From Kauai all the way to South Africa, and almost everywhere in between, photographer Eric Rubens has been traveling the world and creating photography work for brands like Sony, BMW, Disney, T-Mobile, and more since he took a leap of faith after finishing college. Recently Eric took the time to chat with us about his start with photography, differentiating yourself as a photographer, and his latest work at Explorest.
Continue below for the Eric Rubens interview with Matt Moloney.
Born in San Diego, California with the coast by his side, photographer Eric Rubens has always been fascinated by the beach and intrigued with surfboard culture. When he was younger, he was able to travel across the country while playing tennis and learned about the joy of traveling and experiencing new things for the first time. During this period of his life he wasn’t taking many photos, and was not thinking of photography as anything serious, but enjoyed finding new locations that he and his friends could go to and call their own. After going to college to become an electrical engineer, he began using Instagram, almost right after the time it launched.
He took photos with his iPhone of boardwalks along the beach, surfers coming in at sunset, and more. He started posting to his Instagram for fun, and would chase the sunset after work everyday trying to find a new way to capture this awe-inspiring scene that he was so proud to be able to see so much. He never thought it would become a career; never thought there would be any money involved – so how did Eric Rubens become the world renowned photographer that he is today?
Matt: From taking photos with your iPhone up until now, do you see yourself changing as a photographer? Whether it be style or technique?
Eric: Yeah, I mean I think at first when you’re trying to figure out what you’re doing and you’re developing a style, you kind of gravitate over and over again to the stuff that comes natural to you, so you know for me just shooting along the coast and the beaches. And then over time I got a little tired of that, and I tried to start shooting some more portraits and with models, and then I started taking shots for my friends and family; I tried to mix in a little more variety. Then I think over time you kind of realize – what do brands actually use for content? If I only shoot beach content, this is probably not going to cut it, and I want to actually make a living out of this. So that’s when I started figuring out ways to incorporate other things like cars in the shots, or incorporate a person doing something, you know? Something that might appeal to a clothing brand. I think that you find ways to stay true to your original style, like what drove your interest in the hobby, but at the same time you try to take a look at the business side of it too and realize how what you enjoy can be applied to help others.
And that actually brings up a good point because when I had my electrical engineering job, I thought that the photography market was incredibly saturated, and if I wanted to learn how to make a living out of it I needed to learn how to do video too. So I went crazy studying and tried learning video for six to nine months and I got to the point where I was confident in producing a video for a brand; I don’t think I’ll ever be an award-winning director, and that’s not really my goal, but I kind of just want to be good enough to produce something and not be limited to the point where I have to hire someone to help me.
Matt: Definitely, definitely – it helps a lot to be able to do everything on your own. That way even if you do need to hire out, you at least know what they need to be doing and how to do it in your own particular way.
I realized if I just sit around waiting for jobs to come to me, I’m only going to get jobs that the customer thought of on their own and I’m not going to be able to ever plan out my own destiny.
Matt: Speaking of camera equipment and knowing how to use everything – lots of photographers know how to use a camera in a technical way, but not a lot of photographers know how to market themselves, and market their services. How did you learn to become a business-oriented photographer? How did you learn to market your skills?
Eric: I think the big business thing for me was that I came from a nine to five job where I was an engineer working for a Fortune 500 Company – I was a defense engineer for Northrop Grumman, so I was very accustomed to putting together reports and presenting things to the customer(s) and I think that translated into learning how to create pitch decks and learning how to have a good media kit for myself and I realized if I just sit around waiting for jobs to come to me, I’m only going to get jobs that the customer thought of on their own and I’m not going to really be able to ever plan out my own ‘destiny’, for lack of better description. So I realized if I had a good idea for a shoot or if I think that this area is really good and this brand and this brand would be perfect for it, then I need to do them a favor and put it on paper, plan it all out, and literally just send it to them to the point where they can say,”yes or no” to this.
I think it was really beneficial for me to come from another industry because I can kind of draw parallels, like what is my business day-to-day and if I can market that and put it into the hands of the customer instead of just sitting around and hoping work comes to me.
Matt: Yeah, I think you make a good point about sitting and waiting for clients to come to you with you with job propositions. Especially today with Instagram, a lot of people tend to think that their profile or platform is enough to carry the weight and get them more work, but if you want to make photography your job, you need to work at it like it is your job.
