Hello Colby! It’s a great honor to have you for this interview. Would you like to start by making a brief presentation of yourself?
My name is Colby Brown, I’m a Landscape, Travel and Humanitarian photographer, based at the East Coast of the US. I’ve been doing this professionally for 12 years and I work for some of the biggest names in our industry, including working for National Geographic as a Photography Instructor and Trip Planner. I’m also the founder of “The Giving Lens”, the humanitarian photography initiative that blends the idea of photo education with support for sustainable development initiatives in developing countries around the world. And I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit more about that later on.
Which came first, the passion for travel and adventure, or photography?
For me, it really came down to Travel. Travel is actually the reason I got into Photography to begin with. I don’t have some nostalgic story where my father handed me a camera when I was 6 years old and it was something I’ve always wanted to do. Instead I kind of fell into Photography. When I was going to College and University, every once in a while I took a semester or year off to go travel, because I get often bored, and during that time I really got the “travel bug” and I really loved the idea of witnessing or experiencing contrasting ways of life and I really enjoyed being out of my element. So traveling to countries where I don’t speak the language, finding myself in situations that presented some sense of a challenge, a contrast to what I was used to. And, when I graduated from University and I realised that a 8 to 5 job wasn’t for me, I kind of just wanted to get back on the road. And so, when I started my first photography company – between 2005~2006 – it was purely for that reason, the idea that I felt a camera might be the vehicle that would allow me to continue to travel. I was single, a nomadic at the time, so I felt that I could keep traveling to wherever I wanted to go and Photography would allow me to make a little extra money on the side, then that was what I wanted to do.
Your travels have allowed you to take a broader view and realize the immense asymmetries that exist throughout the world. Was this the trigger that led you to founding “The Giving Lens” NGO?
Yes, in some respect I thinks that’s quite accurate. Once I began really traveling the work, I began to realise the contrast, the disparity, the difference between the western world and the developing world. And I also didn’t really like the idea that travelers, tourists on even travel photographers, they are generally there to get images or experiences, and I think there is some sense of dehumanizing nature to that when it comes to actually engaging with the local communities, because we are there for a purpose and that purpose generally isn’t connecting with other human beings. We are there to take pictures, or for the tourists there just to have a good time and that never really sat right with me. So The Giving Lens was an organisation that allowed me to find a way to tangibly break down some of those barriers and really offer photographers a unique experience to really truly engage with local communities and at the same time to help fight for local causes, whether they are education projects, women’s rights, species preservation and drinking water projects. All those causes need help and support and I felt that if we can not only break down some of those barriers in terms of the superficial nature of travel and sometimes travel photography, than we can also do so by helping to fight for a specific cause that’s in need and help support local NGOs that really need that extra support, than I feel that I was on to something good. The Giving Lens is going on for six years now. We run anywhere to 6 to 12 workshops a year in countries all over the world and there is a lot of great stuff out there. Each trip is quite unique. They also act as fundraisers so a lot of the money from the trips go back to the same local communities and individuals that we worked with on the ground throughout these experiences and these workshops. So it’s really something quite special.
Throughout this intense and busy journey, when did you make the switch to the Sony camera system and why?
Just before Sony announced their first line of full-frame mirrorless cameras, I remember distinctly that I was in the Himalayas working on some projects with the Sherpa communities and I was about like day 10 into a hike in the Khumbu region, which is the Everest region of Nepal, and I had a porter that carried an extra bag that had clothes and some extra gear, but I was still carrying all my camera gear. And I remember on that trip, just realising that I was done carrying like 45 pounds of gear everywhere I went. I shot Canon at the time, I had a 1DX and a 5D mark III, with that all top end L-glass, the batteries, the chargers, everything and it was way too heavy. And so when Sony came out with the A7 and A7R I was impressed and I was looking for more portability. So, to answer your question, initially it was the portability that brought me over. But over time, as the second generation of Sony mirrorless cameras came out, such as the A7RII and recently the A9, I believe the technology it’s what’s keeping me here. So the portability was great initially bringing me over, but the advances in technology and what Sony has been doing to really push the line in terms of what we think it’s possible for cameras is why, I not only stay here, and stay within the Sony mirrorless family, but also why I’m actually genuinely excited about the future of photography. Because I find that Sony, compared to most of the other manufacturers these days, is providing answers to questions we don’t even know to ask. And I think that’s important when it comes to innovation. A lot of us thought that a full-frame camera in a small body was impossible, for example. Most of us didn’t realise what could happen with certain types of autofocus systems you have in the A9. And I feel that Sony is really pushing those boundaries and I think that really pushes all the other camera manufacturers to improve things as well.
Being a Sony Artisan of Imagery, you certainly have access to a wide range of camera bodies and lens for testing purposes. But personally, for your work, what choices did you make and what can we typically find inside your travel bag?
The difference between me and a lot of other photographers, not just Sony Artisans, is that I photograph a wide variety of things. I don’t specialize in just landscape photography, or long-exposure or wildlife photography. If it’s taken outside of a studio, I pretty much do it all. That’s why I define myself as a landscape, travel and humanitarian photographer, as I feel that comprises quite a lot of genres of photography. So because of that, I need to have a wide variety of gear to cover all those needs. So, these days, I shoot with an A7RII and an A9 and both of those are generally in my camera bag all the time, which covers pretty much anything I can think I would need to photograph. And in terms of lenses, I generally these days stick to the GM line for the most part, so typically in my gear bag you’ll find the 16-35 f2.8 GM, the 24-70 f2.8 GM and the 70-200 f2.8 GM. And, in addition, depending on the projects I’m working on, that’s when I include other lenses, such as the ultra wideangle 12-24 f4 FE lens or maybe the 100-400 f4.5~5.6, which I just took on a 6 week trip to Africa working on a wide variety of wild-life conservation efforts and that lens was key for those type of things. So the main core are the trinity, if you want to call that, 16-35, 24-70 and 70-200, and then the additional lens that I bring in any given project are depending on the unique nature of that project itself.
