The Hero Image

Illustrating the dramatic impact that even a subtle change can bring to a photograph, commercial lifestyle photographer Corey Rich spent a day working out with cross-trainer Del Lafountain to capture a series of high-impact shots of the towering athlete as he muscled through several hundred kettlebell repetitions. Ultimately, despite an extended sequence of well-executed, meticulously composed shots, only one final image stood head and shoulders above the rest. Interestingly, while Rich’s original concept was to capture the athlete at peak form using high-powered Profoto strobes in the controlled environment of the gymnasium, the final most successful shot is composed of natural lighting with a bit of fill from a Litepanels 1×1 Bi-Color LED panel. Rich says that, as a photographer, it’s important to stay adaptable at all times, even if it goes against your original concept.


"I went into this shoot feeling like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a great opportunity to use strobes, to use Profotos,’" laughs Rich, "and you can see in the first experimental shots that the Profotos look pretty flat and pretty boring. First, I was trying to do this with bare strobes, and it looks like I tried softbox strips on each side, then I moved the strips to 45º angles to flatten the light, and finally I ended up eliminating one strip to see if I could create more directional light. Then I had that epiphany, which is, ‘Wait a second, what’s so appealing about this location is all of this natural light pouring in from the windows, the daylight!’ And that’s when I took that step back, and I said, ‘Okay, hang on, the biggest attributes to this photograph are the big flag in the background, the natural light that’s pouring in through the window and then this very appropriate subject for this setting, the CrossFit athlete. Sometimes, that’s what it really requires—to distill it down to ‘what’s working’ and ‘what’s not working,’ and then eliminate the elements that aren’t working and capitalize on the elements that are."

Rich says that they had two Profoto 7b power packs with six or seven accompanying Profoto strobe heads. "The daylight coming out of Profotos and the quality of light to come out of the Litepanels, they’re both best in class in my opinion," he says. "Beautiful daylight and an incredibly fine shape to the light. We have a variety of light modifiers for Profotos, and we have another set of modifiers for our Litepanels kit. I find that they actually work quite well in tandem. For me, it’s a scaling situation; there are plenty of jobs where a set of four Nikon Speedlights will do the job. I mean they’re actually perfect—there’s less output, they’re very mobile, and it’s very easy to work with Speedlights. I can put them in my rolling bag and take them on the plane.

"We have a variety of Litepanels in our kit, from little Cromas to big 1x1s and video lights," Rich continues. "But the instant we start bringing Litepanels, we’re committing to traveling with a lot of luggage. When you step up to Profotos, you have a lot of cases going on the plane with you. Case in point is this series of images. I shot these in South Lake Tahoe, California. There’s no rental house for Profotos within a 150-mile radius of this town. Most of my shoots are even more remote than Lake Tahoe, so I’ll bring them if I need more power and more control. The continuous lights, of course, they come out when shooting video or I know I need to bring the ambient room light up."

Rich says that after he had honed in on the available light pouring in through the gymnasium window as his base for exposure, he decided he wanted to supplement the beams of light through use of a commonly available smoke machine, which he had picked up on a lark during Halloween. An assistant fanned the smoke as he shot, and for several similar-looking exposures, the position of the smoke in the frame became the deciding factor between a good shot and an excellent shot. He also added fill since he abandoned the strobes in favor of the natural light in the gym.

"I realized, okay, let’s supplement the fill light with a continuous light source, the Litepanels 1×1 LED light," explains Rich. "While I do a lot of work with strobes, the beauty of continuous lighting for still photographers is that you can see it in real time. You’re not guessing how much power you want to output through your strobe, then you fire the strobe, then you look at the back of the camera…. The feedback is immediate because you can see it with your eye in real time when using continuous lights.

"And in a big space like a CrossFit gym," he continues, "sometimes continuous lighting works really well for filling in background illumination by actually bringing up the entire room’s exposure. I really brought the 1x1s, and actually a whole kit of Litepanels, so that I could shape the light in the background. For example, I was lighting the subject most commonly with Profotos, and oftentimes, I was working with relatively low exposures and slower shutter speeds so that I could bring in the ambient light of the window. Lighting the background with continuous allowed me to bring the entire environment up into a matching daylight exposure versus when you’re in a gymnasium and it’s just a lot of hanging halogen lights or fluorescent tubes, and it just doesn’t look very good. So the reason they were on set was to make my Litepanels the ‘house lights.’ But, then, having them there gave me the ability to switch gears and start working with them as my main light source, as well."

In order to capture the decisive moment, Rich would "machine-gun" sequences using the rapid-fire capabilities of his Nikon D800 and D4 full-frame DSLRs while Lafountain powered through repetitions. "I’m doing bursts of images," Rich says, "and I’m doing that for the simple reason that I’m handholding."

