Fstoppers Interviews Professional Action Photographer Dave Lehl
If you aren’t familiar with the work of Dave Lehl, it’s about time that you change that. Dave is not only one of the top photographers in the snowboard industry, but he consistently creates work that transcends genres and has landed him gigs shooting for a list of clients that includes the likes of Red Bull, Nike, and Lamborghini. He has been published in nearly every major snowboard magazine including the covers of Pleasure Mag and Transworld Japan’s photo annuals.
Dave’s relationship with Fstoppers goes back almost five years to one of the first Fstoppers Originals, “How to Shoot Snowboard Photography” where he shared his in-depth knowledge of photography and snowboarding. I recently caught up with Dave to continue that conversation as well as discuss a range of topics including iconic images, education, making it in a growing industry, and what he’s been up to recently. Whether you prefer photographing toddlers or triple corks, you’ll be able to take something away from Dave’s world class career. Triple corks are overrated anyway.
What was your first introduction to photography, and how did that eventually combine with your love of snowboarding?
I suppose that my introduction to photography was in high school. I was on the yearbook staff and had a little Chinon camera that my folks had given me. More than anything it was an excuse to get out of class and dick around with my friends off campus. When I got to college I pursued a journalism degree but was constantly enrolling in fine arts classes as electives. Most were photography based but I did a lot with film, video, and metal sculpture. In my journalism classes I’d struggle to turn in quality work and only get B’s and C’s, whereas in my fine arts classes, nearly everything I turned in got an A. For some reason I didn’t think that art could generate a legitimate living so I stuck with the journalism. About a month before I was set to graduate with my journalism degree I had a freak out moment and realized, “what am I doing? I HATE writing!” Luckily I’d amassed enough fine arts credits that I only needed another two semesters to graduate with two degrees, one in Journalism and one in Fine Arts.
After college I started shooting model tests and assisting pro shooters around the Denver area and eventually hatched plans to move to New York to shoot fashion. Before moving to New York I naively thought that I’d stop off in Summit County, Colorado, for a season and shoot some snowboarding to make some money to fund the move. Snowboarding was my LIFE throughout high school and college and since I knew it inside and out, I thought that I could capture it well. Over the course of that season I made a bunch of friends and shot with everybody that would get out there with me. Towards the end of the season I met Kurt Hoy, the then editor of Transworld Snowboarding Magazine, and he asked me to send in some shots. I guess he liked what he saw because he asked me if I could shoot some photos for their upcoming Resort Guide. I busted my hump to get as many photos as I could for the guide and when it finally came out the next summer, they ended up running something like 40 of them! After that I was hooked. It was brats on boards instead of babes on beaches from there on out.
Do you think that your education in the arts helped your career as a photographer? A lot of people comment that they consider a degree in fine arts to be useless in the real world; but I feel like those people are forgetting the opportunities and access to resources that are available while going to college. Has your journalism education ever come in handy?
Yes, I’m a huge advocate for continued education! A lot of people comment that they consider a degree in fine arts to be useless in the real world; but I feel like those people are forgetting the opportunities and access to resources that are available while going to college. Although I didn’t get the greatest technical photography education, I can’t stress college enough because it teaches you critical thinking which you’ll carry with you the rest of your days. I also think that completing a degree at an arts college like Rhode Island School of Design, the Brooks Academy, or one of the many Art Institutes gives you a massive advantage. Moreover, I think that anyone who’s wanting to be serious with photography NEEDS to assist!! Like I said, I didn’t receive the greatest technical advice in school but I learned EVERYTHING I know from assisting more experienced photographers. Get on the phone and try to work for as many different types of photographers as possible. And don’t expect it to be glamorous. I’ve mopped zillions of square feet of photo studios and cleaned up the nastiest bathrooms in the business and was grateful for the experience. With the not so fun parts comes the great parts too. Just get out there and be eager and willing to work for and learn from every photographer that you can.
