Adobe MAX 2016 is over and I'm eager to finally share the experience! It was a huge thrill being amongst leaders in the field, hearing from the people who actually developed the software I use everyday, and learning tips and tricks from the top Adobe educators in the world. There's a lot of stuff to write about, but I'll start with the highlight and half the reason I went to the conference: the session with one of my biggest heroes, adventure photographer Chris Burkard, entitled "Achieving Career and Personal Growth by Working in Extreme Locations."
While the session did cover exactly what the title said, it was so much more than that, touching on many areas - from motivation to shoot, to how to compose a timeless photo, even to social media best practices - that were highly relevant to me. I'm breaking it down into ten lessons to make it easy to digest.
Here are 10 thing I learned from listening to - and meeting! - Chris Burkard:
1. Everyone has inherent major advantages and disadvantages, so there's no few real excuses why you can't do what you want to do. All there is to do is work with what you've got, and work your ass off.
Growing up in a country far away from the world's biggest centers of culture and commerce, I've been guilty in the past of using where I am as an excuse not to try harder. So from the outside, my perspective might have been that Chris, growing up near surfing, had a big inherent advantage in being so close to surfing, allowing him to eventually become a top surf photographer, which eventually opened the doors to where he is today. Moreover, he actually studied art, arming him with sound fundamentals for creating beautiful visuals.
But upon inspecting the facts, the truth is that he seemed to have more going against him than for him. First of all, he's actually colorblind (and he doesn't talk about it because it just seems lame). That alone was a big WTF moment coming one of the best and most successful photographers today. Second, he didn't even finish college. WTF part 2. Third, to pursue the internships that helped him develop into a competent photographer and eventually opened the doors to greater opportunities for him, he would drive for 5+ hours to the office and sleep in his car!
So, it bears repeating, that it's really not about the hand you're dealt, but how you use it. Your determination to get past your constraints and put in the work will eventually make a greater difference than any innate advantages or disadvantages you might have.
2. Just because you're passionate doesn't mean it's gonna work out.
Chris shared the story of how, on his first big international trip to Russia, something he had planned and prepared for for a long time, the fulfillment of his longtime goal to fill his passport and "let travel change him," a passport stamping error landed him in a Russian jail cell for a few days. It was the most frightening and humbling experience of his life.
And there he was thinking, what went wrong? He had taken a seemingly healthy attitude - "I want to let travel change me" - and a ton of passion into the endeavor, and he ended up with an awful experience. I'm sure many of us - at least, I'm sure I can! - can relate to thinking that life owes us something great because of the passion we feel and the amount of time and effort we've invested into something, only to have it explode in our faces.
But that's just the thing. First, life doesn't owe anybody anything. Period. Second, what Chris realized was that, in his ego-driven pursuit of filling up his passport, that he had rushed and compromised the process. He realized that that process of letting travel change you doesn't happen magically when you travel, but starts before you even step out of your front door.
It's a good reminder for all of us out here striving to pursue a different path that ego can easily masquerade as passion, and ego can keep us from the very success we're so bent on pursuing.
3. When shooting amazing places, don't just start firing: make an effort to slow down.
It turns out I share something surprising in common with Chris: apprenticing under a fine art landscape photographer. In his case, he apprenticed under an old school large format landscape photographer (think Ansel Adams) who would only take four plates with him on a multi-day photography trip.
Imagine that: having only four frames for an entire trip! Each one absolutely has to count. Chris wondered how he managed to control himself when epic things might be happening that any person would be dying to shoot immediately. That's where he learned how to purposely slow things down and appreciate a scene from every perspective first before hunkering down to make the shot, instead of being swayed by the immediacy of the moment. He says it's one of the worst feelings to realize you missed the best angle because you were too busy shooting the first one you saw.
This might run contrary to your instinct as a photographer, but especially in situations where you have the luxury of time, the best shots don't simply come from the scenery and the way the light hits it. It comes from your vision and how you make the picture --- in Chris's words, composing as opposed to just capturing.
4. Plan well, let moments happen, and shoot A LOT.
When asked about his process, Chris confesses he is hardly the most technically accomplished photographer. In fact, many of his Instagram posts are edited (and even shot) on his iPhone! However, what he is good at is "identifying a moment and shooting the crap out of it."
He says that whenever he does portfolio reviews, when he sees a particularly strong image, he says: "I hope you shot a thousand of these!"
When it comes to getting those moments, his own approach is a combination of very thorough planning prior to the shoot, but an openness to letting things happen during the shoot. This is another reason why #3 works: slowing down allows you to observe how all the elements are coming together and opens the possibility of getting that once-in-a-lifetime shot.
When it comes to many of his best shots, he had a reasonable idea of what he was going to find it that place in terms of scenery, light, weather, and the like, but the composition and the moment were often spontaneous, a coming together of all the right elements aligning, combined with adequate preparation.
On that note, he insists that there's no such thing as a lucky shot. The very fact that you had your camera with you, your batteries charged, and the ability to see that scene means you were prepared.
