Bronx-born, California-raised, Ian Sitren has been around gyms his whole life. Moving to Southern California at the age of two, Sitren’s father took him often. After doing some weight lifting of his own when twelve years old, Sitren became inmpressed with the photography he found in bodybuilding magazines. As an adult working as a full-time photographer, he married his interests and carved out a spot for himself as a top bodybuilding shooter.
As his career progressed, Sitren won the confidence of many photo editors and commercial clients. Whereas he previously gave them what he thought they wanted, he now delivers what he thinks best, shooting to both express himself and complete the assignment to his exacting standards.
Regarding locations, Sitren shoots where the assignments lead him. Although the majority of his work is done in gyms and bodybuilding shows held in auditoriums, he shoots in more interesting locations when he can. “I will typically try to think up something more interesting and adventuresome than just shooting in the gym, which can get very tiresome,” he explains. “For the average person, going in and shooting in a gym would seem pretty exciting, but when you do it over and over and over again, there’s only so much you can do with it.”
Other clients such as Bodybuilding.com have given Sitren even more freedom. For that publication, he writes, shoots, and puts together the Iron Man Magazine BodySpace Physique of the Month column. With a half-million readers and site members, he chooses whom to feature and how to shoot them. He also writes a brief article on each body builder and how they transformed themselves. “It’s a huge amount of freedom,” he says. “I send them, typically, 12 to 24 photos from a shoot. They’ll run three to six.”
Originally a film shooter, Sitren was slow to embrace digital technology. “I was quite happy shooting film. Still am,” he says. “I still shoot quite a bit of film. It depends on the project. I don’t limit myself. When I think about a project, or when I’m doing a project, if I get up and I say, ‘Boy, in my mind’s eye I see that in medium format Tri-X,’ then it’s going to be in medium format Tri-X.”
“If I see the shot as really sharp, high-resolution digital, then it’s going to be really sharp, high-resolution digital. If I see that as: ‘Whoops, that’s due tomorrow,’ then it’s digital,” he laughs. “It also depends on budgets. Budgets aren’t the same as what they were just three years ago. I don’t quite have the latitude on some projects in shooting film now because it’s too expensive.”
Sitren was witness to an industry-wide trend as the Great Recession continued to drag on and deepen. Magazines cut back as their advertising fell away. Paper-based publications literally got thinner. Ad budgets got smaller. Manufacturers re-ran ads and repurposed photos. Some publications went from monthlies to quarterlies. Some ceased to exist. This survival strategy gave them large backlogs of materials for future issues. Photo assignments disappeared.
Adapting to these changing budgetary landscapes, Sitren adjusted what he was spending on shoots, and got more out of single shoots than he previously did. When shooting film, he was more judicious to get the maximum out of the expense of film and processing. “I’ve been through recessions before, but nothing like this,” he says.
Conversely, this has slowly brought about a pendulum-swing in the opposite direction. “The upside is typically in a recession, the bodybuilding and fitness world does very well,” he explains. “People who would otherwise be running out and spending money at the bar every night, and spending money doing this, that, and the other, all of a sudden internalize things and do things more important and better for themselves than they used to. They start going to the gym. They start paying attention to health. They start paying attention to things that they weren’t doing before. So, they’ll run out to the magazine stands, and they’ll buy a $6 magazine, whereas before they wouldn’t have even bothered. $6 for a magazine is actually fairly inexpensive entertainment. Your $30 gym membership, well, gosh, it’s a pretty big social network you can have very inexpensively.”
The economy isn’t the only thing changing for Sitren. He’s been experimenting with various Mamiya medium format digital gear. “I was probably the first person ever to be published with the Mamiya ZD Back,” he says of an assignment he did for Bodybuilding and Fitness World magazines. He also used it for a Palm Springs feature in Private Clubs, a large country club magazine, and a feature in Iron Man magazine. “I got a cover and a big feature in a couple trade magazines using the ZD Back, and that’s pretty much when it first came out. For the pricepoint, it was a pretty good buy.”
