As many of us know, photography doesn’t always take us where we expect to end up. Whether it’s a different angle, different location, or different genre, as photographers we continuously find ourselves striving to do something different. It’s this sort of incessant desire for something new that drove Salt Lake City based photographer Mike Tittel to do something different. Mike is a commercial, advertising, and editorial photographer who specializes in shooting sports, fitness, adventure, and active lifestyle images on location. Yet, he didn’t necessarily start out with a sports photography vision in mind…
How it all began
Photography isn't something that came to me at a young age.
I was in my early 20’s working as an outdoor educator leading teens on wilderness based trips when I caught the bug. It was my desire to share my passion for adventure sports and my love for exploring the natural world that lead me to pick up my first "real" camera—an Olympus OM-1 borrowed from my father, used to document my trips. Since I had never taken a class, I started reading every book I could get my hands on about photography—shooting in manual mode and making money from your photos.
That first summer I bought as much slide film as I could afford (because back then that's what "pros" shot) and started shooting. I vividly remember the disappointment I felt at the end of the summer after spending ever penny to my name getting those first couple dozen rolls of slide film processed and seeing that I had failed more than I had succeeded. Those failures lit a fire within me to learn and eventually lead me to enroll in the Rocky Mountain School of Photography's Summer Intensive Program in 1999. It was there that I developed the foundational skills needed to start my career. Since then I've relentlessly pursued my craft, always striving to grow and have learned to embrace failure, using it to fuel creativity.
And then some soul searching lead me to fitness and sports photography
I've always been super active and staying healthy is personally very important to me, so it's an extension of my lifestyle and things I'm passionate about. However, fitness and more mainstream sports photography are both relatively new in my career.
Early on I was drawn to shooting landscapes and documenting the adventure sports I loved—everything from mountaineering and sea kayaking to mountain biking and epic powder days. While covering an event in a remote part of Southern Chile, there was a distinct moment that changed the direction of my career and lead me to more mainstream sports and fitness related images.
I was standing there on top of an unnamed peak looking out at some of the most pristine, untouched wilderness in the world, and creatively I was bored. I was gazing at the landscape of my dreams and felt a sense of "been there, done that." Maybe it was the so-called "seven year itch," but when I got home I did some soul searching.
At the time, I was fairly established as an adventure sports photographer and was fearful of what change might do to my career, but deep down I had this desire to branch out and shoot more mainstream sports and fitness related images that were more polished and lit. Back then though, I couldn't have lit my way out of a darkroom, so I started teaching myself how to use strobes on location and craft the light I had in my mind—something that excited me creatively and that was more conducive to mainstream sports and fitness images.
My gear of choice
I'm a Nikon fan through and through and use whichever DSLR is most suited for the project I'm working on. Currently, my favorite is the D800—I love the detail in the files. In terms of lenses I most frequently use the Nikon 14-24mm F2.8 (or 16-35mm F4), the 24-70mm F2.8, and 70-200mm F2.8. For lighting, I just made the switch to the new Broncolor Move packs and MobiLED heads. They are amazing for location work given their lightweight, power output, speedy recycle time, and fast flash duration! I use a slew of modifiers including the Para 88, the Beauty Dish, P70 reflectors with grids, and various soft boxes including the small 2’ x 3.3' and the 4.9' Octa.
Why I love what I do
Honestly, I love just about every aspect of my job. I dig the travel and challenges of being a location photographer, as well as the amazing people I get to meet and work with. Unlike many photographers, I actually enjoy the business side as well—everything from marketing new work to sharing my portfolio with creatives face-to-face. I think the hardest part of being a photographer is the uncertainty of never 100% knowing exactly when that next job is coming—that always keep things interesting.
Yoga in the Park: Portland, Oregon
Much of my inspiration comes from travels. While I was on a trip to share my portfolio with advertising agencies in Portland, I randomly stumbled upon this killer park/fountain while walking around the city between meetings. Immediately upon discovering it, I knew I wanted to return to the location to shoot yoga. It felt like the perfect place to reconnect with oneself amongst the bustle of the city and I was really drawn to the graphic shapes and flow of the water. So the next time I was in town with my gear and my assistant, I reached out to one of my favorite local yogis and shot some images for my portfolio.
Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70MM f2.8 lens, 1/15 sec @ f9.5
Manfratto tripod, Sunbouce 4’x6' white reflector
Underwater Surf: Maui, Hawaii
I love shooting scenes from perspectives you don't see every day, but sometimes shooting from different angles can be a huge challenge. Although I love being in the ocean and consider myself a strong swimmer, I had never shot in the surf with an underwater housing before this shoot. I knew I wanted to create a dynamic image of a duck diving under a breaking wave, but I underestimated how exhausting it would be to just swim out in snorkel gear to the point where I could get the shot. The added drag of the bulky camera and strong currents kicked my butt. I'm not one to give up though, so once in position we shot multiple takes to get the exact image I was after. In this sort of situation, it takes a lot of repetition and a bit of luck as you kind of have to shoot blindly as you are being tossed by the wave. Definitely one of the more challenging shots I've taken.
Nikon D700, Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 lens in an Aquatic Housing, 1/125 sec @ f6.7
Rooftop Dancer: New York City, New York
I'm a sucker for locations that allow tons of options in terms of shooting angles, perspectives, etc. This image came from a personal portfolio shoot in NYC this past spring. While doing research on locations I stumbled upon this killer rooftop in Midtown and I knew I wanted to do something dance related. Although we shot a number of action images, this portrait of one of the dancers stood out. I love the strength she conveys and the feeling like she is standing on edge of the roof. Getting up there was no easy feat though. The elevator only went up to the 20th floor and I had to carry gear up one flight of stairs to the actual studio. To get to this particular spot we climbed up two additional stories outside via vertical ladders. Once in position, the view was amazing.
Nikon D800, Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, 1/350 sec @ f6.7
Sunbouce 4'x6' silver reflector
Basketball Player: New York City, New York
Luck with the location played a big role in this shot. I stumbled upon this court while scouting another location for this portfolio shoot a couple of blocks away. After shooting sunrise in our primary location we made our way to this spot only to be greeted with very graphic shadows on the brick wall. I placed the basketball player within the frame and intentionally had him mimic the angle of the shadows from the hoop. I love creating scenes where natural elements and the subject interact in this way.
Nikon D800, Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lens, 1/750 @ f8
Tennis Player: Salt Lake City, Utah
This shot came from a shoot where I had a very specific pre-visualized idea that I wanted to create solely for my portfolio—something that's been very important in my career. I'm a huge fan of shooting this type of work since I am free to create (and potentially fail) without the demands of an end client. I think for a lot of young photographers it's easy to get trapped into thinking you have to shoot what the client wants to see. In reality, I've personally found it to be far more effective to create and foster my own unique vision. Ultimately, I think it leads to quicker success and a more fulfilling career. This particular image ended up helping me land a huge gig with a dream client in the sports industry simply because I created it from the heart.
Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70MM f2.8 lens, 1/250 sec @ f8
Profoto 7a with 2 heads, Profoto 600R with 1 head (All heads with grid reflectors and 20-degree grids.)
Advice for those looking to break into sports and fitness photography
- I think this is true for any genre of photography, but learn to embrace failure and your mistakes while using them to fuel growth both as an artist and in business.
- Second, foster your own inner creativity—don't try to be someone else because they are already doing it way better that you will ever be able to. Give yourself the freedom and permission to be yourself because ultimately your vision is what is going to get you hired.
- Finally, if you want to make a career out of photography you have to learn the business side of things. There are countless resources out there, so educate yourself.