On a side note, and I’m sure this one might lose me some fans, but it’s a huge pet peeve of mine with photographers boast about being ‘self taught’ as if they’ve overcome some terrible disease or something. If you are, that’s great, I’m truly happy for you, but don’t bring it up every chance you get because it’s insulting to those who actually took it seriously enough to pay good money to go to school to learn it correctly, or who put in the countless hours assisting other pros.
Do you have any advice for people looking to assist or get work in general? Your client list is nearly a mile long and filled with heavy hitters both within and outside of the snowboard industry such as Burton, Capita, Red Bull, Nike, and even Lamborghini, showing that you’ve been able to appeal to a wide range of companies and individuals.
First off, if your school has an internship program, definitely sign up for that. That’s how I initially got into the world of assisting.
Otherwise, I’d say to get online and look up all the photographers in your area and see who is doing work that you admire and shoot them an email. Personally I’d start off with a little flattery and let them know that you like their work and then follow up that you’re a photographer/student/whatever and that you’re checking to see if they ever need an assistant. If you’ve never assisted before you’re probably going to have to work for free for the first few shoots until you have the skills to really be of service. Assisting is all about anticipating what the photographer is going to need before they ask you for it, so pay attention! If they shoot with a lot of different lenses, always have the bag near and be ready to hand them a new one.
Pay attention to how many frames there are left on a card and have a fresh one in hand before they ask for it. If you’re shooting outdoors pay attention to the changing lighting scenarios and let them know if the conditions are about to change. Be ready for coffee runs. If you’re working for a studio photographer be ready to mop the floors.
Like I said earlier, I’ve mopped more floors than I care to remember and I did it every time with enthusiasm and a smile. Your attitude is what is going to get you called back. You could be the most technologically adept assistant ever, but if you’re a drag to be around and think you’re above even pulling weeds in the parking lot of the studio, you’re not going to keep getting hired. And I don’t mean to sound like every job you’ll be doing is total crap, but you have to take the bad with the good. And work around too Don’t put all your eggs in one basket with one photographer. Call them all! Even if your main focus is outdoor photography, assist studio shooters because you’re going to learn lighting techniques that you can then use out in nature. Overall I’d say be proactive, eager, and up for anything.
As far as getting work as a shooter, I’m still figuring it out myself. I just finished my new site, printed out two new portfolios, and am having leave-behind booklets printed which I’m planning on showing in person to agencies and directly to potential clients. Maybe I’m wrong but I feel like in this digital age of informal mass email blasts, a personal connection is more important than ever. That’s why I’m planning on meeting with as many potential clients in person as possible. But as far as getting work….. I mean, obviously having strong work is most important. That’s a given. What I’m TRYING to figure out right now is the marketing side. I’m not one of those guys on social media constantly going “Hey everybody, look at me!!!” Updating my blog is torture. I hate talking about myself, but it’s a necessary evil when it comes to marketing. I guess I’m trying to find the perfect balance of talking about my work life but not gloating about it. As far as the jobs I’ve got in the past, I feel like a lot of them have been because of personal relationships and word of mouth. My site was down for over two years so I wasn’t able to reach out to clients like I wanted to, so I relied on clients I’d already worked for passing my name on to other clients.
You mentioned earlier that an important part of shooting snowboarding is being immersed in the culture. There’s a ton of work that goes into shooting snowboarding that most people have no clue about.
Oh man, yeah, understanding the sports you’re shooting is CRUCIAL! I see examples all the time where a very talented fashion photographer, or even a sports shooter who doesn’t understand action sports try to shoot skateboarding or snowboarding and the results are just embarrassing for everyone. Just completely cringe worthy. I mean, look at the photos that came from the latest olympics. Yeah there were some snowboard specific shooters there covering the games for Transworld or Snowboarder who got some awesome shots, but the majority of shots I saw were just missed grab, guy in the sky, butt shots. It’s no wonder guys like Bob Costas don’t take it seriously, the photos make it look like a joke. My advice is that if you’re going to jump into shooting action sports, do your homework first. Buy a bunch of magazines and really study the shots in there. Look at how they’re composed. In most action photos there’s an unwritten rule that you need to see the takeoff point and landing point in the photo which creates context. That way it tells a bit of a story of what’s happening; you see where they athlete came from, you see them in the optimal spot, and then you can see where they’re going to land I’m telling you right now that unless you have a takeoff and a landing in a shot, it will probably NEVER get run in a magazine. Of course there are always exceptions, but they’re rare.
