Q&A with Mike Tittel: Sports, Fitness, Lifestyle Photography
We asked Mike Tittel a few questions about his career, and want to share them with you!
Mike is a good friend, a 1999 graduate of our Summer Intensive program, and a sports, fitness, and lifestyle photographer who teaches an Adventure and Lifestyle Photography Professional Studies course for our Career Training students in the fall.
He has shot for Red Bull, Columbia Sportswear, PUMA, Runner’s World, Patagonia, Verizon Wireless, and many more companies. He has a killer eye for great photography, and he fine tunes every shoot to a T. He’s an amazing photographer and we can all learn a lot from him!
© All images created and copyrighted by Mike Tittel.
RMSP: You just did a shoot for Gore-Tex running. Can you walk us through what it took to create those photos? (From the day you got the call to shoot to the final image delivery?) And was that scenario typical for big shoots or not?
Mike: From the time I received the initial call/inquiry it took roughly six weeks between the various versions of the estimating process, pre-production and the actual shoot. This particular project for Gore-Tex was all about the desired ground conditions—rain, puddles, wet roads, mud, snow, etc.. These conditions were imperative to sell the waterproof properties of the product. They were looking to shoot in a larger, more nondescript urban environment to highlight some of their road running products as well as a scenic, wintry location with snow and mud. Given that we had to shoot in mid-April my mind immediately started thinking of locations within the western US that had both high elevations nearby and a city large enough to have the production resources needed. Since I’m intimately familiar with Denver and the Colorado high country, I knew it would work well. Even in April with a lighter than normal snowpack I was confident we could find trails in Colorado with snow.
The biggest challenge was ensuring rain/puddles for the urban shots. With a shoot like this this you cannot rely on mother nature to provide what you need when you have 15+ people locked into a specific shoot date. For the urban “rain day” we hired a special effects team to come in and create rain on demand. This required shutting down a road in downtown Denver. In addition to three 30 ft. rain towers, we brought in a tanker truck to wet down roads and to supply the rain towers. It’s a cool process as you can make it rain a lot or a little, big drops or mist—my kind of fun and the type of control necessary for this type of shoot. By choosing a street in downtown Denver that ran north/south and starting before sunrise, we were able to work within the shadows of the buildings to simulate an overcast day despite it being 60 degrees and sunny.
The one thing I couldn’t guarantee on this shoot was fresh snow on paved roads this late in the season. It was a critical element of the campaign so once awarded the contract I watched the weather like a hawk. We got lucky when a small storm showed up in the forecast. I advised the client to send me out immediately after the storm so that I could shoot background plates that we could use to composite if needed. Those plates ended up being a life saver, and I was able to deliver exactly what the client was after.
Due to killer planning, a great crew and an amazing producer the shoot days went as planned. Although making rain and shutting down roads isn’t always necessary, this sort of detailed planning and control is the expectation for ad work.
RMSP: Tell us about your career. What did it take to get into the adventure photography business?
Mike: I started out purely as an adventure sports photographer—more documentary in nature than the sports, fitness and active lifestyle ad work I’m doing currently. I’ve always had a huge heart for adventure and living an active lifestyle which is what drove me initially. Early on photography was a means of documenting my personal adventures with friends to wild and remote places. As I started having some successes with my photography, that passion started to grow so I started reading everything I could get my hands on including a truckload of book on the business of photography. I also enrolled in RSMP’s Summer Intensive program in the summer of 1999 (see below). Immediately after school I started photographing full force and submitting stock to magazines. I used those first published editorial clips to start gaining the attention of smaller outdoor brands. Those smaller projects lead to the bigger brands and advertising work. One thing led to another and… here I am.
RMSP: You attended our Summer Intensive program in 1999. How did SI help prepare you?
Mike: Yes, I graduated RMSP’s Summer Intensive program back in 1999. More than anything it gave me a strong foundation of technical skills on which I could build. Back in the film days things were obviously much different than they are now. You didn’t have that immediate feedback on the images you were creating and each exposure cost money in film/processing. Pre-visualization and thinking through scenarios was imperative to being successful. I also think attending the program taught be to be my best critic and always strive to learn more and grow with every shoot. That continual desire to always push and grow creatively has served me incredibly well in my career.
RMSP: What do you think is something you are/do that makes you great in your field?
Mike: More than anything I think I’m great at solving problems and offering solutions. Some say I’m a location ninja, which probably stems from my love of weather, maps, and exploration. I also bring a ton of energy to set, am super positive, and work hard to create an amazing experience for my clients.
RMSP: What do you like to photograph for personal work, and why?
Mike: I don’t shoot personal work in the traditional sense that it’s radically different from my main genre. More often I shoot new work for my portfolio that pushes me in some way or helps me grow as a photographer. Without the constraints of having to deliver for a client I am free to fail or really struggle, which is where the real growth comes from. Sometimes that involves trying a crazy idea I have for a new lighting scenario, building a body of work that will enable me to market myself for different types of work I might not be known for, or simply shooting something I’ve never shot before. Currently I’ve been into more high-end lifestyles, travel/resort type work, and some compositing projects.
RMSP: You’ve shot for the big names like Patagonia, North Face, Columbia Sportswear, Puma, Verizon, Wells Fargo, Red Bull, and NPR. What did it take to land those jobs?
Mike: I think several things have contributed to my success. First is a solid brand and consistent marketing campaign that involves creating new work and pushing it out through multiple marketing channels. Having solid work will only get you so far—you have to know who is hiring for the type of work you create, so you need a highly targeted list of prospective clients. Sometimes for more editorial work it’s about your location combined with your portfolio. (This was the case for my first gig with Red Bull as well as NPR).) For some clients it’s creating an opportunity and pitching an idea or project. Bottom line: clients want to see that you can offer more than pushing a button.
RMSP: You’re a pro with lighting and creating mood with it. What’s one of the coolest lighting setups you’ve created?
Mike: A couple of year ago I was hired by PUMA to shoot some high profile athletes (one of the top female soccer players in the world, as well as two NFL players). The lighting was super complex and involved 7 packs and 14 heads for some of the scenarios. We also built a custom platform for the athletes to perform on that had a clear floor so we could shoot lights through it. The end results don’t look that complex, but it was hoot to figure out.
RMSP: You teach an Adventure/Lifestyle Professional Studies course with us. Why is that class unique?
Mike: I think what students value most in my course is my transparency and no-nonsense approach to what it takes to succeed. I talk a ton about the business side of things, which I have a huge passion for. It’s so critical to building a sustainable career, so I make the discussions engaging and fun. When I built the course I was given some pretty loose reigns in terms of content, so I thought a lot about how I could share what 16 years of experience has taught me. That’s the heart of my course. Students seem to value that honest take and my energetic personality. I’ve also been told on many occasions that I’ve changed students’ perspectives on location lighting. For many new photographers it can be overwhelming, so I love teaching how to break down scenarios and systematically craft light one step at a time.
RMSP: What advice would you give to photographers who want to succeed in your field?
Mike: Four things…
- Know who you are and what makes you unique.
- You gotta know and love the business—this is critical if you want to be profitable and build a sustainable career.
- Understand where you fit into the marketplace.
- Be in relentless pursuit of growth. Never stop challenging yourself.
Thank you, Mike! To see more of Mike’s work, check out his website.