Patient observer of the stars. Grinning wild-child of the mountain and its rivers. Adventurous spirit with camera in hand. Captures moments of wonder and joy. Based in Portland, OR, Isaac is a commercial photographer and cinematographer with a focus in outdoor adventure and active lifestyle photography and video.
I first saw the running work of Isaac Lane Koval for the super stoking Territory Run Co. Canada and just had to reach out. His work is polished, commercial yet genuine, and supported by the Wonderful Machine. It has taken some time to get this Q & A together- as working photographers are busy with paying bills and living life- but really worth the wait.
For all budding (or established) running shooters our inspiring photographer series aims to give insight to the world of a working button pusher. Time is a factor that always plays key to the path of a working photographer, and being creative yet commercial. Then there is marketing. Isaac nails it. Enjoy.
How many years have you been in photography business?
I’ve been in the photography industry for almost 11 years now. Like most photographers I started out shooting anything and everything, from headshots, to senior portraits, to weddings, etc. Pretty early on I discovered stock photography and the potential to make a good amount of money shooting images for my portfolio that would also be used as stock. After a couple years of shooting stock I started to hone in on the type of photography I was most passionate about, outdoor adventures.
Are you self-taught or photography school taught?
I went to school for film (moving pictures) but quickly realized I was learning more on my own by reading articles on the internet, picking up photography books, finding mentors, and just going out and shooting.
Who are your greatest influences that inspired you to get into this business, and in particular the world of sports photography?
Currently two photographers that I’m inspired by are Jimmy Chin who is constantly pushing the limits of what is possible in climbing and photography/film and Jake Stangel who I feel is creating some of the most honest images in the commercial world right now.
How would you describe your running photography? Event, portrait, documentary, commercial or a mix of everything?
My photography style straddles the line between documentary and heightened reality. My goal is to tell a story, whether through just one photo or a series. Being a storyteller has definitely become a clique buzz word but for good reason. Being able to tell a compelling story through photos has a more lasting impact than just a pretty photo.
Are you a runner? Do you feel it’s important to understand ‘how a runner works’ to photograph them?
I never thought of myself as a runner. I would run for various sports but I never ran just to run. That all changed when I adopted a 6-year-old border collie last year. With her endless energy I had to find an activity to tire her out and running seemed to do the trick.
Around the same time I was shooting a piece for a local magazine on two ultra runners, Willie McBride and Yassine Diboun of Wy’east Wolfpack. That opened my eyes to the local ultra running community and I grew more interested in running. Since then I’ve been running with some of the local ultra running groups and bringing my camera along some of the time.
I think with any sport or subject, the more you can become a part of the community the more relaxed your subjects will be in front of the camera.
Your images are fresh, real and connect with people. How do you find your inspiration, push the traditional envelope of event running photography, stay true to yourself so that people notice you and hire you?
It’s rollercoaster. Sometimes I feel super inspired and am loving what I’m creating. Other times I’ll be completely uninspired by my work. In those times I find it’s best to put down the camera for a bit and throw myself into another area of interest. I’m currently in one of those bouts and have been spending a lot of time landscaping my backyard.
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?
Before a shoot I’ll often put together a mood board of the style of images I want to capture. Pinterest has become a great resource to pull inspiration from the internet. Sometimes I’ll bring the mood board to a shoot but often I’ll just look at it right before I head out the door so it puts me in the creative space I want to shoot.
When I’m on a shoot, I do my best to help the talent forget there’s a camera in their face. Sometimes that means not bringing the camera out right away and building a good rapport first.
For my first 10 years in the industry I shot exclusively with Canon gear. I never even considered third party lenses. In the past year I made the switch over to Nikon and Sony’s mirrorless systems due to image quality and portability (for the Sony cameras). Shooting with the Sony A7RII has allowed me to literally run alongside a subject, shooting from the hip and still frame a shot. That being said I dislike the user experience of both Nikon and Sony cameras. Ultimately I want a camera that feels like an extension of myself, where buttons are exactly where they should be and I don’t have to scroll through endless menus. I’m still optimistic that will happen someday.
What is your advice for those who are starting out photographing the running scene?
Join a local running group and get to know the runners. More often than not runners will be more than happy to do a shoot with you. Also, make sure you are shooting actual runners, as it’s pretty easy to tell in a photo when someone isn’t.
Is good photography about the gear or experiences?
Definitely experiences, though I often have to remind myself of this when I’m lusting after a new piece of gear. Gear often makes it easier to achieve the look I want but you can have the nicest camera and still create crappy images. Lately, I’m trying to live the mantra of less is more. Often I’ll go out on a shoot with just a couple lenses instead of my whole kit. It forces me to be more creative when I can’t just reach for another lens.
What are you doing for marketing to get your vision out to your audience?
I send out promos to prospective clients about six times a year. Most of my work though comes from my website or networking connections, whether it be through friends, events, or just cold calling a client.
What are your thoughts on creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?
Creating new work is a must. I’m always crafting up new shoots I want to do. Personal shoots are where I get to experiment and not have any negative consequences if it doesn’t turn out the way I wanted. The photos that come out of personal shoots are often what get me hired for client work.
How often are you shooting new work?
When I’m not shooting client work I try to do 1-2 personal shoots a week. They can range from a simple portrait of someone to planning a more elaborate shoot. The most important thing is to remind myself to not get trapped in the idea that personal shoots have to be perfect. Otherwise I find myself making excuses to push back the shoot and then it often never happens. When in doubt, just go shoot.
Do you have a story of when ‘it all went wrong on a shoot’, and how you managed to see it through?
I’ve been pretty lucky on client shoots and haven’t had any huge horror stories. The key is to be prepared and have backups. I dropped my camera off a 40 foot cliff while on a client job but I had a backup camera waiting in my bag so I was able to keep shooting without missing a beat.
If you could do something different when starting out as a photographer, what would it be?
I don’t think I would change anything, not because everything I did was perfect (it was far from that) but because all the setbacks I had were valuable learning experiences. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. If anything, I would just tell my younger self to be patient. The work will come.
If you had a small promotional budget of $1000, what would you invest it in?
I’d invest it either in a personal shoot, stock shoot, or promo materials to send out.