Here’s another entry from my series on photographers talking about how they made the break to go pro. I thought you might enjoy hearing about Kevin Arnold because his transition was from writer to photographer so he’s got an interesting perspective on the whole thing. I met Kevin when I was working at Men’s Journal where despite the fact that I rarely allowed writers to shoot stories I made an exception for him because he totally got it.
I asked Kevin to take us down his path as a writer and talk about where photographer entered the picture then how he found his groove and what steps made this a viable career for him. Here’s the story:
My interest in photography began when I was studying philosophy at the University of British Columbia. At the time, I was heavily involved in climbing and was going on a lot of mountaineering expeditions to South America, the North Cascades, and the Canadian Rockies. For me, these trips were as much about the beautiful places we would travel through to get to the climbing, as the climbing itself. In Peru, for example, we hiked for days to get to remote mountain ranges. The people and landscapes we passed through on the way were stunning and unusual because there was no real reason to go there unless you were on your way somewhere else. At the time, I was reading a lot of outdoor and climbing publications, and I was inspired by the imagery and stories. I was inspired to bring back my own images and words, so I weaseled my way into getting a few stories and photos published. Luckily, there was a local magazine in Vancouver called Coast that was desperate for content. I used them to hone my craft and gather tear sheets, and eventually started writing for larger national publications in Canada.
I had absolutely no training in photography, but people seemed to respond to my images and they were good enough to convince a few editors to hire me as a writer and shooter. I did this fairly extensively for the travel section of the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. My focus, though was on creating a career as a writer and editor. To be honest, I had no exposure to professional photographers and I never really considered it as a career option. When I think back, I’m not even sure why. I obviously had a general awareness that people shot for Nat Geo and for the climbing magazines that I read, but it just never occurred to that it would be a viable career option. I suppose I was good at writing and had some training in it, and therefore it was the obvious path. Anyway, I eventually became the editor of Coast when it expanded to become a national magazine, and I went on to at-large editing positions at other magazines, including Explore and Adbusters.
At some point, I was offered an editing position at a large national magazine in the US. This should have been the pinnacle for someone looking for a career in outdoor publishing. But it wasn’t. It was then that I realized that I didn’t get into the field to sit at a desk while all the freelancers reported back to me on the amazing trips they were assigned to do. So I broke free and began freelancing full time. I started to get sent on better trips for bigger magazines in Canada and the US. I still had a keen interest in photography, but was focusing my career on the written word.
When I did travel on assignment, I almost always traveled with photographers and I started to meet a lot of pro shooters. This is when the door opened for me to photography. I wanted to do what these guys were doing. It was more compelling for me. Plus, to be honest, their job paid better and seemed a lot more fun. During the trip, they were able to be physically more active because they were out getting images, rather than doing interviews. And after the trip, they would head home, edit the images, send them off, and then start on the next project. Meanwhile, I would have weeks of writing work ahead of me when I got home. I’m a decent writer and I believe strongly in the power of the (well) written word, but writing itself never came easy for me. Writing on deadline was torturous for me. Shooting, on the other hand, was pure joy. I’m a very visual person and shooting came very naturally to me, unlike writing. I was always shooting on my trips when I had spare time – which in retrospect I can imagine only drove photographers nuts. But eventually a couple of guys, Tyler Stableford and Steve Casimiro, looked at what I was shooting and encouraged me to pursue it. Traveling with these guys also made me realize how much I wanted to be doing their job rather than mine
This was 2004, and I decided to develop a plan to make a transition from writing to shooting. I knew I couldn’t just jump into photography and abandon writing, because I had to still pay the bills. More importantly, I knew that my writing and editing gigs open a lot of doors for me that would help fast-track my photography career. At this point, I had a lot of great contacts in various editorial departments, and I was also invited on a lot of press trips to test various outdoor gear (this is one of the things I wrote about). Between assignments and these trips, I was able to travel to unusual places like Iceland, New Zealand and the Canary Island on someone else’s dime. Places I would have never been able to afford on my own. I would always make sure I had a few extra days to focus on shooting once I finished my assignment, and in this way I developed a portfolio of travel and outdoor images. When I was home, I started taking night classes to learn about lighting and some of the technical sides of shooting. Eventually, I managed to start getting assignments from national magazines to write and shoot stories (e.g. Men’s Journal, etc).
