On Assignment: The Foundry “Where the strong belong”

Almost a year ago I did a shoot for FS Magazine at the Foundry just down the road in Vauxhall, South East London.  Having shot lots of fitness stuff for the past 16 years, I’d heard of the Foundry, and it’s two founders Dave Thomas and Ben Gotting, and was excited to finally meet and work with them.  The shoot was a fairly straightforward exercise instruction one focusing on impressive strongman moves, and Ben was suitably awesome chucking great lumps of stone and metal around the place.  We got chatting afterwards, and he mentioned they had a need for some imagery, and would I be able to help out.

Regular readers of the blog (Hi Mum and Dad!) will recall that I wrote a series of posts on the topic of “Working for free” a few months back, and that I mentioned how trading favours can be very beneficial if both parties are clear on the terms going into the arrangement.  Working with the Foundry would be a textbook case of how to do this properly!  From the outset we agreed how much each party would contribute, and since the shoot I’m about to detail, I’ve done a few other bits and pieces for them, including a Christmas Video which proved quite popular, and from my own side, have got some serious training in.

Location: Vauxhall, SE London
Shoot Duration: Approx 6 hours
Personnel: Myself, Foundry staff, and approx 50 members
Equipment: 4 Profoto lights, 2 Nikon bodies, lenses, C stands, extension cables, 7ft umbrella, softbox, zoom reflectors, Air trigger
Date: 24/9/2016
Fee: Traded for annual membership
Total shots: 1202

Foundry Promo Image
Never get into a dispute about tyre ownership with Ali.

As with any job, I start from the brief.  In this case, the Foundry need a library of images that show their classes in action, headshots of their various staff and trainers, and some general library images of “Fitness” and the gym.  The 3 classes I’d be shooting are very full-on – 2 of them are their signature “City Strongman” class, and one is a “Sweat”, and they all take place back to back with roughly 15-20 people in each class.  Since they’re live, and featuring genuine gym members, I can’t really stop and pose things, or stage the action, but that’s the look they’re after, so we incorporate that into the shoot.  I need to be aware when shooting of capturing both close-ups of people in action, and wider shots of the whole class and gym, and also to keep an eye open for those moments of exhaustion, exertion, and peak action that will make the gym look authentic rather than polished and perfect.  The Foundry prides itself on not being a “chain” gym – you will not find rows of cardio machines and people watching DVD’s whilst plodding away here!

From many years shooting sports, fitness and action, I know that not everything looks beautiful all the time (what a surprise..) and that certain moves look better from certain angles and at certain times.  A kettlebell swing, for example, can look downright weird and uncomfortable when photographed at the bottom of the move, but pretty heroic when captured at the top, and the same principle applies across lots of similar actions.  The various gym members are probably happy to look tired, knackered and exhausted, but not stupid!

Foundry Promo Image
A kettlebell swing at the top, framing the rest of the class. From side on this move can look OK when the “swinger” is at the bottom, but if the bell ends up hidden the whole thing just looks weird!

Another bit of “fitness insight” is thinking through how the class will function, and essentially who will be doing what, where, and when.  These classes are composed of multiple different moves done as a circuit.  Some of them are performed on the spot, and some involve dragging, pushing, or carrying heavy kit up and down.  Not only do I need to think about this from the point of view of getting the best shot, but I also need to be aware of where I’m placing myself when shooting.  If you’re carrying 50+ KG in each arm and doing a farmer’s walk, you won’t be too keen on a photographer who plants themselves right in your path.  Eyes in the back of the head are a very useful asset to have on a shoot like this!

Foundry Promo Image
….not least when the person performing the move is going backwards themselves!

The final thing I need to think about before starting, is the range of images, and to have that “shopping list” at the back of my mind at all times.  There will be moments to capture someone right at the peak of a box jump or similar, and times when it’s great to try and show off the whole class.  It can be very easy to just get caught up in one type of shot, and then realise as the class finishes that everything I’ve shot shows just one person!

Foundry Promo Image
Father Mackenzie leads morning prayers.


Foundry Promo Image
An “inbetween” shot, close-in on one person at the peak of action, but showing some of the rest of the class in context too.


Foundry Promo Image
Always keep one eye open for interesting details. In this case, someone’s almost perfect hand prints on the floor from between sets.

