How to Become an Adventure Photographer
There are two rules on how to become an adventure photographer. First, you must go on adventures. Second, you must take lots of photos.
Revolutionary stuff right?
Many people want to be Chris Burkard or Jimmy Chin, getting paid mega bucks to travel the world and shoot top athletes. But how do you actually do it?
I was recently sitting in on a Q and A with Chris Burkard, who now has close to two million followers on Instagram and shoots huge commercial projects all over the world. He was talking about how he got his start by living in his van and eating hot dogs every day. He was photographing random surfers and trying to make a buck any way he could. He lived the dirtbag lifestyle. He lived off student loans to pay for his camera gear and his hot dogs.
It was risky. But it laid the foundation to get a job as a photographer at a surf magazine. He then spent years working under the restrictions of deadlines and editors. But he gained the tools to become a world class photographer.
Burkard gave a TedTalk about the key to his success. What set him apart was his willingness to be uncomfortable. He got famous for cold-water surf photography. He was often in near-freezing water, shooting in incredibly uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations. His resulting surf photography from Iceland really stood out, especially compared to the masses of photographers shooting competitions in La Jolla.
My photography languished while I was living in Georgia and Florida. The southeast is not exactly the world’s wildest landscape. But worse, I wasn’t shooting nearly enough. It’s really hard to make much progress as a photographer when you shoot once every two weeks on a day hike through the nearby state park.
What I was doing? That’s called being an enthusiast.
There’s nothing wrong with being a weekend warrior. But it’s a poor path to becoming a paid professional.
When I took a job in wilderness therapy, a mix of critical things happened.
1.) I took a job that got me closer to my goal. I moved to southern Utah. My schedule allowed for lots of time to go shoot. I worked eight days straight, then had six days off.
2.) I shot all the time during my off days. For that three-year chunk of time, I spent about 80% of my time outside.
3.) My job as a guide lent credibility to my work. As a wilderness professional, I became a gear tester for Backpacker Magazine. This gave me an in to the outdoor industry.
After three years I hit a point in my work in wilderness therapy where I knew it was time to move on. I maxed out the hours I could put into my side job / passion for photography. It was time to go full-time.
But instead of just quitting my job and waiting for the assignments to roll in, I knew I needed to do something strategic to “launch” myself. So I decided to do my dream trip of traveling the length of the Andes by myself. This was not vacation. This was a work trip. I was forcing myself to do something unique and challenging. I intentionally put myself in a position to shoot every day and grow as a photographer.
I sold my car, my furniture, old gear, everything extraneous. I put what remained in a 5×5 storage unit (it was only half full) and bought a one-way ticket to Ecuador.
At the time I left, I had no assignments or jobs. I had about $5,000 saved up. My plan was to travel as long as I could and come home when I was broke. I hoped that by traveling and doing something unique, I would create opportunities for future work.
Despite social training and my own natural inclinations to worry about the future, I have come to believe that good things happen to people who trust that good things happen. These things are impossible to plan. If you trust in God, or the Universe, or the goodness of humanity, if you put yourself in position to give freely to others and to receive whatever may come, you’ll be regularly surprised by the blessings.
Turns out, instead of coming home with zero (or negative) dollars, I came home with more wealth than I’d ever had before. (This isn’t saying a lot, but hey.)
It’s been nearly two years since I went full-time. I am not at the same level as Chris Burkard or Jimmy Chin. The North Face isn’t throwing money at me (yet). But I am making a living. I only have to eat hot dogs on Tuesdays. Sometimes I sleep in my Subaru. Sometimes I sleep in a bed. But I prefer sleeping under the stars.
Sometimes I get paid in gear. Sometimes I get paid in free trips. And sometimes, I even get paid in US dollars. And you know what? Life is f*ing awesome.
If you want to become an adventure photographer, here’s what you do: Commit to doing the work. Commit to working hard. And do it consistently, dammit. Commit to pushing your limits and your comfort zone. Find adventures that scare you and excite you, and go shoot it. Shoot when no one is paying you. Go shoot at least once a week, bare minimum. Stay up late to shoot the stars, and get up early to shoot the sunrise. Find local athletes and ask to photograph them. Then go photograph them. Find editors contact info and pitch them ideas. Get turned down and do it again. Go shoot when it’s cold and stormy. Go shoot when it’s hot and sticky. Create. Create constantly. Even if it’s not that good. Put your art out there. If you make bad art, make more bad art until it becomes less-bad art. At some point it will start to become good art, and people will forget all the bad art you made. Keep going. Keep going, dammit. You’re an adventure photographer.