Interview with Corey Rich, Outdoor Adventure Photographer

Corey Rich is one of the world’s most recognized adventure and outdoor lifestyle visual storytellers. He has captured stunning still photos and video on a wide array of assignments, including rock climbing in India, ultra-marathon racing in the Sahara Desert of Morocco, freight train hopping in the American West, and snowboarding in Papua New Guinea. His editorial work includes assignments for National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times Magazine. Commercial clients include Anheuser-Busch, Apple, Nike and The North Face. Today, much of his time goes into capturing both still images and video for the creation of multimedia projects for commercial and editorial clients.

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As Vice President and co-owner of Aurora Photos, Rich was the driving force behind founding Aurora’s Outdoor Collection, which is the world’s leading brand of outdoor adventure and outdoor lifestyle photography. He is focused on overseeing Aurora’s continued growth in sales and business development. Most recently, Rich played a major roll in the creation of two new divisions: New York City based Aurora Select, focused on photo and video assignments and Portland, Maine-based Aurora Novus, an innovative multimedia production company. Additionally, Rich is a Nikon evangelist and a member of the SanDisk Extreme Team. He is also on the Board of Directors for The Access Fund, member of the Visual Journalism Advisory Board at Brooks Institute, co-founder and lead instructor of the National Geographic Adventure Photography Workshop, member of the Rowell Legacy Committee and on The Rowell Award for the Art of Adventure judging panel. His first book, My Favorite Place: Great Athletes In The Great Outdoors, was published by Chronicle Books.

I had the pleasure of meeting with Corey in person at PhotoPlus Expo 2010 in NYC, where we found a relatively quiet corner to conduct the interview. I also was able to briefly catch one of his engaging presentations on his work and methods at the Nikon booth. Thanks Corey!

Corey Rich’s Outdoor Adventure Photography Contest: We hosted an outdoor adventure photography contest judged by Corey Rich and Peter Dennen (creative director of Aurora Photos). It ran from December 22, 2010, through January 10, 2011. The winner received their choice of any Lowepro bag or pack (value $99-$500+USD).

View the winning entry and honorable mentions: Corey Rich’s Outdoor Adventure Photography Contest.

Photography Background

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How did you get into this vein of photography?

I’ve been shooting pictures for 21 years now, I started young—13 years old when I picked up a camera for the first time. I went on a rock climbing trip and wanted to document the weekend trip. I fell in love with the outdoors and photography simultaneously and it turns out they’re these perfect parallel passions.

It occurred to me just recently that I’m more excited today or at least equally as excited about photography and video today as I was 21 years ago when I first picked up a camera. I think it’s largely because of video. There is this evolution in my craft. It used to be I just shot still photography, I told stories with still imagery. Today, I tell stories with motion. I have the opportunity to utilize still photography, motion, and audio. It’s from that same device that I fell in love with 21 years ago, which is kind of amazing to think of it in that way.

I meet a lot of people who are the best at what they do, whether they’re athletes, musicians, politicians, writers, and it’s very rare that you meet someone who says they’re as excited about what they do 20 years later as they were in the beginning. I can say this is partially due to the advance of technology. I feel like I’m evolving as a visual story teller today in a way I could have never imagined possible. The technology became a great leveler in that we’re all on the same playing field—there are no more limitations in terms of video production (i.e. large crew, lots of dollars). Now, mainly you need a DSLR, a camera that allows you to switch from still photography to video and back whenever you feel like it. We are living in such a special time. We’re still using light, composition, moments, but now there’s this completely new paradigm and opportunity for people who have loved making images and telling stories. I feel so lucky to be a part of this time in still photography/video, or whatever we are going to call this new world.

I joke that I need to get a new business card, and I’m not sure yet what it should say. It shouldn’t just say Photographer or Videographer. Perhaps Visual Storyteller or Creative Media Maker? I’ve watched my career really shift in the last two years from shooting almost exclusively still photography, to a mix of more than 50% video/multimedia and 50% still photography. My old teachers used to tell me, “Move film through your camera.” Now the proper saying is, “You need to fill those flash cards—fill a flash card a day”

If you’re a runner, you need to get out there and put some miles on. By filling a flash card a day, that’s how you create that muscle memory to shoot and see in a way that’s repeatable. You can actually show up at a scene and instantly go into a mode of I know what I’m doing, it’s second nature, you’re not worried about how to technically manipulate the piece of equipment you’re using, it’s muscle memory.

