A Picture of Health | Portrait In Harsh Sunlight

A wide range of characters pass through our studio and often there’s a local flavour, as was the case when I was asked to shoot a portrait of gym owner Steve Gregory

We have a lot of connections in our home village of Haddenham, and one of them is Steve Gregory, who happens to be the founder of an incredible local boutique gym. When I say gym, that doesn’t begin to describe the ethos of the ‘Fitlife’ brand: it’s so much more than a company dedicated to fitness; rather, it’s a brand that’s all about establishing health – both mental and physical – through the medium of exercise.

I don’t know how you define or create an atmosphere with people flocking to do exercise, get sweaty and change their lives, but Steve and the team have nailed it. It’s always busy and constantly buzzing!

We’ve had a connection ever since Fitlife opened, even documenting the change from piles of rubble and bricks to the pristine epitome of health and fitness it is now. In fact, I’m a regular visitor to the place, both as a photographer and a customer. With its state-of-the-art machines and informal and friendly atmosphere, I love working there.

Every couple of months, we update the pictures of the trainers and their clients so they always have a fresh portfolio of marketing images to use. The timings are tricky as most of the staff have one-to-one training sessions with clients, so finding gaps in their diaries can be challenging, and usually, I’m looking at around 20 minutes with each trainer. But their time isn’t the only consideration: the gym is in constant use, and I have to avoid accidentally including unwitting clients in the photos: let’s face it, who wants to be in a photograph looking hot and sweaty?

And if that weren’t enough, the various rooms within the complex are used throughout the day for anything from a spin class to interval training, boxing fitness and yoga and Pilates. It’s not easy finding space and time in such a successful gym; being quick and agile is as important as being creative sometimes!

The Session

FITLIFE IS A funky brand, and the images have to match that. The rooms are dark, though with black walls, dark floors, LED strip lighting and nightclubstyle spotlights picking out different areas in punchy colours. It’s all quite beautiful, but not straightforward!

Oh, and like all fitness gyms, it’s so choc-full of mirrors that I have to make sure at all times that I’m not capturing my reflection – something I do with monotonous regularity – and that light isn’t bouncing into parts of the picture where I don’t want it to go.

Consequently, I take some kit with me, just if I need to support the existing light or maybe even completely overpower it. I carry a bag of off-camera flash (Profoto B1s) with some simple modifiers – small umbrellas, a couple of small softboxes, some grids and colour gels. I work without an assistant most of the time, so the kit must fit into something I can carry into a venue on my own. It also has to be small so that customers don’t trip over it! Or, more importantly, small so that I don’t end up tripping over it, something that can happen regularly.

This particular session was for four people – three of the trainers and Steve, who needs to update his image whenever possible to make sure he has plenty of
pictures for his social media and podcast outlets. There’s something about this place that makes it a joy to work in, and even the challenges are welcome because they push you to be more creative.

With each trainer, we were looking to create a couple of different image types; a headshot to use on Instagram and social media and a range of pictures that related to their specialist skill. I photographed the first three trainers mostly around the spin bikes and then in the gym. The spin bike room has exciting club-style spotlights, and I loved the blue colour they created on the bikes and the trainer. I used the strobes with coloured gels to add to this and to make the feel even more intense. It’s usually best to augment the light already there rather than try to override it, particularly with lighting like this. Not only does this look better, but it helps style the photography so that it’s in keeping with the brand that Steve and his team have designed. I also wanted to update Steve’s portraits, but wasn’t planning on spending a huge amount of time on them as we already had a recent set.

Using Harsh Sunlight

Within the main gym area there are high windows that face south so, this being a sunny day, I knew that shafts of sunlight would be piercing the space. It meant I wouldn’t need my off-camera strobes on this occasion, but the sunlight would give an incredible effect if I could find the right location.

