Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Top Photographers Interview: Bryan Peterson


Bryan F. Peterson has been shooting great pictures since he put his pencil and paper down in 1979 and discovered the magic of capturing images on film. It’s probably this background in drawing that allows him to see the world differently from the way you or I do. However, the great thing about Bryan is that he’s a great guy who loves to share his knowledge and passion for Photography in ways that the average person can understand in his fantastic books, videos and classes.

In this article you’ll get to understand why I love Bryan’s works and books and why you should learn more about him too as he has done as much for the Photography industry Scott Kelby has for the Photoshop industry. In fact, in a recent email with Joe McNally, Joe said “[Bryan Peterson] has been a real positive force in the industry”. That’s pretty high praise from one of the most talented Photographers on the planet!

About Bryan

Bryan's Favorite Picture

Take a quick peek at Bryan’s website (powered by liveBooks) and you’ll quickly notice that his shots are quite different from many of the other “great” photographers of today. He’s not afraid to have a little blur in his images (as shown in his personal favorite shot above), or to make a great shot out of something very ordinary (I love his oil puddle pattern on page 69 of Learning to See Creatively). In short, he can see something great to photograph in just about any situation by skipping the obvious (we are all shooting that) and finding something unique and special. For example, take the image below:

You or I would be taking pictures of the runners trying to get the great action in the race, but we’d have the same picture as those around us. Bryan on the other hand is looking down at the ground and telling a different story that is colorful, interesting and unique. This is EXACTLY why I love Bryan’s work and his books – he challenges me to see beyond the ordinary to make something extraordinary (which I admit is my biggest weakness).

Recently it seems he has decided to write about a little bit of this his new personal blog, and there’s tons of creativity happening at the Picture Perfect School of Photography (PPSOP) and blog which Bryan founded. In fact, I recently wrote an article called How do I learn how to use my DSLR? which is basically a brief blurb telling you to go watch Bryan’s videos (which he promises me more are on the way).

Below is another one of Bryan’s favorite shots from one of the most photogenic places in the world – Santorini, Greece:

Bryan's Favorite Travel Shot 

In this day of sharpness wars, if many of us would capture a shot like this we’d say “ah crap, the cat was blurry – should have bumped up my shutter speed” and just delete the shot. However, what you have here is a very colorful and interesting shot that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Santorini. In fact, just search Flickr and you’ll see tons of pictures of the Santorini caldera, but Bryan has captured a shot that I think anyone who knows of Santorini would probably guess that this shot was taken there. However, this shot doesn’t have all of the typical tourist shot images. It’s success by simply looking elsewhere from where the masses focus. This is why there’s much to learn from Bryan, which brings me to my next topic – his books.

Bryan's Books

Thankfully Bryan has decided to share his creativity with the rest of us in the form of some fantastic books. In fact, if you’ve read my Which Books Should I Read? article you’ll notice that his books have always been on the list and they are the first ones I recommend once you’ve tackled that list.

Here's a list of some of Bryan Peterson's books, most of which have been reviewed on this blog:

The Interview

My Favorite Bryan Peterson Shot

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Bryan and his sweet daughter Sophie (featured in many of his books) as well as his niece for a nice lunch near my home. Afterwards we had a chance to discuss his thoughts on the industry today. I hope you will enjoy what follows as much as I did.

Bryan on the Lessons Learned & the Industry

When I asked Bryan about the lessons he has learned in his quest to create such amazing compositions, he quickly replied, “People don’t see motion opportunities in Photography today.” He really seemed to think that this is the new frontier in photography that remains largely untapped by people’s obsession for the sharp image. His two favorite images (the red car and cat images in the “About Bryan” section) capture the beauty of motion, and he talks about it at length in his great book Understanding Shutter Speed.

When we talked about places to photograph around the world, I thought it was fascinating when he said that “all photographers who are interested in succeeding in this business should live in New York for at least a year.” He was quick to explain how New York is really the hub of the industry. “It’s and more open than other markets like Tokyo where Westerners struggle to get into the system and Paris is really just about fashion. As the old saying goes – if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.

