Colby Brown isn’t afraid to fail (or fall) in pursuit of the perfect travel shot

Colby Brown’s passport reads like the photographer’s ultimate bucket list — the northern lights in Iceland, the Australian outback, jaguars in Brazil, and gorillas in Uganda. But on the very first trip that first gave the travel photographer an itch to capture the world, Brown was a 17-year-old that complained every chance he got.

Now a 12-year photo veteran, Brown has tackled all manner of projects, from leading two years of student expeditions for National Geographic to shooting ad campaigns with major brands like Google, Samsung, and Microsoft. A Sony Artisan, Brown travels between five to seven months out of the year. After starting as a single nomad straight out of college, his trips now sometimes include his wife and seven-year-old son.

Brown’s work is less niche-focused than most photographers. While scrolling through his Instagram reveals locations across multiple continents, his work spans landscapes, wildlife, and people. Today, his professional work covers marketing, travel and photo education.

After leading multiple destination photography workshops, he founded The Giving Lens, an organization that partners with non-profits around the world in need of images. Through The Giving Lens Trips, photographers get to learn in locations off the beaten path, while non-government organizations gain photographs to help further their cause.

During an Adobe-hosted workshop in the Virgin Islands, Brown recently sat down with Digital Trends to share insight into his photographic journey, his worldwide adventures and his unusual take on style and editing. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DT: How did you get started?

Brown: I got into photography purely through a love of travel. I literally got bit by the travel bug and realized that travel and the idea of being outside of my comfort zone was something like that was really exciting to me. I took a Habitat for Humanity kind of trip (it wasn’t actually with them, but a trip like that) when I was 17. It was very challenging and we were building schools and laying concrete. I think I was pretty miserable during the trip — I complained a lot. But in retrospect, even a few weeks later, I realized how much it changed me.

I bought one way tickets and worked on projects and one project would lead to the next.

When I went through college, I took a semester off here and there to travel and by the time I graduated, I just knew that I wanted to be back on the road. I got into photography purely because I thought it was going to be a vehicle that would allow me to start traveling again.

I was single and I was nomadic at the time so I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t have any anchors, anything that was keeping me back home and so I just started traveling everywhere. I bought one way tickets and worked on projects and one project would lead to the next. I started off in Southeast Asia and lived over there for a number of years doing some writing for Sierra Club and a handful of other places and just built my portfolio. It was two years after that started where I got hired by Nat Geo helping with their expedition programs.

DT: How has your process changed as you gain more experience?

I think the more that I’ve shot photography, the more I have been able to find out what I like to shoot, how I shoot, and how I like to process. [I’ve developed the ability] to conceptualize and envision a scene how I want to shoot it when I’m out there in the field and have an inkling of how I might want to process it so that it’s a complete piece. I’m finding the interesting stories in terms of like what I’m capturing.

Colby Brown
Colby Brown Photography

Often, I’m trying to evoke emotion with my images. I feel that’s kind of how you have to capture people’s attention these days. I find that the longer that I shoot, I become better at fine-tuning the different elements that I like to look for in a scene, the different styles of how I like to shoot like the shutter speeds for water, and different subject matters that I find more interesting, more exciting or that capture the best possible image with the given scene.

Technology has helped quite a bit in that process as well, both in the post-processing side as well as the field work. Things like sensors getting better — those elements have certainly helped make my process easier, more effective, and more efficient in the field. Before, both experience-wise and in technology, I may not have had the ability to create as much content as I could from a given project or a given trip. After 12 years, I’ve fine-tuned the process pretty well. I’m certainly always looking for ways to improve, but you learn along the way and figure out what you want and how you want to shoot.

DT: What advice would you give to a new photographers that are just starting out?

If you’re just starting out I would give you two pieces of advice. The first one I would give is don’t be afraid to fail. I think that too many people don’t try and don’t don’t step in the fold, don’t try new things because they’re worried about either not being good at it or not being able to succeed. In any industry, generally, the people that are the most successful whether you’re talking about emotionally or financially, generally their success is built on a string of failed ideas and they’ve learned from those mistakes. But they were willing to try and push themselves out there.

Learn from the bad images that you take.

The next piece of advice I would give would be to try to learn from the bad images that you take. It’s a hard concept for some people to grasp because we always want to showcase the beautiful side of things. If you look at our Instagrams, they’re curated looks at our lives, but in reality, when I was first starting out I learned a heck of a lot more from the 99 images that I took that were crap than the one image that turned out great because I got lucky, because, at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing.

I would go back and study the ones that I didn’t like and I would try to figure out why. Was is something obvious like being out of focus or having a bad composition? Was it subject placement? Was it color tonality? Did I get the exposure right or wrong? Within that spectrum, who do I not like it? By doing so and really diving into the mistakes that I thought I was making, it helped me fine-tune my vision or the common thread of what I like to shoot, how I like to shoot and how I like to process. I was able to learn from those mistakes rather than just focusing on the winners or the trophies that I got lucky at because I was still figuring it out at the time. Don’t throw away images or delete images that you don’t think are great. Instead, try to think of ways to maximize the potential out of them. Learn from your mistakes and try not to make them the next time around.

DT: Most photographers have like specific style that’s all them. But you approach that differently, image by image.

