No Rules with Colby Brown

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From the Editors: Interview with Colby Brown, a photographer, photo educator and author based out of Boulder, Colorado. Specializing in landscape, travel and humanitarian photography, one of the most influential photographers on the internet with an audience reaching millions around the world.

You are mainly a nature, and landscape photographer, is there another area of photography that you would like to indulge in that you have not already done so?

Well yes and no. While I enjoy being considered a nature and landscape photographer, I originally got into photography because of my love of travel. Of visiting countries and cultures that felt very contrasted to my own understanding of how people live their lives. I have always enjoyed that feeling of being “out of my element”. I actually think that is where I feel the most comfortable as an artist.

Why did you choose this type of photography?

With nature and landscape photography I have always been drawn to the beauty and solitude found in nature. There is something about being out in some of the most naturally beautiful places in the world and enjoying the peace and quiet that comes with it. There have been a few moments where I was out in the middle of a location such as Patagonia in South America or the Everest region of Nepal in the Himalayas in the middle of the night with not a soul around and everything just felt right. I felt at home, if that makes sense :)

What was the first photograph that was important to you and why?

Shortly after I first began my career as a photographer I found myself in Jackson Hole, Wyoming taking a photography workshop to increase my skills with outdoor/adventure photography. While the workshop itself was great, I arrived in town a few days early to go shooting with a few photographer friends that were attending the workshop as well. One more just after sunrise, I a beautiful white horse in a paddock just off the main road in Grand Teton National Park caught my eye.. I quickly pulled the car over all of us jumped out of the car as quickly as we good. Why? A storm had rolled through Jackson Valley that morning and while we were facing West towards the Grand Tetons, the sun began to peak over the small mountains behind us. This created an amazing multi layered scene with golden fields full of beautiful horses (including the white one that stood out amongst his friends), a fall colored tree line (it was late September), the tail end of the storm moving through the valley and the Grand Teton mountain range. It was incredible.

When all was said and done and I was back home editing my images weeks later, I came back across this series of image and it was one of the first times that I felt that I captured the shot just as I had imagined it. That helped give me the confidence to continue to push my skills forward and even to this day, that photo hangs on my wall as a reminder of how far I have come.

What was your vision in landscape photography?

To me, landscape photography embodies the beauty, solitude, grandeur and delicate nature of the natural world. I love the challenge of trying to showcase all of these elements in my work. If I can convey the emotion of a scene, I feel that I have accomplished something as an artist.

You also describe yourself as a “Humanitarian” photographer. Can you tell us more about it?

As I mentioned before, I first got into photography because of my love of traveling the globe. It was through these initial travels that I began to see the very one sided nature of humanity. As photographers (or tourists) we would visit these amazing countries with beautiful people and cultures, spend a little money in the local economies, capture amazing images and leave. The idea of the benefits of travel  as a one way street never sat well with me. So I started doing something about it. I started being very careful where my money went when I was traveling. I started working more closely with NGO’s in the countries I was visiting and I began to find more avenues to give back in meaningful ways to the individuals, families and communities I found myself working in all over the globe. In what started as something I felt I needed to do as a photographer has become an integral part of my brand as a photographer and an entrepreneur... and I couldn’t be happier about it :)

What is “The Giving Lens” all about?

In 2011, I started my second photography company, The Giving Lens... with the idea of blending photo education with support for sustainable development initiatives in 3rd world countries. What we do is bring photographers with varying skill levels from all over the globe to specific locations where they not only get to learn more about photography, but also give back in tangible and meaningful ways to the communities we are working in. Each trip helps fight for a specific cause such as child education, clean drinking water projects, species preservation or women’s rights while also acting as a fund raiser. TGL (The Giving Lens) ends up donating up to 50% of our profit from each of these workshops back to the NGO’s we have partnered with in each of these countries. Ultimately it is a very unique way to not only improve your skills as a photographer and visit a new location, but also make sure that your time, energy and effort as an individual is being put to good use and helping those in need.

What change would you expect for the social media and photography sector in the future? Also what are some of the biggest challenges you think it faces today?

Well I think social media, like the photo industry as a whole, is constantly dynamic...constantly changing. That being said, it seems that things are continuing to move towards a more visual experience when it comes to social networking. Each of the major online networks seems to be gravitating not only to improving their mobile on the go user experience, but also put more and more of an emphasis on visual stimulation. As a photographer, this is a very good thing. Not only will more and more people have the ability to potentially see your work, but it will be put front and center on mobile devices for the world to see.

