Irvin Gelb Q&A Part 3: Ask An Expert Photographer!

What criteria should a photographer use in choosing to work with someone? What is the best way to light a person to make them look their best? Expert Photographer Irvin Gelb answers all your questions!
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[ Q ] Hey, Irv: I have known of you and seen your photographic journalism for many years. I also realize that you have a good eye for new bodybuilding talent like Mark Erpelding, Eddie Moyzan, Dennis Newman, and many others.

How do you find these hidden monsters, and what factors do you evaluate in deciding whether to shoot them?

Jeff W.

    A: There are a lot of great bodybuilders and fitness girls out there. Finding the best people to shoot is always a challenge for every photographer. We meet people at competitions, events (like the Arnold Expo), in the gym, and on the Internet at sites like

    Arnold Classic 2006 Coverage And Results
    Click Image To Visit Arnold 2006 Special Feature.
    Arnold Classic 2006 Coverage And Results.

    It's actually easier than ever for photographers and potential models to meet with the Internet. Some models also write us through the magazines for which we shoot.

    What factors do I use to evaluate potential models? This is not an easy one to answer. There are several criteria that must be considered. First is the obvious - how good is the person's physical appearance?

    I understand that you're referring to male bodybuilders, so I can tell you that I look for a physique that's pleasing to the eye most of all. We always need different levels of bodybuilders from the smaller more cut ones to the huge guys with extreme development.

    Regardless of size, I always look for balance of muscle development of the upper and lower portions of the body. Guys with more V-taper looks are generally preferable. That's what bodybuilding was supposed to be like when Joe Weider started promoting it.

    Big arms are always important. That's the most popular body part favored by both men and women. It's the most photographed body part. A chest or pec development that's thick and square in look is also important. Wide pectoral muscles are the most desired from a visual standpoint.

    V-Shape Taper
    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Brian Buchanan,
    An Amazing V-Taper!

    Abs are another muscle group that's essential for guys of all sizes. A well-shaped six or even eight pack (if you're lucky to have that many) is what everyone wants and it's the muscle group that everyone sees when they take a quick glance at a relaxed bodybuilder's physique. If you're got thick abs that go as far down to the pelvic area then you're ahead of the game.

    Wide delts that are capped like bowling balls will give the bodybuilder a better V shape and make the physique appear to be more powerful. Well-balanced legs with good tear drop development and defined cuts between the three main muscles will make the legs stand out.

    Of course, some thickness in the calves will be the finishing touch to the legs. Also, a wide lat/back development is important and will look best if they go down to the waist rather than high lats. Probably most important in determining a star potential physique, however, is the guy's bone structure.

    A wide frame is important for putting on the most muscle possible. Guys who are around 5'10" at the most make better bodybuilders than most shorter or taller guys if they can put on thick muscle on their frame. Of course, there are many exceptions like Lee Priest and Gunter Schlierkamp.

    Lee Gunter
    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Lee Priest (5'4") & Gunter Schlierkamp (6'1"),
    Exceptions To The Rule!

    Generally the light heavyweight class in the amateur ranks has some of the best bodybuilders, but when you get to the pro ranks, the taller the better for being the top man. Most important is how small the guy's joints are. If you have small joints in the wrist, ankle, knee and other areas your muscle bellies will appear to be larger.

    Ronnie Coleman is not the tallest man at 5'11", but he looks taller and the biggest on stage because of small joints and thick round muscle bellies. This will be the determining factor for a future star physique.

    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Ronnie Coleman.

    What about the face? This is subject to individual taste. I've shot many great bodybuilders who were turned down by the magazines because they don't like a certain aspect of their face. You'd think that it's easy to spot a guy who can be considered "good-looking" but there are many opinions on that factor.

    Some editors like a more rugged look, some like the more "pretty boy" look, and others don't care as long as his physique is impressive. In general, I look for guys who might be considered pleasing to the eye by most people.

    There are other factors that must be considered when finding new models, and when helping to promote them as a "future star". Most important is how dedicated they are to the sport and how determined they are to work hard get what they want.

    Having a great physique and face won't necessarily make you a star. You have to have the head for it and be able to spend time doing shoots and promoting yourself. I've known many bodybuilders who I thought had the physique to go all the way but in the end they couldn't get past doing well in some contests because their head wasn't into it.

    They expected people to work hard for them but they weren't willing to do some of the leg work required to become a star. Guys like Lee Labrada, Shawn Ray, and Jay Cutler, to name a few, not only brought the physical package to the table but they are also businessmen who are not afraid of doing the behind-the-scenes work to get to the top.

Lee Labrada Interview! Lee Labrada Interview!
Lee Labrada is a legend in the sport of bodybuilding. In his competition years, Lee presented a symmetrical, aesthetic physique that won nearly every top title in professional bodybuilding except the coveted Mr. Olympia.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

    I remember shooting Lee one year, three weeks after the Mr. Olympia. Not only was he in top shape that far out but he was a consummate professional when it came to doing shoots. He was always enthusiastic and wanted to do as much work each day as was possible. Then when he went home he spent some time in his home office doing business and trying to make money in and out of the sport.

