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Behind The Camera: Gritchelle Fallesgon

Whether you’ve seen Gritchelle Fallesgon’s Instagram account for her bright colorful studio photography or her profile for outdoor adventure photography, these two seemingly different bodies of work hold more in common than just the photographer who made them. Gritchelle is a Portland-based commercial and lifestyle photographer with a background in graphic design and a focus on inclusivity. “I've always hated putting myself in a box. Like when I was a designer, I hated doing that. And now as a photographer, people always want to know ‘what kind of photographer are you?’ It's an interesting question because I think that like a lot of photographers I know, and as a creative, I do a lot of different things,” Gritchelle proclaims about her own work.

Maybe you picked up on it above, but Gritchelle started her creative career path as a graphic designer. In high school, I was really obsessed with photography and I loved everything about it. I wanted to become a photographer, that was my dream as a teenager. My best friend and I were like, ‘oh, let's go to photography school. Let's go to Brooks [Institute of Photography]’ in Southern California”, reminisces Gritchelle. But this dream was crushed pretty quickly as she started to look into what it would take to go to Brooks. “We looked up how much it costs to go there, and we were like, ‘oh, that's not happening. We can't afford to go to Brooks,” she remembers. Despite the realization that an expensive photography school wasn’t an option, Gritchelle still wanted to be a photographer.

At that point in her life, however, she hadn’t had a lot of exposure to the different types of photographers one could become. It seemed as though there was only fine art photography and photojournalism. Gritchelle didn't really want to do fine art photography. And, even though she liked photographing people, she didn’t really see photojournalism as an option either. So, after realizing the cost of photography school took it off the table, and the types of photography she thought she could do professionally were limited, Gritchelle admits she really didn't know what to do.

Gritchelle then spent a couple of years after high school going to community college and taking all different kinds of classes trying to figure out what to do with her life, temporarily giving up on becoming a photographer. During this exploratory period, she discovered graphic design. ”It was like, ‘oh, I could still be creative. I could still use photography and color and all these things that I love,” Gritchelle says of her discovery, “so I became a graphic designer. But I was still shooting photos on the side because I was still very much passionate about photography.”

Since Gritchelle had a passion for photography, some of the design agencies she was working at started having her take pictures for projects she was working on. “It was really fun! I was technically getting paid to take pictures at work, which was really gratifying,” says Gritchelle. Then she slowly started freelancing as a photographer on the side. Juggling being a designer with each successive photography gig, Gritchelle quickly became torn. She wanted to be successful as a graphic designer because she had gone to school for it. But at the same time, the taste of getting paid to just do photography and the allure of being able to focus solely on that was building with each paid gig.

Around this time, as she considered transitioning out of her career in graphic design, other elements of Gritchelle’s life began to pull her towards photography as well. “I used to live in San Francisco and I used to ride bikes a lot,” tells Gritchelle. “I was obsessed with cycling back then and would ride my bike all over the City and the Bay Area. I carried an iPhone with me and would take photos of all the beautiful locations I was riding at. And I was really stoked on all the images I took with my iPhone. So, I started to imagine if I actually hauled a ‘real’ camera with me, what would those images look like?

Gritchelle’s bike adventures gave her an appreciation for the landscape they would take her to, which in turn gave her an appreciation for creating images of that landscape. This appreciation for making these images wasn’t in the way that a landscape photographer would have, but rather more from an adventurer's point of view. “I just rode my bike up this mountain and here’s this epic view, here’s my reward,” Gritchelle describes her growing love for shooting photos while out on bike adventures. 

“One of the reasons I moved to Oregon is the closeness to the outdoors. Plus it’s a very bike-friendly city and I was a total bike nerd. So it just made sense,” she says about her deepening love of cycling and adventuring. Gritchelle was freelance shooting portraits and product photography, and the collision of her biking/outdoor lifestyle and the appreciation for creating images of the landscape it took place in lead Gritchelle to start daydreaming about how cool it would be to do cycling lifestyle photography.