Eric: Yeah, I agree like nowadays too, so many people are so incredibly talented and Instagram has allowed all these people like me included, who none of them really have a traditional background (like studying photography), but we know how to market our work, and show what we do. And the market is much more saturated than ever, but what’s also equally saturated is the business’ investing in the platform and investing money into digital marketing as opposed to traditional marketing. So there’s more money to go around and there’s also more people going after it, so you have to think of other ways to differentiate yourself besides your photography. You have to come up with a really solid game plan, show that you’re going to deliver what they need. You know, a lot of the times these businesses are like three or four years into marketing on Instagram so a lot of the time this is their first time into going after this type of marketing strategy, so I think there’s a lot of caution and a lot of uncertainty relating to whether or not they can trust people to perform at a high level compared to their traditional dollar ad/spend. It’s really important to be responsible and deliver on track, and produce because we are still shaping the industry, it’s still so young.
Matt: I think touching on the trust aspect is crucial – I think that a lot more brands would work with influencers and digital marketers more if they knew the work that they will be getting, but I think that it’s a tough point for photographers.
Eric: Yeah, what I think a lot of people don’t realize is that if you blow off a contract or don’t deliver on a big campaign, that puts a really bad taste in their mouth for that company moving forward when they choose to go spend money on a traditional photographer versus marketing on Instagram, so we need to be really careful how we treat these jobs, because I think it will impact how brands work with our peers in the future.
Matt: Definitely, I mean no one wants to be wasting their time, nor their money, so if they know they can trust an agency as opposed to an influencer, when it has already worked in the past, then why not?
The market is much more saturated than ever, but what’s also equally saturated is the business’ investing in the platform
Matt: Let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about mobile photography – with the release of the new iPhone 11 and mobile photography becoming more and more dominant, do you see the whole photography industry changing because of the evolution of mobile phones and their cameras becoming more powerful every year?
Eric: Yeah, I mean I think you’re seeing the effects even on the camera industry. I mean all of the camera manufacturers are shrinking their cameras – mirrorless has become the number one seller on the market because of its size and weight and I think that’s a direct correlation to the fact that people can take such incredible pictures with their phones nowadays. So if you’re coming out with a big, bulky camera, that’s not really going to be a huge selling point for the customer, but if you’re able to keep the camera size down really small and convenient, then people are like, ‘hey, I can bring my phone, I can bring my really small camera, and put them in this small backpack, and now I don’t have to carry fifty pounds of equipment on my back.’ So yeah, I think it’s pushing the evolution in camera technology, and I’m excited to try everything out, I actually haven’t had the chance to try out the new iPhone 11 yet, but just seeing some of my friends’ picture’s so far, it’s pretty incredible; every time they keep coming out with products and the technology gets better and better every time. And not only Apple, but all the phone manufacturers in general, mobile photography has just really been taking off.
Matt: When you go on trips, do you capture as much as you can with your phone and camera, or do you try to stay focused and get what you came for with your main camera?
Eric: Umm, a bit of both, I use my phone for Instagram stories and little spur of the moment video stuff, but for the most part I’m definitely using my camera just because I like to push my edits with color and light, and usually the files kind of break down a bit with mobile files, so I mean for me, I’ve always used the Sony mirrorless cameras for the last three or four years and they’re so small and lightweight, it’s not really an inconvenience where I can’t bring it somewhere, so I always end up shooting with my main camera.
Matt: Especially if you’re hiking or moving around a lot, you don’t want to be carrying around a huge DSLR with you everywhere and all of those lenses.
Eric: Yeah exactly, and if I’m doing say a helicopter flight or if I’m on a boat, I need to be in total control of my camera in terms of hardware and software so that I can get the best shot with the right settings, because I don’t want a blurry photo or anything to effect my photo.
Matt: That’s true, you always want to be able to manipulate the light and settings in your own way. Moving forward to the opposite end of the spectrum however, what do you think about film photography and this kind of resurgence of film? Over the past few years I think we’ve definitely seen a new trend, whether it’s the date stamps or film borders – what do you think of this re-happening for the film movement?
Eric: Yeah I think it’s a direct correlation to the fact that Instagram photography has become so saturated. I think people are now looking for different traits to set themselves apart from everyone else, and I also think that it puts some fun back into it as well. I actually haven’t done a ton of film photography, so I can’t really speak on that but I like to look at it from a marketing and business angle. I think that if there are 10,000 people out there taking digital photos better and you’re trying to differentiate yourself from the pack with your work, that may be a differentiator right there, if you take incredible film photographs, you could already put yourself in a small population.
Matt: Nice yeah, I think it’s really important to set yourself apart now that there are so many photographers and so many cameras out there in general. It’s also always cool to look at film photography from a business angle as well, since so many people think it is a dying industry still.
Matt: Moving back to mobile photography though, how did you get started working with Explorest?
