It’s not everyone who can mount successful back-to-back careers in separate, highly technical, highly competitive industries, but that’s exactly what Scott Markewitz has done. His first career was professional snowskier, but these days he photographs skiers—as well as runners, bikers and just about anyone else involved in action sports and outdoor life.
You really have to connect with the right people," says Markewitz. "You have to shoot the right athletes, you’ve got to know the people in the industry.
"When I was a pro, I skied in several ski movies," Markewitz says, "and for quite a few ski photographers of the time. I was used to working with cameras on the other side of the lens, so I understood a lot of what it takes to shoot. I picked up a lot of the basics of setting up a shot and what to look for. And I’d see the results; I’d see how a photographer would set up a shot and then I’d see it printed in a magazine, and you can kind of relate. ‘Oh, he set it up that way, and this is what came out of it.’ I always had an interest in photography, but actually working with these pros and seeing what they do, it piqued my interest, and I realized that it was something I could do. I bought some gear and started shooting and had no real expectations. But things went pretty well pretty quickly for me."
That was 25 years ago. Industry connections from his pro skiing career meant Markewitz was able to show his work to those who could use it, and since his prowess was obvious even at that early stage, he was hired for catalog and advertising assignments. His work evolved from there.
From the beginning, he incorporated a studio photographer’s meticulous use of light as a shaping, texturizing, storytelling tool in his sports photographs. It helped set him apart from the competition then and even more now in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
"You really have to connect with the right people," says Markewitz. "You have to shoot the right athletes, you’ve got to know the people in the industry. It’s true; there are a lot of people who get some nice shots, but when you look at the whole picture, there are only a handful of photographers who can go out and get great shots every time on assignment. It’s like, okay, well, you went out and got a good shot in perfect conditions with a great athlete doing an amazing thing.
But now here you are, and the weather is terrible and conditions aren’t perfect, and all these factors aren’t really working in your favor. Now what are you going to do? It’s one thing to make some nice photos, and it’s another to be able to produce on the spot every time. These companies know who’s gonna come back with good stuff.
"I think that’s been one reason I’ve been able to keep going all these years," Markewitz continues. "People hire me and I always come back with good results. I’ve gone out with some of my clients on shoots, and it’s really foggy or ugly, and they look at me, like, ‘What are we going to do? Is this okay?’ And then we come back with something, and they’re really surprised. Once you understand how I work with certain situations, there’s usually a way to come up with something pretty productive."
Markewitz works to capitalize on Mother Nature even on her worst days, those occasions when ambient light wouldn’t work for illuminating a subject, but works beautifully as a big, bold, dramatic backdrop. He adds studio strobe lighting to his subjects to up the drama and match the action with an equally bold lighting style. And he’s not beholden to ambient light.
"A lot of times, the weather isn’t perfect," he says, "but if we bring in some artificial lighting, we can make a really cool shot, like with the ‘Superman’ shot of Paul Basagoitia. He’s a pro mountain biker with his own training track. We’d shot there all afternoon, and then the sun had gone down and these clouds rolled in, and I was like, wow, this is going to be awesome. And he was looking at me like I was crazy—’It’s dark, I can barely see, what do you mean this is awesome?’ I was like, no, believe me, this is going to be cool. So we set it up, and I think this was actually the first shot. I showed him on the camera and he was sold."
Markewitz has a career-long tradition of mixing strobes with ambient to add intensity and pop, but it’s only thanks to some relatively recent technological innovations—and the marketplace’s budding interest in an increasingly popular lighting style—that the photographer has been able to really push the limits.
"Even in my early days, I would do on-camera flash or some early battery-powered strobes," recalls Markewitz. "But that look wasn’t as popular then. In the last decade or so, you’ve seen a lot more of it. There are a few big reasons for that. Mainly, not only has strobe equipment progressed and improved, but when the first PocketWizards came out, it just made the whole setup that much easier. Some of the early radio slaves were just not that good, and obviously if you’re hardwired to your strobes, you’re really limited. The PocketWizard was a huge breakthrough. And then with digital cameras, basically you’ve got the instant Polaroid, so it made shooting with strobes that much easier.