5. If you want to get the most out of a place, you have to keep coming back to it.
During the open forum, I asked Chris what was next on his list. He quickly answered Patagonia, but then he doubled back and said, paradoxically, for a person who's made his career by going to barely-visited, extreme locations, is that he gets the most value out of coming back to a place --- which is why he's been to Iceland nearly 30 times and counting. It's a result of the investment of time and effort in building an intimate knowledge of the place, coupled with the relationships formed with the people there. He's even received an award from the President of Iceland himself.
This is a common thread I am seeing among the very best photographers in the world: It's never enough to just take good shots. They commit to a specific subject or a place for a long period of time, investing time, money, and effort in a way that gives them an insight that no other photographer, no matter how skilled, can hope to match. At the highest levels, technical skill is a dime a dozen; vision, storytelling, commitment, and depth are what set you apart.
So if you're wondering why no one's paying attention to your perfectly exposed, meticulously post-processed images of a landscape everyone else has seen before, think about a place or a thing you're really passionate about and just own the subject. If these guys are any indication, it will eventually reap dividends.
6. When you go where you really want to go, the value of what you do increases dramatically.
Directly connected to #5, Chris talked about how the value of his work to photo buyers skyrocketed once he started going where he wanted to go, instead of where his editors at magazines asked him to go. While the latter was necessary to build his photographic and editorial chops, it was only when he followed his own curiosity that he started making the kind of timeless images that buyers purchase over and over, whether as prints or licensed images for commercial or editorial use. Moreover, by scratching his own itch to go to places no one had gone before, he inadvertently also eliminated much of his competition.
Together, #5 and #6 underscore a crucial component of the success of an artist: the more you follow through on what it is you're uniquely passionate about, the greater the chance you have at getting noticed for something only you can do, and successfully carving out your niche as an artist. That is how you produce high quality, distinct work.
7. The biggest companies and art buyers are actively looking for artists on social media.
But how do you get noticed in the first place? If you're one of those people who's uptight about social media, I have bad news for you: according to Chris, the largest agencies and Fortune 500 art buyers are actively using social media as a means of finding art and artists. It's the quickest and easiest way to find a photographer or director and evaluate their work. So if you're not out there, you're not letting yourself be found.
Luckily for us, social media like Instagram are the cheapest and most cost-effective ways to promote your work. But everyone else is on there too, so how do you rise above the noise?
8. Use social media to tell stories, not to "build a brand"
How many of us like being advertised to? That's right: none of us. Which is why it's baffling why some artists on social media talk on their accounts as if they're brands and not people. With over two million followers on Instagram, Chris is one of the platform's giants, and guess what? He says that for him, Instagram isn't a business platform. In fact, he has to turn down most of the opportunities he's offered via social media because they don't align with his mission and values.
Instead, for him Instagram has always been a way to tell stories that get left out of the magazine pages: the visceral, personal, in-the-moment experiences that only he can talk about, and share in real time with over two million people.
That said, while the stories are 100% authentic, Chris stresses the importance of employing analytics and best practices to grow your social media, enabling you to get your message out to as many people as possible. On Instagram, this means being consistent with your posts, posting at optimal times, posting images with simple, easy-to-digest subjects, engaging with others, and issuing calls to action.
9. Learn to caption right!
One of my favorite and most unexpected parts of the session: Chris throwing some friendly shade at photographers who keep using quotes and song lyrics as their captions. Hehe. He says that a regurgitated caption like that is actually a massive disservice to your followers, to whom you could be providing so much more.
What should you post instead? He suggests one of the following:
- An honest and personal caption, embracing that the Internet is full of weirdos and that you should to stop being scared of them. You don't need to have everyone agree with you.
- Behind the scenes and technical info. Pull the curtain and let people have a look at your process.
His Golden Rule: don't describe to people what you already see in image! Instead, provide a visceral sense of what it was like to be there, what made you take the photo: something only you could know, being there.
10. You can't fake humility and generosity of spirit.
While Chris made no mention of this whatsoever in his talk, his entire manner during the session left a deep impression on me: though he's one of the world's most well-known adventure photographers and a veritable social media celebrity, nothing about him came across as smug, and he was 100% engaged when speaking with us fans before and after the talk. I even saw him still chatting with some fans half an hour after the talk ended outside the session hall. That cannot be easy, as even managing social media and e-mail replies in the middle of a busy day with just a few thousand followers can be a chore that takes focus and energy away from your actual work. And that's not even to mention having to manage a line of fans waiting for their turn to chat and take a picture with him after every speaking engagement.
I don't know how he does it, but it is something I absolutely admire and want to emulate. I've seen people with much smaller followings, doing far less impressive or important work, suddenly develop a diva complex after getting some small notoriety on social media. But when I had a chat with him as he walked offstage and out of the session hall, that's when I really felt a genuine interest from him in what I had to say and in giving me a few minutes of his time. He didn't owe me any of that, he could have just ducked out and said he was tired after giving a 90-minute session just forty hours removed from another trip to Iceland, but he didn't. He looked me in the eye, shook my hand, said he was interested in visiting the Philippines, and took that selfie with me with a big smile on his face.
And, truth to tell, after all the amazing and impressive things I learned from and about him during the session, it's that generosity of spirit that will stay with me the most. I know that no matter where I end up, it's that lesson that will make the biggest difference.