Photographer of the Month Interview: Ron Niebrugge | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, August 2016:   Ron Niebrugge

We are very pleased to share Ron Niebrugge as our featured guest photographer this month. We appreciate his time and generosity in sharing his thoughts, stories and beautiful photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: You moved from San Diego to Alaska at a fairly early age? How was that process of adapting to something completely different? How did that lead to photography?

Even though I was young, fortunately I had learned about photography before my family left California, so I owned a manual Minolta SLR and shot tons of slide film on the trip to Alaska, and then even more once here. I think seeing the magnificent scenery and wildlife just intensified my love for photography, and fostered a new love for Alaska. Some of my fondest memories as a child were camping trips to Denali where I could hike in and photograph caribou and dahl sheep.

:: Your photography is mostly landscape and wildlife, but also you do some cityscape and such. Were you always looking to shoot any subject, or did you just happen into it?

I happened into it. A trip to San Antonio in the late 90's before I became a full time photographer turned very lucrative as those stock images sold over and over. We realized that cityscapes could be the final piece of the income pie for turning full-time. That proved to be accurate. Fortunately I enjoy spending a bit of time photographing cities - since I live over a 100 miles from the nearest stop light, I find it an interesting change of pace.

:: I think one of the things that has always impressed me with your work is just how much there is and how there always seems to be new content, whether it is a lifestyle shoot, stock images, or fine art images. How does your work flow go in terms of keeping things organized, and constant? How do you find time?

Thanks for the kind words, and the insightful observation. I must admit, now that I lead a few tours, the workflow is beginning to change a bit. I must start be saying it really helps having my wife Janine also working full time with the business. She doesn't photograph, but helps with everything else including adjusting images, key-wording and updating the website. She also does all the pricing as I'm too likely to give things away.

So this was a typical workflow. A 6 to 8 week trips in our trailers usually traveling in the Western U.S., followed by a month or two in the office processing and getting everything online. Then often repeat. These trips were usually in the Fall, Winter or Spring, with shorter trips in Alaska throughout the year, but particularly in the Summer.

We made keeping current a priority, and if we started falling behind, we would delay travel until we were caught up. Not making this a priority is a mistake I see many stock photographers make. The images can't make you money sitting at home.

:: When it comes to stock photography I see very clearly how the lifestyle stuff really fits into that and has so many uses, but with fine art stuff…how do you differentiate that in the field? Are you consciously making the decision, 'This is going to be a fine art image?' Or do you let the market for an image kind of dictate what it becomes?

Once I have an image, I don't give it a label as many images can have life in more than one market. But, in the field, it is a bit of a tricky balance. Early on, I pretty much only shot what I classify as fine art images, but to make a comfortable living, I realized I needed to expand thanks to the advice of a stock agency many years ago.

So what I usually do, is save the best light for the "fine art image", then fill around it with the rest. So I might shoot a dramatic sunrise with fine art in mind, but before it fades too much, I might have Janine grab a backpack and walk into the scene, pull out binoculars, etc. So one great situation could provide a wide variety of imagery.

:: What's the scariest thing you've had happen while shooting?

Surprisingly, I don't think I have ever had anything too scary. I hope that means it isn't in my future! A hiker used a air horn to scare a bear that was on a trail ahead of him not knowing I was coming from the other direction. That sent the bear running straight at me at full speed, but fortunately a clap of the hands sent it off into the woods. Poor thing is probably still running.

Probably most of my scariest moments have all been in aircraft. Engine issues twice have made things interesting, and an unexpected fog bank last year outside of Seward, that went all the way down to the ocean made for some very uncomfortable moments. I have lost too many friends over the years in place crashes, and that is always in the back of my mind.

:: When I think of Alaska, I automatically think of your work probably over any other photographers from there. Do you think this is attributed to your great folio of work, or also to the way you market yourself? Can you talk a bit about the pros and cons to be so closely associated with one state? What challenges does that present?

Well, that is a really nice thing to say given all the talented photographers there are in Alaska - thanks!

Probably, as much as anything, it has to do with longevity. It also means I'm getting older! But, I have seen many photographers come and go over the years.

It is awesome to be associated with such a beautiful state, and one that I call home. However, it does present challenges. It makes it more difficult to travel to, and photograph the lower 48 where more than half my stock income originates. Assignment work is even harder, I'm rarely considered for non Alaska assignments. I know of a number of Alaska photographers who have moved South for this reason, and have benefited from living near a larger population.

:: With the advent of so much new technology, and gear becoming a major topic of conversation (it seems) all the time on social media, where do you stand on that platform of how much or how little you exalt the latest greatest gear, and how far up the scale do you place importance on the gear you have?