"When I was shooting strobes on slide film," he continues, "we had to meter everything. You really had to know what it was going to look like before you shot it. You’d be metering and balancing all the light and figuring it all out in your head, and I got pretty good at that because I could understand what the light was doing. But now with digital cameras, it’s almost a no-brainer. You just set up your lights, do a few test shots and, oh, it looks great."
Adds Markewitz, "I think some people just take battery-operated strobes out there, set them up, blow some light on the subject and create a pretty good look. Or you can take a much more studio approach to it, where you’re really paying attention to what kind of shaping tools you’re putting on, what direction the light is coming from, how much falloff you’re getting here and there, all these different things. That’s the way I try to approach it—using light as a shaping tool. It’s not always easy, like that mountain biker way up in the air. You’ve got to imagine what the light is going to do 20 feet off the ground. You picture that in your mind and try to shape your lighting around it."
To shape light as if he were shooting in a studio, Markewitz relies on the same modifiers any studio photographer would. He’s partial to grids, especially because he can isol
ate lights, minimize falloff and maximize control. Softboxes aren’t easy outdoors, especially in wind, but he’ll use them as needed. Shaped reflectors are a staple of his kit, and he uses cardboard to create narrow slits of light, or any other shape that will allow him to selectively place lights precisely throughout a scene. He concentrates on quality of light, not quantity.
"Generally, I use as few lights as we need," he says. "A lot of my stuff is with battery-operated Broncolor Mobil 2s. Extra lights can be really heavy when you’re going way out in the backcountry, and sometimes we bike the stuff in. I did a catalog shoot for a bike company last spring, and there were three of us, each with probably 50-pound packs, and we were mountain biking, climbing uphill for an hour, just to get to these locations. It’s a lot of work just getting the equipment into place. Sometimes you’re really making a big effort just to get the equipment in place, and then you’ve got to set up the shot."
As prominent as strobe lighting is in a Scott Markewitz photograph, his equipment must meet rigorous technical standards. He has to deliver light across long distances, at high intensities, with short durations and consistent output. These aren’t your father’s flash tubes.
"The Mobil 2s are so nice," he says of his kit. "You’ve got so much adjustability, they’re really fast, and they’re powerful for a battery-operated system. You need to throw light, you’ve got to have short durations, and you have to understand the dynamics of motion to minimize ghosting—because that’s what you’re trying to avoid. Sometimes you can get away with slower durations depending on the direction of the movement.
"Now with PocketWizards," adds Markewitz, "with their new TT5 for Nikon, you can adjust them for HyperSync. I don’t know the real technical details, but basically you adjust the delay on the transmitter so that it fires a fraction of a second early, so that the flash is already going when your shutter opens. So you get away from that 250th-of-a-second sync, and you can actually push your system. I can get a 500th easy, and you can get higher. I’ve gotten it to an 800th-of-a-second at full power, and you really don’t lose much exposure value out of it. It’s awesome."
A lot of times, the weather isn’t perfect," he says, "but if we bring in some artificial lighting, we can make a really cool shot—like with the ‘Superman’ shot of Paul Basagoitia.
Markewitz is clearly not a "fix it in post" kind of guy. That’s not to say he’s above digital magic, however; after all, he’s in the business of providing his clients with polished perfection. With another dramatic image of mountain biker Basagoitia—this time photographed upside down in midair—he uses a fairly unlikely device for someone who prefers a natural post-production style: HDR.
"There’s a little bit of HDR in that shot," he says, "but not much. It’s mostly the strobe-ambient mix. There’s a little bit of HDR just to get a little more drama in the clouds. When I use HDR, I don’t like that cartoonish look, so the rider and the ground here look pretty natural. When I use any kind of post, I like to keep it looking pretty natural. I do mostly Lightroom work, not actually Photoshop work.
"When I started, the style of photography, in general, was pretty posed and artificial and set up," Markewitz says, "across the board, not just in sports. When you think about photography in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was pretty artificial, just not real. As a skier, I always felt like I wanted to capture what it was really like to be a skier, to make it more authentic, more real. And I think I’ve always stayed true to that. Even though shots are completely set up, I’ve always tried to keep my work authentic and really true to what it is."
See more of Scott Markewitz’ photography at www.scottmarkewitz.com.