In a recent campaign for JD Sports, the iconic UK sportswear store, photographer Ashley Lewis captures the vibrancy of Miami: a lush, urban landscape with iconic palm tree boulevards and sun-filled esplanades. Showcasing top-tier brands like The North Face, Adidas, and Nike, Lewis mixes bright, Art Deco pastels with ocean-blue horizons.
Whether shooting for athletic brands like Nike and JD or photographing Sony headphones, Lewis brings a dynamic, sporty feel to all his work. But he never planned on becoming a sportswear photographer—it’s a niche Lewis has gradually grown into. He has a background in graphic design, and his photo career really kicked off when someone at Nike came across his Instagram and offered him a gig. Now, a few years later, Lewis is a professional photographer featured by Wonderful Machine, a US-based production company that supports a wide network of photographers across the world.
We got in touch with Lewis to find out more about his photographic process. He shared his insights on creating images for well-established brands, the challenges of shooting in one of America’s hottest cities, and finding your niche as a photographer.
Format: Hi, Ashley. How did you start out as a photographer?
Ashley Lewis: Without really realizing it, I’ve always been into photography. When we visited America as children, I was always the one with the family camera. Then at school I didn’t really do anything arty, but I’d always be taking pictures when I went out with friends.
After I graduated, I was working at a graphic design agency in Canary Wharf in London. I still didn’t own a camera, but at my lunch breaks I would go take pictures on my iPhone and share them on Instagram, which was only about a year old at the time. When I’d be out for lunch with my creative director, he would look at me funny when I stopped to take a picture of an angle or some person standing somewhere. He found out what my Instagram was, and basically said to me, “Dude, you need to be a photographer.”
We had an office camera, and once when we needed pictures of a light installation in an art gallery in London for a project we were working on as designers, my boss sent me instead of paying a photographer to do it. The photos I took ended being used, and so that happened again a few different times. At first, I wasn’t taking the hint at all. He ended up saying to me, “If you don’t become a photographer, I’m going to fire you.”
Eventually, I had the opportunity to go to India as a first assistant for a friend of mine who was a wedding photographer. When I got back, I realized that photography was what I wanted to do. Obviously, it takes a bit of time to get your life in order so that you can make that jump. I quit my job in 2012 and did some freelance design work, photography assisting, and paid shoots. In 2014, I was in the position to make the jump to photography full-time, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
How do you think your aesthetic has evolved in the time between your first-ever commercial job and the JD Sports campaign?
To be quite honest with you, I never, ever planned to do sports and lifestyle photography. Straight off the bat, I got hired by someone at Nike because they’d seen my Instagram and we connected previously through media and design. The job was taking pictures of people in awesome landscapes, and in my head I always thought of myself as shooting landscapes or street scenes. After the Nike project I got another offer, and before you know it, this was my thing. As I’ve gone along, I think my style has changed in that I’ve improved—you’re always learning and trying to find new ways of doing things. It’s never good to be static.
How did you approach putting together a sample treatment for JD Sports?
I had a good idea of what JD Sports wanted from their brief, which explained that the shoot had two themes: a gritty, urban streetwear style, and a summery feel with beaches and palm trees. They were exploring Miami and Lisbon as the two possible locations, so I put together a list of images in those cities, as well as architectural photos of locations that I thought could be strong. JD Sports had also given me clues as to what they liked about my previous work, so I selected some samples from my portfolio that I thought might compliment JD Sports’ brand.
Living in the U.K. and having grown up in London, I am a JD Sports customer. I bought my shoes in there as a teenager, and I know what looks good and what promotes me to buy their products. I looked at the models in JD’s previous campaigns—how they posed, the attitude of their faces, their movement—and put together look-and-feel treatments for both the men’s and the women’s shoots along with ideas for grading the images. All in all, with the treatment, you’re trying to say, “Here are some locations we could use and here’s what the final images could look like.”
Take us through your approach to lighting and composition. For example, for the shot on Ocean Drive, did you arrive knowing the exact composition and expression?
On a shoot like this, you always have a shot list that details which clothes are assigned to which models in which shot. The next thing to do is a scout day. Because the shoot was in Miami and I’m based in London, we had a local location scout take pictures of specific locations. I also used Google Maps to pick out a few key areas that I thought might work. Miami is quite an iconic place, and the client wanted that to be part of the brand.
