Bryan Peterson has been in the photography industry for quite a while now and has written one of the most popular books on photography there is, Understanding Exposure. Today, we’re honored to have Bryan here with us on the CM blog to answer a few of our questions. Enjoy the great insights he has to share!
an interview with bryan peterson
You’ve been a successful commercial photographer for over 30 years. Tell us how you started your photography journey.
Way back in the 60‘s, during my teenage years, I was ONLY drawing and painting and was planning on becoming a commercial artist. In 1970, the year I graduated from high school, my oldest brother turned me on to photography and I really enjoyed how quickly I could make art, e.g. at a 1/125 second versus spending several hours if not several days working on a painting or drawing. I was soon subscribing to what was an important book series on photography back then which was called the Time-Life Library of Photography and every two months a new book would arrive and I would devour it within hours and soon felt inspired to head out the door and start shooting!
You do a lot of traveling for commercial work. If you could photograph anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Anywhere in Southeast Asia e.g. Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and it has much to do with the kindness of the people, which is evident in their faces. IF I could spend the rest of my life photographing the people of Southeast Asia, I would have no complaints!
Can you give some advice to someone wanting to get into commercial work?
If your idea of being a photographer is “fun and fancy-free,” you’d be right—some of the time. It is, like most professions, hard work. But, hey, if you’ve got to work hard, why not work hard at something you love to do?
Although most photographers start out their careers as studio photographers, location photographers, corporate photographers, wedding photographers, fashion photographers, advertising photographers, nature photographers, or newspaper photographers, over time many of them rise above the others and become known for their “unique use of light” or their “strong and graphic landscapes” or their “sensitive bridal portraits” or their reputation of “getting the shot at any cost” or their “wacky approach.” Getting known is half the battle. The job that then remains—and will always remain, I might add—is the need to continually reinvent yourself. What I mean by that is this:
- Constantly striving to show the world around from fresh vantage points e.g. shooting down from above, shooting and framing through foregrounds, from down low and shooting up etc.
- Consistently employing fresh points of view with all of your lenses
- Always, always thinking of ideas that, when put on film or digital film card, demonstrate your skills at visual problem solving
There’s no special formula to succeed in this business except, of course, for the one with which every successful professional photographer is most familiar: long days, long nights, great self-discipline, and a determination to stay the course no matter what—even when the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be an oncoming train! One piece of additional advice I offer my students, particularly in my Internet photography marketing workshop, is this: Before you can focus, it might be a good idea to know what it is you will focus on; in other words, choose a theme or themes.
Our world is truly large, and it is filled with so much photographic opportunity that at times it can feel really overwhelming—so much so that when you go out with plans to shoot, you end up wandering around in a daze. With a theme in mind, amazing things begin to happen. You will feel focused, directed, and enthusiastic!
The choices in themes are no less in number than the stars in the sky. Perhaps you’ll be that photographer who hangs out at truck stops, not to shoot trucker portraits but rather to direct your macro lens at the dead moths, butterflies, and other insects stuck to the truck grills and windshields. If the themes of architecture, lifestyle, business, industry, or sports are too broad, then refine your search. Try reflections, windows, eyes, hands, feet, shoes, tools, smiles, flowers in the rain, old-growth forests, barns, birds, airplanes, steelworkers, loggers, carnival people, cowboys, three-year-olds, castles, feathers, fruits, vegetables, butterflies, amusement parks, seasons, nudes, bridges, lighthouses, orchards, famous cities by day, famous cities by night, churches, cemeteries, windsurfers, rollerbladers, skateboarders, mountain climbing, cats, dogs, watches, gum ball machines, parking meters, doors, alleys, teenagers, education, playgrounds, roadside diners, ATM machines, people using cellular phones, graffiti, neon signs, waistlines, ashtrays, or doorbells.
Perhaps you’re better suited to applying your visual problem-solving talents toward communicating certain emotions or feelings: safety, security, access, connection, risk, despair, noise, instability, caution, indifference, loss, stubbornness, elation, lethargy, ambition, abandonment, grief, or love. Challenge yourself further if you wish by shooting compositions that evoke these emotions without using any people in the images.
