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Interview: Olly Forster
Photographer: Jake Orness

Photography in action sports has always been the glue that holds media and the sport together as one. Capturing that split second explosion of action not only illustrates what is in front of the camera, but also defines the skill and patience of the person behind it.

Jake Orness is more than just a photographer – he is a self-proclaimed “watcher,” and someone whose eye for detail and awareness of his surroundings are what defines his work. 

"Kurt Sorge @ Woodward West. This same day I shot the original 'Have Faith' ad- I liked this photo better but it didn't quite fit the format that was needed."
Jake has come a long way in recent years, from racing back in the 90’s to doing the ‘bike industry’ thing with Giant Bicycles; Jake’s realization that photography was his true calling has been there since his childhood. Growing up in San Diego, Jake immersed himself in bike and board culture by losing himself in countless copies of Thrasher and BMX Action where action sports photography was pioneered and perfected long before the advent of digital technology.

The path from the bike or the board to the camera has yielded some of the greatest photographers in action sports, and having a first hand connection with the action is essential to have the ‘eye’. To excel in anything requires more than natural ability and good fortune – being in the right place at the right time is essential and sure enough, luck plays its part, but knowing where to be in the first place is key, and only those who have experienced life on both sides of the lens truly know this.  Jake Orness is has the ‘eye.’
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Olly: What got you into photography and capturing life on two wheels?  

Jake: I love bikes.  I’m a bike industry “lifer.”  There are a lot of things and people that have influenced me over the years.  Photography was always a huge interest even when I wasn’t shooting, but there were definitely a few catalysts that really made me get a camera and then pursue it. 
The influence of freeride, dirt jump, and DH are so intertwined with photo and video that when my interest switched from XC and road to those disciplines suddenly a camera just became part of the lifestyle.  When the main photo nerd moved from Giant Bicycles- I sold a bunch of bike stuff and took the role in our core group of shooting.
My father in law is a bit of a photo nerd too and he helped ignite the fire.  He’s a good shooter and made me think about how I was doing things.  He pushed me into shooting raw, using Lightroom, learning how and when to use Photoshop without going overboard.  I am always stoked to talk to him about shooting cause he’s not a bike nerd so he see’s things differently and that helps me.
Lastly the folks at Giant Bicycles- over the years they have been both my toughest critic and biggest proponent.  Without the consistent feedback and support from Giant it would have taken me a lot longer to get to the point I’m at right now.

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Olly: You are the main photographer for Giant Bicycles, which must be a great opportunity for a photographer - gaining access to a broad field of athletes and cycling disciplines. How did your relationship with Giant come about and which area of cycling do you enjoy the most and why?

Jake: Giant is one of the main reasons I was able to make the switch full time to a photographer.  I’ve been with Giant for over ten years.  I started in sales and moved through the ranks, doing outside sales and sales management.  I ran a few departments (Inside Sales, Customer Service, Quality Assurance).  Before they had the official demo rigs I was in charge of the booth for Outdoor Demo at Interbike.  Over a three or four year period with the help of some great people we made that show a well oiled machine!
The people at Giant have always pushed me to reach for what I want to do and helped me get to those goals.  Moving from sales to photography wasn’t as big a stretch as you would think when considering the needs that they have.  I have an intimate knowledge of all the departments and employees.  I’ve been in high level meetings and know how they operate.   My photography style has developed with the photo needs.  I’m just as at home hanging out with the athletes as I am with the sales people and its retail network.  There is a huge level of trust and I am very grateful for my role.
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Olly: Have you always been creative or is this something that has developed with time?

Jake: Creative.  Ha!  I always struggle with that term.  It’s such a buzz-word right now.  When I was just a little BMX kid I’d stare out the car window and imagine I was on a bike next to the car jumping everything.  I used to sit for hours breaking down photos in magazines (still do).  When I was really into surfing and skating we would airbrush our surfboards before they were glassed.  When I was in sales I certainly used some creative methods to get things done. So sure, I’ve always been creative, just not in the artsy kind of way that most people label a “creative.”

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Olly: Of all the action sports, mountain biking seems to have taken a while to develop a truly creative element within it, but this seems to be rapidly changing.  Do you think this is a long time coming and where do you think we’ll see it going?

