How to Prep Your Body for a Photo Shoot
Prepping for a photoshoot is an interesting experience. Once you’ve gone through it a few times, it becomes second nature, but the first round is pretty hellish.
Questions about photo prep are usually either exceptionally broad or highly specific, so I’ve put together an overview that will cover things from both perspectives: you’ll have a general idea of how it’s done, and walk away with some specifics regarding how to do it.
The thing about photo prep is that it’s pretty exacting stuff, and—if you really want amazing photos—it’s not as simple as getting as lean as possible and then standing in front of a camera.
Which is to say, it’s not rocket science, but it is science.
My goal here is to give you the ins and outs of photo prep by walking you through one of my own prep periods. At best, I hope you’ll be able to recreate a lot of what I’ll share with you for your own pictures; at worst, I think you’ll find it interesting and enlightening.
Having said that, I want to just cover the basics first, in the event you try to recreate these.
To build on what I said before, while it’s not as simple as just getting super lean, you do need to accomplish this before you start thinking about things like peaking.
There’s really no point in taking pictures if you’re not ready for them. “Photo ready” can mean a lot of different things to different people. For those involved in Transformation Contests, for example, it’s pretty basic: as long as your after pics look a lot better than your before pictures, you’re in “photo ready” condition, right?
I certainly think so; however, one caveat is that unless you’re truly lean, most people’s after pictures will typically be impressive only when they are sitting next to before pictures—it’s the difference between the two that makes them so.
On the other hand, if you’re looking to get into modeling, or want to have pictures that stand out as “impressive” on their own, without the virtue of comparison, you need to achieve a very respectable level of leanness. It doesn’t have to be “contest” shredded, but you should look damn good.
For me, that’s about 4%-6% (as measured by calipers), mainly because that’s where I’ve been for shoots previously and I see no reason to take pictures that look worse than previous ones. For other guys might be 8%-10%, while women can take great pictures at 14%-16%
Basically, if you’re going to book a shoot, make sure you look better than you’ve ever looked. That’s why you’re capturing it on film.
I’ve written more articles about fat loss than just about anything else on this site, so please browse the archives and pick some stuff out.
More specifically, I find that a combination of intermittent fasting, macronutrient and calorie manipulation, density training, and the strategic application of the occasional cheat day is a good formula for maximum leanness.
Finally, for something less individualized, I actually wrote an entire program specifically designed to help people lose stubborn and keep it off, it’s called Fat Loss Forever
Anyway, crosslinking and self-promotion aside, you have a lot of options for stuff to help you get lean. So: get lean, dammit.
Once you’ve hit the requirements above and ready to take some shots, come back and read the rest of the article.
Done? Awesome. Let’s get into peaking.
One of the ways to look your best and maximize how lean you are is to become as “dry” as possible. This means that you have to lose as much subcutaneous water as you can, so your skin “fits” tighter to your body, allowing your muscle to show through. Holding water can make you look loose.
Now, it’s important to say that you can’t just stop drinking water—at least not at first. You put your body into “flushing” mode by consuming tons of water. Up to 3 gallons per day.
Here’s the way it works: you drink tons of water, which will down-regulate a hormone called aldosterone, a hormone acts to conserve sodium and secrete potassium. This is the purpose of water-loading—you’re essentially training your body to eliminate water frequently, and in large amounts.
Around 18 hours from when you are going to shoot, you CUT water intake. And when I say cut water, I mean that. The day before the shoot, you should be drinking no more than 3 total cups of water. The day of the shoot, no more than half a cup to a cup.
Because of the hormonal environment created by the load, you’ll continue to excrete water, despite the drastically decreased water intake.
In combination with a mild herbal diuretic (like dandelion root), this process will help you shed most of your subcutaneous water and look as sharp as you can.
For the purposes of clarity, let’s just give a broad definition of glycogen itself. More or less, it’s a polysaccharide substance store intramuscularly (and in the liver, but that’s not overly relevant to our conversation), that is replenished by carbohydrates you’ve consumed.
Functionally, glycogen breaks down into glucose as a quick and readily available form of energy. Aesthetically, as we’ve alluded to, it tends to make you look “fuller” and larger.
The depletion, and subsequent carb-up, which will make you look bigger, fuller, and allow you to pump to the extreme.
This begs the question, “why deplete just to refill?”
I don’t want to get too heavy on the science, so I’ll keep this simple. The goal is to deplete and then refill in the right way, allowing for something called supercompensation. In essence, the deplete/carb-up process creates an opportunity to temporarily over-fill muscular glycogen for a very limited window. The result, visually, can be astounding.
Getting back to it, let’s talk about the depletion workout. As the name implies, this is a specific workout intended to completely deplete remaining muscular glycogen.
Just about any higher rep protocol will do for a depletion workout, but I have found that lactic acid training works particularly well. Cycle through a 10 exercise circuit, with each exercise done lactic acid style until you’re depleted.
How do you know you’re depleted? You just know. Much like being drunk, you become aware very suddenly. You’ll have some decent physical indicators. For example, rep number 9 on an overhead press goes smoothly, and rep number 10 completely buries you. You’re depleted.
Firstly as I mentioned, you’re re-filling glycogen stores and allowing for supercompensation. Secondly, taking in carbs works synergistically with your water depletion to help you look your best.
According to most bodybuilding and contest prep experts, a gram of carbohydrate pulls 2.7g water into your muscle; and since you’re not taking in any water by the time you start carbing up, the remaining subcutaneous water you’re holding will be pulled into the muscle, helping you achieve a higher level of dryness and a more ripped look.
