Hitting Paydirt – A Q&A with Marc Landry

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Marc Landry - Paydirt Header

How did you get your start?

My love for sports –  particularly mountain biking – is what set me off on this photographic journey. I worked in the cycling industry for a number of years, often finding myself at races and loved capturing the action in front of me. Part of my work at the time involved running race teams, events and working with sponsors. People started to express interest in my work, which helped me realize that there was an opportunity beyond my personal interest.

What is your background/education?

In the beginning of my career path my success was a result of my understanding of the sports I photographed. I was always able to arrive at the image in my mind’s eye, although it often took longer than I wanted. I loved learning and was self-taught for the first ten years. I was always on the lookout for action sports photography programs but found that, other than a few workshops in locations like Whistler and Colorado, there simply weren’t any. Most sports photography courses were typically based out of the United States and was more geared towards college level sports rather than outdoor adventure sports. While I was interested in learning about any sort of sports photography, we simply didn’t have the college level games our neighbors to the south do. More importantly, I didn’t see a market or publications that would be interested in these sorts of images.

My desire to know everything photography-related led me to enroll in the Photography Program at Humber College in Toronto. There was nothing relating to sports or action photography but I decided that learning from the ground up couldn’t hurt. The curriculum focused on portraiture, still life and some fashion. I really loved the program and was able to adapt what I learned into what I shoot today. Learning the fundamentals of exposure and composition alone are invaluable. I also really enjoyed the classroom environment, particularity having my images critiqued by my peers. You need to get used to hearing all sorts of feedback (good and bad) about your images and that requires a thick skin. School was great for this, as were the assignments as they forced me to develop a working process. Rather than arrive at a shoot and fumble my way though, it taught me methods and systems that helped get me to my final image more efficiently and with a greater understanding of the variables. In the end though, nothing can replace the value of my years entrenched in the sports I love. That can’t be taught.

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How long has photography been a passion?

I think it’s always been a passion of mine, even though I didn’t always realize it. I believe I was born with a certain level of creativity, which makes any career without a creative component quite unfulfilling. Although I was artistic, it took me a while to figure out how to apply it. Part of being creative is finding the right outlet; it just took me some time to discover that photography was the right choice for me. I was always in awe of anything created in the action sports medium. I loved the arts but to see it applied to a subject matter I loved opened my eyes and lit the spark. When my love for sports and photography aligned, I was hooked.

How did Sports and Action Photography become your primary focus?

After school, I contemplated portrait and fashion work. I love to work with people and I enjoyed the creative aspect of lighting. This is the greatest thing I learned in school and to this day I am essentially setting up a studio in the forest to capture athletes as they race by me.

I was 35 when I finished my program at Humber. I recall having a beer with my prof one night after class and in a candid discussion – him telling me it would take ten years to make it as a photographer. That seemed like a long time to me but what I have come to appreciate is that it’s the business end of photography that takes time. Even if I wanted to be a fashion photographer, I didn’t have the luxury of going down that path. I would have to learn the industry before I could succeed photographing it. I had already been shooting sports and most importantly, had the relationships in place to make it a reality. I stopped shooting anything else and jumped feet-first into the action.

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How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of feel do you try to create in your photos?

My vision is to create an emotional response. What I want to convey most is the vibe that the athletes and I feel while we’re out there, creating the images. I always want a strong connection to exist between the viewer and the subject. The best part of my job is working with the athletes. These are driven individuals with an infectious attitude. I feed off their passion and energy while we’re working together and want that to come across in the images we create. I’m not happy with an image until they are. If they are stoked about the picture, chances are the viewer usually will be as well. That’s my goal and what I set out to do when I pick up the camera.

The feel I try to create in my photos is epic. Whether it’s peak action, full extension or an incredible expression of victory or defeat, I want it to be dramatic. It can be calm, like a lone rider on a winding road or explosive like the opening ceremony at a Supercross race. I always try and find something vivid when I am shooting.

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How do you keep yourself motivated and your photography fresh?

There is a downside to shooting what you love, which is that you often find yourself shooting it more than doing it. Your work bleeds into your passion and it’s sometimes difficult to separate the two. When it becomes work you lose some of the creative freedom and the whole process can become very mechanical. I do a few things to offset this which is to try and take a few frames for myself. I always make sure my clients are happy and getting what they need. But I also try and flex some creative muscle throughout the day. Sometimes I will even go out on my own with the athlete after the shoot or connect with them on another day. I also try and give myself assignments. I’ll force myself to try a new technique or shoot other sports I don’t typically shoot. Every sport has its own angle and look so changing it up always keeps it fresh for me.

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Do you have any favourite photographers?

Being a Nikon shooter, Joe McNally is the guy I look up to the most. His photographic career and body of work is incredible. He’s a terrific writer and I love his behind the scene tutorials. Hearing his brutally honest stories of trial and error helps me believe that a little guy like me can still make it. His stories are real, self-sacrificing and truly inspiring.

I would say that Ian Hylands is my most revered action sports photographer. He’s a Nikon guy as well and is truly a pioneer with regards to mountain bike photography. He has an incredible understanding of the technical side of the equipment and has always been a great mentor for me.

