John F. Kennedy once said, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” Fort Collins, Colorado-based product photographer Justin VanAlstyne can certainly vouch for this. Being an avid cyclist as well as a gifted photographer made him the perfect choice to capture leading manufacturer Niner Bikes’ latest RKT 9 RDO bicycle launch.
Justin has worked with Niner Bikes for many years, collaborating several times a month on video and photo projects, both in the studio and outdoors.
The cycling industry is pretty small and insular. I had previously worked with another mountain bike manufacturer — helping to grow their brand through design, social media, and imagery for about seven years — and was also a legitimate cyclist and bike nerd. So combining my previous experience, bike knowledge, and creative talent made for an excellent fit with Niner Bikes.
The project’s goal was to capture photos and videos of the new Niner bike model launching later this year.
We needed 4 “outdoor studio” images of the complete bike, positioned statically with no rider. 2 would be with the bike flat/parallel to the camera, and 2 would be with the bike facing the camera at an angle. A series of 6-8 detail shots of the bike close-up would be needed at the same location. Also, I shoot what I term “static b-roll” to capture video glamour shots of the stationary bike to mix in with riding footage later.
The assignments spanned both action/riding and additional static product shots in a natural environment, which was perfect for the versatile Justin.
To cover the breadth of Niner’s image needs, I had to be comfortable in the studio and out on the trail, shooting fast-paced riding to show the bikes in action.
These outdoor static product images were labeled “outdoor studio” because Justin had helped pioneer the style 10 years prior, using battery-powered strobe lighting to pour light onto the bike, thus allowing the background to appear darker than normal.
This style created a dramatic look, but it requires a skill that I’m still tweaking and learning. The location, lens choice, light modifiers, and weather all play a significant role. Getting those elements to line up perfectly to create a beautiful image set is a significant challenge.
Outdoor action photography poses its own set of unique challenges, equipment choices, and high-fitness levels needed to create quality imagery in ever-changing situations.
This has pushed me creatively a lot in the last several years. There is little overlap here with the skills and equipment needed for studio still photography. I’m working predominantly with a long lens to create a clean image with a clear focus on the product and separation from the background. I supplement this sparingly with wide-angle perspectives, but only if the environment is unique enough to warrant it.
For the location, Justin worked with the marketing department at Niner to hatch a plan for a “light and fast” trip to the desert oasis of Moab, Utah, for a 3-day road trip. All the areas within driving distance had weather or snow on the ground, which Niner didn’t want to show in the imagery.
Like most bicycles, this product was not necessarily meant for snowy conditions. We knew we needed to capture a set of “outdoor studio” imagery as well as riding action photos and video. I studied topographic maps of Moab, paired with my knowledge of the area from previous trips here, and formulated a rough list of locations we would scout and shoot as efficiently as possible.
At a separate location, Justin got a model on the bike and shot a variety of action/riding imagery, both in stills and video format. The end result of which was used for the ad.
Niner’s brand is serious in that the products cover a range from mid- to very high-end but are also approachable and friendly. So for Niner, the imagery style needed to walk a broad line of showing that the product is high-quality and capable but also approachable and fun.
Moab in January tends to be relatively quiet, so they didn’t encounter many people whilst filming. Justin and the team scouted 6 locations for the aforementioned deliverables and ended up shooting at 3 distinct spots. All 3 were along existing trails, making them accessible.
For the “outdoor studio” images and video, we needed to be relatively close to the vehicle due to the amount of equipment required and the need for the bike to stay clean (we couldn’t ride or roll it and get sand/dirt on the tires and frame, so it had to be awkwardly carried). That left the 2 riding locations, 1 of which required a four-wheel drive to reach safely. Once away from the trailhead, Moab trails tend to get remote quickly. No cell service, no manmade structures or paved roads for dozens of miles in any direction.
Because of the quick-and-dirty nature of this trip, it was only Justin and one of Niner’s marketing coordinators on set who would serve not only as creative direction but also as the riding model and assistant.
I’m used to only working with 1 or 2 others for projects like this, but it’s always challenging. Everyone involved has to wear multiple hats and be flexible. Since we only had 2-nights/3-days in Moab, including travel days, we only had 1 full day of shooting and a lot to accomplish everything.
It was a very full day for Justin, with lots of driving and getting the bike and camera gear in and out of the vehicle. The weather was dry and sunny but also windy and in the 35-45F range, so not exactly warm. This proved challenging for the rider because Justin did not want a winter/cold look for the apparel because it didn’t fit the demographic or style of the bike. The rider needed to wear a short-sleeve riding kit appropriate for this bike, which meant he was quite cold. So they had to work quickly to find a location, shoot, let him warm up, and repeat.
I knew the Niner employee quite well, and we already had several projects under our belt, so the shoot went smoothly, and we had a great time! We got lucky with some great light and found some excellent locations.
Justin tends to come at photos and videos with a technical eye, which benefited this assignment.
I like to get into the nitty-gritty of the process and the equipment. This is why I excel at studio work and have to push myself creatively when working with models. What works for me is not to direct the model too much. I prefer to give them a task and then just shoot the result.
Justin endeavors to work with clients in industries, his knowledge about and products he already uses.
I love finding clients where I can not only take a creative lead with the imagery but also be a brand ambassador and be super proud to not only shoot that product but to own it and use it myself. Niner Bikes is a great fit in this way. I now own several Niner bikes and love being a part of the cycling community to help further the brand, personally and professionally.
This project was an excellent opportunity for Justin to figure out how to be efficient with so many deliverables needing to be captured in both video and film in such a short amount of time.
Video and still photography operate simultaneously as similar but also polar opposites. Learning how to do both on the same shoot has been a fun challenge that has led to numerous equipment changes, but also mental changes and creative skill growth.
Working on photo road trips is always fun for me. New scenery and opportunities for amazing imagery! Strangely, I also enjoy setting up a mobile workstation at the rental house or hotel and looking through the footage or images at the end of the day. It’s a sigh of relief to confirm that what I thought looked okay in the camera earlier that day came out even better than I imagined!
See more of Justin’s work on his website.
Talent: Tyler Henderson
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