also had a full CTS gel in side. The final thing I did to add some impact to the images was spray haze. I love foggy days with a passion so anytime I can recreate that sensation I do.
That concluded our shoot and shortly after Ashley was a plane on her way back to Florida. I was really happy with the result we got with such a small team! It was just me, Ashley plus 1 assistant. The day went completely awesome and I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a Sunday (though the Patriots may disagree as they won the Super Bowl that day).Here’s all the gear laid out that I used for the shoot. Some of the grids are hidden because they are inside the reflectors.Actually, check that! I forgot the most important key to everything in the above photo of all the gear!! A good assistant!! You can see he loved the Profoto Hard Box