I’ve been on a bit of a fitness kick lately. Shooting fitness, that is. As you might expect, Portland, with its mountains, gorges and forests (not to mention a home base for fitness companies such as Nike, Adidas and Columbia) is a bit of a fitness junky mecca. As such, there is no shortage of fit people game for a shoot. When I initially approached Daniel, I had a cycling concept in mind, but we switched gears quickly after hearing him talk about his recent interest in weight lifting. Having never shot this kind of concept, I thought it would be an interesting challenge so we set a date and I began the hunt for the perfect location.

I did a lot of research into weight/power lifting photography, but didn’t really come across anything inspiring. A lot of this type of imagery tends to be super contrasty, gritty, and/or vibrant—none of which are descriptors I would apply to any of my portrait work. Furthermore, typical gyms make, for lack of a better term, ugly backdrops. They are cluttered, sterile and more often than not, poorly lit. While we initially intended to shoot in Daniel’s local gym, I knew I had to step it up a notch and find something that better complimented my aesthetic.

Enter my awesome stylist/location scout extraordinaire Kelly! As a native to the area, Kelly is an amazing resource for locations for a newb to the area like me. I had asked her to keep an eye out for cool workout venues that had some character, and she pulled through big time when she discovered Loprinzi’s Gym. Established in the 1940s by a family of power lifters, the gym remains a staple in Portland’s workout culture. I called up and chatted with their super friendly and helpful staff, and scheduled a walk through a few days before the shoot.

Walking into the gym is like taking a step back in time. A step back to an era when terms like crossfit, paleo, and HIIT didn’t exist, dumbbells were still made of solid iron and Arnold was in his prime. The place has a patina that evinced its history. The equipment, meticulously maintained despite its antique nature (the gym still sports the old style bicycle chain resistance machines, upholstered wooden benches and globe dumbbells amongst a multitude of other vintage apparatus), is scattered haphazardly throughout the facility, in all likelihood violating any number of fire and egress codes but adding to its charm.  

The walls of the gym are ornamented with framed images of bodybuilding legends, strategically placed above the free weight mirrors and squat racks, as if to offer silent encouragement and motivation. Not merely wall adornments, these legends would even frequent Loprinzi’s for a workout—rumor has it, Jesse Ventura first broke 500lb on the bench press here.

After my walkthrough, I knew this would be the perfect place for the shoot.  I met Daniel at the gym a few days later and we did a quick walk through to familiarize ourselves with the equipment and to cement a game plan. I left Daniel to warm up while I set up my lighting equipment, which I limited to a speedlight and a small softbox to remain as unobtrusive as possible—the gym was open and operational during our shoot so we had to strategically work around the paying customers. I opted for the speedlight instead of a strobe for portability, but also for power (or lack thereof)—I wanted to add just a kiss of light to keep it as natural and editorial looking as I could, and to compliment the background, whereas my strobe would have overpowered it.

The shoot certainly posed some unique challenges, the most notable of which was the framing of the shots. The equipment is visually interesting and colorful but cluttered, and trying to frame the subject so he wasn’t competing with the background posed logistical problems—particularly when certain equipment couldn’t be moved, or full wall mirrors betrayed my (and other members’) reflections. I opened up the aperture to allow a mix of ambient and artificial light which helps to separate Daniel from the background a bit, but to give the images that dynamic environmental portrait feel, I used a 28mm lens so the background was still fairly sharp.

Lighting was also a challenge—to expose for the background I cranked open the aperture which led to a mixture of ambient sunlight through high windows and artificial lighting with more of an incandescent color temperature. I debated gelling my speedlight to account for the color shift, but ultimately opted to leave it daylight balanced since we were getting multiple light temperatures anyway. In some of the images we did away with the speedlight altogether as the high windows acted as a beautiful key light. Where it was used, we kept the power really low just to add a little separation from the background and to add a bit of specularity to our baby oil doused model.

To really make everything come together, I wanted to color tone the images to compliment the vintage location. I dropped the saturation down a bit and added a gold tone to give it a weathered patina, not unlike the gym itself. The colorizing I think also helped to reduce visual clutter by toning down the pops of color in the equipment and giving it a more monochromatic feel.

Pushing yourself out of you comfort zone—in an unfamiliar location, shooting a different type of subject matter, and working around other people and obstacles—can be challenging, but it can also be super rewarding. I learned a lot about problem solving and it was a great exercise in thinking quickly on your feet about posing and lighting. I think these are valuable lessons to learn for anyone aspiring to work in a professional capacity and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced it.

A big thank you as well to Daniel with Sports + Lifestyle Unlimited in Portland for being such a good sport and willing to go with the flow, and also to the friendly and agreeable staff at Loprinzi’s for letting us use their space!