Illuminating physique photography: An interview with Christopher Bailey

27 July, 2018

Written by: Ailish Cook

Christopher Bailey is a renowned physique photographer with a passion for fitness. Working with some of the best physiques in the world and featuring in numerous magazines and productions, the commitment to get the best shot for each client is evident in his work. We had the opportunity to talk to Christopher about his journey through photography and a recent shoot in Las Vegas with Ryan Terry.

You were a professional ice hockey player with a passion for fitness. What made you eventually reach for the camera? 

I began playing Ice Hockey at the age of 8 in my home town of Hull, East Yorkshire. That then became my life playing up through the ranks of England and eventually playing with the Great Britain National teams. When I finished my exams at 16 I was scouted and moved out to Montreal to play with a team out there. This only lasted a year as I was offered a good spot on a team back in the UK. This was the same year I decided to go to college in my spare time. 

I picked a GNVQ Media Design Course as back then, I wanted to pursue a career as a graphic designer and this was the only suitable course to fit around my training schedule. This turned out to be the best decision I made because part of that course was Black and White Film Photography. Thinking back now, I believe it was the darkroom that got me hooked. 

Seeing my work under those lights with the excitement how they would turn out just motivated me to go out and take better images to print. 

Was there a turning point when you realised that photography was the career path you wanted to pursue?

After college, I think I lost motivation a little as I didn’t have a darkroom at hand anymore. I have bags full of film, which believe it or not, I never developed and still have in a drawer at home. It would be interesting to see now what that film is of. It will all be Transparency or HP5 as that’s all I used back then, but that’s got to be 20 years old now, so I doubt half of it would even come out.

A good friend of mine is one of Britain’s top hairdressers. He had booked Wolfgang Mustain to shoot his British Hair awards entry and let me come down to the shoot in London. Seeing that environment first hand: the equipment, the models, the team working and the control he had over the whole environment I think triggered something for me. I think that was the point where I thought ‘I’ll have a bit of this'.

 

Has your approach to physique photography changed over the years and if so how?

I think it has definitely developed as have all aspects of what I do. I went through a body transformation with a good friend as my prep coach a few years back. I always trained for function in the past so training for aesthetics and weighing out food was a massive eye opener for me. At the end of the 8 weeks I had a shoot done myself. The training, the diet, water and carbohydrate cycling, the posing...all of this was a huge learning curve for me. Since then, when I shoot athletes, I can sort of predict how they are feeling, when to push them and when to let them take a breather.

 

What are the most crucial things to consider when shooting and lighting the physical body?

I think this takes years of practice if I am honest and I always refer back to the ten-thousand-hour theory and fully believe in it. Unless you have been around Bodybuilding and Fitness as a competitor or model yourself, it is impossible to just decide to be a “Fitness Photographer”.

“Fitness, lifestyle and bodybuilding have so many levels the creative possibilities are endless.”

You need to know the human body inside out and know what looks good in each person when shooting physiques as we are all different. I think in this line of work, it is less about lighting the body and more about controlling where you want the shadows to lay. 

 

Could you tell us about your shoot in Las Vegas with Ryan Terry?

This shoot with Ryan was actually our first one on location. We have worked together many times before in gyms all over the world but as gyms are my usual environment, I don’t class them as being on location anymore. The pool destination looking over the Las Vegas strip was offered to me by the owner of a brand I work with regularly, and we actually went there to shoot in his home gym. However, once we saw the view we changed the plan and took some of the weights outside. 

We didn’t have a strict brief for this shoot, it was just to get shots of Ryan’s condition as he was 2 days out from the Mr Olympia competition, so working outside for me is a bonus. The predictability of UK weather doesn’t really allow this for paid shoots, so when I am in the US I try to persuade clients to do more outside.

We were working with midday sunshine here, with a little cover from the house, so we didn’t need any diffusers, but power was key to getting the look that we wanted. I travel as light as possible when going stateside, so I change some of my kit up. For example, I will use a deep XL umbrella (silver) with a diffuser instead of an Octabox. At home I love to use the magnum reflectors, and on this occasion, I took the narrow beam travel reflectors which are also great.

 

How do you achieve lighting consistency when shooting on location?

Before high speed sync this was very hard and I used to travel with a case full of filters for this. However, the Profoto HSS is incredible for balancing natural light on location.

 

Do you have a favourite lighting set up?

I switched to Profoto around 18 months ago due to inconsistency in power, colour and consistent repairs with another brand. I now have quite the Profoto arsenal! My main heads are B1’s (6 of them), I have B2’s which are generally used when downlighting thanks to the weight of them and I recently bought an A1 as a fill as it can literally fit anywhere! 

Most set ups change, and it goes back to who you are shooting and how their physique will look best. I like to shoot bodybuilders with Magnum reflectors, and it is just down to how sharp that light looks on them. However, when shooting girls, I would generally opt for bigger light sources such as the Profoto 2x3 soft box. 

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to enter the world of fitness and physique photography?

Like anything you want to succeed at, just study your subject which in this case is the human body. Learn anatomy charts, study how people train even when you are in the gym yourself, watch what people are doing and think about how that would look good in a shoot. Once you know your subject, you will know how to best portray them. Then, it is just a matter of picking the right tools to carve that out of light.

 

Thank you to Christopher for featuring in our local Profoto Stories! To see more of his physique work visit his website or Instagram.

Written by: Ailish Cook

Products used in this story

OCF Softbox Octa

Ideal for flattering portraits, used with off-camera flashes

Umbrella Deep Silver

A versatile and zoomable umbrella for a light with contrast