AERIAL SHOT OF LARGEST PADDLED-INTO WAVE AT “JAWS” IN HAWAII. I’ve been going all over—Hawaii, Tahiti… I shot the largest wave ever ridden, ever paddled into. I was in Hawaii for a job for Red Bull shooting kayaking, and it looked like the swell of the century was on the horizon, and I called ESPN and said, “Hey, guys, if you’re ever going to do a surfing story…”—and I know ESPN, surfing is not really their normal thing—“this is the time you should do it.” And because of the relationship, they said, “Well, we trust you, but we don’t know what that means, so what do you need?” And I said, “I, well, I actually need a helicopter. Five hours of helicopter time.” They said, “What about three, can you live with three?” And I said, “Done!”
Though he’s still young, Lucas Gilman is no emerging photographer. Nearly 20 years into a career that began while he was still in college, Gilman serves as an ideal example for young photographers. He’s made smart, difficult decisions that have benefitted his art and his business. But it all started with a little bit of luck.
“I originally went to college to be a writer,” he says. “I figured out really quickly that writing was too much work. I sort of fell into photography when I took a photojournalism 101 class. It was one of the things needed for the journalism degree. I just got the photo bug, and it was all of a sudden all-encompassing.”
Gilman did what any savvy photojournalism student would and got an internship at the local daily newspaper. He happened upon an automobile accident one night and photographed it for class. The images impressed his professor, who encouraged the young photographer to submit them to the Denver Post—the largest daily newspaper in Colorado and a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication.
“I emailed the photos to the photo editor,” Gilman says, “and they ended up running as the front page of the Colorado section of the paper. And I think I was paid $150. It was the first time I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I can actually make money at this?’ Before that it was just that I loved to do it.”
Doing what you love seems to be a guiding principle in the lives of many successful people. In these pages, the “shoot what you love” mantra has become all but cliché. But it turns out to be particularly true in Gilman’s case.
After diligently submitting images to the newspaper and having them run periodically, one day the Post called with an assignment and Gilman jumped at the chance. That led to a couple of assignments each week, and soon enough practically full-time photojournalism. Gilman wasn’t even out of college, and he was already a working photographer. His path was clear and he was on his way. Until the day he had a change of heart.
“The Columbine school shooting,” Gilman says, “it was a sort of turning point. It was a huge event, and I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m over death and destruction and depravity.’ I really got into photography because I enjoyed being outdoors. I grew up in western Colorado, and my dad was a fly fishing guide. I wanted to get back to the roots of why I started taking photos. It was to be outside and shooting things outdoors.”
So right after college, Gilman made the tough decision to leave his prestigious daily in Denver to move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he accepted a position as the chief photographer of a tiny weekly paper. It afforded him the opportunity to shoot anything he wanted to: skiing, kayaking, anything outdoors. So he set to work building a portfolio of outdoor images, the kind of photography that he most wanted to do, and all the while he got paid to practice.
“I had some early success,” he says. “I had one of the first double-truck, two-page spreads in Sports Illustrated with a digital camera. That was right around the time people were saying, ‘Digital is great but it’ll never be good enough for magazines.’ I took a picture of an Olympic swimmer at a workshop in Colorado Springs. I sent it off to the editor and said, ‘Hey, digital doesn’t look that bad to me.’ And it ended up running two pages and leading off.”
Another tenet in Gilman’s philosophy: Just keep shooting. Thanks to trial by fire as a newspaper photographer, he learned to make successful images even in the worst conditions. He put in his 10,000 hours, so when he relocated to one of the most beautiful locations in North America, he was ready to make the most of it.
“I think the newspaper really helped me,” he says, “because it taught me how to make images in really bad situations—bad lighting, bad times of day, etcetera. So when I went to Jackson Hole and I could actually be like, ‘Well, I’m going to go shoot at sunrise or sunset rather than the middle of the day.’ All of a sudden it was like, making images is pretty easy by comparison. If I’ve got light and I’ve got talent—and when I say talent, I don’t mean myself, I mean athletes—all of a sudden…Wow, everything came together.”
When Nikon introduced the D3 in 2007, it was a game changer for Gilman. All of a sudden, he had a camera that could shoot after the sun went down. ISO 5,000 was usable with minimal noise, and the photographer recognized that the creative opportunities afforded by the new technology were endless. That’s the story still today, as he incorporates innovations like high-speed strobe sync and even higher ISOs with even less noise.
“Technologically,” he says, “I’ve always tried to keep as much ahead of the curve as possible by using the technology to my benefit. I remember people being like, ‘Why would I ever want to shoot at ISO 10,000?’ Because you can! In the film era, you could never do that. You would ever even think about that. I have a shot of a skier going off a cliff, and I’m underneath with a fisheye. And I’m shooting at f/16 to get the sunburst. And he’s going over me so I need a shutter speed of 1/2500th of a second. At f/16! So how do you do that? You go to ISO 5,000. All of a sudden, I’m making an image that technically could never have been possible before at that quality.”
