Photographer of the Month Interview: Colby Brown

Featured Photographer, March 2012:   Colby Brown

This month, our featured guest is professional photographer, Colby Brown.

A big thanks to Colby for his generosity and time to answer our questions and share his philosophies, stories and work with us! Please visit his site links to see more of his terrific images.

:: How did you get your start in landscape photography? Were there ever any other forms of photography that you dabbled with?

My start in photography was fairly a-typical I suppose. As a child I was always in love with nature and being outdoors. I was "that" kid that could sit in a field of rocks for hours looking for fossils. When I was 17 I started traveling internationally and soon realized I was in love with traveling and experiencing all that the world had to offer. However it was not until I graduated from college that things really began to come together. At the time I was working in a hospital in Dallas, Texas, and decided that life wasn't for me. I sold nearly everything I had and moved up to Vancouver, British Columbia (I am a dual citizen) to clear my head. It was there that I came up with the naive notion that if I wanted to pursue my love of travel, maybe I should become a one has ever had this thought before, right?

So I bought a DSLR camera (Canon XTi) and a few lenses and then picked up every photography book I could find. I would spend my mornings and evenings shooting around British Columbia and during the day I would comb over my images. After a few months I decide that I wanted to explore South East Asia and bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Thailand. On the plane ride over, I met a woman from Jackson Hole, Wyoming (a rock climber) that had been visiting Southern Thailand for years and had fallen in love with a local Thai. She was getting married, but her friend, who was a photographer, had to back out at the last second. So my first paying photography job ever was actually shooting a traditional buddhist wedding in a tiny rural village in Southern Thailand. Funny how things work out like that.

I have never shot commercial photography or portrait work (aside from helping out a close friend here and there). I am an ambient light kind of guy. I break out in hives if I have to use flash.

:: What was it about landscape photography that drew you in?

For me it is not about capturing but experiencing intimate moments with nature. Often times I am either working well off the grid or in locations at odd hours of the day. Being alone in nature just feels right. The solitude allows me to embrace how connected everything really is. Wind flowing through the trees, water trickling down a stream, a sunrise bouncing off the clouds onto a mountain peak. I can't get enough.

:: You mention in your bio growing up in California; how did you end up in Colorado?

Mountains bring me peace. I don't know what it is about them but they draw me in and help push my creativity to a new level. While I enjoy California, I have never been a huge people person and the traffic in the bay area is known world wide. Vancouver was another placed I loved, but just wasn't for me. While it is probably the most beautiful metropolitan city in the world, the Pacific Northwest is just too grey for my liking. Colorado was a happy median. We get more days of sunshine than Miami or San Diego every year. The Rockies are beautiful and seem somewhat endless and Denver is a great city. Couldn't be happier here in Colorado.

:: Your website refers to you as a "Humanitarian" photographer. Can you describe a bit about what that means to you?

Well, I have always been keen on doing my part to make a difference in this world. Over the years and throughout my travels around the globe, I noticed a common occurrence. Photographers like myself would enter a country, take some pretty photos, snap some images of the locals and leave. It was very one sided. That never sat well with me. I always felt that there was more that could be done as a photographer.

In 2010, I founded Lespwa Haiti, which has an aim to help bring back the focus on the hope and perseverance of the Haitian people in light of the devastating earthquake that year. Every year I take a small team down to the country and document a handful of stories for small organizations on the ground, giving them rights to use all of the images we come out with and helping them fundraise back here in the states.

In 2011, I started my second organization, The Giving Lens, that blends photo education with sustainable development projects around the world. As a photo educator, I felt this was something missing in the photo industry. The ability to take a photography workshop where you not only learn to become a better photographer, but where your money, time and energy goes directly to help those in the communities we are working and teaching. Every workshop connects with a local NGO organization on the ground in a host country that has a specific cause. We work to fight for child education, refugee support, clean drinking water projects and species preservation to name a few.

In 2012, we will offer five workshops: Nicaragua, Peru, Tanzania, Jordan and Israel/Palestine. By 2013, we will be expanding to India, Thailand, Alaska, Africa and Bolivia. (For more information visit

:: Describe your work in Haiti, and the program you set up for helping to rebuild. What caused you to take on this project? What have you been able to accomplish with your images and travels there?

