A Look At Swimsuit Photography From the Work Of Pro Lensers

When it comes to shooting beautiful models in swimsuits, there are many professional photographers that come to mind. I have narrowed it down to 4 top photographers, based on works I admire. They all happen to shoot for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which comes out only once a year. These photographers are also well respected in their fields, shooting for top publications in media and fashion.

I want to delve into the perspective of the top swimsuit photographers. What camera they use, how they compose their images and the lighting technique. They also had access to prime locations where they can really take great photos. That as opposed to shooting at an ordinary public beach or a boring swimming pool. This is worthy of discussion among all photographers, especially those who shoot swimsuits.

I have chosen 4 photos from top swimsuit photographers, namely Yu Tsai, Ben Watts, Bjorn Iooss and James Macari. There are many noteworthy swimsuit photographers out there, but there are too many to cover so I narrowed it down to 4 to make this easier. Luckily, their works are made available for downloading with respect to copyright. I based most of the info I got from the EXIF details in the photos.

Let’s analyze them.

Date Taken 11/7/2016

(Source Sports Illustrated)

This is a stunning piece of work from Yu Tsai. The contrast of the blue sky, white clouds and golden sand complements the well tanned model in the pose. The camera used was a NIKON D810 with the following settings: ISO-160, 0 step exposure bias, 70 mm focal length, f/11, 1/250 sec, no flash, spot metering. I would assume that Yu had used a medium telephoto lens for this shot which he composed at a focal length of 70 mm. The focus was sharp and spot on with the eyes and skin. It seems to have been shot on a partly cloudy day, but the WB was set to automatic in camera. A large reflector can bounce enough light to the model to get a good exposure. The eyes and the face are well lit with some soft shadows, so this does not look like direct lighting from a strobe. The full frame D810 creates images at 33.6 MP with no optical low pass filter. It seems that Yu or his retoucher had downscaled the image to 1280 x 1920 for the web using Adobe Photoshop CC 2014.

Date Taken 8/11/2016

(Source Sports Illustrated)

The gorgeous Barbara Palvin shot by photographer Ben Watts. This is a colorful and vibrant photo, which has a jovial and happy mood portrayed by the model. Getting a good DOF with the blur on the banana trees in the background while bringing the model’s smile into sharp focus is the highlight of this photo. Ben used a CANON EOS-1D X with the following settings: ISO-320, 0 step exposure bias, 100 mm focal length, f/5.6, 1/500 sec, no flash, pattern metering. I don’t have the detail about which type of lens was used, but I want to assume it is a 100 mm medium telephoto. The model could be lit with reflectors, while harsh sunlight can be diffused. The EOS-1D X creates 18.1 MP but once again the image was downscaled to 1280 X 1920 using Adobe Photoshop CC 2014. The WB was also set to auto with uncalibrated color representation, so it would probably undergo the color space definition in post. This photo was for the web so the print version would be processed much differently.

Date Taken 10/7/2010

(Source Sports Illustrated)

Lensing model like Irina Shayk is photographer Bjorn Iooss. His work really portrays strong and sensual poses that engage the viewer. The pose in this photo is great, but so is the setting around it. The tiles, the water in the pool and steps leading down to the water. All this was composed to get a great image using a CANON EOS-1Ds Mark III with the following settings: ISO-400, 0 step exposure bias, 28 mm focal length, f/5, 1/320 sec, no flash, pattern metering. Now this composition used a wider angle lens but shot at close distance compared to the previous two photos. Bjorn wanted to capture a full body shot of the model from the tips of the fingers to the tips of her toes. He had to get a good angle though, otherwise the photo would appear more distorted giving the model a less than appealing look. If this was done in camera, that is skill and technique indeed. The aperture was not opened all the way so I think some fixed light source may have been used on the model since it looks like this area of the pool is not directly under any sunlight. The EOS-1Ds Mark III can create 21.1 MP images. The original of this photo uploaded by Sports Illustrated was downscaled to 1920 x 1281 using Adobe Photoshop CC 2014. What I am not a fan of is the retouching on the skin in this photo, which looks very obvious. Perhaps leaving it a little bit more natural would give it sharper details on the skin. Otherwise it looks too clean and smooth, giving it a softer and delicate appearance. It could also be what the retoucher wanted for this image.

Date Taken 10/29/2013

(Source Sports Illustrated)

This is a beautiful portrait of Lily Aldridge shot by James Macari. James has a very creative style that portrays beauty and sensuality that blends with the surroundings. In this case the model is at a white sand beach sitting in the water. The photo was shot with a CANON EOS 5D Mark III with the following settings: ISO-500, 0 step exposure bias, 125 mm focal length, f/10, 1/640 sec, no flash, pattern metering. The exposure used a more smaller aperture opening to get sharper details rather than overexpose the image since it was shot in direct sunlight. If the model was facing the direction of the sun, a diffuser can provide some light modification to filter extreme highlights and hotspots. If she was behind the sun, then reflected light going back to the model provides more even lighting. A telephoto lens is used once again. WB was left to auto and colors were not calibrated but the EXIF notes that the photometric interpretation is RGB. The EOS 5D Mark III creates 22.3 MP images, but this photo was downscaled to 1280 x 1920 using Adobe Photoshop CC 2014.

All 4 photographers used a full frame DSLR camera. We have 3 CANON shooters and 1 NIKON shooter. This may open up a debate of CANON vs. NIKON, but this is really about preference and it just happens to be more CANON lensers in this case. Yu Tsai’s NIKON D810 has the highest resolution camera among the photographers.

Here are more insights:

  • Pattern metering was preference on CANON, while spot metering for NIKON
  • Telephoto lens create great portraits shot from a distance
  • Wide angle lens can fill the frame at shorter distance
  • ISO was kept below 1000 for exposures
  • Modified natural lighting (no flash) makes great images
  • Location lighting works best
  • Smaller apertures i.e. higher F stops, create good images on location
  • Auto WB is fine, unless you have a certain coloring profile set
  • Less overexposure, more balanced exposure the better
  • Color representation can be uncalibrated
  • Shutter speed was set to capture the best light given the aperture



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Vincent Tabora

Editor HD-PRO, DevOps Trusterras (Cybersecurity, Blockchain, Software Development, Engineering, Photography, Technology)