Absolutely. At the same time, if you like at most photographers, most people that do this professionally, they specialize. So so-and-so is going to be a landscape photographer that fixates on mountains and someone else that’s just does studio portraits and maybe within that they are just photographing women. I personally find that consistency within the creative spectrum feels a little limiting. I’ve always wanted to photograph a wide variety of things, and within that space, I want each of those different subjects to stand alone, to stand apart and tell their own piece so that those images feel unique.

travel photographer colby brown interview mountain gorilla
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda Colby Brown Photography

I think if you look back at the scope of my portfolio, I do feel that there might be some sort of common thread that is somewhat connected through them, but it’s not nearly as in your face obvious. Certain photographers, every one of their images has the same stylization. To me, that’s like the photographer imprinting their style onto the natural world or whatever they are experiencing.

I try to somewhat refrain from that, to at least balance the feeling or idea of reality and what I remember feeling like being there…I don’t want to create fake images, but I do want to let people at least get a chance, an opportunity, a glimpse of what it felt like to stare at a Silverback gorilla or to see a waterfall in Iceland or to witness a beautiful sunset in the US Virgin Islands. If I can encapsulate that, then I’d rather forgo the idea that I need to imprint my one sole style just because it might be rewarding from a business standpoint or from the algorithms on social media.

DT: Can you tell us about your post-editing process?

It’s kind of different for each image. I like to look at each image and think, okay, what is that story I was trying to I tell? What is it that captivated me to begin with? Why did I take this photograph? I feel that dictates how I process and what I like to use.

There are probably a few things that are similar or that I look for when I’m beginning to process my images, like dabbling around with shadows and adjusting a little bit of dynamic range. But for the most part, I’m trying to keep a close eye on the pulse or that notion of what I was trying to capture out in the field and what I felt out there when I was capturing it, and how best to encapsulate that[I] use post-processing and those tools to help accentuate those initial feelings, the initial purpose so to speak.

If you look through my portfolio, if you read through my Instagram, there will probably some commonalities in terms of the colors schemes and things that I like to shoot, but the processing for each of them are different. Some are going to be quite dark, some are going to be lighter and brighter. The uniqueness of those scenes I felt called for those pieces that I felt created the most engaging elements for that photograph.

DT: You use Adobe Lightroom for editing. What are the go-to tools, especially for new users?

There are a couple of them. I think that the HSL panel in general, the hue, saturation and luminance panel, is probably one that most people don’t fully understand which is why they don’t utilize it.

If you think of most photographers that are emerging or just starting out, the two most commonly overdone things are sharpness and saturation. Generally with saturation, they are taking the saturation or vibrance slider and moving it to the right until they think it pops or looks beautiful. The problem with that is that you are generally increasing saturation across the fold or at least the majority of the tones throughout the image, and you don’t necessarily want that.

Colby Brown
Colby Brown Photography

I personally use the HSL slider because I can say hey, the greens should pop a little bit more because they are an important part of the scene or this person or this landscape. Or maybe the blues, maybe I want to subdue those a little bit. I personally feel that color tonality as well as a general exposure, the brightness of the image or certain elements of your image, can dictate the atmosphere or how the image is portrayed. If you think of a portrait, super dark and full of contrast is a very different feeling than if you have no contrast. If you are photographing a waterfall and you think it’s too dark or too bright, those give off different feelings.

The color tonality of the blue tones will make you feel cold, oranger tones will make you feel warmer, so the HSL slider gives me more finite control.I can say that these color tones I want to either adjust the hue or the tonality of it, I want to increase the saturation which is more of the punch, or I want to increase the brightness or the luminance of those specific hues to either emphasize them or de-emphasize them within that given scene. I think once you begin to experiment with those things, it opens up a whole new door to look at your images and take things to the next level, to begin to make more subjective choices about your processing style and how you can accentuate the subject or the point to why you took that photograph to begin with.

DT: What are some of the craziest things that have happened to you while you were traveling?

Our social media creates the curated look. You don’t know the times that I’ve been out there where I’ve gotten Giardia four times or I’ve had Malaria twice. I’ve slipped off waterfalls and barely missed ledges that would have drastically hurt me. Things like that used to happen more frequently than they do now that I have a son.

travel photographer colby brown interview colbybrown 1
Colby Brown Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Now, the most impactful or crazy experiences personally that touch me the most are generally wrapped around wildlife. There’s something unique about that connection that I get with an animal whether I’m in Nambia photographing cheetahs, in Uganda photographing silverback gorillas, or in Brazil photographing jaguars. Having those moments where the animal gets too close for comfort or there’s that kind of intimate moment where I’m able to capture something, it gives you a little bit of a gut check. Maybe I should have done that a little smarter or maybe I shouldn’t be so close. It gives me a sense of perspective, place and my role in this giant world that we live in. Those are often generally the most transformative and to me are some of my best images personally that I look back on a remember the challenges of what it took to get to those places. Just the moments being in their presence is pretty humbling.

DT: Do you have anything else that you’d like to add?

One of the things that I regret from the early days, when I first started out, was not taking advantage of connecting with the community. We didn’t have a lot of that. I think in this day and age, it’s a great time to be a photographer not just because of the tools and technology available but because of the community. Photography used to be this isolated art-form that generally you did but, generally, none of your other friends or colleagues did. Now, you have these massive communities and Instagram meet-ups and photo walks. Take advantage of that, learn from your peers. Try not to look at everyone as competition and really enjoy the fact that we’re fortunate to be able to do this now. To share with other people with things like social media is just awesome.

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