As I mentioned above, the organization I started in Haiti is called Lespwa Haiti, which stands for Hope for Haiti. When the earthquake actually happened, I was working in Guatemala with my wife and had no idea what was going on. I started getting phone calls and emails asking if I was headed down. By the time I got back state side, a month had passed and I had seen the carnage and level of destruction. I was compelled to do something, but also know the damage that just showing up can do. Before the earthquake, Haiti had nearly 13k NGO organizations on the ground. Post earthquake, the number jumped to well over 15k.

Sadly, this usually leads to more problems than solutions. Too many small organizations with good hearts show up with limited budgets, promise the world and then run out of money, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the population of the host country. So instead of starting yet another Haiti NGO, I decided to provide ground level support for a handful of amazing organizations in Haiti that where doing phenomenal things for the Haitian people. They provide us with behind closed door access to those they are helping and in turn we provide them with professional quality media for no cost. This helps these organizations connect with their donors unlike ever before. In turn we also help them set up fundraisers here in the US to raise extra money for their causes. It was something that started from thin air and has grown organically over the last two years.

:: You've really put yourself out there with the Google+ social media site. Can you describe what pushed you to Google+?

Google+ was announced just as I was beginning to look for new avenues to market my business. While active on Facebook and Twitter, neither were ever that beneficial for me. So timing was key. I was invited on day one and was impressed with what I saw. Not only did my images look great in their lightbox, but the system seemed to be designed specifically in a way that promoted high levels of interaction. This is something that I feel Facebook constantly struggles with. In its early days, it was a network for a single college campus (Harvard). I don't think it has really ever been able to get away from that. While Facebook is a social network to share with your family and talk to close friends, I found Google+ to focus on my passions and interests instead. As a photo educator, I need to be where other photographers are.

:: Why Google+ over other photographic web sharing sites? What makes them different?

Google+ is different because of the way you communicate on the network. It seems that you have a lot more opportunities to have meaningful connections and conversations with other users than any of the other networks. With 500px, 1x and seems like one giant "digital hug" as I like to call it. While it is important to have a presence there to have your work seen, they typically do not allow for much beyond that. With Facebook, as I mentioned above, the closed nature of the network does not promote growth for small businesses. Start a new photography page on Facebook and you will see how hard it is to get people to follow you. Why? Because people are there to talk with friends and their family.

One of the best features of Google+, you can jump into a Hangout, which is a video conversation of up to 10 people from anywhere in the world. You can share your screen and conduct mini photo webinars. A new feature allows you to stream these Hangouts with the entire world live while also recording, and upload it instantly to YouTube, where you can edit it and share it with your followers on any network.

On top of this, you have Google Search. Currently, Google accounts for 67% of all search on the Internet. With the advent of the +1 button that acts as a "recommendation" to all your followers and Google's more recent move to integrate social features into Google search and you have a very powerful marketing tool at your hands. Being highly active on Google+ will eventually directly effect your search engine results. The more followers you have, the more people that hit the +1 button on the images or blog articles you write and the more likely it is to appear higher on the list than those that do not receive that attention. Social search is the it or hate it. It is coming.

:: Can you talk a bit about the book project that you've taken on with Google and PeachPit Press?

Once I saw Google+ becoming a very popular network for photographers, I decided to write an extensive guide that showcased how to use the features of the network as a photographer. What started out as a small blog post, eventually became much more. To date, more then 500,000 people have read my guide. A few months later I was contacted by PeachPit Press to write a book based off my guide. By this time I have made some pretty large inroads with Google and its employees and so I was able to utilize their knowledge of the network to help me produce the more accurate book I could on the subject. I not only walk people through how to use the network and its features as a photographer, but how to better understand social marketing and networking and how to use those tools to build your own following and brand. The book is set to release in March of 2012 and will be titled, "Google+ for Photographers."

:: You've got a new little one, how has this changed things for you in terms of shooting and juggling a busier schedule?

It is certainly a challenge. On August 22nd, 2011, my wife and I welcomed Jack into this world and of course our lives changed. However, we live very different lives than most. I run a handle of photography business and organizations out of the house (although I travel a ton) and my wife works for a nutrition company that allows her to do the same. We make our own hours and get to travel when we want. Jack can not come to all the countries I work in (because of vaccinations) but we do our best. I still travel a lot, as it is my job, but I make sure to take advantage of every second that I am with the little guy and my wife at home.

:: Where is your next adventure taking you?

In May of 2012, I will be heading to Iceland with fellow photographers Patrick Di Fruscia and Ken Kaminesky. Soon after my travels take me to Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Alaska and Tanzania...and that is only through August of this year.

