Workshop Preview: Learning the Business of Adventure Photography from Alex Strohl
Alex Strohl has built his photography career making adventure and travel photographs in some of the most beautiful places in the natural world. His personal work, which he shares primarily via Instagram to an audience of nearly two million followers, has led to work for Apple, Land Rover, Travel Alberta and HP among several others. Strohl is also one of the cofounders of Stay & Wander, a creative agency that works with photographers and influencers to create social media-focused campaigns for clients such as Google and BMW.
Strohl recently launched “The Adventure Photography Workshop,” an online education program in which he explains all aspects of his work as a freelance photographer, including his process, workflow and editing, and getting the attention of, and working with, brands.
We recently interviewed Strohl via email to get his take on the important aspects of the travel and adventure photography business, and to find out what students can expect to learn in his workshop.
PDN: What prompted you to create an online workshop?
Alex Strohl: I believe there’s a misrepresentation of what being a freelance photographer means and I want to shed some light on what it actually is. I’ve had a fair share of interns and apprentices, and helping them grow is one of the most fulfilling things that I have ever done. But it wasn’t really scalable. They would stay anywhere from two weeks to three months with me, but I felt like I wasn’t producing enough change. So I came up with the idea of doing a workshop that photographers can take online at their own pace. It’s the best solution I’ve found to help the photography community grow on a more significant scale.
PDN: What did you feel was missing from the education options that are out there for photographers who want to shoot travel and adventure photography?
AS: Nowadays, there is tons of great educational content out there and it can be overwhelming. I just did [some reflection] about how I like to learn and realized that the best things I’ve learned were from people I either knew in person, or knew of and respected because of their work. Biographies are my favorite type of reading because I’m learning about someone I’m excited about, who I can relate to. Googling a tutorial about how to do something and learning from someone I don’t know doesn’t rock my boat, so I figured there would be some people who were just the same. What is missing from a lot of the content online is someone’s story attached to it. We learn better when we can identify with our teachers.
PDN: When we see travel and adventure photographers posting on Instagram, we may falsely assume their lives are all travel and adventure, but you’re also emphasizing the business in your workshop. Why do you think the business side of things can be overwhelming, and what do you hope to teach students?
AS: Most artists I meet don’t enjoy dealing with clients, selling themselves and negotiating. I meet a lot of creatives during my trips. Interacting with the local artistic community is one of my favorite things to do when I go somewhere new. It didn’t take long before I realized that most get super excited about creating, and that’s normal, as [being] an artist it’s the most fun you can have. But if you want to make a living, you’re going to have to sell yourself. And that’s uncomfortable for most of us if you haven’t been exposed to it. My dad is a pretty unique sales guy and I grew up going with him to see his clients. Even though he is a forest engineer he shifted to sales early in his career and ended up mixing both—he sold equipment to protect plants and trees against the challenges they face in the early phases of their life. His clients were mostly farmers, so I just got to hang out on farms and plantations with him and could see him interacting with them all day long; it was fascinating. Then back at the car we would debrief how the day went. I got exposed to the idea of selling at a very young age.
My goal is to empower individual artists to have strong careers doing something they love. One of the things I emphasize a lot in the workshop is the idea that it’s all about the client. There has to be something in it for them and it’s easy to forget when we’re focusing on “paying the bills.” You always have to look at the project from their perspective, not only yours.
The big thing was giving advice that anyone can apply. It’s easier when you’re a recognized photographer. If the client wants you bad, you can tell them anything, it doesn’t matter, they’ll still go with you. But what if you are one of the hundreds who are trying to work with that client, and they don’t know you? This is where we get tactical and I get into creative ways to get in touch with people and foster relationships with clients. Another big one for me is picking my battles. I’d rather have a handful of awesome clients that I’m in touch with every week instead of dozens of one-off [jobs from clients] who I don’t ever talk to after. It’s about nurturing fulfilling relationships. The “client” is just another person like you with their own goals, hobbies, dreams and families. Get to know that!
PDN: Some people may think they have to travel to faraway places to start building a portfolio, but that’s not necessarily the case. Will people who take your workshop be able to go out into their own local area to start creating images that may contribute to their portfolio of travel and adventure work?
AS: I believe that finding and getting to faraway places is always a bonus, it adds an international flair to your portfolio, but I agree that’s not always needed, it’s a “nice to have.” There is a great deal of challenge and rewards that await when you decide to look at a map on a macro scale. It’s not a world map or a state map, it’s a county map. If you look at the features of the landscape where you live now in a different way, you will inevitably find new places to go shoot. For me it’s about systemizing how to approach a location and I get into my process of discovering new places in the workshop. You don’t need to travel anywhere remote to get started, your backyard or neighboring state has what you need.
PDN: Travel and adventure photography is generally thought of as a documentary pursuit, however you’re also talking about working with models. Why is working with models an important part of the course, and an important part of the adventure photography business today?
AS: The idea behind the “Working with Models” section was to give a roadmap to photographers on how to interact with their talent. I typically don’t work with professional models. I’d rather work with athletes and friends because the work ends up feeling more natural. But there is always the time where you have to meet new talent and the objective here is getting them to feel welcomed and comfortable as soon as possible. It can be intimidating for them to show up on a shoot, meet the crew and jump in front of a camera. So that section is about taking care of that: how to build trust quickly with your talent. That’s important because even if you love documenting moments there is always a slight bit of curating and staging.
You’ll have to talk to strangers and perhaps ask them to tilt to this side or the other to make the photo stronger so if you have this guide book in the back of your head your encounters will be more fulfilling and the work you produce will be better. And the more experience you have in that, the more prepared you will be to tackle what most recognized adventure photographers have to: the catalogue shoot. Outdoor brands are always looking for new artist to shoot their look books, and if you are doing refreshing work you’ll get hired for one. They can be a little hectic with talent waiting around for [your direction], and the more practice you’ve gotten talking to strangers the more comfortable you will be in that situation. And if the guy taking the pictures is comfortable and at ease, it makes the set a nicer place to work for everybody.
PDN: You’re also offering editing and workflow tips. Why did you feel it was important to talk about the post-production side of your work? How does getting your editing and workflow dialed help you in your career?
AS: Editing is this interesting part of photography that people either overlook or overthink. I made this two-hour-long section [of the workshop] on editing to try and get to the root of it. Editing has to be done in a way that both represents your vision of photography but also has to be sensible enough that your work remains timeless. It’s like the scene in Spiderman, where Peter Parker is reminded that having great power comes with great responsibility. We have Lightroom and Photoshop with massive capabilities and we need to self-moderate and not go crazy. And the most effective way I’ve found to build taste is by looking at a lot of work in diverse fields of life, not only photography. I get into how you can cultivate taste on an ongoing basis in that same editing section. When you develop it enough, your work will start to get instantly recognized by people, it will have this unity and signature and editing certainly plays a role in that nowadays.
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