Technical Thoughts

Like most gyms, the Foundry wasn’t designed or laid out with photographers in mind.  The lighting is pretty weak, and comes from sodium arc or flo tubes in the ceiling above.  Not terribly flattering, not much of it, and what there is is a mix of different colours.  So, right from the outset I’ve got lighting in mind.  I’m also thinking about the fact that whilst I’ll be able to stage and set up the headshots and the library images, during the classes things will be happening live and I’ll have to catch them as they happen.  In situations like this, I’ll always opt to shoot with 2 bodies, and have each body set up differently.  This allows me to catch 2 different “looks” without making big changes, or to have 2 different lenses on so that I can switch from very wide to very close quite rapidly.  My weapons of choice for the classes were:

  • Nikon D4, with a 24-70 f2.8
  • Nikon D800, with a 50mm or 85mm f1.4
  • 2 x Profoto B1
  • 2 x Profoto D1
  • 3 x zoom reflectors
  • 1 x 7ft Umbrella
  • Profoto air trigger (on the D4)
  • Pair of BlackRapid straps

Both cameras are set to manual exposure, but quite differently.  The D4 is triggering the Profoto lights, and so is set to ISO 400, 1/250s shutter speed, and an aperture of around f4-5.6, whilst the D800 is set to between 1600 and 3200 ISO, and the lenses are either wide open, or nearly wide open, and it’s at about 1/500s shutter speed or higher.  The logic behind this, is that the D800 is just using the ambient light in the room, and is used to grab quick moments from anywhere and everywhere, as the ambient light is pretty consistent throughout the gym, and the D4 is relying on the light from the Profotos.  The lighting setup looks something like this:

Foundry Layout
A very rough drawing of the gym space at the Foundry. Note the mirrors at each end, which are always fun to work around!

The thinking behind this setup is quite complex, so bear with me:

  • I want to use the flash to create much more drama in the shots than that which I’ll get from just the ambient, and also allow me to freeze motion with the short flash duration.
  • I’ve got to accept that the action will take place across a wide area, and I can’t stop things to reposition my lights, so I need to create a setup that’s versatile, but not flat and bland.
  • Strong backlighting is a very neat way of adding drama and depth to a room – shoot straight into a light, and then add some degree of fill light, and you can make almost anywhere look quite dramatic.
  • I’ve also got to bear in mind the considerations of people racing about the place with heavy equipment, so I can’t place stands anywhere they’re liable to get hit.
  • I’ve got 2 mains powered heads, and 2 battery heads, one wall that’s painted white, and another that’s white, but is covered in old-school gymnastic bars.
  • I chose to place 2 heads as high up on the bars as possible, and at each corner.  The mains heads are the better choice here, as I can easily and safely run extension cable up to them, and I won’t need to worry about any batteries that need changing half way through the shoot, and involve clambering up the bars.
  • The 2 battery heads are then positioned close in to the opposite, white painted wall.  Although in this diagram there’s one with a zoom reflector, and one with a large umbrella, in some shots I just used 2 zoom reflectors, and bounced the light off the walls.  The battery heads are on well-ballasted C stands, so there’s a low chance they’ll get knocked over, and there are no cables to trip over either.  They’re also readily accessible when I need to change the batteries.
  • The general plan when shooting is to look towards the wall with bars on, into the light from the D1s, and allow the light from the B1s to act as a fill to retain some of the detail.  Since the D1s are quite high up, they’ll only flare in shots where I’m either shooting from very low down, or shooting very wide.

Now, this setup is very versatile, whilst still keeping quite a bit of drama and mood, but there are still spots that I can’t shoot in.  If I’m right up against the battery heads near the white wall, the “fill” light will be too bright.  I can obviously change the exposure, but there’s always a risk that in the heat of the moment I’ll then forget to change it back.  I’m well aware I could use TTL in some form, but the catch there is that only the B1s can handle it – the D1s have only manual power.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m WAY more comfortable with manual power than TTL, as I prefer the consistency.  Since the action happens pretty fast, my solution is either to reach for the D800 when I’m this close to the wall, or close down the aperture on the D4 by a stop or two, and then make a conscious effort to reset to where I left off.  This worked a good 95% of the time – and during a fast-paced event, I’ll take those odds!

Foundry promo image
Taken 3/4 of the way towards the wall with the D1 heads on
Foundry Promo Image
Snapped on the D800 – ambient light only.

So, that’s how I shot all the stuff in the classes.  The final images were given a grainy, contrasty, black and white treatment, as not only did it suit the subject matter better, but it helped to hide the slightly iffy paint job the Foundry had at the time (it’s since been much more tastefully redecorated).  The “library” images were pretty simple to shoot – I used one of the D1 lights up on the wall as a backlight, and moved the B1 with the 7ft umbrella in close to whatever I was shooting:

Foundry equipment shot
Look – a kettlebell!

For the headshots, I employed a fairly standard setup of a softbox left of camera as a key, a 2nd head with a zoom reflector back right to outline the subject, and a 3rd head with a zoom reflector on to throw a splash of light on the back wall.  Like this:

Foundry headshot
Ben Gotting

All in all, a fairly productive day!

Confused about any of the lighting I talked about in this post?   I have a full course right here that walks you through everything you need to know to understand lighting in photography.

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