Filling The Rectangles | Mike Emery

October 2016 Feature

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This article was originally printed in our October 2016 issue of TransWorld Motocross.

Filling The Rectangles | My Journey In Photography

"And you may ask yourself, 'Well, how did I get here?'"

There are certain times when you just want to drop a song lyric when describing something, and for me a particular line from the Talking Heads tune "Once In A Lifetime" describes the current stage of my existence on this thing we call Earth. How did I get here? I'm living in Southern California, working a pretty sweet gig as the photo editor here at TransWorld Motocross, making a living off of creativity, and striving to improve my craft every day. While the answer isn't clear-cut, one thing I can tell you is a lot of very hard work and long hours were put in to get to this point. Photography today is more popular than ever, which I think is awesome, and even more impressive is the instant reach of photos via modern social channels like Instagram. TransWorld Motocross editor-in-chief Donn Maeda thought you readers would find my story unique and potentially helpful to anyone interested in filling your viewfinder with stoke. It's very tough to write about myself, but here goes nothing!

*Sprinkled throughout this article are some of my favorite images I’ve captured throughout the past few years with a description and story of the moment.

Chad and Tate Reed | Anaheim, CA 2014 | I'll take shooting a small moment of emotion or a storytelling image over an action shot any day of the week. Being able to anticipate and capture this father-son moment after Chad won Anaheim II was something special, and I ended up selling a big print of this to Ellie Reed a few weeks later!

Following My Path

I'll briefly give you a timeline of how a dude from eastern Pennsylvania ended up walking through the Carlsbad, California offices of The Enthusiast Network (TWMX's home) to clock in. My family was like many in moto: My dad, brother, and I would spend our Sundays out riding together and creating memories that last a lifetime. Since age eight when I ran into the mailbox on the family's Honda Z50, I knew motorcycles would be a huge part of my existence. I also remember being influenced by photography and really just appreciating amazing images in magazines, specifically the countless skateboard magazines I always subscribed to, which are still in my opinion some of the most progressive in photographic creativity.

Yep, I was actually more of a skateboarder than I was anything else, mostly because skating was so accessible, and as I got into my teenage years I outgrew my KX80. I still loved dirt bikes, but the timing of needing a new bike I couldn't afford, my brother getting out of it while in college, and my dad not in the position to ride as much made the family moto hobby fizzle for a while. During this time, I was lucky enough to spend a few months in Europe with my best friends skateboarding, exploring, and living the life. With my little Canon PowerShot point-and-shoot camera, it was on this trip that I really found pure enjoyment in taking photos and realized I may have somewhat of an eye for it.

A few years down the road I purchased my first Nikon digital SLR camera, and I was immediately hooked. At that same time my brother had just bought a 2001 CR250--an epic piece of Honda engineering history I should add--and I asked to go riding with him and then brought my camera along to snap some photos. It was so different than skateboard photography and also re-sparked my love for motocross--it all was so fresh! It wasn't long before I bought that exact bike from my brother, and we began to ride again, recreating the childhood memories we once had. Mind you, during all this time I had finished school and earned a degree in automotive technology along with my ASE master technician certifications. I was a true weekend warrior but had a set blue-collar career path.

I never in a million years could have guessed that photography would be my profession. I actually loved working in the automotive business and spent almost 10 years wrenching on cars. This backup and solid foundation allowed me to pursue my passion of photography on nights and weekends. I was a hobbyist-turned-professional through hours of hard work, essentially working two full time jobs until photography paid the bills--nothing was handed to me, that's for damned sure. But I loved every minute of it.

Ryan Villopoto | Las Vegas, NV 2014 | It was nothing short of impressive to watch and photograph Ryan Villopoto kick as much ass as he did during his career. This photo of him putting the exclamation point on his 2014 championship with a win in Vegas came together perfectly for my viewfinder. It looks like he was shot out of a cannon--and quite honestly, with his speed, he sort of was!

My first break on the media side of things was rewarded after I drove down to Anaheim I and shot the entire event from the stands without any media credential and while running from security all night for doing so. I made a blog post titled "FANaheim 1" and sent it out to a few media outlets to show my work and ask if they needed any help. This was before Instagram, and I was surprised to hear back almost immediately from a now-defunct website called InsiderMX, and from there I became the grunt who would do anything, working through the ranks until companies/other media and print publications noticed my work. It's a ladder, and everyone needs to climb it his or her own way.