Once there, we did a tech scout day, which involved test shooting all the different locations from lots of different angles. For the Ocean Drive test shot, one of the producers stood in the road in the composition that we’d decided on. On the day of, we showed the model those test shots to get everyone on the same page. I tend to shoot with similar lighting set-ups, so it was just a matter of perfecting settings at each location and making sure the exposures were looking good.
Tell us about the lighting setup that you like to use.
I’m a massive fan of Profoto B1 lights. I love their versatility—they don’t have packs or cabling, and can be handheld. Because we were doing a lot of moving around on this shoot, it was great to be ready to go in ten or fifteen minutes. For the Ocean Drive shot in particular, the model is backlit from the top of camera left, and we used the Profoto lights with a softbox modifier to fill his front and face. With other shots, we used a scrim to cut out the direct sunlight and the Profoto B1s to sculpt the light on the models and give them that 3D look.
What was your approach to working with the models on the shoot?
Some of the models we used on this shoot had modeled for JD Sports before, so they were familiar with the brand and knew what look they needed. Personally, I don’t like to be the guy that’s like, “Look left, look right, chin up.” I try to be a director rather than a “do this” type of photographer. Some photographers will say things like, “Look down at me and look angry.” I try to say things like, “Imagine that I’ve just insulted you.” In that split second when you’re thinking, “Should I say something back or just brush it off?” there’s an authentic look. If I want someone to laugh, instead of asking them to laugh, I’ll try to do something that makes them laugh. That allows the look to become real rather than forced.
Do you exclusively work with sports apparel brands?
Yeah, I don’t know how it happened, but the majority of my work is photographing sports, sportswear, or mens fashion. I also do work around lifestyle for technology companies like Google and Sony.
How does a sports shoot usually differ from a lifestyle shoot?
We’re always going for something that fits the brand and the brief. A company like Nike’s aim is to inspire people to be athletes. Sony, on the other hand, tries to excite and entertain through technology. You try to direct that by giving the models different scenarios to play out in their heads during the shoot, which help them have that mindset. Fun is really important as well. If you can get a good rapport with models, have a bit of a laugh, be personable, and be real, you’re likely to get more out of them than if you’re a bit of a bossy individual.
Do you find it takes something different for each model to arrive at that comfortable space?
Definitely. I’ve worked with some models that are quite shy, perhaps because they’re inexperienced. In that case, you have to take a few pictures, show them on the screen, and just be like, “Look, this is what you look like. You look good. This is what’s working; this is what’s not working.” As soon as they’re confident that you believe in what they’re doing, things usually start working. Other times, it might be that they don’t understand the project, so you have to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you want the outcome to be. I always find that if you can make the model feel comfortable, it works.
Do you ever play music while working?
All the time. Often it’s just whatever is in the charts. But if a model asks for something specific, I’ll always put it on. Sometimes you’re limited by the fact that there’s a video shoot happening at the same time, so you have to be mindful of not interfering with their audio. For the JD shoot, we played a lot of hip hop—I think Will Smith’s “Summertime” was on there.
What are the challenges of photographing something like the shot of the three women on the bleachers?
That was a bit of a hard one. Not only were the bleachers ultra-reflective, but we shot it during the hottest part of the day so the heat was intense. We did a test shoot the day before, so we had an idea of what the photos looked like without any lighting. On the day we set up the lighting and I shot a few test frames and saw that everything was there, we put the models in, I took thirty frames or so of them doing different poses, and we were done.
As far as gear, we used two Profoto B1 heads to my left for fill, and I had someone standing over me with an umbrella so that we weren’t getting any flare on the lens. We didn’t have any lights or scrims behind the models because we wanted that bright sunlight to light up the bleachers.
I didn’t look at any of the pictures while we were shooting—it was too hot. There was no space for a screen, and trying to look on the back of camera was almost impossible. The digital tech was my eyes for this one. The camera sensor size doesn’t always translate to the final image dimensions, so he’d be telling me to move left or right, up or down so we knew the frame was working. Once I felt we had the shot, we were done and off to find some shade to cool down.
How does your relationship with Wonderful Machine work?
I’ve been featured by Wonderful Machine since last July. I’m on their website as one of their photographers in England. I had really liked some of the stuff that their photographers were doing, and I just thought it was a great avenue for people to see your work. I haven’t used much of their production facilities, just because they’re based in the States and I’m in the UK, but they’ve been fantastic at helping with any technical issues I’ve had. I would highly recommend them.