Corey Jenkins on Photographing Crossfit Athletes

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All images by Corey Jenkins. Used with permission.

Corey Jenkins is an advertising photographer located in Southern California and he’s always had a thing for photographing sports. In high school, he would photograph his friends riding skateboards, playing sports, riding bikes, etc. But a leg injury prevented him from running for a while and that solidified him spending time on the sidelines shooting rather than playing.

Flash forward to 2015, and he’s recently shown off an incredible photo project highlighting Crossfit athletes as they train for a competition. We talked to him about how he created the scenes, gaining the trust of athletes, and his mentality when going into the project.

Phoblographer: What got you into photography?

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Corey: I started taking pictures in high school of my friends riding bikes, skateboarding, playing sports, or whatever we were doing on the weekends. In high school I suffered a leg injury that prevented me from running for a few years so I spent all of my time on the side lines shooting rather than playing on the field. It was fun for me because I understood what I was shooting and knew everyone on the field. I would post the photos online the next day and quickly became the photographer guy around school. I don’t think I ever missed shooting a football game in the 4 years I was in high school, even on days I was home sick from school. The feeling of missing out on playing due to injury quickly went away after I got into photography more and decided I wanted to do as a career. It’s funny how everything works out for a reason!

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Phoblographer: What got you into doing documentary type of work like that in the Crossfit project?

Corey: The dedication these athletes put into their workouts is really something else! Almost every Crossfit workout ends with the class laying on the floor in pain attempting to catch their breath. If you go to your local 24 hour gym, no one will be laying on the floor after their workout. I’ve made some great friends through Crossfit and find everyone who does it to be hard working and good people which I like to surround myself around. When you put all of these together and how photogenic the typical Crossfit “box” is for my photography style, you can see how I got into documenting it.

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Phoblographer: Lots of the lighting looks natural, but we’re pretty sure that there was a light or two used here to get that dramatic look. Is that how you got your vision across?

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Corey: You are correct, I do use quite a few lights on most of my shoots. I like to light a scene so it looks natural but give it an atmospheric boost that also has defining light that better suits athletes. On this shoot, I used three lights and a haze machine to get the effect. I had to light the scene pretty broadly as the athletes were moving all over the place. Ideally, you can get much better light if your subject is standing in one area, but I’ve found for Crossfit, you have to light for a large area most of the time if you want to document realistically. I’m still experimenting on what works best for this.

Phoblographer: How did you go about getting the trust and explaining the project to the gym and the athletes? Was there some sort of barter agreement made?

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Corey: Gaining trust with athletes is important! A good amount of athletes I work with don’t model regularly so being in front of the camera can be intimidating especially when you’re sweaty and probably making funny faces from working out hard. Fortunately, I’m friends with a lot of these athletes and use this gym all the time for photo shoots. Most of the people there knew who I was and had seen my work before which helped. I recently did a shoot down in the Bahamas for Reebok with 50 of the top Crossfit athletes which is great to show people when it’s your first time working with them to help build trust.

As far as explaining the project, we sent out an email to some folks in the area who we thought might be interested. We included some of my work and what we were trying to do with the event. The Crossfit community is always looking for a reason to get together and these open workouts usually attract a lot of people so it was very easy to find athletes. The agreement was the athletes would all get the final retouched images to use and I would get signed model releases so I could use them for stock. I do this trade pretty often for these types of test shoots.

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Phoblographer: The images are fairly wide, why did you choose this as part of your creative vision?

Corey: This project called for the wide angle lens I think. Part of what makes this project stand out is the atmosphere and environment the athletes were in with the fog so that’s why I stayed pretty wide to include as much as I could of it.

Phoblographer: When you went into the project, did you have an idea of what you wanted beforehand? We’re sure the creative juices were flowing, but what ideas did you have?

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Corey: Fortunately, for this project I knew exactly what I wanted beforehand and got pretty close to it with the end product. This doesn’t happen all the time with photography especially when trying a new look or technique out like I did on this project. The creative juices were definitely flowing the days leading up to the shoot and I was really excited about it. I always try to sketch up a lighting diagram and gather some sample images for a style guide to help hold the shoot together visually. We did a quick test at the gym the night before to try out the fog and haze machines. I’m glad we tested this because we found a few air vents on the roof that were letting out all of the haze and were able to close them off for the shoot. I think whenever you are trying something new, it’s always good to test it before any models/athletes are there. You don’t want to put in all the work of getting a bunch of people there and have something small that turns your shoot into a failure. I’m learning more and more on each shoot that preparation is really important in photography with each shoot.

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This shoot did have a few things up in the air leading up to it. First off I almost didn’t do it because I came down with the flu the morning on the shoot. I felt horrible all morning and afternoon and was thinking to my self how am I going to do this. I’m glad I went through with it because once the shoot started I didn’t think anything about not feeling well and just focused on what I needed to do.

Another thing that I wasn’t sure about before the shoot was the workout as it would be announced moments before we started the shoot. Certain Crossfit movements look great and others don’t look as good. All of the athletes for this shoot would be sticking to the Cross Open workout that was announced right before we started the shoot. Crossfit announces these open work outs weekly for anyone who is signed up to try and submit a score. The top athletes in each region advance to the Regional Crossfit games. It was pretty fun, we all watched the live stream announcement in anticipation before we started shooting. All of these athletes were fighting to get a spot in the Regional event which a majority of them did. I knew everyone would be going as hard as they could which makes these photos stand out I think.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you used.

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Corey: I used a Nikon D810 and 3 Paul C Buff Einstein lights. For light modifiers, I used an octabox and two 7 inch reflectors on the lights. I wanted this to look somewhat like an old school boxing match in a smokey dark location. I used a hazer and fog machine to help achieve this look along with hard lighting. This was a pretty simple set up gear wise.

Phoblographer: So, is the project done? Will you follow the athletes through the Crossfit games?

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Corey: I liked how this project turned out and see many ways on how to improve it so I definitely will do a few more shoots with this foggy look down the road. Next year, I’m going to try and shoot all five of the Crossfit Open workouts at a different gym each time. I plan to be at the Crossfit games this year supporting all of the athletes I’ve taken pictures of.

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