We stepped into the gym, and there were as many clients using the space as there were shafts of sunlight cascading through! Sometimes the hardest bit of the job is the patience that’s required, waiting for an area of the room to become available so as not to rudely disturb someone’s exercise.

Once the space became available, though, finding the right angle for the shot wasn’t too tricky. I wanted the background to be blurred, and I wanted Steve to look fantastic as well, of course. The latter wasn’t difficult: Steve is one of those beautiful human USING HARSH SUNLIGHT beings on the outside and the inside. He has strong cheekbones, and I knew that if I could find the right angle of the light – and there was light pinging around on the mirrors and steelwork as well – I should be able to pick them out with hard shadow.

The joy, and the challenge, of working in direct sunlight is that it’s brutal; high contrast and hard edges to the shadows revealing every detail. But it’s massively rewarding once you get the hang of it. More often than not, you need to underexpose the image to control the highlights and, although you run the risk of blocking up the shadows, these bright spots are the priority. You can usually drag some detail out of the shadows and, if necessary, add some de-noising just to the dark areas if the grain starts to become noticeable. However, if you blow out the highlights in the skin, the image will never look right.

I spent a while trying to get the angles so that Steve’s jawline looked strong while there were some interesting shapes in the background – notice the shaft of sunlight that’s picking out some of the gym equipment. Importantly I also made sure that I hadn’t accidentally managed to catch myself in a mirror somewhere!

It took a little bit of figuring but, after I found the spot, Steve looked like a stage actor, posing under theatrical lighting: full of drama, strength and intrigue. As always, I remember just how excited I was when I initially spotted the light.

Seeing and using light pools like this isn’t hard, but it takes a little bit of spotting. You learn to take in the way pools of light fall on walls and floors and decide how to use them. I guess it looks a bit weird when I’m working, but I will often be seen holding out my hand and rotating on the spot until the light falling across my fingers looks how I want it.

In this instance, I found my light and decided to use the mirror in the distance and to include Steve’s reflection in the background. I tried a couple of different options – one where Steve (in the foreground) was in focus and, conversely, one where his mirror-image was sharp, while Steve himself was out of focus in the foreground.

All Steve had to do was fold his arms, turn his back slightly so that I could see the Fitlife logos on his t-shirt and turn his face toward the light. If you look carefully, you can see the light isn’t a single shaft but is, in fact, numerous thin vertical light patterns – note the shadow falling on his nose. Still, I thought it added to the drama rather than detracting from the portrait – though it took a bit of adjustment to get it to exactly where I wanted. Asking someone to look strong, while simultaneously being relaxed and pin-point positioned isn’t as easy as you might think!

Lighting Diagram

Camera Settings

  • Camera: Nikon D800e
  • Lens: Nikon  70-200mm f2.8 VRii at 92mm
  • Exposure: 1/750s, f/2.8 at ISO 140


The post-production was relatively straightforward. It would have been great to have been able to place Steve further to the frame’s right, with the exciting patterns created by the sunlight on the gym machines raking across the entire frame. However, laying out the image in-camera wasn’t possible since I was squashed into a space between running machines, so I didn’t have room for manoeuvre. Instead, I allowed for cloning some of the light patterns across the image, which ultimately was straightforward in Photoshop. Nik Color Efex 2 was then used to add a little ‘pop’ to the colours.

It wasn’t possible in the original shot to have the sunlight patterns across the whole frame.
Fortunately it was a simple job to extend these in Photoshop.


  • TRY TO VISUALISE the final image. In this instance, I knew more or less how I wanted the finished image to look with a shaft of light crossing the entire frame, but I couldn’t capture that in-camera. So, I shot carefully and planned the image ahead to get the layout I wanted.
  • Using harsh sunlight is great fun – and it can set you apart from less experienced photographers as it takes a little practice. Ensure the light strikes the face from a flattering angle (not too high), and then adjust the exposure to retain the highlights. The hard shadow edges can be used to sculpt features such as Steve’s perfect cheekbones.