“I just started photographing all my bike adventures and any bike race, or anything that was bike related. I would just take photos of them and put them on my Instagram,” Gritchelle says. “It was a weird crossroads moment. I started asking myself ‘what does that mean to become a professional photographer?’ I remember thinking it'd be really cool to be an adventure photographer, but is that actually possible, you know?” Gritchelle continued photographing cycling and bike culture for fun, but also began to focus on the professional aspects of learning lighting, becoming better at portraits, and shooting products in a commercial or professional sense. And as she was shooting other things commercially, people started seeing her cycling photography on Instagram. “People saw that I was a photographer and doing all these other types of photography but also shooting biking. And it just snowballed from there. It really all came from social media and it was because I was posting the things that I was enjoying and what I was stoked on,” remembers Gritchelle.

”I guess one of my big breaks was during a bike-packing adventure I went on with three other women. I took a photo of one of my friends session-ing a really technical descent and she loved it. She posted the photo on her Instagram and she happened to be friends with someone who worked at Bicycling Magazine. That person saw that photo and asked if they could publish it.” A photo published in Bicycling Magazine was a dream for Gritchelle, so of course, she said yes. “It was because I had photographed my friend doing this really cool technical thing and she just happened to be well connected in the industry,” says Gritchelle, “I was not expecting to ever get published in that way, so it was kind of rad that it worked out like that.” Gritchelle’s dedication to her passions, combined with a little bit of luck, meant that her dream of pursuing photography, especially cycling and adventure photography, was starting to take hold. So finally, after nearly ten years as a graphic designer, Gritchelle quit to solely pursue photography.

“I feel like it was like dumb luck. But I think part of it too, is that I was not only passionate about cycling but specifically photographing bad-ass women, most especially women of color, doing cool shit on bikes. As you may know, it [cycling] is a very white male-dominated world, so just being able to create images of people of color, women, and queer folks doing cool/badass things was really important to me and still is today. I love to create images that reflect strength and movement, and joy. I just want people to see themselves in my photography. I love working with people of various body types and breaking this idea of what ‘fitness’ looks like. We all come in different shapes, heights, and sizes and I think it's really important that we have images that reflect that,” Gritchelle notes about the importance of diversity in the athletes and models she puts in her photos.

Gritchelle’s desire to be inclusive in her photography goes past the talent she has in her images. “Whenever I have a budget for a crew, or if I'm given the task of casting, I always try to make sure my crew is as diverse as possible. That's just really important to me. I’m very intentional about who I hire. I want to make sure that it’s a very diverse group of people I'm working with,” Gritchelle explains. In retrospect, one of the reasons why she didn't think she would ever become a professional adventure photographer is partly because Gritchelle didn't see people like her taking those kinds of photos. She notes, “Representation matters. Not only do I want people to see themselves in my photos, but I want other creatives of color, especially tiny women like me, to know that they can do this too.”

“As a creative, I like to bring different elements into my work. I don't want to just be stuck in one genre or one type of photography only,” says Gritchelle, “I like to have a mix of things. I enjoy working in the studio and outside on location.” And this desire to be flexible and create in different spaces and ways has led Gritchelle to have two different camera systems. “I have a Canon 5D Mark IV that I use for studio work and any bigger commercial projects,” states Gritchelle. “I used to haul the Canon with me on bike rides, and it was not going to cut it anymore.” A professional DSLR system was just too big and too heavy to shove into a pack with all the other things Gritchelle needed on her bike adventures. So about 4 or 5 years ago, she also invested in a Fuji X-T2 for adventure photography. This smaller, lighter setup meant she didn’t have to sacrifice other non-photo-related things necessary for these adventures.

“For my Canon, I have a 24mm to 70mm [lens], a 24mm to 105mm, and then if I have a client shoot, I also rent the 70mm to 200mm. I also have some prime lenses, but I’ve found that between the 24mm to 70mm and the 70mm to 200mm, I get everything I need. I basically have that equivalent for my Fuji too. I have the 16mm to 55mm f2.8 and the 50mm to 140mm f2.8,” Gritchelle explains about her choice of lenses. “Even for portraits, that's what I use. I usually use the 70mm [from the 24mm to 70mm] for portraits. But that also depends on the portrait. Especially for my outdoor work, it's all going to depend on where we are, but if I have trees and I want to blur out those trees, being able to compress the background is going to be important.

That's why I love having those two zoom lenses to choose from, they’re just so versatile for what I do. There've been times on adventure or lifestyle shoots when I’ve brought prime lenses and a zoom lens and I’ll end up only using the zoom for the entire shoot. I just stopped bringing prime lenses, they ended up just being extra unnecessary weight.”