As far as challenges, photographers have always struggled with the idea of exposure and protecting the rights to their images when it comes to social media and the internet. As social networking continues to become a more of a vital tool for photographers to get their name out there, we will continue to see some struggle with the changes in mindset one must take when they begin to take their work online for the first time. Luckily there are companies such as Stipple that are attempting to help fix the problem by allowing you to maintain attribution as your images float throughout the inter webs. While they still have a long way to go, all of good work from companies like Stipple just might change the way we think about exposure and copyright in an online digital age.

There are many projects you are associated with, such us F-stop, TWiT podcast. Are there any others you are working on?

While photography is truly one of my passions in life, I truly do enjoy the business side of things as well. While many photographers might balk at the idea of networking, marketing or collaborating on projects... 
I truly love it. As far as projects, I am constantly working on a number of things. For 2013 and 2014, I am working on projects and marketing campaigns with the following companies: Toshiba, Phase One, Goal Zero, Wacom, Sony, Australian Tourism Board, North Carolina Tourism Board, HTC, Android, Instagram, Smugmug, F-Stop Gear, Induro, Hunts Photo and Video and more.

What was your greatest or most strange experience while traveling and doing photography?

As I talked about previously, I enjoy feeling out of my element when I travel. It helps bring me peace. That being said, I think food is where things can easily and quickly get strange. It doesn’t help that I am open to eating almost anything at least once, especially if it is a local delicacy. As for an example, earlier this year I found myself working in Tanzania for a month to lead to photography workshops with The Giving Lens. Part of our time on this trips was spent living with the amazing nomadic warrior tribe known as the Maasai. These amazing people not only welcomed us into their homes, but into their way of life. This included being part of a goat sacrifice that was a tradition in their culture for special events. Needless to say, after drinking goat blood and eating a mixture of both raw and cooked vital organs, it was an experience I will never forget. The fact that I got to do it twice with two back to back workshops, made it even more special ;)

Is there a place you’ve never been that you would like to photograph or organize a workshop?

Absolutely. Even though I am fortunate to get to travel the globe for a living, I too still have a bucket list just like any other photographer. Currently I have two locations on my mind, both of which I will be exploring over the next 12 months. Those two are Myanmar and Namibia, both for different reasons. Myanmar (Burma) has just recently opened its borders after years of strict military rule. This has caused an influx of western influence that is quickly changing the country and culture of the region. I want to get there before it changes to much. Namibia has always been high on my list of places to visit ever since I saw Art Wolf’s amazing photographs of the red sand dunes of Namibia. Mix the unique landscape with a large variety of wildlife and amazing African tribes and you begin to see while it is so high on my list.

Why people need workshops?

Everyone is a little different when it comes to learning something new. Photography is certainly no exception. While some people do just fine with picking up a book and learning about a subject, others might need to watch a YouTube video that explains things in a more visual style. However, generally the best way to retain information for most people is getting actual hands on experience. For photography, this means being out in the field. Being out in the field with a professional that not only knows what he is doing, but knows the area in question as well, can be incredibly helpful for an aspiring photographer. After teaching photography workshops for over 8 years, I can tell you that people take photo workshops for all sorts of reasons. Some truly want to learn how to improve their skills with a specific photographer. Others just want to visit a new location while having all of the logistics of travel (food, accommodation, transportation) and or the photographers knowledge of a specific area. And others are simply looking to recreate that one iconic shot that the photographer might have from the destination.

How far do you go in post-production? How important post processing is in making a landscape photograph?

I feel that post processing is a vital part of nearly all photography, especially in the digital age. Landscape images are no exception. As for my style when it comes to post processing, I generally tend to dance the line between surrealism with more of an emphasis on reality. While I like to expand the dynamic range of my landscape photography, I prefer to stay away from the ultra-storybook like feel that HDR has become known for. I use techniques such as advanced luminosity masking in order to blend various exposures together in a much more natural way than if I was to use Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software. I don’t have an issue with these programs, but just feel that they have a very specific place in my photographic arsenal.

If you could have any photographer in the world do a photo shoot with you, who would you pick?

Wait… would they be taking a photo of me? ;) In all seriousness, there are probably a handful of photographers that I would love to go out shooting with. While I know this is the landscape photography edition of this magazine, I would probably have to say Steve McCurry for his travel and cultural work. McCurry and myself in Namibia or Myanmar…yes…that sounds good to me ;)

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned, and would pass along to other new photographers just getting started?

Take a small business class. One of the most important piece of education you need in order to survive, let alone make any sort of living as a photographer, it is the fundamentals of running a business. You need to understand marketing, branding, accounting, advertising, social media and yes….you probably need some photographic skills as well.

Do you feel like you have a good balance between your personal and working life, now that you have a youngest family member? Do you travel and photograph with your wife?