It’s funny because once I got to this level, my background as a writer actually started to work against me. One of the most challenging things for young photographers is figuring out the business side of things. How to get your images in front of the right people. How to bring back the right mix of images that a magazine editor needs to run the story. These are hard lessons to figure out, and being on the inside as a writer and editor gave me a huge lead. I was traveling a lot and meeting a lot of photo editors. But on the flip side, I was also pigeonholed. Photo editors don’t like hire writers to shoot and vice versa. It’s very territorial. I found that people assumed that if I could write, then I couldn’t also be a good photographer. To be fair, it is very difficult to do both well on the same trip, and it is also rare to find people who do both well. Writers and photographers are also paid differently – photogs in general make quite a bit more – and I found that the different departments, especially photo departments, needed to justify this. So, while I was assuming the would be happy to save money by having the same person do both, this wasn’t always the case. I think a lot of photo editors didn’t want to go down that road because they didn’t want their publishers to then start pressuring them to hire writer/photographers for the precise reason that there aren’t very many who are good.
Overall, it was frustrating for me to come against that wall after such a great start. I eventually started separating the two crafts, pitching stories as a writer or as a photographer. I also started to focus my shooting more on commercial photography. I did this for a couple of reasons: the more I learned about the business of photography, the more I realized that the money is better in commercial work and there is greater freedom to go with those budgets. I still really enjoyed editorial photography, but I figured that if I could make more from commercial work, then I could pick and choose my editorial projects based on interest rather than financial need.
I believe strongly in the value of personal projects. As a commercial photographer, I get to do some great work on assignment, but the fact is that a lot of that work ends up getting watered down in terms of creativity. Even clients who appreciate good imagery have to cover their basis. They are usually spending a lot of money and need to make sure they tick off all the boxes – having the right product used by the right demographic in the right environment. In the end, the imagery can be good, but it is rarely something the pushes your creative boundaries. I find that clients will hire you to do the work you love, but they need to see it first. Convincing a potential client to shoot in a particular style or to shoot particular subjects is hard. But if they see the work and it is good, they respond.
This was certainly the case with the ski patrol project I did last year. I’d been wanting to shoot a project like that for a couple of years, but it took some time to find the right subjects and to make everything happen logistically. Eventually, I shot the project on Whistler-Blackcomb Mountain focusing on the avalanche patrollers on Blackcomb Mountain. I know a few of the guys personally, so this helped me get in the door with the people in charge. Safety is the primary concern here, and these guys aren’t exactly keen to have a photographer tagging along while they travel over dangerous avalanche-prone terrain throwing explosives. One of the things I love about this project, and one of the things that makes the imagery unique I believe, is that shooting it took a variety of skills, both technical and physical. As a photographer, of course, I had to have the technical skills to capture the images as I imaged them. But equally as important in this case were my physical abilities as a skier. Without the ability to ski and travel safely with these guys in the mountains, I just wouldn’t have been welcome. I had to actually prove my skiing and avalanche safety skills in order to get the green light from the team leaders.
A year after starting the process of getting official and unofficial permission, I ended up shooting the project just by luck during some incredible storm weather. During my first day of shooting, it has snowed heavily overnight and was still dumping furiously in the morning as the team headed out. I quickly abandoned the idea of changing lenses – doing so without getting snow in the camera was impossible. Because of the deep snow, the going was tough, so I quickly also realized that I had to travel as light as possible if I was going to keep up and be allowed back to shoot more days. I ended up doing the whole project with one lens and one camera, which was an enlightening experience after years of packing tons of gear around. Within an hour, my autofocus quit working as well, so I had to focus manually on the fly through a fogged up viewfinder. At the end of the day, I quite honestly had no idea if I had anything good. There hadn’t been time to even glance at the back of the camera for exposure, let alone content. In the end, some of the best images were from that day. I shot two more days after that, and was lucky to nail some heavy avalanche conditions both days, which meant the patrollers were working hard and doing stuff that sometimes only happens a few times a year (e.g. Heli-bombing).
In terms of marketing, that project has been a revelation. Clients and potential clients have responded incredibly well the imagery. The fact is that no one would have hired me to shoot something so raw and un-produced. Yet, almost everyone comments on how much they like the reality, the raw editorial feel of the imagery. Some clients have gone so far as to actually reference the material in designing their own upcoming shoots. It’s amazing how many times in the last six months I’ve heard people say something like, “this is exactly the type of imagery we’ve been talking about creating for our upcoming project,” or “ this is exactly the style we’ve been talking about moving towards.” It’s funny because I didn’t think about any of this when I envisioned the project. I just went out and shot it how I wanted to shoot it. Somehow that has ended up matching up with the direction that a lot of people are looking to take their outdoor imagery. I don’t know if this is just lucky timing, or if the project itself has created some of this momentum. But it is certainly interesting. In some ways, it makes planning my current personal project harder. Because once you’ve had such a strong reaction to a project, it’s hard not to let expectations come into play as you plan the next one. It’s hard to just focus on creating what I want to create again, while completely ignoring the commercial potential for the work.