Sitren is also using the Mamiya DM33. “I was really impressed with it,” he says. “What amazed me especially was the dumbfounding color that came right out of the camera. The tremendous sharpness, the color, everything was so damn perfect, and part of it’s got to be the vast improvement of the D‑series lenses, as compared to the primary lenses I used on the 645AFD II. I was just astounded of what came into, and what came out of the camera. I had to do nothing to them. I had to do nothing, just no retouching. It was perfect.”
Feeling the medium format quality gives him an edge when presenting to his clients. “When I opened up those DM33 files, I about fell out of my chair,” he recalls. I was amazed. They were heads-up better than the Aptus 65 files, heads up better than the Phase P45 files. No question. I’ve shot a lot of stuff and the DM33 just blew me away. I was dumbfounded. I was pretty impressed with the Mamiya anyway with the prior lenses and everything, but this just blew me away.”
Defying conventional wisdom, Sitren is able to achieve film-like qualities with medium format digital shooting. Of his outdoor session with Raechelle Chase he explains, “I did the ever popular high‑definition look to photos. The files out of the DM33 were so sharp and had such definition. The gravel in the ground was plainly visible. It was dumbfounding. But, at the opposite end of the spectrum, when I wanted to slow the shutter down and make it have that film, not-quite-in-focus-movement-look to it, it worked really well for that too. I like doing that. With the DM33, it was so easy to emulate a lot of types of shooting I used to do on film. Still do on film, actually.”
With his own photography, Sitren continues to attempt to stand out, even if his subject matter remains the same. “I try to do things differently. I try to make sure that my stuff does not look like the next thing in a magazine. One of the big tests for me was taking the camera into the gym. Even if you’re lighting it, you’ve got a whole different set of parameters you’re working within. I also have a tendency to shoot kind of odd lightings. I’ll put the light behind somebody, or I’ll flood them with light and give it that hazy look. The DM33 was much more responsive to really odd lighting than I had expected. I was able to focus without resorting to go to manual most of the time, which is a big time saver. Especially, when I shoot people in the gym, I actually make them work out. They’re not posing, for the most part.”
Sitren feels it’s critical his bodybuilding subjects are fully engaged. “I’m pushing them through a workout because I want it to look like they’re actually working out. I want the muscles to be flexed and to be working as they would in a workout. The only way to do that is to use real weight and real people doing real things. The camera needs to be fairly responsive to that. It has to be able to shoot fast enough, and preferably autofocus fast enough.”
When asked about his lighting, Sitren quickly says, “I exclusively use Profoto. Ninety‑nine percent of the time it’s an Acute 2400R. I’ll use one or two heads. I’ll use a strip softbox and a head, or maybe just a head, or sometimes two silver umbrellas. A couple of PocketWizards and my Sekonic L‑358 meter and I’m good to go.”
With his chosen gear, Sitren is able to quickly set-up and get the shots he’s looking for. “It’s easy,” he declares. “I can store everything in the trunk of my car. I have one assistant. He gets everything out of the car, has it all set up within 15 to 20 minutes.”
This summer Sitren will be wrapping up a photo book entitled Muscle Beach Today, spanning his work with bodybuilders. His blog on Bodybuilding.com has pulled in hundreds of thousands of viewers, and shows no sign of running out of content. Other areas he’s been experimenting with include flattening colors, desaturating, and changing overall color themes. Client response has been positive. “I like doing it,” he says. “It’s fun. It’s something you would have done in film. In film you burn and dodge and cross process and different things, but you gotta start out with really good files.”
Ian Sitren has found his niche. He and his lifework are textbook examples of utlilizing a deep personal interest to create art and earn a living from it. Whether you spend time in a gym, or not, and whether you can appreciate the staggering array of muscles bodybuilders strive for, Sitren’s work and the career he’s built are testaments to a photographer beating odds to become and stay successful, despite economic downturns, fluctuating public interest, and advancing technology. That’s an impressive display of strength and art.