Solving the Puzzle of a Photo Shoot With Stephen Matera

There is no typical day as an outdoor photographer, and I love that. As a Seattle-based Outdoor Lifestyle and Landscape photographer, I primarily shoot for outdoor gear brands such as, Brooks Running, Oboz Footwear and Raleigh Bikes, in addition to doing editorial work for The New York Times and Backpacker magazine. I like to think of every shoot as a puzzle with multiple moving parts. It takes days and sometimes weeks to solve the puzzle. The pieces of the puzzle are locations, schedules, models, shot lists, timing and weather. There are multiple ways to solve the puzzle, but only one will be most successful for the client.

I believe that 75% of a successful shoot is from having good pre-shoot prep. For a client’s shoot, selecting a location is a process of working out what the client is looking for and suggesting locations, including showing them photos from previous shoots, and what fits within their schedule and budget. Sometimes a client will have something in mind, and I will give them some feedback if I think it will be a good shoot location, or sometimes they are happy to let me suggest/pick locations based on their criteria. The timing will usually be chosen by me based on the forecast/light/talent availability, as well as location relative to where we will be traveling from. I watch the weather very closely to use it to my advantage, planning around the light whenever possible.

I always scout out locations myself in the days before a shoot, even if it is a place I have shot many times. This serves a couple of purposes. First, it allows me to observe the current conditions of a location, but just as importantly, it lets me be in the shoot location with that particular project in mind. I can start visualizing and planning the shots before the shoot starts, allowing them to flow much better. Even before scouting, there are usually phone calls and meetings about the goals of the shoot, including a mood board, shot list, and conversation about locations, timing, talent, wardrobe, etc. Some clients want to do most of the planning, and some are happy to leave it all up to me and just give me a shot list to go out and shoot.

I typically work with models/talent for my commercial shoots. Finding models is often a crux of a shoot. The right models can make or break a shoot. Sometimes the client finds the models, but often I am finding them based on what demographic the client wants. And for sports, I am always looking for talent that actually does the sport we are shooting. Nothing kills a shot more than a shot of someone who has never really run or biked much. There is an authenticity that cannot be faked (nor would I want to!) I like to work with people I have shot with before whenever possible. During the shoot, I am usually having fun and I try to keep the atmosphere fun for everyone. That helps the models stay relaxed and allows me to get the best from them as well.

Shooting movement in still photos is definitely a challenge but I am always shooting someone who actually moving, not faking movement. Knowing the sport helps. But also catching a moment that makes it obvious the person is in motion is key. For running, it is usually the moment when the runner is striding with both feet off the ground, often with muscles flexed naturally to give the visual cues that this person is in motion. Often, there is a little coaching to catch that natural looking moment, even with experienced runners. For biking, it sometimes means getting a little lean in a turn. Every sport has that moment and that is what I look to capture. This also means taking a lot of shots! I was shooting trail running recently and the runner was worried that I would not want them to run fast, thinking that running slowly would help me capture it. Instead I wanted them to run faster to get a natural stride and make it obvious that they were in motion.

When I am on the road for a shoot, after shooting is wrapped, I will immediately download the images to my laptop and back up to an SSD. I like having the SSD so I can put it in my pocket in case anything happens to my laptop while traveling. Then when I get back to the office, I immediately download everything to my Drobo. It definitely gives me peace of mind to know that as soon as it is all copied to my Drobo 5D3, it is instantly backed up.

My advice is pick something you are passionate about and know really well. Then, shoot the hell out of it. The more you shoot, you will find ways of approaching a subject in a way that you (or anyone else) may not have thought of before. It will probably take a while to develop your style, and that will continue to evolve as you shoot. If you are not evolving, you are not being creative. Don’t be afraid to try things and fail. Try shooting something you have shot many times, but in light you think would be terrible. It will make you work harder and think more about the light. I think what has helped me be successful is not that I am creative only in what I want to shoot, but able that I am creative within the constraints of what my clients want. When I approach a location or shot, I can shoot it in five different ways. Not every way will work for the given lighting or angle, but having those options is essential to my success with my clients and their visions.


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