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As you started with a lot of sports, how did you see yourself progress?

In some ways I followed a conventional path. I started photography by looking into the world of photojournalism. I love the outdoors but then I went down this track towards becoming a photojournalist. In high school, I worked for a local daily newspaper, 60,000 daily circulation. I shot everything from the pet of the week to the real estate section, to the mayor, parades. For college, I went to photojournalism school at San Jose State University—Jim McNay was running the department. It was a pretty fine program and he really took me under his wing. I entered in all the upper division courses as a freshman, which in retrospect is probably why I don’t have a college degree today.

He let me dive into the deep end first, but I was just farther along in my career and I did a newspaper internship at The Modesto Bee where I was exposed to that next level of what finer photojournalism is like, what it takes to be a photojournalist, to go out and work on a rigorous schedule where you’re doing 4-5 assignments a day and you have to deliver, there are no excuses, you need to be creative, you need to tell the story. I realized after almost 2 years of working at the Modesto, with a great staff of editors and photographers, that it was not my calling. I didn’t pick up a camera originally to be a newspaper journalist. I picked up a camera because I wanted to document these outdoor adventures. I eventually sat down and had a talk with Al Golub who was the Director of Photography at the Bee and a dear friend. What he told me was, “You need to go out and you need to follow your dreams. You need to shoot what you want to shoot.”

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We concocted this plan: I would save my $3000 from the summer internship, my second internship at The Modesto Bee, and convince my parents to let me take 6 months off from school, drive around the western US and photograph rock climbing. Even though I loved rock climbing, I hadn’t photographed it. My time had been going into doing daily journalism. The test at the end of six months on the road was to edit my pictures down to the 40 best images and send to Patagonia, and the other 40 best were going to go to Climbing Magazine (the magazine I grew up reading). The response was incredible. It turned out that two days after I shipped these slides out, I got phone calls from both, and pictures were published. That was the beginning of the future and the beginning of the end of college.

How far along were you in your program?

I was a sophomore at the time I made that decision. In the end, I’m 3 classes shy of a degree in journalism. It’s because simultaneously my career was taking off. I was traveling around the world for some of the best brands on the planet at age 21. I started doing a lot of assignment work. I wasn’t an entrepreneur with a business plan, I was a guy who loved making pictures, never worrying about how the cash was going to flow. My goal was to make good pictures and the cash would follow. It turns out that’s really true. I disagree when people say, “Oh, it’s about who you know.” It’s not. It’s about what we do. At the end of the day, unlike many other jobs, it’s what’s in the photograph. How many great photographs do you have? Are they better, are they different, are they cutting edge? I still say there’s a shortage of great pictures out there.

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Success and Talent

What are the ingredients for success with photography?

  1. A little bit of raw talent, talent doesn’t need to be oozing out of you.
  2. Willing to work really hard. I call that passion—you’re so passionate about something that the other things in life become less important. You’re willing to put it all into your craft.
  3. It really helps if you’re a great guy or gal—if you’re not an asshole. People want to work with people they enjoy being around.

Now, maybe if 2 out of these 3 qualities are so extraordinary, that people will tolerate one of the other being lesser, but if you have those three qualities and you’re willing to commit to your career as a photographer, I think that is the recipe for success in this industry. I have more of the “I’m a nice guy, and I love to work really hard”, than just straight raw talent. I think you can really make up for the raw talent with the other 2.

Who would you consider in your playing field to be oozing raw talent?

I have a pretty high bar. In my entire career of admiring and looking at the work of hundreds and thousands of photographers over the last 20 years, I think there’s one person who I met. He’s a pioneer of rock climbing, Tom Frost, now about 70 years old. Tom is quite an accomplished business man who co-founded Patagonia in the 1960s or 70s, then he went on to create Chimera, the lighting company. On top of that, he was a pioneer of rock climbing. He created the systems that we use today for modern rock climbing in Yosemite and around the world. The guy’s a legend. Along the way, he took some pictures. He has some black and white photographs of rock climbing and they’re historic. You see them in print and in historical reviews of climbing. (Take a look at some of Tom’s work on Aurora Novus.)