More important than owning the latest and greatest equipment, Gilman says, is knowing the ins and outs of the gear you have. He recently completed an impressive shot of his massive inventory of equipment: several camera bodies, even more lenses and the essentials for everything from time-lapse motion control to studio lighting. He insists, though, that it’s not about the gear you have; it’s about what you do with it.
“I don’t think anybody should just go out and buy new gear all the time,” Gilman says, “but finding gear that works for you, first of all, is the best thing you can do. And you must know your equipment. You’re essentially an athlete. You need to go out and train like an athlete. You need to know how it reacts in different conditions. You need to be able to trust that gear, because when you get to a level, there is no second chance to document these things. Know your gear and rely on your gear. Embrace the technology in front of you, full stop.”
“Second of all,” he adds, “know the way things work, the actual photography controls. Know how an aperture works, how shutter speed works, how color balance works. All of these things are like your tools, your paintbrushes, essentially, to go from taking photos to making photos. Eventually you want to go out and say, ‘OK, I want this scene to look like X.’ And it’s in your mind. You don’t even have to think about the f-stop and the shutter speed. You’re going for something that you know, first nature. You can walk out the door and say, ‘I want this one little shaft of light to be exposed properly and the rest of the scene is going to go really dark.’ These are things you need to practice!”
Ultimately, Gilman says, there’s one overarching principle that has shaped his approach since the early days. When he decided to make a significant career change, he didn’t simply quit without a plan. And when, as a new photographer, he sent his work to prominent editors and publishers, he didn’t do it willy-nilly. At every turn he’s handled his decisions with business savvy, and it’s paid off every time.
“I approached my career from more of a business perspective,” he says, “as opposed to a photographic perspective. People ask me all the time: ‘Why are you successful as a photographer?’ And I say it’s because I think more as a businessperson than as a photographer. I employ business principles. For instance, how do you get recognized, or how do you find an editor? Well, through research and due diligence. Every masthead has the photo editor’s name in a major magazine. And I would call the directory to figure out what their publication schedule is so I would know not to bother them when they’re in the middle of a deadline. And their email addresses are pretty easy to figure out.”
“The second part of that,” Gilman says, “is you never bother anybody until you have something they need. You need to have something that they want. I would go out and produce images I felt they would want, which would make them look good to their boss, and I would never bother them unless I felt like it was something that was the caliber of what would go in that magazine or what would go in their catalog, etcetera. Holding to those principles, eventually it’s worked out. Every editor, every creative director, they’re overworked and under appreciated. The last thing they want is somebody else saying, ‘hey, give me a job.’ But if you give them an image that they can say, ‘Wow, that actually fills a hole, and now I have one less thing to do this week,’ all of a sudden you’re a hero.”
“In terms of business sense,” he continues, “I don’t think a lot of people think about it that way. We all get caught up in the art. And I love photography, I love looking at pictures. But at the end of the day, as a photographer, you’re basically only as good as your last shot. So you need to remember that you need to go out and produce consistently and at the right level. There is no second chance to make that first impression with an editor. People say, ‘I want to work for Sports Illustrated or National Geographic.’ That’s awesome! As soon as you have an image worthy of that, by all means go out. But don’t go there before you’re ready. Because what happens if Sports Illustrated says, ‘Hey, you’re awesome! We want you to cover the Super Bowl,’ and you go out and fall on your face? You’ll never recover from that. I used to work for ESPN 150-plus days a year, and it all came because I went out and worked my butt off on one assignment. I went to the end of the earth to make sure it happened and that everything was perfect, and that editor was really impressed and continued to keep me in the fold.”
His business mind has led Gilman, like many photographers, to embrace video production in recent years. He realized he could not only improve his own work as a still photographer (by avoiding the traditional conflicts between film crew and still shooter) but he could also provide stylistic and cost benefits to his clients at the same time. Instead of letting ego get in the way, he often acts as producer or director, hiring the best crew he can instead of trying to do everything himself. It all goes back to doing right by the client.
“I think the biggest thing that video taught me right away was to know your strengths and know your weaknesses,” Gilman explains. “I consider myself a very good still photographer. I consider myself a pretty good videographer. But I’m not the best. There are people who have been doing this for years, so why go and reinvent the wheel? I feel like I can’t shoot stills and video, me myself, at the same time. Both are going to suffer. So why not hire people who are great videographers? I want it to complement what I do and not take away from it. And I want to help my clients. And hopefully by doing that we produce better content and facilitate, going back to the basics, providing something for your editor or your creative director that they didn’t have before, and making their life easier.”
Gilman’s final bit of advice is surprisingly simple, but he says it’s also especially important: be easy to work with.
“This is going to sound really weird,” he says, “but I think it’s the biggest thing: don’t be a jerk. People don’t like working with people who are jerks. Or pretentious. Or self-inflated. Once you’ve built a relationship and you’re sharing, all of a sudden you’ve built a personal relationship. Now you’re 10 times more likely or 100 times more likely to get a call for a job as opposed to somebody who doesn’t. I’ve had editors tell me that they would rather hire a photographer who maybe isn’t quite as talented but is easy to work with and is a good person, as opposed to someone who is very talented and a pain in the ass.”
See more of Lucas Gilman’s photography.