How I Got That Shot: Creating Versatile Light for an Indoor Fitness Shoot with Gigi Hadid

June 14, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Monica May.

Client: Reebok
Agency: Roundhouse
Creatives: Joe Sundby, executive creative director; Mako Miyamoto, creative director; Mike Torretta, art director

Photographer/director Monica May says many of the clients who hire her to shoot fashion and portraits seek her out because of her ability to create a sense of mood and narrative in her photographs. That’s a reflection of her directing work, she says. “Personally, cinema has always been a huge inspiration for me.” On some assignments, she creates a single frame that hints at an unfolding story, but on a shoot for Reebok last fall with model and Reebok spokesperson Gigi Hadid, May shot multiple setups as if she were following the subject through her fitness routine.

Creatives from Reebok’s ad agency, Roundhouse, referenced images in May’s portfolio in describing the “atmospheric, light, airy and warm” look they were going for. They also wanted to show Hadid wearing multiple products in a variety of scenarios—arriving, working out, cooling down, packing her gym bag, then relaxing in a dressing room. “Everybody knew it would be a lot of outfits, and a lot of asks,” May recalls.

The shoot took place in a warehouse-like space in Paterson, New Jersey, which had many wide, multi-paned industrial windows on one side of the room. May wanted to show light streaming through the windows. “When the clients described ‘light and airy and warm,’ that’s what came to mind.” Knowing she couldn’t count on bright sunlight on an October day, she planned to place lights outside the windows. The mimicked sunlight freed her from worrying about the position of the sun at different times of the day. Inside the warehouse, she needed a lighting setup that would allow her to cover Hadid’s movements and capture many variations quickly, with only a few fast adjustments to her lens or lights.

May explains, “When you get a shoot like this and there’s a lot of shots, and a limited amount of time, the schedule starts to break down to ten minutes for this shot, 20 minutes for this shot. It’s a matter of being prepared.”

© Monica May

For a multi-part shoot, Monica May photographed Gigi Hadid in several gym scenarios set in an airy, warehouse-like space. © Monica May


May had one day to do a tech scout and walk with the clients through the multi-floor industrial space. A prop stylist set up gym lockers, a bench and workout equipment in one section of the large open space on the first floor. May then had one day to pre-light, a day to shoot some Reebok products, and a day to shoot Hadid on the set.

May shoots a variety of subjects in different styles, and notes, “I don’t have a ‘go-to’ lighting setup, since a lot of what I shoot is inspired by the creative, the location.” Given the size of the warehouse space, she knew she would need a lot of lights. She ordered a 3-ton grip truck, as well as a strobe package and some HMI units which she used on a second set, for shots of Hadid in a dressing room.

On the pre-light day, May and her crew set up the lights outside. She shot tests using members of the crew as stand-ins. After she set up the indoor lights, she brought in a stand-in for Hadid to make sure her light sources were broad enough to allow the model to move.

The large windows were made up of small panes of different kinds of glass: “Some had frosted glass, some had textured glass, some were clear,” May recalls. She liked the idea of creating patterns with the light shining through the glass. “However, there were times that I didn’t want strong unfiltered light” on the subject or the background. So her crew cut gels and stuck them over the clear glass. Then during the shoot, they would occasionally remove a gel to let in more light. “This way, we could have diffused strobe light coming through the windows, as well as giving us the option to remove [the gels] between shots if I wanted harder light falling on the background,” May explains. A hazer placed out of the frame added mist near the beams of strobe light pouring through the windows.

There were about 35 crew members on the set, including hair and makeup stylists, grips, Hadid’s assistant and a crew shooting behind-the-scenes video.

© Monica May

When Hadid posed close to the windows, the strong light from outside acted as a rim light, creating subtle highlights. © Monica May


For the shots of Hadid in the gym, May chose to use strobes powered with Broncolor Scoro 3200 packs with built-in RFS receivers because “the speed is more controllable,” she says.

Outside, she set up four Broncolor twin heads with P65 reflectors and gelled them with ¼ CT straw to warm the light blasting through the windows.

Indoors, she set up two 20×20-foot framed silks. Behind each silk was a strobe head with white umbrellas firing. With the diffused strobes placed behind her camera, May says, she created the illusion that there was another wall of windows somewhere in the space.

She had an additional light that was placed on a rolling stand or handheld by an assistant. For some shots, the head was fitted with a sock or a grid. This supplemental light helped provide fill “on, say, an all-black outfit,” she explains.

When Hadid was in the middle of the room, she was backlit by the window light, and the diffused strobes lightened the shadows cast on the floor. When Hadid posed closer to the window, the outside light acted as a rim light.


May shot handheld with a Nikon D810 tethered to a monitor. “We were moving really fast because we had a lot of shots to get in,” she recalls. “If I’m seeing spontaneity I want to capture, or I’m trying to capture personality, I want to shoot fast.” Throughout the shoot, she says, she switched between a 24-70mm zoom or a 70-200mm, and sometimes used an 85mm, “because it’s a beautiful prime for portraits.” For most of the gym shots, she said, she shot at 1/250th.

Post Production

Throughout the busy shoot, the clients were checking the monitor. “On a shoot like this, it’s really helpful for me to have an open dialogue with the creatives on set about what is being captured and knowing when we’ve got the shot, so we can move on to the next shot or setup,” May explains.

On the Reebok assignment, the client was handling all the retouching. May says she often gives a retoucher notes on the color. Before she adds a photo to her portfolio, she does her own retouching, because “I like to finalize the grain and color,” she says.  She works primarily in Photoshop, and uses Capture One and Lightroom “depending on what I feel is needed.”

When an assignment calls for multiple photos, May likes to send the client some of her selections in a PDF she’s designed in InDesign so they look like a cohesive story. She explains, “When you shoot a lot of different scenarios, wardrobe changes and angles, it’s nice to see how they look together.” she says. “I think that presenting an edit this way directly after the shoot is a nice way for me to see how the project can potentially come together.”

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