Working as travel photographer is no easy task when you are on your own, let alone when you have a family. I can tell you that my life changed the day my son was born. I was now a papa…a dad. While I travel all over the globe on a fairly consistent basis, I make sure that when I am home…I am truly home for my little man and my wife. I certainly still have to manage the business side of things when I am in the office, but the moment Jack gets home from his pre-k Montesori School, papa is on the clock.

When me and my wife first got together, we traveled all over the place together. Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Argentina. But once Jack came into our lives, he was our focus. These days we plan a number of family trips together in North America. In a few years, I can see the little guy and my wife joining me on my adventures through Africa and SE Asia.

How does your own emotion affect the final composition or quality of a shot? Does your mood or level of inspiration affect the outcome, or do you let the landscape speak for itself?

I think it is a bit of both. I want to both capture the essence of the location I am shooting, but I also want the feeling and or emotion I felt when I was standing there to permeate throughout my work. This is why most of my images are moody and to some extent dark. Even my bright bold sunset/sunrise skies have a touch of under exposed elements to them. 

What is the most challenging thing about being a landscape photographer? 

Having patience. To get the truly epic landscape work, you generally have to put the time in. Some of the best landscape work from a location is generally done from a local photographer that has the ability to constantly revisit the same locations over and over and over again until they get all those variables magically together. When visiting locations such as Patagonia in South America, there are times when I had to wait 6 days for the light to be right on a particular  mountain. Heck, some photographers visit that area for 22 days and only end up with two days of decent light. When you are traveling outside your neck of the woods, the odds are stacked against you and you have to be ready for when it comes…even if that is 4 days from now!

Many photographers are concerned about their style and the content of their work. Are you concerned about delivering new and unique images?

No. Not really. At the end of the day, I shoot for me…not for those that follow me and not even for my clients. I photograph what I want and how I want, giving me the freedom to not feel that I need to answer to anyone but myself. As an artist, I do like to challenge myself…but on my own terms. For example, I may be backed up over 28 months for non time sensitive client photography work, but I won’t sit down for an editing session unless I am truly in the mood to dive into my images. I have found that when I try to force creative things to happen, they mostly fall short of their potential.

The amount of your followers on Google+ social media site is over 2.5 m. Wow that must be overwhelming for you. What made you go in this direction of media networks?

I am very fortunate to have the following that I have. Between all of the social networks, it is crazy to think that I am the third most followed photographer on the Internet in terms of social media following mixed with website/blog web traffic. To this day I still think it is crazy that other people care what I have to say, wonder what gear I use or want to see my latest images.

As for social media in general, I saw the writing on the wall with many of the standard forms of both marketing and income for photographers a number of years ago. With stock photography falling out, periodical work dropping off and more and more people entering the photography industry looking for work, I knew something had to change. Social networks offered that opportunity. The allowed for photographers such as myself to make a name for ourselves in a changing photo industry while others that had been in the industry for years struggled to adapt to the dynamics of what it took to be a professional photographer changed and evolved. My understanding of business, marketing and social media has opened up many doors for me over the years, and for that I am very grateful.

Do you consider other social media networks and photo sharing websites as your source of connection?

To me, social media is purely about giving you the opportunity to connect and engage with other users. Google+ is but one of those sources for my various photography companies. I really enjoy Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Stipple as well. 500px and Flickr have never offered me enough of the kinds of interactions I find important, but you can generally find some of my work on those platforms as well.

The book project that you took on with Google and PeachPit Press, please tell us more about it?

After Google+ launched in June of 2011, I quickly realized that photographers were flocking to the network in droves. I quickly put together a free PDF guide on how to navigate the brand new social network, which was important because most people coming from Facebook seemed confused with the new system at first. This PDF, which also lived on my blog, ended up getting read by a few million people over a number of months. This free guide caught PeachPit Press’s eye and they reached out to me with the idea of writing a full-fledged book on the subject, Google+ for Photographers, which ended up being my first true published book as an Author. Since then I have written a number of other books and I am happy to call Peachpit Press my publishing company of choice.

What is your opinion about digital publications such as Camerapixo?

Just as the photo and marketing/advertising industries have changed, so has the publication world. Digital publications such as Camerapixo are great for everyone. They require much less overhead to run, are easier to distribute and seem to offer a much more functional model for the industry.

Camerapixo team motto is “Being Published Matters”! Would you agree? Do you have any suggestions for photographers?

Absolutely! For some reason, many photographers (both pro and amateur) have adopted the idea that “exposure” is now a four letter word. In my mind, this generally stems from a lack of understanding of marketing and branding. While there are certainly times when a photographer should not work for free, there are plenty of opportunities where it is perfectly acceptable to get published because it can help elevate your brand and potentially help you marketing other more profitable aspects of your business.

What is the best way to sell photos, market and promote ones photography business? What would you suggest?

