Steve Zavitz – On the Fly

Say hello to Steve :


Where are you from? Where have you been?

I was born in South Korea, but I grew up in a rural town in Michigan. I moved to the east coast five years ago, and I’m currently based in Brooklyn.

What’s your favorite place in the world?

Lake Michigan. I talk to a lot of people who grew up visiting the ocean and insist that the beach just isn’t the same without waves. Trying to explain a lake that spans the width of a state and whose waters stretch beyond the horizon is oddly challenging. It’s always a clean and tranquil place, though I still love the salty air and crashing waves here in New York.

How would you describe your visual style?

My subjects really dictate the way that I shoot. I’m a wide angle guy because context and reference are so important when shooting athletes in their element. I almost always shoot outdoors in direct sunlight, so I’ve really embraced hard shadows and heavy contrast. I’ve never been partial to big, vibrant colors, so I like a slightly desaturated look. In general, I’m always looking for leading lines in my shots, and composition is definitely the most important thing for me.

You’re also a creator of motion pictures, focusing on parkour and dance – tell us more about that.

I consider myself to be a videographer at heart because that’s how I got my start. While I’ve been focusing a lot more on the photography element of parkour and dance recently, I think I’ll always go back to film because motion is such an important element. I’m also a bit of a gearhead, so I embrace any excuse I can make to try out a new piece of gear. 

Shooting video has its own skill set and types of problems, but I think it’s really important to be well rounded. I know how to fly a Glidecam, so I’m usually the one getting the master shot when I’m on set. This means I’m running all over the place and sprinting circles around everyone, which is fun but sometimes exhausting. I’ve always had more of a hands-on approach when it comes to shooting. So you’ll often find me rolling around on the ground, or scaling a building with my camera strapped on my back, just to get the best angle.

Shooting dance and parkour also keeps my eyes sharp because anticipation is such an important element for me – even more so than stills. Sometimes you only get one chance to grab a shot, so it’s crucial to prepare and think about where your frame is before you give someone the green light to start jumping or dancing. I love that element of unpredictability, though. Whether it’s finding a way to work around horrendous lighting, herding, gawking pedestrians out of frame, or the occasional bail, no two days of shooting are ever the same.

What types of photography do you do?

I love shooting action portraits. Some of my favorite shots are the wide ones of athletes moving on a grand scale because they give an honest representation of the skill and years of practice each of them have put into that jump/flip/climb. Outside of the street photography stuff, I really enjoy moody portraits with dramatic lighting. I love experimenting in the studio, and it’s always really rewarding when you get an awesome shot by just thinking outside of the box.

What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?

I was working on a video project with this parkour athlete from Spain. Without getting too specific, he convinced me to do a bit of urban exploring in an abandoned warehouse. The place was unreal, but it wasn’t exactly what you’d call safe (gigantic holes in the roof, floorboards that groaned and cracked under our feet, and the sounds of homeless people roaming the floors above us). This guy really wanted to get a roof gap shot, so he told me to set up a shot on the lower section of the rooftop. I crouched down behind a little crevice and watched him climb up to the very top of the building (about 5 stories up). As he was preparing for the jump, I suddenly realized that there was a very real possibility that this guy could slip and fall to his death. Despite shooting parkour for years, no one I’d ever worked with had ever put themselves in that kind of danger before, so it was a new and terrifying experience for me. Thankfully, everything worked out and we got the shot, but that moment still sticks with me.

What are your favorite three photos you’ve taken?

In no particular order:

This was a shot I took of my friend Josh “Kip” Gonzalez. It was my first real day of shooting with the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, so I was testing out the shallow DOF. I love this shot because I managed to time it perfectly, so that you can see him fully extended during the jump. It has this impossibly unreal look to it.

This is a shot of my friend Eudes Espino standing on a jetty in Manasquan, NJ. After partying for a friend’s birthday until 4AM the night before, we all woke up at daybreak to visit the beach. I loved the shadows on the stone columns, so I asked Eudes to strike a pose for me. The balance and contrast of the shot felt perfect to me, and I think it will always be one of my favorites.

I almost didn’t get this shot. Ernest Lubonja is one of those athletes who just jumps when he’s ready, so I ended up scrambling to pull focus at the last minute. Truthfully, I actually thought he was going to be landing on the railing to the left, so I was even more surprised when I saw his feet flying towards me. Thankfully it all worked out, and I managed to snap an excellent action shot of him in the process.

What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?

Take the time to learn new skills whenever you can. Almost anyone can take a decent photo with their phone these days, so you have to find other ways to make your work stand out. Learn some advanced retouching techniques, teach yourself how to use Illustrator so you can work on logos and typography, watch a video on cinematic color grading, try some animation in After Effects, rent a Glidecam and learn how to fly it. Yes, you should practice and shoot often, but don’t forget to stay curious and keep yourself well-rounded.