Eric: So my friends launched the app probably about four years ago now and they had launched in Singapore and brought me on for the California launch, and I’ve been with them ever since the global expansion, working with partnerships. But yeah I just think’s it’s a really cool app and when I was planning out trips I had to balance out between Instagram and Google, and when you find a good spot you don’t know if it’s a ten-mile back-country hike or it that spot’s closed only on the weekends, or if that spot’s only good at sunrise and then you’re going to Google Images or Pinterest and all these other blogs and apps and sites just trying to find out more. And to have all the information in one spot, with the exact GPS coordinates, when to go – best time of day and best time of year, and all that kind of stuff in one spot is incredibly beneficial to someone when they’re trying to go on a road-trip or on a vacation, or for their job.
Matt: Definitely, that’s incredible – do you plan on expanding soon? Are you still only in California and Singapore?
Eric: No, we’re in Honk Kong, Shanghai, we just launched in Michigan and New York, so we’re up over 150,ooo users now and plan on continuing to expand as much as we can.
Matt: Oh wow, that’s crazy – congrats.
Eric: Yeah, thanks we’ve been growing incredibly fast, which is awesome – we just got featured in the news the other day in New York on the local news which is really cool, and yeah, the growth has been exponential which is really cool. We’re also really careful because a lot of people are cautious nowadays about giving away info for certain spots or just don’t want too much traffic in a certain location so I would say we’re especially careful of that – being like a photo location discovery app. There are a lot of really special places in California that I think get ruined by an extra person or two being there, so we will not let you put spots like that in the app. If it’s dangerous or just a really special, unique and sensitive spot, we just won’t include it.
Matt: That’s really cool actually because I’ve seen spots get ruined because of this so that is a really sensitive issue that is nice to see your team has already thought about.
Eric: Yeah exactly and I just want to make note of that because that’s really important to me, when you do find that special spot, sometimes you want to just enjoy with your friends or your family and not blow it up.
Matt: Exactly, I think that is essential for an app like Explorest because you want to create a community of photographers that understand their surroundings, not just breed photographers that are solely focused on getting the perfect shot for their Instagram.
Matt: So to conclude our interview I just want to ask a few more questions about your future – where is one new place that you’d like to travel to, but haven’t been to yet?
Eric: Uhhh, that’s a good one – I’ve actually never been to Asia, so I’ve always wanted to go to Thailand or the Philippines. I’m going to Thailand in a month with Sony, so I’m pretty excited about that, but all those little island clusters that don’t get all the popularity on Instagram because they’re so hard to get to like the Maldives and some others that don’t get a lot of attention.
I think I just gravitate towards the places that I don’t see a lot – my favorite trips over the past year have been to islands that many people can’t get to.
Matt: Yeah, for sure – I think those trips are always more meaningful and you bring back more memorable photos because of that.
Eric: Yeah, it’s cool because you get to a new spot and you get to put your own take on it as opposed to like the lake in Banff where so many people have photographed it you can’t think of how to make it your own.
Matt: Oh yeah haha – I can literally visualize the photo you’re talking about right now.
Eric: Yeah me too, I mean it’s still fun to go take pictures there but when you get to those spots, creativity-wise you’re lost.
Matt: You mentioned earlier that you shoot with a mirrorless Sony camera, do you have any plans on switching anytime soon? Or would you like to try out any new cameras in the near future?
Eric: Yeah, Sony came out with their A9ii which I really want to try out – hoping to try that with them on the Thailand trip in about a month. Outside of that I love my a7r iii, and the a7r iv, I was able to try that at their launch event in New York and it’s pretty incredible.
But for the most part, I’m looking to try some whatever DJI releases, just because I love aerial photography so much.
Matt: Lastly. since leaving college what are some notable adversities that you’ve overcome?
Eric: Well I think the biggest one naturally was just deciding to do photography full time, I mean I was trying to do my engineering job and photography simultaneously and I did it as long as I could until I wasn’t really doing either one as well as I could. So I think taking that leap to do photography full time was the big first step. That was the biggest thing I was internally struggling with for a long time, with whether or not I could do it full time. Which I think it’s something a lot of people struggle with when they’re trying to pursue a hobby, if you have the means to financially provide.
I think the second struggle was kind of what you talked about earlier, with understanding how to run it like a true business. How to do pitch decks, how to go after businesses, how to develop relationships and not just the point where it’s a one-off campaign, but also with a full team on a campaign where you are working with the brand on a long term contract. Learning how to develop those relationships where you are not just bouncing around doing one-offs over and over again, I think that was a big turning point for me as well.
Matt: But now look where you’re at – that’s incredible. Just going back to your Instagram and scrolling through your profile you can see how much you have developed over the years since you began taking photos so keep going man. Thanks so much for your time and we wish you all the best from the FilterGrade team.
Thanks so much for reading, we hope you enjoyed and learned more about becoming a professional photographer and how to make a career out of a passion with Eric. Be sure to check out the Explorest app to find the best photo locations near you or for your next photographer adventure!