Additionally, the need for compact, lightweight gear meant that Gritchelle decided to use Speedlights for her lighting. “A lot of times I'm trying to capture action, so I need that high-speed sync. I was using those cheap Yongnuo Speedlights that did high-speed sync, but recently I bought a bunch of Westcott FJ lights, including the FJ80,” says Gritchelle. “The challenges of shooting outside, especially right now with climate change, are mostly dealing with the elements,” says Gritchelle about the differences between trying to light for her adventure work versus shooting in her studio. “I have less control,” she admits, “there are days when it's shoulder season and it'll be extremely cold, and all of a sudden it's just snowing when it's not supposed to, or there are 30-mile wind gusts. If I'm photographing a mountain bike scene on a ridge line and it's windy, the riders could fall off the mountain. That’s really dangerous. So, at that point, it’s just evaluating the scene and maybe deciding, ‘okay, we need to take a break,’ and wait for this wind to go by. Or we just don't take the shot because everyone's safety is really important to me. Though I have less control of the elements, working outside on location is a little more organic and freeform so people can just kind of do what they do naturally in the environment (with a little bit of direction from me of course). When the weather is cooperating and we’re somewhere beautiful, I love being able to create images of people out in nature.”  

Gritchelle says all these elements make her lighting kits for these types of shoots very dependent on the situation. “A lot of the adventure work I've done, I bring a speed light, just in case, to use as a key light or fill for the talent. There have been times when I've done action shoots in the forest, and it can get a little dark under the tree canopy, and I really want to make sure that the rider's face is lit because I think it's important to see people's faces. That's what I'm always drawn to - the person, their face, their expression. If I'm on a bigger job with budget and time, I’ll bring a strobe or two as well.”

As you can imagine, Gritchelle’s Speedlight setup doesn’t get much use in her studio work. ”I have the FJ400s that I use a lot in the studio now. But if I’m doing a big client shoot, I’ll rent Profoto B10s or Profoto D1’s depending on the situation,” she says of her in-studio lighting gear. “I’ve been doing some video work too, so I have Aputure video lights as well. I have two of Aputure Lightstorm panels, those are pretty sweet. And then I also have the Aperture 120DII, and it's really cool for video work.”

“Having that background as a graphic designer, I love playing with color and shapes. I love having that ultimate control and being able to just create a scene or a set in the studio,” notes Gritchelle about what draws her to create the vibrant studio work she does. She further explains, “I get to play with color outside too, but it's not the same. Outside is great. Especially when I'm somewhere very beautiful, then nature has already made that set for me. And if the light's really amazing, we can just like be out there, creating really fun, beautiful images.” Gritchelle says that a lot of the stuff that she does in the studio feels like it reflects more of who she is as an artist. “Obviously, if it's a client’s shoot, it's more collaborative,” she says. “But I feel like I get to have more creativity because I'm in control of the room. I get to decide the lighting, the set, wardrobe, etc. If I'm going to shoot a studio portrait, I'm going to do it my way. I guess I've always kind of been doing things my own way. I never really quite followed the right path. I see the path, I know the rules or whatever, but I'm like, ‘okay, well I'm just gonna try it this way.’”

“I'm really grateful that I've been able to do photography in the bicycle industry, I didn't think that it would be something I'd be able to do. It's awesome. But like I said earlier, I don't want to just be stuck in one genre, or one type of photography, or one type of product, etc. I like other things too. I love photographing other things outside of bikes. I’m constantly evolving as an artist, and as a person. Like my latest work, I've been in the studio playing around more with hard light and trying to mimic sunlight. Living here in Portland, we don't see the sun for a while and I’ll miss the sunshine. So during the winter months, I’ll experiment with creating a sunny, colorful world in the studio.”

So will Gritchelle take the bright colors of her studio work outdoors? Will she bring the outdoors into her colorful studio portraits? Will her two Instagram accounts merge into one seamless stream? “That's what I've been trying to do for years, figure out how to merge my colorful studio work with the outdoors. I'm still figuring it out, you know. I still have these visions, but I'm going to need a big crew for that. I want to collaborate, with a set designer and see what we can create outside,” Gritchelle answers.

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