What’s the funniest story you have from being a photographer?

I’ve had too many funny moments to count, but this is one of my favorites. I went on a trip to upstate New York three years ago to take a vacation with a few of my friends. There’s a parkour gym up there with a very active community. So, we spent most of the trip training and shooting. One night, we were relaxing with a few drinks after dinner. I still had my camera on me, so I was getting some B-roll footage for my summer video. When I panned the camera over to my friend, Jonny, he grabbed a raw egg and popped it in his mouth. He chewed the whole thing and swallowed it… shell and all. It was horrifying and amazing, and he wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t pointed the camera at him.

What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?

Humility is so important in this industry. There are so many great photographers out there, and you can always learn something new from someone. One thing I’ve always found to be true about photographers I admire is that they’re very down to earth and that honesty shows in their work.

What’s a deal breaker for you when deciding to do a shoot?

Unrealistic expectations and/or a lack of respect for my time and work. We’ve all had someone give us a line about getting exposure or promising future work, but I’m not even talking about that. If I have to fight a client tooth-and-nail to get the rate that I want, that’s not someone I want to work with. The fact that they’re not willing to compromise and expect the cheapest option shows that they don’t respect me as a photographer or understand the type of work that I do.

What photography advice do you wish you had when you were first starting out?

Think about the rates that you want and set goals to make them a reality. No one really told me how much money I should be asking for when I first got started, so I ended up doing a lot of work for free or for very cheap. It’s fine to get some experience or to help out a friend with a discounted rate, but you’re doing yourself (and everyone else in the industry) a disservice if you’re significantly undercutting your work. Do some research in your area, and don’t be afraid to ask other photographers for advice!

What are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?

1. Learn your gear inside and out. I’m serious. Read the manual and make sure you know what every button on your camera does. It might sound stupid, but if this thing is going to become an extension of your arm, you’d better know it like the backside of your hand.

2. It’s okay to make mistakes. I still look back at some of my early work and cringe. Try different techniques and go outside your comfort zone. You need to find your own style and aesthetic, and the road to the finished product isn’t always easy.

3. Go out and shoot. Make an excuse for yourself and just do it. Like most things in life, photography requires lots and lots of practice. I know photographers who think they need to set up a shoot, get a model, scout locations, etc., etc., before they pick up their cameras. It’s great to plan ahead, but don’t let that be the reason your camera gear starts collecting dust.

What kind of gear do you have?

My main camera body is a Panasonic GH4. I was originally a Canon shooter, so I had a tough time deciding what body to go with when I upgraded. I landed on a mirror-less because it makes my kit significantly lighter, and Panasonic was doing things that no other camera company could for that price. It’s snappy, and I can flip seamlessly from photos to video, which was a priority for me as most of my shoots require me to rapidly switch gears between the two. My favorite lens currently is the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 (shot with a Metabones Speedbooster attachment). It’s almost always on my camera because it’s the most versatile for my style of shooting. The zoom range is perfect for parkour, but I can also sneak in some ¾ portraits with it and blur the background out. It’s sharp wide open, so I can shoot into the evening without worrying about cranking my ISO. Besides that, I have a few fun lenses that I like to pull out if I I’m looking for something different. I have this 12mm cinema lens from SLR Magic that makes the craziest flares. It’s pretty soft wide open, so I like using it for wider portraits. I also picked up a 50mm Helios lens a while back. That one is also pretty soft wide open, but you can achieve this beautiful, swirly bokeh with it. If you’ve got a background with lots of distant lights, it’s almost impossible to take a bad shot with that lens.

What’s one post-processing tip you’d like to share with other photographers?

This one might be obvious for anyone who’s done retouching, but learn frequency separation. It’s one of the best and most natural ways I’ve found to soften harsh shadows on the face. Dodging and burning is still really great for high contrast areas (e.g., eyes, highlights the hair, muscle definition), but frequency separation is definitely the way to go if you need to reduce the bags under someone’s eyes, roll off a shadow cast from the nose, or lighten up some sun spots or blemishes.

Do you have any projects you’d like to show off?

Sure! If you’re interested in seeing more of my video work, check out my most recent parkour film “we always think there is going to be more time. It was a deeply personal project for me, and it took many months to complete. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to edit, but it was worth every second.

What has photography done for you as a person? How has it changed you?

I’ve never really been a person who likes to be the center of attention, so photography was a great outlet for me to be involved without forcing me into the spotlight. That said, it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone by encouraging me to take point when organizing and producing my shoots. Being a photographer has definitely helped me feel more confident both in general and especially with my creative abilities.

For anyone that wants to get in touch with Steve, here’s some contact information:

FStop: Profile


Facebook: Profile

Instagram: @SteveZavitz

500px: Profile

Steve, thanks so much for interviewing with us!

If any artists out there want to collaborate with FStop, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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