:: Where would you like to visit in the future? Give us a few photographic adventures on your bucket list.

The two locations I want to document most right now is Mongolia and Uganda. Both have grabbed my attention for years. In 2012 I am already working in 12 different countries, so maybe 2013 would be a good fit. Who wants to join?

:: Obviously, social media and photography are in a far different state than they were 5, 10 and 20 years ago. What problems do you see that face photographers going forward?

Personally I think the biggest challenge is to stay ahead of the curve. The Internet and the photo industry are always moving at break neck speeds with new technology and new trends. They are completely dynamic, always in a state of change. The photographers I see struggling the most are the ones that either aren't aware of these changes or they are but would rather complain or fight against them.

A perfect example is Google+. I initially first signed up on the day it opened, not because I had heard amazing things, but because I wanted to check out the new kid on the block. To date I have nearly 500,000 people follow my work there and I am in the 5 most followed photographers on the network. It certainly takes more than just showing up early, but it is the first step. Attempting to predict or for-see where things are going should be an integral part of anyone's business plan. Adapt and evolve.

:: Talk a little about the other projects I've seen associated with you, F-stop, TWiT podcast, and any others you may have on the horizon.

I am always working on collaborative projects with other professionals and companies in the industry. F-Stop is one of my sponsors and one of my favorite companies in the industry. I have worked with them to help build some of the best adventure and travel photography packs on the market. Lightweight, customizable and rugged.

In the last two years I have seen many of my projects and ideas all come to fruition around the same time. This has allowed me to not only expand my businesses on many fronts, but my reach in the industry and through social media outlets. Through this, many shows like TWiT Photo have asked me on their shows to highlight some of these achievements, which has been great. I loved working with Catherine Hall and their team and we are always working on side projects together these days.

I am also in the near final stages of working with a few other photographers to put together photography boot camps that focus both on digital editing and hands on instruction to many US cities in 2012 and 2013. It is something I am really excited to get involved with since so much of my work is international.

:: You've been all over the world, what's one of the scariest things that has happened to you while out shooting?

In 2007, on my first trip of many to the Himalayas , I found myself in a bit of a situation. With no guide or porter, my friend and I decided to hike over the Kongma La Pass between the village of Chhukhung and Loboashe on our way to Everest Base Camp. This pass reaches an altitude of nearly 19k ft and isn't always well marked. After an early start, we lost the initial trail which forced us to backtrack and lose 2 hours in an already tight schedule. By the time we made it to the pass, we realized the sun was going to set before we made it to Loboche and we had run out of water because nearly all of the lakes and streams were solid frozen (this was late november).

After slipping and sliding down the rock skree on the other side of the high pass, we eventually made our way to to the bottom of the Khumbu Valley. While happy to be off the high pass, we still had to cross the Khumbu Glacier to get to our destination. By this time the sun had gone down and the temperature had dropped. Luckily the moon was out, which helped light our way.

However, the biggest challenge of the day was crossing the glacier, which is actually a dirty glacier, which means that rocks and dirt are sitting on top of solid ice that is in a content state of flow. Jump on the wrong rock and you could find yourself surfing down a rock hill into a pool of glacier water. Needless to say we made it across, but by the time we arrived in Loboche, we had been hiking for 12 hours, most of it without water. It was a great lesson in preparing for the worst.

:: What was the best advice you received when you were getting started in photography? What advice would you pass on to someone new just getting their start in the medium?

Concentrate on your passion for photography. One of the biggest mistakes I see being made by young photographers is caring too much about what other photographers think of them, the number of visitors for their blog or the number of followers on Google+ or Facebook. When you are starting out, the best thing you can do for yourself is work on perfecting your craft. That means shooting and then shooting some more. Learn from your mistakes. As artists, we are both our biggest critics and our best teachers.

:: With advances in science, and the changes in the globe's ability to communicate, where do you see photography heading in the next 5-10 years?

We live in a globally connected world these days. The recent advances in technology in the photo industry alone has allowed more individuals have the ability to express their own creativity because cameras are now more affordable then ever. With this comes a responsibility to this planet and our species to document life and experience in important ways. Look at the use of online technology such as Twitter and cell phone cameras that allowed the world to know of the protests in Iran in 2009. I see this only continuing to increase in popularity and importance as time goes on.

Colby Brown

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