Once you’ve picked your theme, don’t forget to “look at it” while on your belly, while on your back shooting up, while atop a ladder shooting down, with your wide-angle lens, with your street zoom in close-focus mode, with your telephoto framing it against a background of muted tones, in the light of early morning, in the light of late afternoon, shortly after dusk, as a silhouette, at slow shutter speeds, and in all seasons—and don’t forget to incorporate and emphasize, whenever possible, the elements of design: line, shape, form, texture, pattern, and, of course, color. Finally I will share with you these three thoughts:
- Do what you do—and do it well—and you’ll have plenty of competition.
- Do what you do—and do it better than most—and you’ll command an audience.
- Do what you do—and do it better than anyone else—and you’ll have the world at your doorstep.
Commercial photography is in a field of its own. What is the easiest and most difficult aspect of commercial work?
The easy part is shooting the images necessary that will get a client’s attention. The hard part is getting those images in front of the client and despite the obvious use of the internet and direct mail to reach clients, there is still a lot to be said about making a personal sales call, something almost all photographers choose NOT to do. I have got more work from personal sales calls, (spending two/three weeks in major cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago and ‘pounding the pavement’) then any other kind of approach e.g. advertising, direct mail, website.
Your portrait work shows a lot of emotion. Does this have more to do with how you set up your shots or interact with your subject? Or perhaps it has to do with both?
I like to know who I am about to photograph so I do invest a bit of time in getting to know the person I am about to photograph and almost without fail, my choice in backgrounds, that which the portrait will be contrasted against, is very deliberate.
Do you tend to bring the same equipment on each shoot or do you change up your gear depending on the subject and theme?
My gear is always the same in so far as focal lengths, but today, because of their high quality, my use of single focal length lenses has been replaced with compact zoom lenses. Having said that, I still find myself shooting most of my portraits at moderate wide-angle focal lengths, such as 30-40mm, other times in the 100-135mm range and still other times in the 300mm-400mm range.
What is your favorite subject to photograph and why?
I never grow tired of shooting the environment and the people who work in the “blue collar industries”. It is a world where most people spend a third of their lives “making a living”, but by no means does this mean everyone is “living the dream” and it shows on the faces of many. Yet, for most, this is the place where other dreams can be realized e.g. family vacations, a bigger house, a new car, a backyard swimming pool etc. In particular, I am fond of the following industries for both the people and the often colorful and quite graphic surroundings that are found there-steel mills, foundries, oil and gas refineries, silver and gold mines and shipyards.
How often do you get to shoot for yourself and how do you stay inspired with your busy schedule?
I try to set aside at least five to seven days each month where I shoot “just for me”! I do find that when I am in need of inspiration, I simply grab my 105mm Micro-Nikkor Closeup lens and head into the great outdoors or into the kitchen and within minutes I am soon immersed in a world that has always inspired me, the world of macro where one will find no shortage of material to shoot!
Light is such an important factor in photography. Describe your ideal lighting situation.
When shooting people, I will hope to awaken to overcast skies as this light is so kind to the face, but if I am shooting industrial landscapes or nature, bring on the low-angled early or late afternoon sidelight!
You’ve spent a great deal of time educating other photographers. When did you decide you wanted to teach workshops and write books?
I’ve always been an enthusiastic photographer who, like it or not, just can’t wait to share an idea or a once ‘buried treasure’ with others so it only made sense that I would one day find myself actually teaching and my first foray into the workshop arena began back in 1979 and my first thought of writing a book came in 1985, after having written a monthly piece entitled LOOK for Popular Photography for three years.
You are coming out with another new book. Tell us a little bit about it and what inspired you to write it?
I am really excited about Exposure Solutions as it addresses the 25 most challenging exposure situations in a very concise no nonsense manner, and in the eBook, with most every situation there is a video link where you will see me in action, up against these challenging exposure situations and how I solve them. So, if after reading one of the many exposure challenges and the resulting solution you still find yourself wanting further clarification, just click on the web link and watch me in action; it’s as if it’s just you and me on a workshop!
You’ve been in this business for quite some time and have accomplished many things. What other dreams do you have yet to achieve?
I have a book that is filled with ideas, ideas for images that I am constantly trying to find the time to shoot. I am sure however that many of these ideas will never get produced since there are literally that many and I only have so much time in a day, in a week, in my life. If I could have one dream come true, it would be that I could turn back the clock and beginning now, grow younger each and every day, until I reach the age of 25, and then reverse the clock once more.
Thank you Bryan for letting us interview you and for all your incredible insights!