Interview with Pro Photographer Charlie Borland

Charlie Borland is a veteran photographer who has been in the business for close to 30 years. He has photographed a wide range of subjects for stock and assignment and has also started two stock agencies. His work has appeared extensively in many publications including National Geographic Traveler, Outside, Backpacker, Women’s Sport & Fitness, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated for Women, and many more. His clients include Camelbak, Columbia Sportswear, Early Winters, Nike, among others and he talks about his long career.

Tell us how you got your start.

I started photographing back in the 1970s after graduating from high school. When my best friend got a camera from his brother who was in the military overseas we started screwing around with the camera taking pictures and I found it was really a lot of fun, so I bought one myself. A Minolta SRT 101, great camera.

I took a couple classes just too really learn how to do basic photography and became more and more enamored with the process that I took darkroom classes at the college and began to diving in black-and-white photography enjoying that as well. Since I was a poor student I was making color prints and giving those out as Christmas presents. Then my mom started to show them off at work and especially to the staff photographer who said I was creating great photography and he wanted to meet me.

We visited a bunch of times and he inspired me to continue to take workshops and classes, including my very first weekend workshop from Bryan Peterson who is extremely well known in the industry. Bryan and I remain good friends to this day and I teach Internet classes at his photography school. It was after all those experiences that I decided I wanted a make a profession out of it and I then attended Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, graduating in 1980.

You are known more as a stock photographer than a specialist in landscape and adventure photography, is that correct?

Yes, exactly. I was trained at Brooks Institute in commercial photography where I learned to take portraits, shoot products, and corporate/industrial photography as well. But it was during this time at Brooks where I took what I learned and applied it to nature and adventure photography with many of my class assignments related to outdoor subjects. I was doing a lot of backpacking and ski camping during college and photographed all of it.
My graduation photography show was on photographing rock climbing. So even then my passion for outdoor photographic subjects was in the forefront.   I love photography and love to photograph many subjects, but it is getting outdoors and shooting that makes things clear for me.

So you’ve been in the business a long time, what has your career entailed?

When I finished Brooks I had a couple jobs working in the multimedia business which back then were computer driven slideshows using Kodak slide projectors and I worked on shows that were anywhere from one projector to some that were well over 100 projectors for clients like Nike, the NFL, and others. But I only had staff jobs for about three years before the itch to freelance kicked in and that’s when I went out on my own in 1983 and haven’t looked back.

On Assignment for Camelbak

So I left that last job and immediately went freelance showing a portfolio to art directors at design firms and ad agencies as well as some client direct. I also started heavily shooting landscape, nature, and adventure sports subjects for stock. Stock was really developing into a profitable industry by the mid-80s and I jumped on board.   It was an interesting time because you really could go out and shoot whatever you darn well felt like and finding marketable subjects was not that difficult, the photography just had to be really good as it does today. There was not the glut of imagery we now have either. I traveled a lot with photographer friends and really focused mostly on the National Park system for my stock subjects.

But the real break came when a publishing company offered me a contract to shoot exclusively for them for two years. I had already been shooting and marketing my 4 x 5 and 35mm landscape photography and getting published when I approached this publisher about my stock images. They liked what I showed them enough to offer me this contract which I gladly accepted and spent two years towing a travel trailer around the states photographing basically beautiful America. This opportunity allowed me to create a substantial archive of the National Parks, cities, and beautiful areas around the states.

When that contract expired I headed back Oregon to start marketing my work and that’s when I signed with my second stock photo agency, Weststock (now Imagestate). And I really began to work a lot with the CEO, Mark Karras. He liked my landscape photography enough to sign me but really encouraged me to shoot people because those subjects sell better, even to this day. So I started doing that, getting models to go out and do adventurous type activities and it really paid off. I believe by my fourth or fifth year with Weststock I had 65 image placements in their catalog, which is huge because back then that’s how you made the most money, getting your images in the catalog.

I also sought commercial photography assignments because there’s a lot of money there and of course I needed it. And it also funded my adventure and landscape shooting trips which also landed clients like Camelbak, Columbia Sportswear, Nike, and many magazines.

