Colby Brown wants you to put your camera down. Now.
It’s kind of crazy advice coming from such a prolific photographer but if you’ve seen Brown’s work, portals of light that blow open the margins of the page and pull you into a world dizzy with space and color, you’re game.
“Sometimes to become a better photographer the best thing you can do is just put the camera away,” says Brown, a renowned travel and landscape photographer with a vast social media following. “Look around. Pay attention. Remember why you’re there.”
The reason Brown is there, be it on a wind-etched dune in Death Valley, wading through frozen surf in Iceland, or blending into the background of an orphanage in Tanzania, is his thirst for travel. At least that how it all got started. But ever since a flight to Bangkok in 2006, when he accidentally landed his first paying job as the photographer for a stranger’s Buddhist wedding, Brown’s views on the politics of travel and tourism and the camera have evolved.
“Travel photography can so easily be dehumanizing in that you see people more as photos than as individuals,” Brown said. “It took me a while to figure out but now, I’ll put the camera away and go have a conversation with the person, just hang out, and if it’s appropriate, if it’s OK, maybe I’ll take a picture, and maybe not.”
In The Beginning
Brown was 17 when, during a trip to South America with a humanitarian organization to build houses, his eyes were opened to the wider world. After graduating from college it took just three months of working full-time in a hospital in Texas for him to realize that wasn’t the life he wanted.
A dual US/Canadian citizen, Brown soon sold his possessions and moved to Vancouver, where he had an “aha” moment. To fund a life on the road, Brown decided, all he had to do was become a professional travel photographer.
“Pretty naïve, right?” Brown says, and laughs.
After springing for his very first digital SLR – a bulky 4.1 megapixel Kodak 6590, Brown spent the next year shooting thousands of what he calls “really bad, just awful” photos around British Columbia. Then, with a one-way ticket to Bangkok, Brown jumped directly into the deep end.
On the flight over, Brown had the first of the many make-your-own-luck moments that dot his bio. His seat-mate, a rock climber from Wyoming, was headed to a tiny village for her wedding to a Thai local. By the time the plane landed, Brown, who had yet to shoot a single frame as a professional, had landed the gig of wedding photographer for the traditional Buddhist ceremony.
The shoot went well and, buoyed by his success, Brown spent the rest of that year traveling and photographing throughout Southeast Asia. He found himself deeply moved by the beauty of the countries he visited and, increasingly, by the tremendous poverty he saw.
“The way people live outside the borders of the US, and the blinders that Western culture has on in regard to their needs – as that became clearer and clearer to me, I began to think about where my money went as a traveler,” Brown said.
What started as a quest for spectacular landscapes soon evolved into a larger, more nuanced way of seeing the world. To give like-minded photographers a way to shoot in remote and needy regions without exploiting their subjects, Brown founded The Giving Lens in 2012. Photographers pay to attend workshops in places like Jordan, Thailand and Peru, then split their time between shooting, and working with local non-profit organizations.
“We donate about 50 percent of the cost of the workshops to the (non-profits) we work with,” Brown said. “We also donate out time, working with families living with HIV, or working in youth education, building houses, whatever is needed and will have a lasting impact.”
Though the humanitarian projects send Brown in different photographic directions, it’s landscape photography that remains his primary love.
“My favorite place to be is in the mountains, and of those my favorite place is Nepal,” Brown said. “Some of the places I shoot, it takes 10 to 15 days to hike in.”
Unlike photogs who fill scores of memory cards – gatherers, Brown calls them – Brown follows a hunter’s more selective approach.
“As I’m walking up to a scene, in my head I’m already working out how I’m going to edit the photo, which informs how I’m going to shoot the photo,” Brown said. “It’s not that I’m thinking about every single aspect of it the whole time, but thinking that way has become second nature over the years.”
Some of Brown’s most stunning shots are highly stylized, the colors amped up, the textures enhanced, the horizons as vivid as the landscapes they’re framing. It’s work that gets its start in the camera, then comes roaring to life in the edit.
“It used to be you’d have to make sacrifices in your editing because you were trying to do this delicate work with a clunky mouse,” Brown said. “Digital tablets changed all that, which is why the Wacom Cintiq is my main editing machine.”
Brown uses the Cintiq 24HD touch tablet not only for editing, but as his main computer interface.
“I consider myself a tech geek,” said Brown, whose enthusiasm for great equipment has him shooting with Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras. When you’re talking about editing on the road, the Wacom Cintiq Companion soars to the top of Brown’s must-have list.
“It’s my go-to travel machine,” he said. “I can load any application on it that I want, like Lightroom and Photoshop, and I don’t have to carry anything else.”
Last fall, after a visit to Abu Dhabi, Brown was in a cab to the airport when he got an urgent email from a client asking for edited photos from the trip. Instead of losing out on the opportunity, Brown worked on some shots on the Cintiq and emailed them to his client, all before his flight’s boarding call.
“I can work faster, I can work at the pixel level, and with the Cintiq at home or the Companion on the go, I never feel like I’m shortchanging myself as a photographer, or the client, who’s getting the best work I can give,” Brown said.
With his technical needs taken care of, Brown is free to live the primary lesson his years of traveling have taught him.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out shooting, fixated on this one particular thing and I’d turn around and behind me – I’ve almost missed it – is one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.”
That’s right – sometimes you have to put the camera down.