Cutting Muscles with Light Crafting

Nude photo of a muscular female demonstrating lighting techniques for photographers

Muscles are the most interesting things to photograph. Light them wrong, though, and they disappear. Imagine the poor person who has been working their tail off to get all cut and ripped, holding an image where nothing shows. Here is how to get it right, even to make them look leaner and more muscled.

The trick is to cross light with a harsher light source or, more correctly, a directional light source. For drama, it generally works better in a low key setting. Plus, the darker the skin, the more that contoured light will show up those muscles.

To cross light, place the light to the side of the subject so the light goes across the body. Usually if it’s a bit higher – say, the standard 45 degrees – you will get a better effect. Don’t go with too much contrast in a light. That is just as bad as light that is too soft, as you will get the muscle ridge but the rest of the muscle or abs will vanish into darkness.

Nude photo of a muscular female demonstrating lighting techniques for photographers

Feathering the light is still a good approach, as it will reduce the hot spots and contrast, plus give you a more even exposure across the body. To feather a light, you aim the center of the light away from the subject. Essentially they are lit with the edge light. You will lose some exposure – perhaps a stop or two – but gain a more even light that is more revealing, while still directional.

When lighting from the one side, putting a light behind and to the side of the subject will separate them from the background and show off more toning as well. When you do this, remember that incidental light records brighter than an exposure with a light meter will suggest. You want the exposure to be revealing of the body edge in the dark side, but not so bright that it’s a white blast. 

When working with the back light, watch the face. You want to refine the position of the head and light so you don’t have light streaking across the face, hitting the nose (a common problem).

Nude photo of a muscular female demonstrating lighting techniques for photographers

Light from directly above is very powerful for cutting muscles. Put the light out a short distance from the subject so it’s the edge light that works for you. Your light fall off will be reduced. You can place a large reflector below the light, tilted toward your subject, to fill and shape the bottom part of the abs and muscles.

Happy muscle cutting with your light!


  1. Who’s the second lady with the short hair? She’s got a great body – muscular, but elegant at the same time.

    • Mark Laurie

      She is Deb, a VIP client of mine, This was her second photo shoot, she had been in training for a fitness contest. Mother of 2 if I recall right.

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