What is your most used lens?
I probably say the 16-35mm in general. Now the GM version just came out but I use the f4 FE lens version quite extensively and if I look at my Lightroom catalogues in order to categorize how many images I’ve taken with certain kinds of lenses, the 16-35 is probably my bread and butter. And that’s probably because the vast majority of what I’m known for is landscape work, even though I shoot a wide variety of other things. So a lot of the projects that I work on year to year are essentially these kind of big grand beautiful landscapes and these amazing places around the world. But when I’m in those locations I also do a bit of travel portrait work and general travel photography, architecture and wildlife photography, but those don’t generally make up the main aspect of what I shoot so, most of the time it’s landscape work and, because of that, I think the 16-35 is pretty much what I use the most.
The A7RII was launched precisely two years ago, which for today’s standards is a lot of time. However, is still a reference in several respects. What, in your opinion, deserved an upgrade in the next iteration?
For me, it comes down to addressing an increase in productivity and quality, in this case dynamic range and ISO performance and I would certainly like to see a little bit better autofocus system. If some of the technology of the A9 can trickle into the next generation of the R series, of the Resolution focused cameras, I think I would be incredibly happy with those results.
However, as I said before, I think what really excites me about being, not only connected to Sony and being a Sony user, but in this industry in general is that Sony is answering questions that I’m not asking so, they are providing solutions for problems that I didn’t know existed or I didn’t know there were solutions. So, part of my answer to this question is that I hope they surprise me with something I didn’t know that I wanted, because to me that’s the key when it comes to innovation.
Making an outstanding photograph is much more than owning a good setup of equipment and being skilled at processing the files. We actually have to get out and shoot, visit new countries, go to interesting places. And for what we have seen in your portfolio, some of them aren’t that easy to reach! Have you ever felt in one of those assignments that you were reaching your limits of physical resistance?
Absolutely! I think when it comes to pushing those boundaries in terms of getting to more remote locations and getting content that is more unique for the type of work that I shoot, I think I’m constantly trying to figure out where that line in the sand exists. So, for me sometimes that’s complete physical exhaustion in terms of being in places like the Himalayas or Patagonia where you’re hiking for miles and miles in order to get to the location and the right conditions. Sometimes it’s placing yourself in situations that aren’t comfortable and you feel out of place, like doing work in some of the remote tribes of Africa, sometimes that happens when I find myself giving away all of the comforts that I might be used to, in order to have such a unique experience. I never necessarily feel in danger but, at the same time, I’m constantly trying to push those boundaries of what I’m willing to do, within reason, in order to get some of these unique kind of images out there. That being said, I think it’s important for everyone reading to know one of my favourite quotes of all time, and it’s by Marcel Proust: “The true sense of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. And so for those of you out there that can’t travel the world, that can’t go to all these remote unique and amazing locations, I think a change in perspective, a change in how you see the world and see your local communities, can drastically affect how you approach photography. I’m constantly blown away by the amazing things that I can capture just on my own backyard, neighbourhood or my own region of the country here on the eastern part of the US, and a lot of that comes down to how I look at the world and how I choose to photograph things.
Social networks are a fantastic tool to expose your work, enjoy the work of others and meet new people with whom we can share ideas and opinions. On the other hand, whenever someone creates something new and interesting, quickly we see appearing hundreds or thousands of very similar (not to say equal) photos. Do you believe that this drawback can actually be positive, because it becomes a challenge to be innovative and forces the photographic industry to evolve?
That’s a very fair question. I feel that the increase in popularity of Photography and the increase of accessibility to photographic technology and equipment and post-processing tools is a positive thing for our culture. I think, the more people can creatively express themselves and capture and document the world around them as they see it, I think the better we are as human beings. And so, that’s one side of things. I think on the other side, certainly there is a sense of competition in terms of constantly trying to create the most dramatic and amazing images, especially in the Landscape Photography genre. But at the end of the day, I honestly feel that it’s less about competition between one another, because I feel that once you get to a certain point in terms of creating quality work, the difference between that quality image that you create and the person that is just above or below you is so subjective and small that the rest of it actually comes down to the business side of things, how you brand yourself and how you get your images in front of people. To me those are the deciding factors that really elevates the ones that are making it and someone that is just creating great content and great images. So, I think social media certainly has created a more competitive situation for a lot of photographers, but to be honest I feel that the most successful individuals aren’t necessarily focusing in what other people are creating, instead they’re focusing on improving their own portfolio, their own creative vision and certainly their own brand, rather than worrying too much about what other people are creating.
Despite the very hard work, traveling and photography are the fulfillment of many people’s dreams. Do you imagine yourself doing something different in the future?
This is actually the first time this has been asked and I really appreciate this question. Again, because my origins, what got me into Photography, is a bit different than a lot of other professionals out there. I don’t have this nostalgic attachment to Photography. To me Photography is still the conduit that allows me to travel and experience the world and it certainly has developed into a creative outlet in order for me to express myself and express my vision for how I see and experience the world. But in the end of the day, I do this for a couple of different reasons. I do this because I’m pretty good at it, I’m good enough in order to make a living doing it, which provides for my family, but also in the end of the day I truly love it, both the creative and the business side of things. And I think if I get to a point where I don’t really enjoy it anymore, if I don’t find it fun, then I certainly will look into doing something else. I don’t know what that is at this stage, but I think that to me life is too short to do things that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t love. And the moment that this stops being fun, the moment that I stop enjoying doing this for a living, is the moment that I begin looking for a new career.