I’m excited to share January’s Photographer of the Month: Aaron Reed. In this interview, Aaron talks about large photographic prints and his recent decision to quit his job and do photography full-time.
First of all, thank you for taking the time to do this. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you got started with photography?
Thank you for the opportunity as well. Knowing the degree of work involved to generate frequent quality content on a site like yours and especially the “backend” work behind the scenes, I appreciate your time as well.
I had always thought my personal introduction into photography was a unique one. That is until, interestingly enough, shortly after you inquired if I would be interested in participating in your Photographer of the Month series, I glanced through the last few articles and interviews you had shared and came to find that Alex Noriega and I share the same story in that regard.
In late 2008 when I picked up my first camera I did not have any real hobbies. I didn’t hunt, fish, ski or really participate in any type of leisure activity other than listening to music when I wasn’t putting in long hours at work. Shortly after purchasing my first MP3 player I decided to sell my CD collection and picked up a Nikon Coolpix simply to photograph the covers of the discs to sell online.
My first day trying to learn how to use the camera I happened to be at Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast where I photographed my first sunset. Although I had, of course, witnessed many beautiful sunsets prior to this one in my life, viewing it through the camera and trying to record the event made it unique and more memorable. I felt more connected to the event. It was very exciting to me and I recognized that the artistic side of me that I used to be so in touch with as a child had been long neglected and almost forgotten.
As a Portland, Oregon resident at the time, I found myself the following day in the Columbia River Gorge standing in a waterfall and marveling at the look of a long exposure on the back of my camera. For the next five years, I spent almost every spare moment I had enjoying nature and allowing my creativity to be reborn through my photographs.
You describe yourself as a “luxury nature photographer”. What defines luxury nature photography and how did it become your specialty?
This is a great question and one that I am sure people wonder about but rarely ever ask.
When most people think of the term “luxury” they think of money, shopping, or a lavish lifestyle. Almost all of these things are directly opposite of what most of us think of, appreciate and believe in when it comes to landscape photography or spending time in nature. In fact, I’m sure some fellow photographers dislike the term entirely, not understanding why I choose it use it for my business.
The truth is that to me, it speaks of the experience I hope to provide others in relation to my art and the photographic work I produce. While not everyone can afford the art that I offer, those who do purchase my work are typically looking for a more “luxurious” product and experience to go along with it.
Selling your work and yourself (which most definitely go hand in hand) to “higher end” clientele requires, among many other things, your ability to deliver a product or service that makes them feel special and taken care of.
Without going into how I provide those services and convey those feelings, the goal of my business is to provide beautiful photographic art, using the absolute best printing methods and materials available.
Aside from the art itself, I look to create lifetime relationships with those who purchase my work because to me, my art is a part of me. I feel fortunate to share this part of myself with others and even more so that others appreciate it the way they do, bringing it into their homes, often times as the focal point where friends and family gather together, eating or spending time with each other.
Printing seems to be a large part of your business and TruLife Acrylic seems to be the material of choice. Is there a specific reason you prefer to produce TruLife Acrylic prints?
The Limited Edition large photographic prints that I offer make up approx. 70% of my current business and revenue streams with the remainder spread out across teaching workshops in the field, retail products and printing for the consumer market and image licensing.
Of the high-end art market share of my business, approx. 90% of the prints that I sell are greater than 45” with the majority being 60” and larger. This fact reduces the number of quality options that I have when printing this large.
While traditional loose photographic paper prints can be produced using a number of quality products up to 48 x 72″ (for image files with a 2:3 ratio) anything larger than that is typically not available larger than 48-50” on the short end. Prints that are 36” and larger become a custom job when it comes to framing and typically the cost of framing and finishing a traditional print this large is very expensive.
These challenges leave me with two available “all in one” solutions that allow me to offer high-quality printing with ready to hang finishing of my work:
The first, a dye sublimation process using a substrate called ChromaLuxe is what many photographers simply refer to as a metal print. ChromaLuxe sheeting is available in sizes up to 48×96.
The second option is a traditional face mounted acrylic piece. These acrylic face mounts are usually produced using one of the photographic papers referred to above and are typically limited in size by the print itself. Acrylic prints, starting with a traditional photographic paper print are a much higher visual quality and show greater resolution and detail than ChromaLuxe Metal prints. The detail, color, vibrancy and overall appearances are all more desirable with an acrylic print of any type when produced by a knowledgeable printer using a high-quality image file.
You’re specializing in large format, museum quality prints. Are there other requirements in the process of capturing and processing an image for this purpose than standard prints or images shown on web?
There are certainly considerations to be made when focusing on producing large prints vs simply showing images on the web or even producing what I would call standard 20” – 30” prints.
The first and most important is attention to detail when capturing and processing your images. Obviously, razor-sharp focus is something all of us want for our images but it is even more critical when producing pieces this large. At 60” you see every flaw. You see EVERYTHING. At 72” you see dead people. Okay, I took that a little too far.
The fact is there is no hiding poor technique in the field when viewing images at this size. Movement in a single branch of leaves barely noticeable when viewed on the web, can become a real eyesore in a large print.
Some of these visual flaws can be corrected in post, others simply cannot be. In other words, a TON of images doesn’t make the cut. I can’t even really share an image on my website if it isn’t available to print large because ultimately someone will ask for it and the last thing you want to do is turn away a customer because you cannot deliver on the product you are advertising.
