In a world where super polished running images are staged to the max – it’s great to see a documentary style and genuine story teller stand out who makes a living from it. When I first saw Emily Mayes work it was a campaign for RAPHA/ Team Sky and Trek Bikes and I was gob smacked with the rawness and utter genius of place and time. Emily shoots from the heart in a documentary style for big clients and it works.
Emily’s work is truly inspiring stuff for all of us out there who love to shoot candid imagery, yet feel there is not a place for it in the commercial sports scene. So to be able to interview Emily is a real treat for me as we share some insights behind the camera, as well as the other stuff such as making a living and marketing :) Welcome to featured creative number 3.
How many years have you been in photography business?
It has been about 5 years that I have been photographing exclusively. I’ve been involved and interested in photography for about 15 years but writing screenplays was my primary focus before that.
Do you remember the moment when you realised you ‘had made it’ as a photographer, paying bills and doing what you love? Is there a particular image, time you can recall?
I don’t think it’s so much one moment since as a freelancer I always have to be conscious of how I am going to make a living out of doing this. I graduated from college 10 years ago and I have never had a traditional job, and I finally feel more comfortable in how to make that work and to trust it. I’ve been very fortunate to have clients that have committed to me with contracts and that’s pretty nice.
Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
I went to film school at the University of Southern California School of Cinema Television and graduated from Columbia University with a screenwriting degree. In photography, I am self-taught but I think that my cinema training influenced my photography a great deal with some similar principals. I’ve always had a curious mind and there are so many resources for a self-taught photographer out there. Generally I like to experiment first and then go find out how to do something; If I have a technical question, that is pretty easy to do with the internet. But training your eye is harder and I am always looking at imagery or other influences that inspire my aesthetic choices.
Who are your greatest influences that inspired you to get into this business, and in particular the world of sports photography?
Storytelling has always been at the centre of what I want to do. I realized early on that photographs did that in a unique way. I love the way that a great documentary photograph bends real life time. It makes you linger on a moment for so much longer than the split second that that moment of expression existed. Photography is different than cinema in that way. I have a lot of respect for both.
I came from a ballet background as a kid and grew up in my mother’s ballet school. I very much wanted to be a dancer and then a filmmaker and ultimately photography is where I landed. The body language is so important in the telling of the story in ballet and cinema and photography and the physicality of sports has really drawn me in. I also think that growing up so dedicated to something, where you really place it first in your mind at a very young age, is an attractive thing. A lot of people really good at what they do have that all encompassing intensity and I want to photograph that. Whether it’s athletes or musicians or dancers or artists. People “all in” on something.
How would you describe your running photography? Event, portrait, documentary, commercial or a mix of everything?
It’s a mix of event, documentary and commercial. I’ve done all of the commercial photography for the first year of the brand Tracksmith and will continue to work with them in year two. I also photographed the Ivy League Track Championships for their editorial publication METER and I approach both assignments with a documentary slant. The Ivy League Champs was actually my first time photographing running and now I’ve done quite a bit of it with Tracksmith. I would love to shoot a really muddy cross country race.
Are you a runner? Do you feel it’s important to understand ‘how a runner works’ to photograph them?
I am not a runner but I have learned a lot about running the process of photographing and having conversations with people about their passion for running and I always want to know more. That’s true of any sport for me. I spend a good part of the year embedded with a professional cycling team as they race throughout Europe and observation is the best way to learn about the sport and the athlete’s psyche. I think the heritage of running is really interesting and I love looking at old running photos.
Your images are fresh, real and connect with people. How do you find your inspiration, push the traditional envelope of event running photography, and stay true to yourself so that people notice you and hire you?
I work my best in a really reactionary way and try not to be too premeditated about it. When I am really inspired by something I know that there’s something universal in what I am seeing and think other people will connect with that and for the most part I have found that to be true. You develop a critical eye that you have to trust and make decisions based on. I feel like I know when it’s right and when it’s almost right.
There are a lot of technical challenges, especially getting to the right place at the right time, but I’ve gotten better at navigating those with experience. You have to learn to be your toughest critic and not compromise on that.
Can you explain your creative process on shoot? What do you look for? How do you compose a capture? Any preferred camera settings or kit?
Composition and your eye really are an instinct and I don’t think I could really shoot a different way than I do. Those decisions are made so fast, especially as events are unfolding live. It’s a constant aesthetic analysis and split second decisions.