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We’ve become friends over the years and at one point I drove to his house in the Central Valley of California and I was going to do an edit of his photography. I wanted to include some of his photos in the Aurora Photos archive. I also thought it was a great opportunity to spend time with a guy who I admired and respected. I arrived early in the morning and sat down with Tom and his wife—they were so excited to have a guest. He had his light table out, all of his binders on the wall. He said, “Ok, here’s binder no. 1.” Of course, it’s black and white film and he’s an engineer so it’s meticulously organized. It’s contact sheet 1, roll 1. Contact sheet 2, roll 2. So I take out a loupe and start. Instantly in the first 5 frames roll number 1, I see 2 of the most famous pictures of all time in the world of rock climbing. They are THE most historic images ever. I move down this roll and I find 12 more amazing images that the world has never seen before and I circle them with a grease pencil. I’m thinking to myself, this is incredible—the world has never seen these pictures. It’s just laden with gems. I make it through the first 15 rolls of film and I’m realizing that even though I told Tom we were going to edit out 300 images to scan because it’s costly, I’m going to go to 1,000 because there’s so much rich content. There are such great, high-quality beautiful moments perfectly composed, great use of light, technically perfect. Mind you, these are pictures shot in the 60’s on a Leica.
We go out to lunch and I ask him, “Tom, how long have you been shooting pictures?” I thought he was confused by my question, because he said, “That was the first time, that was roll one.” I said, “No, no, I know that was the first time you started shooting rock climbing, but how did you learn photography?” He said, “That morning, before we went up on the wall, someone over in the campground let me borrow his Leica and showed me quickly how to use it, and that’s roll number 1.”

The thousands of portfolios I’ve reviewed and looked at photographer’s work, Tom Frost is unquestionably the most talented photographer I’ve ever met, period. I went on to look at another 100 rolls of his film over the next 2 visits. Everyone from myself to Galen Rowell, all are following in the footsteps of this guy. I saw pictures he shot 40 years ago intuitively, which he shot in just one frame. And I have strived through my career to make these pictures. Only once in my lifetime so far have I met someone with that much raw talent. With Tom, he never intended to be a photographer, never did he want it to be his career. “I’m no photographer, I was just a guy who liked to take pictures on my adventures. I was a climber with a camera.”

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About Lighting

When you’re on set, what are you looking for when capturing. Do you use supplemental lighting?

It really depends on the scenario. I love most to work with available light. I always miss breakfast and dinner because I’m out shooting. I’m awake an hour before sunrise all the time and I’m always out with a headlamp an hour after sunset trying to get back to the hotel or the car or the campground. Nature provides some pretty incredible opportunities, but you have to be there, you have to be in the game to play the game. When you’re there, some amazing opportunities present themselves. You just never know what that sunrise will look like, you won’t know what those clouds will do, you never know what that mist over the meadow will do when the sun comes up. I’m not a landscape photographer, but I’m often shooting spectacular landscapes with people interacting with those landscapes. It’s two-fold. What is your subject or person going to be doing, and what is the landscape going to provide in terms of a background and light to play with and paint with? And then as a photographer, I make decisions on where I’m going to be relative to the landscape, relative to the sun coming up, relative to where the person is going to be.

In general, I try to use available light first. That allows me to focus most on the story I’m trying to tell and there’s less technical stuff that I have to manage. I do bring in whatever tools I need to bring if that natural light is not working. In the still photography world I use reflectors, big strobes, small strobes. In the video world, the one new piece of the equation is you need continuous lighting—strobes don’t work. Reflectors do a better job for video than strobes because it’s not 1/250 of a sec, it’s 25 seconds, 25 minutes. So now I’m really starting to use a lot of LED lights, light panels for example, where you can take them into remote places and set them up right on the back of a mini van and light a scene for video where you can actually control it and it’s continuous. I have a philosophy: less is more. The less crap I have hanging off me and in bags, and to manage, the more focused I am on being creative.

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There are plenty of trips, though, where I’m checking 6 bags under the plane. It’s not just photography equipment. It’s all of the stuff that allows me to get into these wild environments: tents, ropes, rock shoes, ice axes; cameras, lights, etc. I always have two sets of equipment for taking on trips and usually all of the climbing outdoor gear goes into soft bags, and all the photo equipment goes into the hard cases or Lowepro bags. I’m always scaling it so I can minimize the number of people that need to be standing around moving equipment. I like to be in the storytelling business, not the luggage moving business. My wife jokes that our garage is set up like a warehouse. We have shelves of gear and shelves of bags. You can literally walk in and lay out 6 bags or cases and start pulling things off shelves, almost like it’s inventory. That’s the nature of the beast.

Judging Photos

What are some elements by which you judge a good photo? When do you look at an image and say, “That’s an amazing photograph?”