Do you have a story where you had to go above and beyond to get a shot?
I can’t really think of one specific shot because I feel like you always have to go above and beyond, every single day, especially with snowboard photography. I think most folks think we’re just dicking around at ski areas from 10 to 3 and then getting apres drinks in the lodge at 4. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shooting at resorts is actually pretty rare. I’d say that 80% of the time we’re either 20 miles in the backcountry, or in the streets at 3 in the morning dodging cops. There have been times that a group of us spent 10 hours building one single jump, and the whole time you’re building it you’re still not even sure that you’re going to get a good shot.
Actually I suppose one of my latest shoots was a pretty good analogy of going above and beyond. I was working on my light trail series and had an idea for a shot involving a snowboarder doing a handplant over this huge stump in the backcountry that I knew about.
I started out by reaching out to a few of my favorite riders to see if they would be interested. It was early May and everyone was really burned out from breaking themselves all season and didn’t want to drive out to Colorado for one last shot. Then I reached out to the magazines to see if they knew of any riders that might be down, and all those guys were too tired as well. By this time it was late May and all of the snow in Colorado was almost gone. Finally I turned to Nike to see if he had any riders that might be interested. Within about 20 minutes I got a call from Sage Kotsenburg (future Olympic Gold medalist) and he was hyped! I’d met Sage briefly in France a couple years earlier, but I didn’t really know him that well, but he was so genuinely excited and positive that I immediately knew he was the perfect guy for the shot. Within 2 days he was on the road from Salt Lake City to Summit County Colorado. I knew the build was going to be a big one so I rounded up a couple friends from Denver to help build, Chad Otterstrom, a pro rider from Breckenridge, to do the snowmobile tow ins, and filmer Andy Orley to capture it on video. I hadn’t been up on Vail Pass in a week or two and as soon as we all met in the parking lot, I was in a bit of shock as to how little snow there was. Chad and I were the only two guys with snowmobiles so we had to shuttle everyone up to the zone. Unfortunately, so much snow had melted that we had to drive our sleds over a couple miles of dirt and rocks before we even got to the snow, and then go another couple more miles to get to the stump. Snow is crucial to keeping your engine cool so I was convinced that I was about to blow my engine, but I couldn’t give up so I had to just keep pushing it. After about 3 round trips we finally had everyone at the spot and started the build. I let Sage decide how far back and how big to build the jump since he’s they guy who would be hitting it and he knows better than anyone how he wants it. So as soon as he had his trajectory figured out we started building the jump. It ended up being about 4 feet wide and 7 feet tall, and took us right up until sunset to get it built. Since it took longer than expected, Sage knew that he needed to step up real quick because the optimal light was approaching fast and we only had about a 20 minute window to get it. Sage sent a couple straight airs over it and a spin and then he started getting inverted. He actually started nailing the trick pretty quickly but since he was zipping over me so fast, I was having a super hard time timing it when his hand was actually touching the stump At that point I started to freak out a little, because if I couldn’t nail the timing within the next few tries, the shoot would be a waste of time and he’d have driven out for nothing! Luckily within the next few tries he nailed the trick and I nailed the timing and we got the shot. As soon as I got it he said “Man, I’m so stoked you got it because my legs are just destroyed right now and I don’t think I could have done it another time!” Then it took 3 or 4 more trips down in pitch darkness on the sled to get everybody back to the parking lot. And the shot went on to be the cover of the Photo Annual for Transworld Japan!
Do you think that constantly putting in that work has bettered you as a photographer outside of the snowboard industry as well?