Most of the time I try to be as invisible as possible. I think the best photographs are when you don’t think about the photographer being there to get the shot. It just feels stolen from life.
I work with Canon cameras and I have tried so many of the newer cameras to see if anything felt right. It’s not so much about gear but a feeling while using it. I struggle to find the right set up where the equipment can kind of disappear in the process. I’m still on the hunt. I prefer to use prime lenses but that isn’t always practical in the setting.
With the chase for the latest tech in our profession, the art of composition and being in the ‘right place at the right time’ is often lost or an after thought. What advice do you have for shooters who ‘want to start to see moments’ before they happen?
Observe as much as possible. Without a camera. If you can’t see the thing, you won’t see it in the viewfinder and you won’t see it when you look through the images you captured after the fact. I love to just people watch and observe as much as possible. If you want to be able to make images that make life feel special, you have to train yourself to be open to what’s happening. It’s a reaction, not something you can plan.
Do you have a story of a great shoot, where the ‘stars aligned’ and the results exceeded your expectations?
In cycling I travel with a team that has a big star, Fabian Cancellara. The first race that I went to shoot with them I wasn’t sure what to expect and really wanted to do good work. It was one of the biggest races of the year and Cancellara ended up winning. It was a great day and a great set of images. Being behind the scenes when something big like that happens is fortunate and you can rarely plan it! It was more than just photographing the festivities, I felt like I had a really intimate moment I could capture and it really sold me on documentary sports photography.
What is your advice for those who are starting out photographing the running scene?
Try to take one photograph that you love instead of 50 or 100 from an event. Really look at why you love that one photo more than all the rest on your card. I also try to go where other photographers aren’t. I hate standing with a group of photographers getting the same shot. That shot is covered! Look for what isn’t.
Gear or experiences?
Experiences, but the choice of gear matters. It’s a tool of communication. Which lens you choose, how you compose using that and what you do with the output from that gear is important. But the gear won’t shoot for you or make choices. The experiences are what lead to the work.
What are you doing for marketing to get your vision out to your audience?
My website (www.emilymaye.com) & Instagram (Instagram: https://instagram.com/emilymaye/) are my primary tools, and I use Twitter (www.twitter.com/emily_maye) and Facebook (Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/emilymayephotography) as well.
It’s nice when you see your work re-tweeted and shared by people, especially in authentic sports communities. I’ve had a lot of nice press from It’s Nice That (http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/emily-maye-1) and Outside Magazine (http://www.outsideonline.com/2008156/pain-and-suffering-trump-glory-these-honest-beautiful-advertising-photos) and that also helps reach a larger audience. I’ve made a print promo piece that I just sent out to contacts and I loved seeing the work in print.
What are your thoughts on creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?
I’ve been told by people I respect that it’s the most important thing for a long career. It’s definitely important for photographers so shoot new work the way that they want to because it shows someone where your passions are and what you can do. I’ve been really lucky to have assignments and commissions where I get to put a lot of myself into the work as well and I love that type of collaboration where I can really put my stamp on it. I would love to pursue more collaborative personal projects with fellow creatives. I think that would be inspiring.
How often are you shooting new work?
I spend a lot of time shooting and it just depends when time comes up, where in the world I am and what I am in the mood for. I have a few dream projects that would require a lot to get underway and a few smaller projects that are easier to fit in places. I try to keep both in mind. I obsessively keep notebooks with me and brainstorm ideas. Ideally I would love to shoot new personal work 3-4 times a year, whether part of a bigger project or stand alone. I fantasize about a long term project, it’s hard to keep focused over the long term but I think it gives you different feeling than something shot in one day or at one location.
Do you have a story of when ‘it all went wrong on a shoot’, and how you managed to see it through?
The technology can fail you and that’s a very unfortunate part of the business. I always have a back up camera but I have had one die on me and was left with just one body which means you have to change lenses or stick with one. I chose to stick with one and sometimes that constraint actually brings some clarity and creativity.
If you could do something different when starting out as a photographer, what would it be?
Be more organized about my archiving of images! I’m much better now but I didn’t have a process then and it has been on my list forever to go back and look through and archive the older stuff. It’s safely backed up but I wish I had a better system early on.
I am glad that Instagram wasn’t as big when I was starting to take pictures. I think developing your own feel for how you look at your own work is important and it is easy to be swayed by likes and comments when stuff goes out that way. It’s a pretty strong influence and I think could have hindered my development.
If you had a promotional budget of $1000, what would you invest it in?
A printed piece of some kind for sure.