The classic rules of photography apply when it comes to what makes a great photograph. It sounds so simplistic. How did they use the light, what does the composition look like and when did they choose to press the shutter, what moment did they capture? That’s it. That’s the essence of a great photo. Immediately you have a visceral reaction to a photograph—it either moves you or it doesn’t. Those three elements play into whether you react to a photograph or not. There is no formula. It’s subjective. I do think there’s a collective subjective. If everyone in a room looks at a picture and says, “That’s dynamite,” then it is dynamite, I don’t care what that one guy thinks. I really trust my reaction and I’m my harshest critic unquestionably. There’s plenty of work of mine that I throw in the trash can. I see someone showing their book, and I think, “Wow, I would never show that picture.” This would be on the cutting room floor if it were my book.

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Being discriminating in your own work is critical. I always say both to myself and to others growing up in the field, you need to look at your work very honestly, you need to look at where you want that work to be, and you need to compare that work to what your colleagues are doing. You need to be damn honest with yourself. Is your work sub-par to your colleagues, is it as good, or is it better? It’s a business formula. If your work is better, you will make money—you will publish. If it’s the same, it’s a flip of the coin—it’s a 50/50 chance because you don’t have the edge. If your work is sub-par, you’re going to have a damn hard time with it. A common error among young or new photographers, is to start calling editors and showing their work prematurely. I think that’s a huge mistake. Dig deep, be critical of your own work, you work your butt off until you have great stuff. There doesn’t have to be a lot of it, but at least your work should be equal to or better than what you’re seeing in the marketplace.

I didn’t want to embarrass myself by showing bad work so I put 6 months into it, poured my heart into my work and every waking hour was dedicated to making the best photography I possibly could. Then I let the market be the answer to “Did I do it or not.” And they responded quickly. “Look kid, you did alright, you made a couple pictures here that are really good.” There was this new pressure of keeping up the good work. Over time you learn that if you put that much time into something, your heart and soul into it, and same amount of energy and thought, you produce high-end work.

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Relationships with Your Subjects

You also build personal relationships with your subjects? Even if they’re the client or model, your philosophy seems to be to build personal connections.

It’s one of the parts of adventure photography that I love so much. If I were photographing big-time mainstream sports, I probably would not be that close to the football players on the field. They live in this world and I live here. They get paid $5 million to get out on that field and I don’t. In the outdoor adventure world, we play on the same field. The best rock climbers in the world go to the same cliffs that I go to recreate every weekend, and the same is true with mountain biking and skiing. The athletes that I work with are far more accessible than the guys on the football field or the Michael Jordans or the Lance Armstrongs. Part of it is these are just smaller industries. There’s less stardom. Many of the people I photograph are the best in the world at what they do and they’ve also become some of my best friends. We spend a lot of time together on an equal playing field. We surf, sit on planes, trains, automobiles, sleep in tents together. We suffer together, run out of food together. I didn’t understand this piece of the equation when I started with photography, but it’s turned out to be the most meaningful piece of what I do. I’ve built huge lasting friendships, going back now 10-15 years and will have a lifelong relationship.

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A great example is Chris Sharma, the Michael Jordan of rock climbing. He’s that famous in the climbing world, that much more elite than any other climber in the world. In the way our worlds work, when I go to Spain to shoot Chris, I don’t go to a hotel, I stay with Chris at his house. Not only is he a dear friend and a guy I care a lot about, but I also get an intimate look into his life. I get access to make pictures that the world loves to see—to live vicariously through the life of Chris Sharma. I don’t feel like I’m intruding because we have this agreement that my job is to capture his life, and his is to open the doors to allow me to capture that life.

Are you sometimes directing a rock climbing shoot?

If I’m working in the advertising or commercial world for a client, yes. We’ll direct and dictate the shoot.

Are you using some sort of walkie-talkie or sign language to communicate?

Yes, we do on occasion. Often we’re within earshot where I’m a hundred feet away. Mother Nature sometimes affords pretty amazing acoustics. I just did an underwater shoot scuba diving into these caves that are miles long. Super dangerous and one of the most radical things I’ve ever done and it was mind boggling how scary and dangerous it is. It’s pitch black down there except for the light on your head. We have a bunch of divers with strobes that are slaved. You can’t talk because you have a regulator in your mouth. We’re using really ultrabright flashlights. You can’t use a walkie-talkie down there, so we have to resort to using sign language, even though I don’t know true sign language.