This discussion prompted me to inquire about his thoughts on making it in this industry, which seems to have become oversaturated these days. However, Bryan quickly replied that “…in many ways it is no different than it always has been – there’s always been more than enough great photographers for any given job, but what allowed one photographer to succeed over another is about how well they marketed their product – themselves.” He emphasized the personal touch when dealing with clients and how you should work to establish a relationship that goes beyond just landing the one job – create a connection that will make them think of you first when they are looking for a photographer for that next project. I thought this was great advice and very refreshing as many people, especially in these tough times, have pretty much said to me forget about making it because the market is too crowded and too many amateurs with a lucky shot are giving their work away for that 5 minutes of fame.

Since most pro photographers struggle to do a shot for “them” and instead are frequently doing work for their clients that might not be what they’d shoot if given the choice, I asked Bryan if he had any special projects he’s working on behind the scenes. He lit up and said that he’s working on a series of about 46 shots – all staged – both with and without people that are similar to the image below:

They will show ad agencies his creativity, but also allow him to do the type of shots he’d like to do for some of his more open minded clients. He hopes to launch this project in the not too distant future in a special web gallery, so stay tuned to his blog for more details.

Getting Started

When I think about getting started in this business it seems overwhelming because its tough to know where to begin. Bryan quickly pointed out that “e-mail is a mistake” because you are better off finding out who the key players are, and sending them a card or trying to make a personal visit. This of course, made me ask – how do you do that? His recommendation was Adbase, and not my usual recommendation of The Photographers Market (which he feels is oversaturated). I hadn’t heard of this source before, so I’m planning to look into this and learn more. If readers of this blog have experience with Adbase, I’d love to hear about it.


He also suggested that all new photographers should consider doing editorial work first as a way to gain experience. With that experience you can try to sit down with the designers or art directors and just get to know each other. When working with them directly and face to face you can establish a rapport with them that can last beyond that one job. This has been the key to Bryan’s success with long-term clients like UPS and American Express.

Since this series is about Top Photographers, I asked Bryan about who his favorites were and he quickly mentioned the names Jay Maisel and Freeman Patterson and when you look at Bryan’s work you can definitely see some parallels in style. Another name he mentioned is  Eric Meola, who coincidentally was mentioned on Joe McNally’s blog today as one of his favorite photographers too. Eric has some great work, and two industry greats admiring his work so I’d say there’s a good place to start looking if you are looking for ideas on how to improve. Despite these names, like all great Photographers Bryan tries to avoid spending too much time looking at others work so as not to be unintentionally influenced by it, so it’s no wonder why it’s fairly easy for me to look at one of his shots and think “yeah, that “feels” like a Bryan Peterson shot” without knowing if he was actually the photographer. I wonder if his favorites recommend him!

Finally, I asked Bryan if he had any favorite books and he was quick to mention Joe McNally’s books (Hot Shoe Diaries & The Moment it Clicks).

Gear Stuff

Another one of my BP Favs

As I do with all my interviews, I had a moment to talk to Bryan about the gear he uses. Like several of the greats I’ve talked to, its always more about how you use it than what you have but I still have yet to find any pros shooting with Rebel XTi’s or D60’s so its fun to take a peek into their bags. Bryan’s kit consists of the following:

An interesting thing Bryan told me is that he doesn’t own a high end color printer, but rather uses AdoramaPix instead.

A Final Word

Is this a cool shot or what?

Whether its the shot above of the cargo ship taken with a fisheye or the pigeons with the flying colored umbrella at the beginning of the interview section, I am frequently in awe of some of the great shots Bryan gets. Sure, there’s lots of great photographers who take killer shots, but these are unique compositions that you just don’t see very often. This to me is what makes Bryan one of the top photographers in the world today. I thank him for all of the time and energy he has spent helping others improve their photography via his great books. As an engineer, I can figure out the technical elements of a camera and take technically excellent photos, but my compositions generally suck. Bryan’s books inspire me and help me to see the world differently as I learn to see creatively, and I know that if I have an ounce of talent in my body that his work will help to bring that out.

Thank you Mr. Peterson for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with me and my readers! I look forward to checking out your latest books and posting reviews here in the future!

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