Jake: I started on mountain bikes in 1990.  The landscape is so different from then, but the creativity in the sport and the people around it are the same.  What has changed are the tools used to make content.  Cameras and software that can produce mind-blowing content is just a click away at a reasonable price.  Spreading that content is even easier.  Suspension, graphics, the style of trails, fashion, and riding style have been rapidly changing.  At the same time so have the expectations of photography and video.  Mountain bike media has pulled from other sports and always seemed to be looking for its own identity.  I’m not sure it’s found it quite yet.  That will only happen with time.
The expectation to be “polished” has risen.  The quality of what is being put out there now is so high from so many people it’s amazing.  This is true in all action sports though.  I would expect this to continue.   Within hours of an event we can see very high quality imagery and some hastily put together web videos from a number of sources.   I think the level of product being put out within hours of an event will get better and better.
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Olly: Do you think the advent of the web and community based web sites has had a positive effect on the industry and been the catalyst to the increasing number of people choosing to get behind the lens?

Jake: I’ve spent countless hours on the boards looking at content from people that are just stoked on biking.  I love that stuff.  The passion from many of the blogs and people that run them is inspiring.  It certainly pushes me to get better at my job. There are so many talented people out there doing it only for the love.  That’s the beauty of the internet. There is a bit of a seedy side to it though.  
It’s happening all over the web and big publishers outside of the bike industry are at the forefront of it.  It’s the exploitation of “User Generated Content.”  It’s a slippery slope to go down the road of having “User Generated Content” front and center on news and or magazine sites.  If they are paying market value for the content then great!  If they are just taking material and paying under value then it’s a bummer.  I’d be bummed to see that in the bike industry.  It’s there already- but hasn’t infiltrated quite as bad as some of the major news sources that have created business models for profit off of it.  User Generated Content used this way should have the creator paid a standard fair rate for page views at a minimum. 

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Olly: How much has the advent of the DSLR changed the industry? 

Jake: Huge.  The speed at which you can create a photo is mind numbingly dangerous at times.  There are times when I get a call because there is a specific photo needed and I can plan a shoot, find a rider, shoot it, deliver the final image, and have it approved within three hours.  Are you kidding me?   
The recent advent of video to these cameras is a game changer.  I fought it for so long, but the reality for me now is that video is always asked for in conjunction with stills.  The two go hand in hand.  There is an expectation in the Internet world to show both stills and video.  They both have a place. 
Video adds so many challenges, though.  Doing both at an event is hard.  Delivering a final product that you are happy with is so difficult.  I’m super tough on my self and I know my video skills are behind my stills photos.  That’s a challenge when creating your own brand identity.  Doing it by yourself can be a nightmare of late nights, but the reality of budgets, time constraints and the DSLR have put us there. 

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Olly: What are your preferred tools of the trade?

Jake: Ah… I’m a bit of a gear junkie.  I switched to a Mac about a year ago and haven’t looked back.  For software I run Lightroom and the Adobe CS5 Suite.  For video I’m using Premiere Pro.  It’s great for DSLR footage because I can dump the footage into a folder and starting cutting footage in the h.264 codec without coming to a stand still. 
For stills I’m running Canon gear- 1DMK3, 5DMK2, and a 7D, and a g11.  I also use my iPhone a fair amount, plus I have a holga and a few vintage box cameras.  I’ve been playing with “TTV” with the box cameras.  
I have a slew of lenses- all Canon.  A couple titbits on those- I don’t have a fish-eye.  The fish-eye is used by so many people I’ve just avoided it.  When I’m travelling I prefer the 70-200 F4 over the 2.8, simply because it’s lighter in my bag and more consistently sharp.  I also run the 300 F4 for similar reasons.  I jones after the 300 2.8 but until it really holds me back from a look I want it’s not worth it to me.  My favorite combo right now is the 135 F2 on my 5dMK2.
Lighting- For super quick on the go I run the 580 ex2’s.  They are overkill in terms of features since I rarely shoot on camera flash and only shoot on manual power off camera.  I could have saved money and gotten a slew of Vivitar, or Lumo’s but in a pinch I’ll shoot on camera and so I keep them.  When I want more power I run the Quantum T-5dR’s.  I love those things but they are more to carry.  If I want even more power or have lots of time for set-up, have an assistant, or am in a studio then I have a slew of Alien Bees stuff with a ton of modifiers.
Misc- tripods, lightstands, superclamps, magic arm, ND filters, cto gel, gaffer tape, light meter, 8 gig Lexar cards, F-stop bags, reflectors, foam core, all kinds of junk.  I love ND filters.  Shooting a race at noon and want to be closer to F2 and use strobes to shape your subject?  ND filters will help you.
Video- I use the 5dmk2, the 7d, and Contour cameras.  I have a big heavy tripod and a fluid head.  I have some of the Zacuto stuff for support, a slider, and a dolly.  For video lighting- small LED’s and a couple of “cool lights.” For audio- Sennheiser mics and a Zoom H4n.
When my updated site launches I’m going to add a gear section that goes through what I use, when and how.  It’ll take me awhile to get that portion up- but I’ll chip away at it.