Entering January 2015, I had officially made the leap 100 percent into freelance photography--hanging up my wrenches in hopes of making ends meet with my cameras. With steady gigs from multiple media outlets like Cycle News, Racer X, Vurbmoto, and Meta, along with many different brand clients, it was all coming together. The photo editor position at TransWorld Motocross opened up, and I applied thinking I didn't stand a chance. But I was wrong, and the next thing I knew I was clocking in for my first day--everything I had done came full circle. I have what many--myself included--would call a dream job, and I connected with my skateboarding roots in the TransWorld SKATEboarding skatepark, which is about 50 feet from my desk! That's one random path, but I followed it and things worked out, and I'm super grateful for everyone who's helped me out along the way.

What's In The Bag?

Every professional's answer will be different, but in my Think Tank Photo Airport Security roller you'll find a handful of goodies. For cameras it's always two Nikon bodies--a D4S and D3 currently. For lenses I prefer my Nikon 16mm f2.8 fisheye, my Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 wide-angle, my Nikon 5omm f1.4, my trusty Nikon 70-200mm f2.8, and my favorite go-to: the Nikon 300mm f2.8 telephoto. I usually bring a couple Nikon Speedlight flashes, a GoPro or two, my BlackRapid strap system to have dual cameras over my shoulders, and a Think Tank Photo belt system to hold the lenses. Add in a microphone for videos and interviews, some memory card readers, and lens-cleaning necessities if someone roosts me. Oh yeah, can't forget the laptop. Sometimes it's more and other times it's less, but this kit gets the job done on any given race day when I don't need my lighting equipment. The truth? I could manage with only one body and my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 if necessary, but that could get boring!

A look into my Think Tank Photo roller bag, in its most commonly used configuration.

10 Most Important Things I've Learned Along The Way

1. Take every opportunity you get and maximize its potential.

2. Believe in yourself. If you aren't where you want to be, that doesn't mean you won't get there.

3. Always try to make a good impression and keep a positive attitude. Nobody likes to hear a complainer.

4. Always invest in yourself and your passions/career. It's hard to lose when you bet on yourself.

5. Network, network, and network some more. You never know whose hand you're shaking or what connections they have that may help you!

6. Compare your work to the highest standards, and find where you need to improve. Also lean on colleagues and established professionals for advice if they are willing to help.

7. Don't pigeonhole yourself. Broaden your skillset and every aspect of your photography will improve.

8. Only buy the gear that you genuinely need, and maximize what you already have.

9. Have fun, be original, and things will happen organically. You can't force something that isn't meant to be, and having your own style is crucial.

10. Know your worth. Modern photographers get taken advantage of all the time, and it's essential to remain aware of the value of your work/craft. I could write a book on this topic, but for anyone interested in being a photographer, remember those three words.

Austin Forkner | Mammoth Mountain, CA 2014 | Shooting amateur racing is crucial to learning the ropes and also getting your name out there. Capturing up-and-coming talent like 2016 250 class rookie Austin Forkner before they hit the big time is really fun. It was special to see this young talent get a win in his rookie year, and with style like this on a Supermini, it was a safe assumption he would be right where he is. The future has arrived!

The Good, The Bad, And The Sometimes Very Ugly

Anyone who's been at it for a while certainly has plenty stories of their own, but one specific trip comes to mind when I think of a "what else could possibly go wrong?" type of scenario. Back in March I was given what I would describe as a dream assignment: fly across the world to Europe, hang with and get to know young world champion Jeffrey Herlings, and document his personality along the way to his 50th overall GP win at Valkenswaard. This was a known cover story, and I was to write and create it in anyway I chose--something that I found super exciting. I had the keys to the car, what could possibly go wrong? Everything--everything went wrong once we got to Valkenswaard!