Well to be honest, all of these require you to take advantage of social media in one form or another. The best starting point would be to define out your goals and what you are after. This should help you figure out the right path to take when it comes to ones online presence. For example, If you are looking to sell prints, you will want to have a good looking website that displays your images well while also engaging in online platforms such as 500px and Flickr to further get your images out on the interwebs. However if you are looking to build a brand and market your work, you might take a different route. Depending on what kind of photography you are into, there are a variety of social networks that might work for you. Wedding and event photographers generally find Facebook and Pinterest to be the most beneficial use of their time. ltimately you need to plan a path way that works best for your needs. It is just that most photographers don’t really know what they are after when it comes to being online since “making money” isn’t really a real answer.

Gear does not make you a photographer. If that is the truth, what does?

Yes, I can agree with that statement. That being said, gear is an important part of being a photographer, just as guitar is an import part of being a guitarist and a paint brush or the kind of paint a painter uses is important to their craft. A photographer is responsible for their creativity, their vision and their technical understanding of both light and their equipment. Photo gear on the other hand can either raise or lower the ceiling of what is technically possible for an artist to achieve. For example, a photographer might have a vision to do night photography in order to capture the milky way over Mt.Fitz Roy in Patagonia, but if their camera can’t handle high ISOs or the lenses they have don’t offer fast enough lenses, their creative vision can not necessarily be fulfilled. All in all, I think both aspects are important. It is easy for a well establish photographer that uses the best gear around to tell you that gear doesn’t matter. Its harder to determine when they are just trying to feed their own ego :) 

Our favorite photo is on this issue cover. Please tell us how and where it was created.

I am glad that you choose this shot for the cover of Camerapixo this month, as it is certainly one of my favorites as well. The photo was taken in one of my favorite mountain ranges in the world, the Wind River Range in northern Wyoming. Generally ignored by most of the Grand Teton crowd, this spectacular area offers dynamic vistas, tower razor lidge ridge lines, beautiful lakes and a ton of solitude. The photo itself was of Titcomb Basin, a remote basin set in the heart of the Wind Rivers. Considering it takes a two day hike in to even get to the basin, it isn’t entirely surprising that you can generally find yourself alone with nature when you venture that far in. As for how it was processed, the image was a 5 exposure manual blend that I used a mixture of Lightroom, Photoshop and onOne Software’s Perfect Effects. When I do want to expand the dynamic range of an image, you generally wont find me using Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software like many landscape photographers out there. Instead I try to use a mixture of advanced techniques, such as luminosity masking/blending where you mask and or apply adjustments to certain sections of your image based on luminosity (brightness of the pixels).

You once said “there are NO RULES to photography!”. What did you mean by that?

To me photography is art and therefor completely subjective. There is no right or wrong when it comes to art and in my opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to photography. I constantly tell my workshop students that it is important to learn the so called rules of photography, just so that you know that you can break them. Whoever ended up coming up with the name the “rule of thirds” was completely out of their mind. By the way, it was Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1783 and he was referring to the light and dark balance found in painting.

You are very passionate about photography. Do you have other hobbies or interests?

Well sure. I love the outdoors (camping, hiking, mountain climbing). Live music is always a plus as well. However my biggest passion outside my photography is my family. When I am not globetrotting out around the globe, I am back home with my wife, Sarah, and son Jack. They mean the world to me.

What in your opinion is the most destructive thing we do as a society? What would you change about it?

Over consume. As a society, hell as a species, it seems that we have failed to grasp the concept of finding an equilibrium within our own environments. Instead we seem to consume everything in our path until there is nothing more to consume and we than move on to the next thing or area. Most people don’t realize that a barrel of water today is worth more than a barrel of gasoline. While we have fought over rubber, gold and oil in the past… the current and future wars will be fought over the hoarding and consumption of water. That, to me, is one hell of a scary thought.

Anything else you would like to add? 

Get into photography for the right reasons. It won’t most likely won’t make you rich in a financial sense, but its potential to work as a creative outline for your passions in life is truly endless.

One more question: what’s in your bag? What is your favorite lens when shooting landscapes? 

I have way to many things currently in my bag. I am answering these questions while I sit in the middle of Iceland after all. As for my favorite lens, I would have to go with either the relatively new Canon 24-70 2.8L II or bread and butter of my gear list, the Zeiss 21mm ZE. I often joke that that lens is so sharp that I could shave with it… I think its true.

Thank you Colby for taking the time and answering our questions.
You are one of the most inspiring photographers to Camerapixo readers.

Thank you Colby for taking the time to do this interview.
We are happy to welcome you on board among other photographers.
Your photography is very valuable in this community and very beneficial for our readers.

Camerapixo Team

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