If you want to know a sure-fire way to make sure all of your images look amazing, that removes all the risk of poor techniques showing through to your viewers, just stick to Instagram and you’ll be fine…!
Aside from the technical aspects during capture, there are quite a few processing techniques to consider when producing files for large prints. Even standard editing choices for black and white point and sharpening must be adjusted depending on the size of the piece being produced.
In some cases, just in terms of composition and the image itself, a print that looks great on the screen doesn’t have the same feeling or appearance when viewed that large. As a result of all these things, an exhaustive process is needed from capture to print to untimely ensure you are offering your very best imagery and that the digital representations that you offer online match the physical prints you will be producing. Test, print, repeat.
If selling prints is one of your end goals, my best advice would be to curate your collection with intent offering only your best images for sale and only ones that you are 100% confident in producing.
How important do you think it is for photographers to view their own work on print?
I personally find it incredibly sad that so many photographers today almost never print their own work. In fact, I am confident that right now, there is more than one photographer in your group of inspirational artists whose work you enjoy seeing regularly, who have NEVER VIEWED A PRINT OF THEIR OWN WORK.
A large percentage of photographers today view their work three times. The first time is on a 3” LCD on the back of their camera. The second time, in Camera RAW or Photoshop, often at 100% when editing and then finally in a reduced, compressed JPEG that they throw up on the web at 800px wide.
If this is YOU and you hear one thing I am saying to you in this interview it is this: find your absolute favorite image and get it printed at least at 36” wide. You will thank me when you do.
Aside from being there and enjoying the moment, NOTHING compares to seeing the final result of all your hard work in print. A print has a LIFE to it that no computer screen will ever show you.
I could go on for days about this but I have a screaming 4 year old in the room and she is telling me to cut this interview short so I will leave it at that. JUST DO IT.
You’ve developed a recognizable shooting and processing style with your subtle yet colorful images. How would you describe your style?
Hey I appreciate that man. I dig your description, I might just roll with that.
I stopped at Microsoft the other day to look at their Studio or whatever that machine is called and I can only hope that the one I viewed my website on was NOT how they typically ship out because if so, every Microsoft user in America must think a unicorn exploded on my desktop.
In all seriousness, though I would describe my style as bright, colorful and happy mixed with a gallon of I do whatever I feel like doing. I have always created imagery that appeals to me first without much thought put into whether or not you will like it, although I am certainly grateful when my customers agree with me.
I’m big on balance in my images, to the point that I probably don’t show some really beautiful imagery of mine simply because it feels the slightest bit off to me.
Recently, you took the leap into full-time photography. Why did you decide to take this leap and how did you decide that now was the right moment?
This is a pretty easy one to answer considering the agonizing decision it can be to take charge of your own destiny in this way and really give everything you have to your craft for better or for worse.
I decided to take this leap because I had reached a point where something had to give. I only had so much available time and with family, my photography business and work all fighting for a piece of the pie, my day job simply had to go.
Time with my wife and our two children is more important than anything I can do with my camera so after the birth of our daughter 4 years ago and then our son this year, photography had taken a backseat and there was nothing left to squeeze.
Although my business has been thriving for many years, I rarely had a chance to create new images and spent much of the free time I did have just trying to catch up on ordering prints or following up with customers on the phone.
As the sole breadwinner of a family of four, I did not make this decision lightly having both a plan for growth and a 48-month history of rock-solid revenue to measure and analyze before making the jump. With both a toddler and a 5-month-old in the house who only likes to sleep ON Mom or Dad, it doesn’t really feel like we have had a chance to appreciate this new-found freedom just yet but we have big dreams for the future and plan to take it for everything it is worth in the coming years.
Being able to be here at home with our children full time and the fact that they get to spend every day with their mother AND their father is something so special it is difficult to put into words.
What experiences have you made during your first months as a full-time photographer?
Honestly, for reasons described in the previous question, the experiences I have had so far have all been related to recognizing more each day how incredibly loving and dedicated my wife has been with our children while I have been working and just how CRAZY two young children can make you feel when you can’t escape them.
Seriously Dads… if you work and your wife stays home with the kids YOU OWE THEM. BIG TIME.
As far as photography is concerned, the small amount of time I have invested in these first two months has surrounded shifting gears a bit and further building up the foundation of my business, preparing for what lies ahead. Once the weather shifts into spring, we hope to add more to the experience bucket than we have had the opportunity to in some time.
I am very excited for the future and truly appreciate the position I’m in. I’m simply working to not take it for granted.
Following up on the previous question, what would you recommend to others who are considering taking the leap into full-time photography?
Other than the things that I outlined that I have done to reach this decision, I would suggest only making this leap if you truly believe in yourself and your ability to roll with the tides.
Have a rock-solid plan, a backup plan and an oh shit plan. You just might need to deploy all three at the same time someday.
Set yourself up for success both in your mind and in your work. Pay off any debts you have first. Look into what health care is going to cost you. If you aren’t a people person AND a natural born hustler like I am, you may want to consider taking some business classes as well.
More important than anything else, make sure you are doing it for the right reasons and that you have fully considered the possible changes you may experience when turning your passion into a career. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those who have been fortunate enough to make the change, it can be incredibly rewarding to blaze your own trail.
What’s one photography-related accessory you wouldn’t be without?
Having one to use can make or break a photograph in some cases and often enhances an image even when shooting things other than water. I never leave home without one.
Editors note: If you want to enjoy more of Aaron’s work make sure to visit his website, 500px, Facebook or Instagram