I had shot some photos with Herlings as he prepared for moto one in his private van located outside of the facility. There was a lot of hype, and he wanted solitude to get away--of course I found him and bugged him for some shots, but he was cool with it. On my walk back it started pouring--I mean torrential downpour--and I scrambled for the media tent to gain shelter. I dried off my cameras, which I surprisingly managed to keep mostly dry considering the circumstances. About a half hour later I grabbed my main body to head out, and it was completely dead. I tried switching to my other fully charged battery and that didn't help. I was down my main camera, but that's why I brought two, right? I was in the clear, or so I thought.

During the first 250 moto I took what I call a light "photographer's jog" toward the finish line to get Herlings taking the checkers when I noticed something flying out of my peripheral vision. Yep, the thing was the battery to my only working camera (that somehow unlatched itself) heading straight for a huge mud puddle. I fished it out of the murky brown water and shook my head in disbelief. Missing the finish line shot, I moved back into the tent to regroup, and after a quick battery swap I was back at it. What luck!

Moving along to Herlings' final moto of the day, while I was awaiting the gate drop, the LCD screen on my last remaining working camera decided it was done working, so essentially I now had a digital-film camera and was to capture the rest of the day trusting my light meter and skillset. Talk about stressful! After the day was over, I offloaded my card with my fingers crossed and hopes high. Turns out, in spite of all of the bad-luck scenarios, the feature came out better than I could have ever dreamed. The result of all the carnage was one complete camera replacement and the main PC board replacement to the other body. Sometimes you make lemonade out of lemons, and this day instilled more confidence in my ability to overcome tough circumstances. I (and at least one of my cameras) lived to shoot another day, and I couldn't be more stoked for all of these opportunities and experiences along the way. Cheers to more good times!


James Stewart | Anaheim, CA 2016
Last year at A1 I set out to shoot some unique images that I've never done before. I had a vision prior to even getting to the stadium, and when James and his mechanic rode into the tunnel for opening ceremonies my plan came together. A 1.6-second exposure and rear-curtain sync flash burst was the ticket for this photo, and I loved the way it came out!

A Few More of My Favorite Images

Below are the rest of the photos in the above gallery from the article, with short descriptions of why they stand out. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, hopefully I’ll have plenty more to share!

Marvin Musquin | Arlington, TX 2015 | This was an example of setting up for a shot and having everything fall into place. I knew I wanted a reaction shot super tight, and when Marvin Musquin took the win in the 250SX class he delivered the best emotion as he came around to greet his wife and team after his victory lap. I love his expression, and my 300mm lens captured it exactly how tight I wanted.

Eli Tomac | Oakland, CA 2015 | Finding ways to tell a story that are a little different from the norm is an addiction, and when Eli Tomac sat patiently outside the podium entrance in Oakland during opening ceremonies, I snapped this side-profile shot. To me it invokes the thought process of what might be going through a rider's head prior to race time.

Race Start | Hurricane Mills, TN 2014 | Prior to capturing this photo, I thought to myself, "Man, it would be really cool to shoot a start from inside the doghouse." Most would think that would be a firm no by the gatekeeper, but to my delight, upon asking he said, "Sure!" The result was a very hectic image that delivers the pure intensity that is the Loretta Lynn's Amateur National Championship.

Opening Ceremonies | San Diego, CA 2015 | When I heard that the Monster Energy Supercross Series was heading to downtown San Diego, I had a feeling it was going to be a good round. Once I saw this backdrop at Petco Park, I knew it would make for an epic opening ceremonies shot. I opted to use my 16mm fisheye, and with that came a perspective that captured the entire stadium. I was stoked I pulled this off without a tripod as well..

Ryan Dungey | Phoenix, AZ 2015 | Slowing the shutter speed down with action can really make a photo come to life. This one is even trickier because it’s shot at f2.8 so it’s a combination of both shallow focus and panning. Add in a signature Ryan Dungey holeshot and it filled the frame nicely.

Zac Commans | Ocotillo Wells, CA 2014 | This image is a personal favorite for multiple reasons. First of all, Zac was hesitant with freeriding at this shoot for Kawasaki and Monster, but he completely killed it without realizing it. When the sun aligned behind him with all of the dust, I had the shot I wanted. Ocotillo Wells is a blast and a playground for photographs like this.

Thanks for reading. Join me on my latest travels for @twmxdotcom via @emeryphoto!