Consider these two photos of my back.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The photo on top was taken about 72 hours before the picture on the bottom.
Careful observers will notice that in the photo on top, my arms look fuller; in fact, they look considerably larger. Why?
Because in the photo on the bottom, I was what you’d call “flat”, or carb-depleted. That is, whatever muscular glycogen I’d been store had been depleted during prep workouts. The photo on the bottom was taken at about 6AM on the morning of the shoot—so I still had 7 hours to carb up.
However, let’s look a bit more closely. The picture on the bottom, you’ll notice that my upper back looks consider leaner: my lats look more separated from my teres and infraspinatus; the striations of my traps are a lot more visible; and the “Christmas tree” shape the erector group becomes more obvious.
Did I really lose enough fat over 72 hours to account for these changes? Not likely.
The visual difference occurs because I am holding less water.
So, all of that covers the depletion of both glycogen and water—I look leaner but not as big. The goal, of course, is to have the best of both worlds. And THAT is what the carb up does.
These differences might seem small, but I assure you, that’s not the case. I’ve been through the photo process many times, some with a deplete/load and some without. And let me tell you from experience, the camera notices everything, and every little bit helps.
Now that we’ve covered all of the terminology that might trip some people up, let’s move on.
Again, I want to walk you through a day in the life here, so let’s talk about the shoot I was prepping for, which was scheduled on a Friday at 1PM. As a result, final preparations begin on Thursday.
I arrived at the shoot about 15 minutes early, and the photographer was about 15 minutes late. Obviously, this led to had a mini-freakout and I spent at least 5 minutes internally arguing with myself about whether I’d been stood up.
While he got set up, I pumped by doing fast-paced pull-ups, dips, and light-weight incline benches.
The shoot itself was pretty good. The club we shot at was gorgeous (H-Club in Jersey City) and the staff was great. People didn’t seem too put off by me walking around half naked most of the day.
To be honest, this is not at all surprising: a lot of the higher-end clubs in both NY and NJ actually love it when these magazines come and shoot at their locations, as it gives them some free publicity.
We also did a lot of “pick-up” shots.
This is just random stuff you do around the gym that the photographer assumes the magazine will need at some point. It’s nice to have on hand because if they use it, I get paid. Could be next week or next year. But it gets more work into your portfolio while you’re in peak shape and prevents you having to go through it again.
For pickups we did some Swiss ball, some abs, and then some random “shredded guy leaning on equipment” stuff.
For an example of a pick-up shot, we can jump over this little snippet from my Instagram account.
One time, a supplement company used a photo of me without permission. Rather than seek legal recourse, I decided to just giggle about it. Mainly because the picture doesn’t imply “Dark Rage” but rather “General Bewilderment.” I sometimes wonder how it converted for them. One assume very, very badly. #tbt
As mentioned in the picture’s caption, this was a pickup shot randomly taken during a shoot, that was later sold to a supplement company and published in a magazine, promoting some supplement I’d never used. Technically, it’s not required that my permission is granted for that (the photographer owns the image), but it’s customary to do so.
Most interestingly, the ad was published in 2010, and the picture was taken sometime in early 2007. On the plus side, I got paid for work I did three years prior; on the downside, now there’s this picture of me looking all dumb and confused floating around on the internet. So really, everyone wins.
We also shot a few “Abercrombie” style pictures.
You know, the ones were I’m just on some stairs in jeans and no shirt for no reason other than this: While conventional wisdom implies that the rule is no shirt, no service, the reality is different. Empirical evidence suggests that once you are 3% bodyfat, shirts are fully optional; and that not only do you get service without one, that service is younger and hotter.
At least, that is the message I think the photographer was asking me to try to get across.
It should be mentioned, of course, that such shots often come out the best. For example this one, which is by far my most well-known capture.
This picture, taken by Eric Jacobson, was shot in between a number of wardrobe changes.
It wasn’t really meant to be part of a series and wound up happening quite by accident.
Obviously, there would never be a time where I’d be wearing wrist wraps and ripped jeans. Unless I was a character in Street Fighter 2.
My point is, contrary to “those shots” being kind of stupid when you plan them, they do occasionally produce some great images.
Studio work is…well, interesting, for lack of a better word.
You wind up taking hundreds of shots knowing most of them won’t come outright.
I can’t really explain what it is, but there seems to be no real way to tell what is going to be a great fitness capture, and what will come out too beefcake-y until you do it and see.
Some pictures, like the one on the right, wind up walking the line.
As a general rule for studio work, I like to use the rule of 100; that is, usually for every 100 shots you’ll get 1 decent one. At this particular shoot, we did about 300 studio shots, and I got about 3 that I felt are “usable” in some regard.
Along the way, we ran into a big problem: Water retention.
As I mentioned earlier, the benefits of peaking provided a very limited opportunity to look better than your best. That day, I looked awesome at the gym, and for the beginning of the shoot…but by about 5:30 I was just looking flat, and no amount of carbing-up or pumping was helping.
Alas, the window had closed. Which means 12 weeks of dieting and 3 days of prep for about 5 hours of glory. I’ll take it.
Overall, I’m glad I put as much work in as I did. I looked great and I think I really couldn’t have peaked better, especially for the beginning part of the shoot.
So! I’ve done about 20 or so professional shoots, and the above represents a pretty reasonable description of most of the fitness related ones. Shoots for a fitness product or for clothing are typically faster and a bit more direct.