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That’s what we did on this scuba shoot. We would go into these caves in the pitch darkness, and I would point at one scuba diver and motion where I wanted him to go. He would know I wanted a flash over where I was pointing. I would point at another guy and motion where I wanted him to go. The guy who was going to swim through the frame, I would show him which direction I wanted him to swim from. I’m doing everything with a regulator, with bubbles blowing out of my mouth. I can’t see anything, I don’t even know what the cave looks like. The other divers are focused on me, which I can tell by their headlamps shining at me, and then they swim off into the distance. I would press the shutter, the strobe on my camera and the 3-4 other strobes in the cave would go off. I’d look at the back of the camera, and for the first time ever I would see what the cavern looks like. It really was shooting in the dark with no idea what you’re looking at.

Techniques

When you’re about to do a shoot, do you look at other photographer’s work? I read a note in another article that you try to find ways to shoot that haven’t been done before.

I don’t intentionally look at other photographer’s work in preparation for a shoot. That said, I do look at photographer’s work constantly. I own Aurora Photos, which is a stock photography agency, and we also have an assignment division Aurora Select, and Aurora Novice is the multimedia division of the company. While I’m a partner in the company, José Azel runs the day-to-day operations. On a daily basis, I see the work of 300 contributors, which all come through my email stream. I’m constantly seeing new submissions, seeing awards, where people have failed, assignments, etc. I live in this world so I’m constantly paying attention to what’s hot and what’s not. I don’t intentionally check out other photographer’s work in preparation for a shoot, there’s just this constant stream of visual media that passes by my eyes and occasionally, I’ll really note something as exceptional. Maybe I’ll apply a technique similar to that.

You must have quite a bag of techniques in your head.

Yes, I think so! I’m sure I see a lot more things that I don’t know how to do, but that’s always a fun thing to try to figure out. That’s the beauty of photography—every day I’m blown away by something I see.

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One image I was really drawn to was the image of the dancer Amelia Rudolph. The angle, energy and feeling in the photo really caught my eye. How did you shoot it?

That image was on assignment for the NY Times Sunday Magazine. I always point at that group of images with Amelia Rudolph’s dance troupe as the ultimate for me—assignments where I can capitalize on my skill sets, one of them being my ability to hang on a rope and be safe. I’ve shot with them a number of times now—on the sides of water towers, the sides of buildings, cliffs. I’m able to be in a vertical environment and be comfortable and safe, and proficient, as well as forget about the technical challenge of being in that environment and focus on creativity. I love combining those 3 skill sets. The being there part, the vertical environment, knowing how to use the equipment. I can get my Nikon D3s to do what I want it to do, and then forget about all the other stuff and just focus on what’s happening in that rectangle. Am I going to flip it this way or that way? How do I want the light to look? When am I going to press the shutter? How do I want to compose that frame. That’s the part that I love the most, the final creative process. Thinking, using your head. It distills down to what happens in the rectangle.

Are you still pretty conservative with how many shots you take?

I’m pretty prolific. I didn’t believe it for a number of years, but occasionally looking at other photographer’s full takes I think I’m pretty prolific. I’ve also heard it from editors. I just love shooting. I love sketching with the camera. I’m evolving the image all the time. Even when I shot film, I shot 2-3x more than most guys did on an assignment. The pictures often get better. Either the first image is great, or sometimes after 47 frames, number 48 really comes together because I’m moving, they’re moving, the wind is blowing.

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Text ©2010 Corey Rich and Hannah Thiem. Photos © Corey Rich.

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    • great article from a very talented photographer. Besides you talking about passion, a sentiment I share, I noted this great quote:

      How did they use the light, what does the composition look like and when did they choose to press the shutter, what moment did they capture? That’s it. That’s the essence of a great photo

      Couldn't agree more. Thanks for doing the interview. Enjoyed it a lot.

      Take care

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    • Corey, you give us a wonderful insight into the "nuts & bolts" of a prolific and fulfiling life in photography. Stunning photos. Cheers!

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    • A very informative article on a genre of photography that I knew so little about.

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    • This is one of those very few articles that i found really encouraging and inspiring. I happen to be in love with outdoors, rock climbing and shooting photos too. That's why i enjoyed the article so much. Admire that Corey actually puts them together and presents the best to the world in his own way! I think that the 3 ingredients for success and talent also works for other industries. Highly agree on-

      I think you can really make up for the raw talent with the other 2.

      Awesome interview! Great article!

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