If you want to speak in terms of direct results. And to be clear, I don’t think a personal project has to or even should garner any concrete results for it to be worth doing. For me, though, this project opened a lot of doors. Creatively, it is a culmination of where I’ve been taking my imagery, both commercial and personal, in that it is embodies a certain unstaged reality that I love. I think it added a uniqueness to my portfolio that wasn’t necessarily quite there yet. I’ve just signed with a rep in New York (Robert Bacall Representatives), and if you ask him, I think he would say that this project contributed to him signing me. As I mentioned, it has also garnered a lot of interest from potential clients, some of which is starting to turn into actual work. And even more directly, I ended up licensing some of the images to two companies for ad campaigns, The North Face and Gore-Tex. Both company’s products are used by the patrollers and are therefore all over the images. I certainly didn’t plan this when shooting the project (in fact, when I began planning the project a year in advance, they were wearing different uniforms). But I did show these companies the images once they started to receive a lot of attention. The fact is, the cost to license these images, while good for my business, is far lower than what it would cost to plan and produce a shoot like this. And even if you did spend the money, it would be hard, if not impossible, to create the kind of authenticity I was able to capture in this real-life scenario.
Once I started down the commercial photography road, I quickly realized that I wasn’t satisfied to just settle for local clients. A lot of Canadian photographers (I’ve worked out of Vancouver in the past and now in Whistler), tend to focus on the local market. The problem with this as I see it, and this was the same when I worked in editorial as a writer, is that our market is incredibly small compared to the US market. As a result, I’ve always focused on the larger North American market. The way I see it is that just because I live here, I don’t have to work here. Obviously, this is different for a studio photographer. I like to shoot on location, and while my back yard is beautiful – after all, this is why I live here – I get inspired by new locations. When I was writing, I actively marketed myself to North American and global publications and had good success. When I decided to focus on commercial photographer, I took the same no-borders approach. I had been shooting for a while and getting good editorial work, but I realized that to have success in the commercial photography world would require a lot more knowledge and experience than I had at the time. Knowing this I decided two things: to find a business mentor who had that experience, and to work with the same photography consultants as more established shooters.
That was two and a half years ago, and both of these things have been invaluable in getting my career to where it is today. I’d say that the most valuable “big idea” that helped me along the way was the idea that one needed a vision as a photographer. When I started to work with consultants, I had a lot of good images in my portfolio, but there was no clear vision that differentiated my work from the next outdoor shooter. Selina Maitreya, in particular, was key in helping me find my vision in the work I’d already shot. I think that one of hardest thing as a commercial photographer is to choose what images you are going to show the world. Heck, this is true even for fine art shooters. If you show everyone everything, even if all of the images are amazing, no one knows who you are or what makes your vision unique. Through many stages of editing and much talk of what inspired me, Selina really helped me hone in on what made my work unique. This not only helped me in creating a portfolio that left an impression on potential clients, but perhaps more importantly helped cement that vision in my head so that I could focus my own projects on what I wanted to be shooting. It’s a bit of a cliché, but you really do have to show people what you want to shoot, not necessarily what you have shot or can shoot (the patrol project only solidified this for me).
Since then, I have relied on my own vision to further hone my portfolio (and now my reps input also). I guess a good analogy was that at the beginning of the process I was in a round-a-bout with all kinds of avenues open to me – all kinds of avenues that interested me. Working with an outside person helped me to pick a road and say, “this is the road that is for me. The road I’m going to go down with my brand of imagery.” This isn’t to say that I don’t shoot unrelated projects, but I don’t necessarily show them to the same audience. At first, I was pretty strict about this. My commercial portfolio online was restricted to just that imagery. Now that more people know my style, I find that adding some outside projects helps keep them interested and doesn’t necessarily water down my portfolio. But to be honest, this isn’t something that I’ve methodically researched. Just a gut feeling and a reaction to various comments.
On the business side, having a mentor was equally important during that junction in my career. It’s one thing to develop a good portfolio and the production skills required for large-scale shoots, but you have to also learn how to run a business. I had to learn what financial risks were worth taking (when money is well spent on gear or marketing, and when it’s not, for example), how to quote fairly, how to price stock, and how to bring in consistent income. If you don’t nail this part, you can’t stay in business long enough to keep shooting. In the short time I’ve been doing this I’ve seen a number of photographers quit the business or fail to stay in business. And these were people who I considered well-established, people I looked up to when I started my own career.