    Today, he's one of the most successful men who have retired from competitive bodybuilding. Look at Arnold (you know who I mean). I was close friends with Art Zeller who photographed Arnold in his competitive days and was a good friend of his. Artie told me that Arnold loved to do shoots and worked hard each time they worked together.

    To this day, Arnold is a consummate businessman, as you know. I heard stories of Arnold working out on the treadmill late at night after working a full day at the studio doing a film. When he put together the recently published updated edition of his "Encyclopedia", I submitted some photos to him.

    We spoke on a Friday and I told him that I would have the photos ready next Monday (after the weekend). Arnold asked, "And what about tomorrow and Sunday? Can't we work this weekend?"

    He was on a family vacation at the time and made time to do work because he was on a deadline with the publisher. The guy is a working machine. If he wasn't so dedicated and strong-minded, he possibly could never have achieved what he did in all areas of his life.

    Vicki Gates
    Click Image To Enlarge.
    Vickie Gates.

    I'm also impressed with bodybuilders who have a complete life that's not just focused on bodybuilding. I've found that guys who have a job in another industry and a good family life generally last longer in bodybuilding. Ronnie Coleman was a full-time police officer until his bodybuilding schedule got too busy. In his early years, he had a great woman behind him with professional bodybuilder Vickie Gates being his support.

    He also has a great family who contribute a lot to his success. Ronnie has always been a great businessman, having earned an accounting degree in college. These are characteristics of bodybuilders who will last in the industry. If you depend on bodybuilding totally in your early years without another career to fall back on, you may find yourself dropping the iron game after a few lean years and frustrations with competing.

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Understand what it goes through each day, and learn the signals that it provides, such as fatigue, soreness, and hunger. Build your nutrition and training around your lifestyle. Through understanding the body, you can help create the balance that you...
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    Jay Cutler wasn't doing well as a pro in his early years but he was investing whatever money he made from endorsement deals and kept going with the support of his high school sweetheart and wife, Kerrie. Now, he's one of the most successful bodybuilders in history.

    So, as you can see there are several factors that I take into consideration when looking for a bodybuilder who I think might be a future star with potential. Sometimes, you have to look past the physical attributes to make a better determination.

Click Image To Enlarge.
Brenda Kelly With Jay Cutler
And His Wife, Kerrie.

[ Q ] I have found out that my chest looks better when I have light in front of me and my arms look better when I have light from above. Is this true?

Dusan L.

    A: Lighting can make or break a physique when looking at or taking photos of it. The more dramatic the lighting is the more dramatic the physique will look. It's a pretty basic principle. I know of many bodybuilders who can point to the exact area of their gym or home where they look their best. I'll go over different lighting situations and explain how they can help or hinder the look of a physique.

An Interview With Professional Bodybuilding Photographer Alex Ardenti An Interview With Professional Bodybuilding Photographer Alex Ardenti.
Alex Ardenti is very familiar with the concept of bodybuilding and great photography as he has been sculpting the bodybuilder and others for a long time now. Learn more about him in this great interview!
[ Click here to learn more. ]

    Lighting, be it natural sunlight or artificial lighting such as overhead lights in a gym, that is either overhead or directly to the side of you will create shadows that make your physique look more impressive.

    Go outside midday when the sun is directly overhead and you'll get that dramatic shadowing of the muscles. It may not be very impressive for the face, especially for women, but it's great for making a physique appear more impressive. Lighting, earlier or later in the day, directly after sunrise and before sunset will definitely not make a physique look more muscular.

    It's a softer light that's great for bikini models that don't want to show off muscle but want to look more sensual and soft. It's also great lighting for model's faces. But you bigger guys should never get photographed in this light if you don't want your physique to look softer.

Preparing For A Photo Shoot Preparing For A Photo Shoot.
Here is a forecast of some of the areas that should have special attention paid to before you go to your photo shoot...
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    If you're in a room with table lamps and stand to the side of one you'll also see a more dramatic effect on your physique. Again, it's lighting that's not directly straight on your body that will create shadows and is more desirable for a bodybuilder.

    I don't know why you say that your chest looks better when you have a light in front of you. You may mean that the light is slightly higher than your head and is shining on you. Light positioned at any height that is angled down on you or even up towards you will create shadows that are desirable.

    I recommend experimenting with light outdoors at different times of the day to see the different ways that it effects the look of your physique. Once you learn the general principals of lighting you'll be able to make your physique look great with natural or artificial lighting.

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Most bodybuilders want a professional photo shoot at some point to capture their hard work and accomplishments. This interview with Peter Blackburn will provide you some answers.
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    Try also placing a lamp directly behind you and you'll get a cool looking silhouette look but it won't make your muscles appear more cut unless you start elevating the light higher than your head and slightly behind you.

Do You Have A Question?
Are you an aspiring bodybuilder looking to get into the magazines? Do you want to become a cover model but don't know where to start? E-mail Irv your question and it will be featured in the next issue of Ask An Expert Photographer! E-mail him at

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3