You’ve been in the business long before digital arrived and how have you handled that?

I’m not a very good technical person and am never the first person to jump on the bandwagon, choosing rather to wait and see how it all works. It was that way with Photoshop, digital cameras, digital workflow, and now social marketing. But I, like all other photographers before the digital revolution, had no choice but to adapt and that’s exactly what I’ve done. 100% of everything I shoot is totally digital despite the fact I still have a refrigerator full of film and a number of film cameras. I love shooting with a 4 x 5, always have and always will but have not pulled it out in five years. Now I shoot exclusively Canon.

Alaska

What has been interesting about all this change and of course the most challenging, is that professional photographers now spend dramatically more time learning new technologies and keeping up with how those technologies apply to the business than actually creating work. I’m not happy about that but I’m far from retirement and have to adapt. I don’t think there is single photographer who doesn’t prefer to be in the field most of the time. That’s why we do this.

What’s a typical day in your office?

There is no typical day, everyone is different. I’m doing more writing and teaching on the Internet, I have volumes of digital images that need to be processed as well as 25 years worth of film that needs to be scanned and put into my stock’s files. Everyday has a priority for sure and generally it’s made up of checking into my classes, talking with clients, thinking about the next time a promotional effort needs to be done and then filling in that tiny little bit of available time with scanning and key wording.

Are you totally digital delivery?

Absolutely! I have all my film here and if somebody wanted it I could send them the original transparencies but for the most part any image that a client might want I already have scanned or have it here to scan and can send them high-resolution files. I’m a big fan of Lightroom and have archived my digital assets using it. The desktop computer has 6 ea. 1 TB drives Western Digital drives, and I co-own a Flextight scanner as well as a Nikon Coolscan for the 35mm.

Do you market and sell your own work and or use a stock photo agent?

Yes to both. I do sell my own work however in this economy I’ve let the employees I had go and haven’t replaced them. So where I have scaled back is promoting and selling my own stock choosing instead to give it all to my agent.  During my career I have started two stock photo agencies, the first one a small boutique library that had 50 photographers and catered to the Portland, Oregon market as well as the national and international editorial markets.

In 2002 I cofounded with two other photographers, fogstock.com. It’s run by my partner and CEO Marv Johnson and we represent somewhere around 100 photographers. The imagery is networked with at least 25 agents around the world and the agency does pretty well. It has just become easier for me to give all my stock image files to Fogstock to market at this time so I can focus my efforts on other projects.

I still get calls off my websites once in a while and gladly handle those sales myself.

There are many photographers in the outdoor and nature photography markets and many more that would like to enter the profession. What advice would you give them?

It cannot be said enough that content is king and what I mean by that is the photography has to be superb. You cannot

Capitol Reef NP

just go shoot Delicate Arch or Half Dome on an average day under average conditions. First, it cost you money to go create that product, your images, and without the best possible product you won’t have a client that buys it. So photographers wishing to enter the market really need to spend time becoming an excellent photographer first. While you are building that large archive of imagery you should be studying marketing, writing, and learn to understand the new market for photography and how buyers license and use imagery.

Another thing that I think is really crucial for most outdoor and nature photographers wishing to make a living is diversify. Don’t just shoot moss, rocks, and flowers. Those are very small niche markets and those images are easily found on Microstock. You can still be an outdoor and nature photography and do portraits and product photography, just in the outdoors.

I just did an assignment this last week which I would call an outdoor assignment and it was to photograph a gentleman who spearheaded a campaign to save an area in Oregon from being clear-cut and turned into a nature park. I met him at the trailhead and then we then hiked into the forest where I took several opportunities to photograph portraits of him. I took along my battery-powered strobe, umbrella, light stand, tripod and all my cameras and took his portrait of there. I still consider myself an outdoor photographer who just did an outdoor photography assignment.