For the composition, the idea was to showcase the build and strength of the CrossFit athlete. Generally, shooting from below is a good way to give your subject a towering presence for an overall feeling of power and strength in a composition. Rich tried this approach, as you can see in a couple of the first outtakes where Lafountain occupies the majority of the foreground of the frame. While still successful, the framing of the American flag as Lafountain’s backdrop ended up accomplishing the same concept in a much less hackneyed fashion. Rich says that he tried several focal lengths and a number of compositions before deciding on the versatility of a 24-70mm zoom lens. The final shot was captured close to the 70mm focal distance.

Rich shoots the majority of his work on manual settings, and here you can see how even the slightest change in composition and exposure can have a profound effect on the final image. "This is a classic controlled environment, right?" asks Rich. "I’m setting up the lights, there’s window light pouring in, but nothing is changing.
The idea of being in an automated mode sure doesn’t make sense—you’re setting yourself up because the camera will get fooled every time I make a subtle adjustment."

"I really like the capability of a zoom," he says. "Zooms today, both telephoto zooms and wide-angle zooms, they’re just so razor-sharp. And to have that flexibility, to shoot at 83mm or 76mm versus locked into those prime lenses, it’s quite nice in a situation like this, where I’m making subtle adjustments, really paying attention to the edges and trying to make sure that I’m cleaning up the background relative to where I’m positioning the subject. The bottom line is that a zoom gives you an incredible amount of flexibility, and you’re not compromising sharpness or speed. Certainly, there’s a difference between an ƒ/1.4 lens and an ƒ/2.8 lens, but that ƒ/2.8 lens is still pretty darn fast, and it’s remarkable that they’re sharp wide open."

"In a controlled environment, it’s all about shooting enough," explains Rich. "In this situation, there’s no vreason why I couldn’t continue to evolve the shot by making lots of exposures because, oftentimes, I’m surprised that an image I thought was the best while shooting turns out to be not as good as the evolutionary set of images you’ve been capturing."

Rich almost always shoots manually, and the subtle variations in exposure that you can see between similar frames are the result of small changes he’d make to camera settings while he shot—and he shot plenty. In order to capture the decisive moment, Rich would "machine-gun" sequences using the rapid-fire capabilities of his Nikon D800 and D4 full-frame DSLRs while Lafountain powered through repetitions. "I’m doing bursts of images," Rich says, "and I’m doing that for the simple reason that I’m handholding. I’m not much of a tripod guy, in fact, I almost never use a tripod unless I’m shooting something that absolutely mandates or necessitates keeping the camera still for more than 1⁄8th of a second. I feel like right up to about 1⁄8th of a second I can handhold if I do a burst of images, even on a relatively long lens.

"In this situation, my subject isn’t moving; he’s relatively stationary, at least in my final composition. He’s standing there relaxed, waiting for his next kettlebell swing, so I’m doing bursts of images so that I can make certain in a burst of 12 frames, for example, that one of those frames is going to be razor-sharp even though I’m handholding at relatively low shutter speeds. The low-light capabilities in the D4 combined with the burst capabilities are pretty remarkable. That camera has changed the world in the way we see low light. We never before could shoot at such high ISOs and have it look so great."

But perhaps Rich’s most significant talent is that he continues to push himself even after he has succeeded in capturing a number of very usable exposures. "Never be satisfied with taking a few images and feeling like you got it," he emphasizes. "You have to slow down and methodically look at your situation and try to block out all of the other pressure. All you’re really focused on is what’s happening in that rectangle: How am I going to make the most compelling image from the light, from the composition and from a moment in perspective?

"Most sports photography is about capturing action," he continues, "whether that’s freezing action or whether that’s motion or creating a feel for what the athlete is doing. Some of that’s action photography, some of that’s the before and after—the jubilation, the defeat, the contemplation in advance. I think this image really fits into the broader category of sports photography in that this is an action moment. Here, we have this amazing athlete, poised in his venue, which is the gym, and the shot implies that he just did all of these kettlebell swings. And you can see that at the beginning of the shoot, I was trying to shoot him swinging the kettlebell, where the kettlebell would be over his head, and it just didn’t look that good. It was creating awkward body movements. It put his body in a weird position, and it just wasn’t working for me. So then I stepped away from actually shooting ‘action,’ from trying to freeze the moment with the kettlebell over his head, or midway up, and then I switched him into a more contemplative ‘thinking about the workout’ pose. And that was more effective to me.

"That’s open-mindedness," Rich concludes. "It’s being open-minded about going in with a preconceived idea, but then you need to be adaptable in terms of what’s actually going to generate the best, most compelling, most engaging and interesting photograph."

See more of Corey Rich’s photography at

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