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Olly: Where do you see the industry going with regards to the void between the printed and online media with regards to photographers?

Jake: It’s evolving.  Rapidly.  Some of the draw early on to things like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogging etc is that it’s essentially a “free” service.  It’s so easy and right at your fingertips, especially with smart phones and strong cell networks.  Print isn’t dead, but it has to evolve and compete.  
There is a sliding scale of quality as content comes from an event.  It starts with tweets and Facebook posts during the event- these are cell phone pics.  Right after the event, the photos come- for this it’s not the quality- it’s just being the first to have it.  Cycling News is good at this.  Last year at The Tour of California a few guys were uploading directly to sites from the podium ceremony.  As each hour or day goes by the quality of the content or story must get better and better, or more compelling.  By the time a print mag comes out it better not be the same regurgitated photos or story that has already been seen on the web.
Anyway, back to what it means for photographers, you have to pick and choose.  Where do you fit?  Is your focus media?  Is it commercial?  Will you race to the bottom and have your name attached to a crap photo just to be first?  You have to make choices.  If I’ve got some crap, some good, and some bangers then I dump the crap, submit the good, and hold the bangers for later.   Sometimes I will take a “crap photo” and submit it as a “red herring” for reaction.  I’ve had a few of those used and then I cringe and don’t do it for a while. Ha!
In terms of Facebook and blogs- as the competition for views grows the value of consistent quality content goes up.  This is good for photographers because that means our value goes up too.  As time goes on the myth that photos for Facebook and blogs should be free goes away.  It’s not free to produce quality imagery so the notion that someone won’t pay for it provided it is quality is crazy.  I’ve been blown away at some companies that wanted something but weren’t going to pay a fair rate.  A photo credit won’t pay for the trip to the event, food, rent, or equipment to make professional photos.
Good brands that care about how they are presented everywhere have a budget and will pay for good content that represents what they want the brand to project.
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Olly: Very few photographers seem to venture away from the action and really capture the before and after like you do. There is so much more to bikes and biking than racing and action. Do you think having a unique outlook and style is essential for a photographer?

Jake: I guess that’s just part of who I am.  The before and after is interesting to me.  The emotions come out.  I think it’s difficult for some because they don’t have that relationship with an athlete.  Having been an athlete I do.
For me it’s really easy with the Giant riders because I’ve been around them for a number of years.  There is a sense of trust of what I’m going to shoot and what will be used.  It’s also easy because they are my focus.  I’m not dragged down having to go to every pit or chase down the winner on the day.  I’m tasked with covering what happens with people that ride Giant Bicycles.  Win or lose.  To shoot that stuff you have to have the relationship and the time to be there for the moment.
What you shoot and how people see your images/style is super important.  It’s your brand.  There is no use in knowingly stealing someone’s angle, approach, or style.  It reflects poorly on you.  You won’t win anyone over doing that and certainly won’t create long-term relationships. 

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Olly: Your photos are also very inclusive of their surroundings. How important is the environment around the action to you and your shots?

Jake: It’s funny you say that.  I like extremes.  Show a scene so you see where you are or show it so tight you crop stuff out.  I very rarely frame something in the standard “newspaper sports” style.  It doesn’t interest me to shoot that so I avoid it.  I like to see the environment and have room for copy.  Cycling is a beautiful sport, so many of my shots show more than just the rider.
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Olly: When scouting for locations, what are the most important things you take into consideration?

Jake: There are always special circumstances, but hands down I consider the background.  Where is light going to come from and where my subject is going to be?   From there I can decide if it will work and if I should light it up, etc.
I really like clean uncluttered backgrounds and straight lines.  I don’t like lines crossing the subject, but I do like trails and features leading to corners of the frame. 
If I’m at an event and everyone is talking about a trail feature I tend to avoid those locations.  If I don’t have to shoot it, have an obligation to shoot it, or feel I don’t have a unique way of presenting it I won’t.  A recent example is Cam Zink’s huge three at the Red Bull Rampage.  Tons of photogs were everywhere.  Everyone knew it was coming.  Some photogs were three feet apart with the same setup.  Sure different settings and framing but still…  The move was so big it was challenging to show Cam clearly and the scope of the move.  I think something that big is much better suited to video, or a combo of both.  I ended up climbing into an area where no one was within 40 feet of me and was frustrated by guys with monopods sticking cameras right underneath the “Icon Sender.” I only shot it on his first attempt and decided I didn’t need to spend the energy running between the ridges on something I wasn’t responsible for having an image of.  Others had it covered and it wasn’t going tie into my normal style because of the other photogs in the frame. 
For non-competition I almost always have way more leeway for location and background.  I usually have a creative directive and do everything I can to meet that.  