You know, I am not much of a gear junky. Most photographers know far more about gear than I do. I get questions all the time about cameras, etc., like, "camera A can do this, but camera B can do that, which should I get?" I'm thinking, geez, I didn't even know A did that, wow. In other words, many people asking questions know more about gear than I do!

But I can't say gear isn't important - if it wasn't important, I would not have spent 10 grand on a 500 f/4. Usually every couple of years as my bodies are getting obsolete, I will start dropping by forums and doing a bunch of research as I replace my current bodies. But then once I make a decision, I largely tune out gear chatter. So if you have gear questions, catch me during replacement. [grins]

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic gear?

Probably my tent and sleeping bag. I would say many of my best experiences, and photo opportunities, have come about because I was out using those two items.

iPhone would also make the conversation. So much information from weather, tides, aurora conditions, compass, bird apps - the list of information at my fingertips these days is impressive.

:: What do you think is the worst piece of advice a photographer could give someone looking to get into outdoor photography for a career? What is the most realistic advice?

A lot of photographers discourage anyone considering making photography as a career saying it is too hard, maybe impossible and find something else. I would have had a good 10 year head start had I not been given this advice.

I tell people, it will be hard, very hard, but new people are still coming along, and I think always will - so if someone new can find a way, why can't that be you?

:: What's your stance on processing? How much is too much? Where does creative license end? As someone who does a lot of assignment and stock photography, where is the line when it comes to selling work in those ways?

The early years of my career I shot slide film. So as I learned Photoshop, I wanted to be able to make my scans look like the slide. That way if a publisher requested an image off my website, they wouldn't be receiving a slide that had been enhanced and cropped and looked nothing like the scan on my website.

So I still have that mentality, and try to keep my adjustments to how I remember the scene - even today, I still feel funny cropping an image although I will. This is especially true for stock images that I anticipate being used in magazines. I won't add anything to the image. If I'm doing an assignment where the images will be used for advertising, I am more likely to push the adjustments a bit and remove distracting elements, crop etc.

:: What do you think the hardest part of being a professional photographer is, that maybe the general public doesn't see?

The unpredictable nature of the income can be a challenge. We have had some very big months, and good years - but even during our best month, I find myself worrying about next month as it might be much smaller. We can have big swings in income. Guiding has allowed me to add some predictability to the cash flow.

The amount of office time is another thing most people don't see or recognize. There is a lot of time required away from the field, more than most people realized.

:: With you being so busy, what's on the bucket list of places you'd like to go, and secondly, being so busy working, how do you schedule in new things or try to make time for yourself?

As a wildlife guy, Africa is very high on that list. But, I'm also very attracted to relatively unknown, off the beaten path locations. At the top of that list right now is Vanuatu. It sounds amazing - active volcanoes, tropical beaches...

It is hard to find time to schedule new places. I'm reluctant to even write this, and I want to be clear I'm not complaining - but, I'm very blessed to be traveling to Antarctica from Alaska for the third time in 12 months this October. But, a schedule like this with annual trips to Antarctica has come at the cost of seeing new places, and I'm kind of excited to know that the company I work for in Antarctica isn't doing a trip during 2017, which opens the door for new travel.

:: A lot of photographers with social media tend to give their stuff away for cheap, or free…sometimes not knowing anything about the photography business…and thinking a mention or link suffices as payment. This obviously has taken a huge toll on the stock world. How have you personally tried to adapt to the way social media and photo sharing websites have changed the game?

That is a better question for Janine. But, we never gave images away for credit, etc., as we need to eat and there really isn't any value to a credit. However, I understand why people do, and can't blame them, it is fun seeing your image published, and for many people, they have good jobs and the money isn't that relevant. You could probably even change some people to use their image. Stock photography provided such a nice income, and more importantly lifestyle for us for so long, that I'm a bit sad to see it go. That said, there are lots of new opportunities out there that have me excited. For me, there are more opportunities going forward than I have time, and that has me excited.

:: Is there a way you approach a scene or shoot that might be different from a photographer who is solely focused on fine art images?

Yes for sure. I started concentrating on fine art, and I'm considering transitioning a bit back that direction. Fine art is a much slower, deliberate and immersive process where I was happy with one good image.

For me, when conditions were right, it was horizontal, vertical, vertical with extra sky, now a person, bike etc., and again horizontal and vertical - "hurry before we lose this light!" Fast paced and fun, but sometimes I would look back on my images and think too bad I missed seeing that amazing moment.

:: What scares you most about the future of photography? What excites you most?

The drastic changes are exciting and scary. Keeping up or ahead of the changes and being able to maintain my lifestyle - I'm ruined, couldn't work a real job. That can be scary and exciting.

Ron Niebrugge

"I started concentrating on fine art, and I'm considering transitioning a bit back that direction. Fine art is a much slower, deliberate and immersive process where I was happy with one good image...."

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