I found my greatest wealth of information from an unlikely source however. A podcast called The Image Doctors, hosted by Jason Odell and Rick Walker, proved an incredible resource. Even though the show was generally about landscape and wildlife photography, Rick and Jason shared such vast experience and expertise about the Nikon system that I was able to find amazing gems to apply to my work. The podcast is no longer on air but I’ve since become friends with Jason and still look to him for advice.

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What are some of your biggest challenges? How do you overcome them?

The most challenging aspect of my work is that I have chosen to be an action sports photographer in a region where landscape and elevation don’t quite lend themselves to the cause. It often feels forced, like I am trying to shoot a swimsuit calendar at the North Pole. Action sports photography is about environment as much as it is about subject. The scenery is as much a part of the image as the action. I am often on location surrounded by power lines, litter and apartment buildings, questioning my choices to pursue this endeavor here. My composition is often so restricted due to something nasty just outside my frame on either side that I only have one option. I see images of epic mountains and beautiful oceans and struggle with my decision to chase this dream here. But that’s a choice I’m happy I made. I’ve made a career out of it here. This is where I ride, ski, hike and it is home. You do what you know, that’s what allows you to do it better than the other guy. The challenges I have faced to make this possible here are what make it so rewarding. There is always a great image; I just have to work a little harder to get it.

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What has been your greatest career accomplishment to-date?

I am proud of being recognized by my peers, being published in magazines I admire and getting some celebrated covers. I am blessed to have worked with some incredible local, international and Olympic-level athletes. I’ve enjoyed covering big events like Supercross, World Cups and World Championships for various sports. My ultimate goal, which still eludes me, is shooting the Olympics.

What advice do you have for other photographers starting out?

Jump in with both feet. You can’t just send out a few emails and hope for it to happen; you have to make it happen. I get countless emails from students starting out. They email me once and I never hear from them again. Emails are like flyers in the mail. You need to establish meaningful, face to face relationships and develop them. The connections you make are as important as the images you produce. Never give away your work, but don’t be afraid to work for free. Starting out, if I could have assisted or shadowed an established shooter, I would have jumped at the opportunity. I still would! Set small goals for day to day shoots and big goals for the business end of things. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate the victories. Most of all, keep shooting.

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Is there anything you would have done differently?

My biggest regret is not starting earlier in life. The photography profession isn’t what it once was and some of the opportunities or career paths once available to photographers aren’t as readily available. To succeed as a photographer today means doing it on your own. Some of the big press agency jobs just aren’t accessible and magazines are moving away from dedicated staff photographers. In another life, I would have done this straight out of high school.

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What are you working on right now?

I am looking for unique subjects for an environmental portrait series. Primarily athletes but it will include their family and support network. It will be shot using a mix of available and artificial light but lit with the goal of keeping it natural-looking and true to the environment. On the action side, I tinker with Hypersync almost daily.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years I would like to be living in the country, shooting landscapes and having a gallery in my barn. Every morning I will wake up and go hike around the countryside looking for natural beauty. Travel as much as I can and maybe do some more writing and teaching.

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Tell us a little about some of your favourite photo gear.

My Nikon D4 is my go-to body for just about everything I shoot. I use a pair of D4 cameras equipped with a telephoto lens such as the Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 and a mid to long range zoom like the 24-70mm f/2.8 or 70-200mm f/2.8. The D4 is a killer low light performer and maintains autofocus down to f8, making it a great choice when used in conjunction with teleconverters.

Other than your Camera, What’s your favourite photo accessory?

I am a big strobist. I am always looking for ways to trigger and shape light in extreme environments. I have to haul lots of gear into the woods and am therefore always striving to conveniently get light into remote locations. I love my Nikon Speedlights and Pocket Wizards. The new Flex TT5s have brought us some incredible advances in triggering and introduced Hypersync. I have enjoyed pushing the limits with them over the past year.

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If you had to choose just a single camera and lens would it be and why?

I think my 300mm f/2.8 is my favourite lens right now. I like the angle of view it presents and the unique placement and vantage points it affords me. I can shoot it wide open for creamy, soft backgrounds and really isolate my subject. I can step outside the immediate action and get some nice candids or environmental portraits.

I have been using Nikon’s digital bodies since the D1H and have loved them all. The D3 however, was the greatest game changer I think. It, combined with a D700, was a killer combo. I love my D4 and when it’s in my hand, we are a killer team. It’s a completely natural extension of my mind, eye and body. If I had to pick just one, I would say that the D3 was my all-time fave. As I write this the D4s is being announced, so the dance continues.

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Marc’s work will be on display at Vistek Stores on the following dates:

Toronto: March 3 – April 4, 2014
Mississauga: July 7 – August 8, 2014
Ottawa: August 11 – September 12, 2014
Edmonton: October 13 – November 7, 2014
Calgary: December 1 2014 – January 2, 2015

For Store Hours, Locations and Directions, click here.

If you would like to submit YOUR work for consideration to Vistek gallery please email us at gallery@vistek.ca for details.

All images © Marc Landry all rights reserved – used with Permission 

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