I have also shot many outdoor clothing catalogs on various adventures. This is product photography that happens to be shot in the wilds. It pays well and is often a blast despite lots of hard work. The whole point here is that photographers should learn lighting using strobes to enhance their skills beyond being a great nature photographer or a great kayak or rock climbing photographer. Diversify your skill set and promote that to clientele under the umbrella that you are outdoor and nature photographer.

You can also no longer go shoot locations simply because you have not been there and “need the shots.” Instead photographers should be shooting locations that might have something newsworthy going on about them like proposed wilderness areas.

Can we look at some your most successful images?

You bet.

Tent at Christmas

This photograph was I idea I had and planned a number of years ago. It still sells. I skied in to this area which is a couple miles and then set up the tent with battery powered Christmas lights and then waited for dark. It has sold many times for editorial, catalog usage, advertising, and Christmas cards for both Outside and Backpacker magazines. In different years of course.

Wyoming Lightning

There are many incredible images of lightning and it is not something I specifically chase, rather I capture it when I can. This image was shot in Wyomings Big Horn mountains and it was after I quit shooting for the day. I pulled my truck off a dirt road in the forest and was cooking my Chili on the tailgate of my truck when I started to nothice the flashing of a thunderstorm way off. I set up the camera with 300mm lens and set the programmable cable release to keep shooting and this was the best  one of many.  It has also been used in editorial and advertising. Not sure how much money it has made.

Women Dog Sledding

This image has done very well simply because it is two women dogsledding. Two women doing anything; running, hiking, rafting, is a very strong concept. The images I have created that sold the best were images that I planned and set up. This approach to stock often creates more income for your efforts than wandering around looking for beautiful scenics. The ones I plan are often with people because people sell better. This was a model I hired and the girlfriend of the dog sledding business owner. Not sure how much its made but is has been in the thousands.

Oregon’s Santiam River

This image was from doing exactly what I just mentioned, wandering for pictures and it worked into a good seller. It has generated many sales including editorial, travel guides, bulletins, and catalog use.

Proxy Falls, Oregon

This one is from a favorite and beautiful spot in Oregon’s Cascades, called Upper Proxy Falls. There are two spectacular falls in this area and both very marketable. I photographed this on 4×5 many years ago and actually at a time when many photographers did not know where it was. I know because I was asked many times from other photographers how to get there. It has now been photographed extensively so the market for it’s like Delicate Arch is now, oversaturated. This image has been published many times and in some high end uses that my former agent, Adventure Photo & Film (now Imagestate) had made. They include editorial, advertising, and even in a water filter packaging use.

Central Oregon

This is my best selling adventure image and has been used in everything as well. It’s probably generated in the high 5 figures in sales and even though it is 15 years old, it has that timeless quality which allows images to be marketable for a long time. It just sold again last month for $750.00 proving to me that the better paying markets are still there. The other advantage is I am the only photographer that will ever get this image because it was shot during a severe drought year where the water was low enough to set up this camp. So no worries of the copycats. The fire was in a firepan so no debris was left there (people ask) and no Photoshop either.

Redwoods NP

This has also been a strong seller and may be my best selling image of nature. I shot this 25 years ago and it still sells and it is because it is timeless in nature. Nothing gets outdated in it.

Reading by Candle Light

This image has also sold well and in uses like college brochures, shopping malls, editorial, travel pubs, bulletins, and a few small ads. No tricks here; she’s reading by candle light in a very scenic location and wearing colorful clothing to stand out. This image is a strong concept, but it is outdated mostly due to the clothing.

3 thoughts on “Interview with Pro Photographer Charlie Borland”

  1. Wow. Very interesting. An inspiration to all. So how could one get started in freelance photography without schooling or past experiance? Wonderful photos by the way…

  2. Brendan-
    There are no colleges of nature and adventure photography, just classes and workshops. You really have to just start shooting, reading, studying others, and work hard to put it all together. For business, I have a class at The Perfect Picture School (www.ppsop.com) that teaches all the business aspects of finding clients and marketing and pricing image usage and such. But before that you just have to shoot shoot and shoot some more to learn. Do it for passion the first three years and then start ti look at the business aspect.

    Al the best!
    Charlie

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