I definitely feel like the run-and-gun schedule that we keep has definitely made me a better photographer. In an urban situation whether you’re shooting snowboarding, skateboarding, or BMX, you’ve most likely got a very limited time frame to get the shot before the cops arrive and start handing out tickets. That means that when I get there, I’ve got to immediately start formulating exactly where I’m going to place my flashes and shoot from. And in modern day urban shooting, you’ve got to practically set up an entire photo studio with main lights, fills, and rims. Usually I’m out there at 2 in the morning with completely frozen hands, running around setting up strobes, trying to get all of my Pocket Wizards to sync, and helping set up the spot all while keeping an eye out for cops who can confiscate your gear if they feel like throwing their weight around. So yeah, when I’ve got a studio shoot with an assistant, craft services, and an art director to eliminate the guess work, it’s like a vacation.
Your light trail series is one of my favorite projects and seems to have brought you a lot of attention both within and outside of the snowboard industry. Could you give a little insight as to how you captured those images? Are you planning on continuing the series or do you have any future projects that you’re currently planning?
Sweet, I’m stoked you like the light trails! When I shot the first one I did it just for a portfolio piece and was thinking that it would be a little too ‘out there’ for the snowboard magazines. However, I ran into Nick Hamilton (Editor in Chief, Transworld Snowboarding) at the Burton US Open and showed it to him on my phone and he loved it. He ended up offering me a spot in the photo annual and a small budget if I wanted to create more. The Sage one I did specifically for the cover but they ended up going with another shot. Luckily Transworld Japan liked it enough to put it on their Photo Annual cover!
I’m still not wanting to fully divulge how I did it but I will say that it did involve a pretty fair amount of post processing. I don’t have any specific images planned that have to do with the light trails, but I’m still trying to figure out a way to incorporate them into skateboarding, running, or cycling. I DO have another big concept that I’m working on right now but I don’t want to let it leak the idea just yet because I don’t want someone to do it first! Sorry to be such a buzzkill on the specifics!!
Haha, no problem at all! I completely understand. That’s awesome how everything worked out and congratulations on the Japan cover. For all of the gearheads out there, what are you carrying around these days? What’s your bag like when you go out on a street mission vs. hopping on your sled and heading out into the backcountry?
Actually I take the exact same things with me into the backcountry and the street. In my bag I’ve got two Canon bodies, a 1d Mk III and a 5d Mk II. For lenses I’ve got a Canon 70-200, a Canon 24-70, and a sigma 15mm fisheye. And then I’ve got three Pocket Wizard TT5’s. Pretty basic stuff. I’m really not a big gear head. For flashes I’ve got a Elinchrom Ranger with an AS head that I usually use for my main light, and a Lumedyne setup with two heads that I usually use for rim lights. When you’re out on the snowmobile and have it all strapped down on the back you just have to go pretty slow otherwise you’ll jiggle everything to pieces. Usually in urban situations you can park fairly close to the spot so it’s not too bad carting it all to the feature.
The snowboard industry is much smaller than a lot of people would think, do you ever regret not entering the fashion industry or a similar photography world with higher earning potential?
In the end, that’s really what it’s all about. Outside of photography and snowboarding, what do you like to do in your free time?
I have what I call ‘creative ADD’ so it’s hard for me to ever sit down. I always have multiple projects going on. I love welding, woodworking, and working on my house. I’ve done a total remodel on my own house as well as a couple of flips and kitchen and bathroom remodels for friends. I also love rebuilding motorcycles. My first build actually made it onto the holy grail of bike sites, bikeexif. (http://www.bikeexif.com/1978-honda-cb550) Next on deck I’ve got a 1979 Kawasaki KZ650. Also I do a lot of road biking and skateboarding. I just turned 40 this week and my goal for the year is to learn 360 flips.
Any career or general life advice you’d like to sign off with? Thank you’s or shootouts?
I don’t know if I have any deep, life changing bits of knowledge to drop unfortunately. I’m just trying to figure it out like everybody else, you know? I guess in regards to photography I’d say to not focus so much on the technical side of things, but to really focus on coming up with an image that’s worth looking at.
I’d really like to say thank you to everyone that’s taken a chance to have me create imagery for them over the years. Also a big shout out to Zeal Optics for inviting me to be a part of their prestigious ambassador program and to Mindshift Gear for hooking me up with amazing photo bags!