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Olly: You have started dabbling in video, is this something you would like to get more involved with and do you think a photographer can do both successfully?

Jake: Loaded question here! If you asked me a year ago I would say absolutely not, but it’s growing on me.  Yes, I want to do more.  I’ve got a bunch of stuff going on for web viewing and that will continue. 
They are similar but different.  I think it depends on your network and definition of success.  Combining the two forms of media adds complexity.  For stills I’m usually solo or have someone that carries stuff or adjusts lighting and takes some specific direction for shooting some stills.  I don’t always have that but when I do, that person is a workhorse following directions.  They don’t have much of a say in the where, what and how.  You can be a moody introvert and still shoot great stuff and have an assistant.
For video it’s all about collaboration.  Multiple shots, angles, audio, understanding where cuts are going to happen, editing, After Effects, codec’s… it goes on and on. Plus the terminology is different than for stills.  You need a team.  If you don’t have a team you need time.
If you want to go to a competition and shoot both stills and video all by yourself and think both are going to be delivered fast and done well you are in for some late nights and will likely have some “misses.”  Once you start adding assistants it gets easier and easier.   I’ve been practicing the solo thing to challenge myself at getting better and better.  I would call those videos a workhorse web product though. 
For other events it’s totally possible.  I was in San Diego for a job recently and combined the two disciplines all while riding my bike.  It was a three-day project, and I was able to meet the expectations of the client.  So it depends on the expectations and scope of the production.
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Olly: Shooting outdoors, especially on a mountainside, can be problematic when the weather and the conditions turn against you. How do you deal with Mother Nature behaving badly?

Jake: I love it.  Especially when I’m prepared for it.  Bad weather makes for dramatic moments in competition.  Clouds, rain, fog, heat, and wind all make things tough and that’s when you can make your mark.  The Kurt Sorge ad last year was shot in about 20 minutes in between rain/snow storms.  You deal with what you are given and make something of it.  Sometimes you have to improvise. 

"Unknown @ World's in 2010"

Olly: You shoot a variety of different subjects both within bikes and outside of bikes. What do you enjoy shooting the most and why? 

Jake: Yeah, I kind of like it that way.  I certainly market myself as a photographer of bike stuff and people, but I do shoot some stuff outside of bikes if it comes along.  I don’t actively seek out those assignments but they come through I take them to get out of my comfort zone.  I always learn something from them that I can use in the bike world, and I’ve had some really interesting shoots.
My kids swim and I’m really into shooting swimming at the moment.  Outdoor pools can be pretty dramatic and indoor pools can be so challenging lighting wise.  Every parent seems to have a DLSR, so creating something cool and different really opens the eyes of parents.  It helps them understand it’s not the camera and that creates value to what I do.  I’m jonesing to do some underwater stuff, just need some time.
On the bike side it’s whatever I’m shooting at the moment.  I’m always looking forward to the next biking shoot.  When it’s just a few people, the environment is rad, people are into it and time is not a concern I’m stoked.  Those kind of shoots are just good times.  No other way to put it.
I also love shooting cyclocross.  I only do it a few times a year, but real cyclocross is a rush.  Cross nationals in Bend this past December had more energy than any event I’ve ever been to.  It was unreal!

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Olly: Which athletes do you enjoy working with the most and who is the most entertaining to work with?

Jake: Tough question!  My kids for swimming are the hardest.  They don’t like me to shoot the before and after stuff.  It’s tough!  Kids in general can be really tough!

In terms of cycling I’ll break it down by discipline with some bad stereotypes:
Roadies- For the most part the pros are easy going. They are more worried about training time and recovery then anything.  They rarely ask to see what you are shooting.  For the action stuff it’s pretty tough.  They are on a schedule and you need to find ways to shoot as part of the schedule.  It’s not easy to pull them aside and go shoot the same corner for an hour and set up lights.  Instead you need to know where they are going, set something up, have a stand in for lights and be ready when they come through.
XC Race- They are still concerned about training and recovery, but are a little more laid back.  They will ride a section over and over for you.  All the Giant XC folks are super good to work with.  They don’t ask to see your LCD as you are shooting, but I’ll share one or two shots if I think it will excite them.  They aren’t as worried about the shots, but they do like to see cool shots of themselves.  Adam, Kelli, Carl are awesome! 
DH Workhorses- It can be a mixed bag here as DH folks are starting to get in the realm of thinking more about how they are presented.  At a race venue they are pretty focused on the track so you don’t get re-runs very often on a section.  They often want to see what the shot looks like, and often have input and feedback.  This is good most of the time.  They will certainly have some ideas of what they want to look like and where to shoot.  It can be tough when your creative brief is specific and they don’t understand those needs.  I’ve learned a bunch from working with these folks.  Rando has always been a gamer.  Duncan is super fun to work with, and Danny always looks astonishing on the bike!
BMX/Freeride- They can be the toughest to shoot.  Most are very in tune with a creative side and how they are presented.  It’s a balance of pushing the rider, talking about the shots as you're shooting and adjusting.  When it comes down to it this is my favorite discipline to shoot because of the challenges.  The reward and stoke when it all comes together is worth every challenge.  Hopefully this doesn’t come off as a knock, it’s just the reality when image is so important on that type of riding.  I’m sensitive to it.  I’ve learned a ton from shooting Jeff Lenosky and Kurt Sorge.  Those guys have taught me a bunch over the last few years.

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Olly: Race season is almost here - what events and competitions will you be attending this year?

Jake: The season is here.  My travel schedule has already blown up.  I had team camps for Giant Factory, then the freeride squad, plus some time with Adam Craig and Katie Compton all before the GRT and Sea Otter.  After Sea Otter I have some catalogue stuff, then Tour of California.  Beyond that it’s more catalogue stuff and most of the big North American stuff, some non-competition industry stuff, and at least one trip over the pond.  If anyone out there wants specifics they can reach me through my website.  It’s gonna be a crazy year.  No Hannah Montana Video shoots this year though…
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Olly: At a recent race I couldn’t help but notice the amount of budding photographers lining the course, what advice would you give to the aspiring mountain bike photographer looking to improve their field craft?

Jake: It’s unreal!  I do love it though.  It will push everyone!  I guess you could say I’m fairly opinionated on this one.
Find a mentor or two.  Find some people that are paid to shoot and willing to talk to you or critique what you are doing.  Mentor others, talk things out with others, learn how to talk about what you are trying to do and why it’s working or not working.
Get a grasp on video.  You don’t have to be a genius, but you have to be aware and understand it.
Go to the blog of Zack Arias and seek out his series on critiques.  It’s gold.  There are a number of episodes but each one of them has gold in it.  He isn’t the gospel when it comes to photography, but he has a ton of great things to say.  
Be tough on yourself.  Between my wife and I we are probably the biggest critics of what I shoot.
Create a small circle and own it.  Become the expert.  Start small- even if it’s just a club or a small team.  Become the go to for that club/team.  As things progress expand out.  No one starts out selling photos to all the magazines or big bike companies.  That takes time.   Companies get so many submissions.  If you don’t have a relationship already it’s nearly impossible to get anything going.  People do business with people they like and trust.  You have to build the circle and start small.
If you give stuff away or do work for product you will always struggle with that client.  I know it’s hard but this one piece of advice will make a huge difference long term.  Create partnerships. Photo credits and bike parts don’t pay bills!
When on a shoot, shoot some safe, shoot some risky, and shoot some personal.  The safe will get you paid, the risky will open eyes, and the personal will keep you fresh!
At races/competitions be aware of your surroundings.  Keep your body and flashes out of the frame of other photogs. 
Get organized and back up!  When I get a request from someone from an event it takes me very little time to find an image and present it.  Everything is catalogued and key-worded multiple ways.  It’s backed up at least 4 times- on hard drives that stay with my computer, on a NAS, on another set of hard drives at a different location and in the cloud.  If you are paid to shoot losing a photo is not professional.
Don’t sell the same photo to multiple clients without prior written permission.  That is the easiest way to threaten or kill a partnership.

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Olly: Thank you for your time Jake and all the best with the year ahead from everyone at Vital. Time for those interview shout outs!

Jake: I gotta thank my wife and kids.  Watching the process of me switching careers meant super long hours and challenging times.  Everyone at Giant has been so supportive as well.  There are a special few that really know the buttons to push that make me really excel.  Also the interwebs.  How could you not shout out to the interwebs?  You’re always there to chime in and have new content to look at!  And without the athletes I wouldn’t have a job, so thanks for doing things “a few more times.”

You can see more of Jake’s amazing work at 


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