Burning Man & Becoming a Pro Photographer
Hey guys, this is Brent. I’ve got a great photographer on the other line. His name is Phil Steele. He’s an amazing photographer from San Diego. He also creates some great photography courses: Photoshop, Lightroom and Portrait photography.
3:05 Phil’s Favorite Images
14:36 Photography Education
17:36 Editing Software and Workflow
21:54 Creative Process and Previsualisation
26:05 Best Photography Advice
Who is Phil Steele?
Brent: Phil, are you there?
Phil: Hi, I’m here.
Brent: Yes good, Phil. Can you give us a little bit of a background; how you got into photography, the things that you do?
Phil: Yes sure. It’s probably a common story. I didn’t set out to be a photographer. It’s not what my original background was. I took a really long and winding career path to end up here. My education was actually in Geophysics.
I worked in various jobs. I was a freelance writer. I was a computer consultant. I was a movie critic for a few years. I was a co-founder of a software company for a while. I became an internet business consultant.
After all of that, I was almost 40 years old before I came around to photography. It happened accidentally actually. I didn’t set out to become a photographer. It was a side effect of my interest in taking photos of a certain thing that was fascinating to me. It just grew into photography from there.
Brent: You’ve created some amazing products. Is that from your experience as a photographer; your frustrations where you’re learning photography, and you found them difficult to learn and that’s why you created these amazing videos on how to become a better photographer, how to learn Lightroom and Photoshop, that type of thing?
Phil: I started learning photography before the internet became really useful. I learned the old fashioned way. When I started wanting to get better at it, I bought books, the old school way. Maybe eventually I got some DVD videos and stuff. I was learning photography like that.
Eventually the internet started exploding. Now it’s become very easy to find a ton of information on photography. The hard part is that now there is a ton of information but a lot of it is really low quality. It’s hard; you can waste a lot of time seeking out information online about photography. That became frustrating to me.
Eventually after I had a certain amount of photography experience, I decided maybe I could create the photography training that I wished I had been able to find when I was starting out. That’s what I set out to do. I made my Steele Training site where I offer these courses. My goal there is to give people who are starting out the training I wished that I could find when I was starting.
Phil’s Favorite Images
Brent: That’s great Phil. Before we jump back into the education and learning part of this interview, I’d love to run through a couple of your favorite images that you sent me. Let’s jump to the first one that’s, it’s from Burning Man, it looks like most of them come from Burning Man. There’s obviously a theme over there.
Can you tell me about this first image? I did notice this beautiful woman who is half-naked. It looks like she’s in the dessert with the wind blowing and a sarong flying behind her.
Phil: Yes. The three photos that I chose to send to you are all photos from the Burning Man Festival. I chose that because it was going to Burning Man that turned me into a photographer. I really had no desire or interest in photography before that.
I never really was a photographer in the film era. It was going out to the Burning Man Festival that inspired me to start taking photos. That particular first photo is literally the photo that is responsible for me being a photographer today.
Before I dig into that, maybe I should explain for people who don’t know what the Burning Man Festival is. It’s a huge art festival that’s held out on a dry lakebed in the Nevada Desert once a year. About 60,000 people attend. It’s very unforgiving conditions, dust storms, heat, and very difficult thing to survive.
It’s fascinating because everybody gets out there trying to outdo each other with creativity and interesting art projects and sculptures and music and all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It’s the best place in the world to be a photographer.
I started going out there a little more than a decade ago. I just had my little pocket camera, my little 2 mega pixel Canon pocket camera. No intention really of being a photographer. It was so interesting out there and I just started snapping pictures of things.
When I came home I wanted to share those with my friends. I made a little website and put these photos up. That photo of the girl, it was my first or second year out there. I was just walking through a dust storm with my little pocket camera. I came across this girl walking the other way through the dust storm. We’re out in the middle of nowhere by ourselves.
The sun cleared for a moment and was shining. The dust receded. I had a clear view of her. I just stopped and said, “This is a beautiful moment. Could I take a photo of you right here?” She’s a total stranger but being Burning Man, she of course said, “Yes.”
She just turned and held her scarf in the wind and just turned her head and did that. I took a few shots. I got her email address so I could follow-up later. We went on.
It was only later at home when I put this photo up on my website it started getting a lot of good feedback from people. She started using this as her primary photo in her modeling portfolio.
I got invited by an art gallery to have it in this gallery showing. All this positive feedback that I got, mostly from that one image, started getting me inspired. People were saying, “Maybe you should try being a photographer. You’re good at this.”
Directly as a result of that, I got inspired enough that I thought, “Next year I’m going to go back out to this festival. I’m going to get a little bit better camera. I’ll try a little harder to take some good photos.”
Each year after that, I just got a slightly better camera. I tried a little bit harder. After doing that for about 10 years, it spilled over into the other parts of my life. People started thinking of me as this photographer guy and asking me to shoot their headshots or asking me to take photos of their party or something like that.
It was an accidental side effect of my interest in taking these photos at the Burning Man Festival. It just grew and took over my life.
Brent: That’s an amazing photo, Phil. I love it. The way she’s posed. I’ve photographed a lot of models in my career, too. She’s almost got the perfect pose, turning her head sideways into the wind. I know it’s always tough photographing when you got wind and long hair like that. It’s just amazing. I like the way you’ve done it as a black and white too.
Phil: Lucky moment really. I feel I really owe her a huge debt of gratitude for just showing up at the right time, the right place and being willing. We stay in touch to this day. It turned out to be a great photo for both of us, because she used it as a model and I used it to basically start a photography career.
Brent: Would you suggest, when you’re photographing people in a place like that, is it good to get the person’s details so that you can maybe send them a photo later or even get a model release from them?
Phil: Definitely. It took me a few years to figure that process out. If nothing else at least get an email address or some way to contact them exactly so that you can follow-up and share photos later.
As I got more serious about it out there, in the later years, I would walk around out there with a stack of model releases. Toward the end when I had published magazine photos from the event to my credit, I would have magazines to show them, “Look, this is why I need a model release from you so I can have these photos in magazines and stuff like this.” To give them the literal picture why I was having them sign a release.
That makes it so much easier to be able to do anything with these photos later. Regrettably, sometimes if you get great photos of people without any release, you can’t do anything with them.
Brent: Yes true. Let’s jump to our next photo Phil. It’s, I don’t know quite what it is. Some structure, it looks like you’re photographing it into the sun. There’s a whole bunch of people around. It looks like someone is about to climb up, a step-ladder into the structure.
Phil: Yes. That’s a sculpture also out of the Burning Man Festival. The artist’s name is Michael Christian, a metal sculptor from the Bay Area. The reason I included that photo, it’s just one of my favorites because it shows what you can do with … no fancy gear. By that point I did have a DSLR at least. It was the cheapest one you could probably get. It was a Canon Rebel or something.
That photo was straight out of the camera. There was no post processing or special effects or anything weird going on. I like it because it shows what you can do, just by being in the right place, with the right light at the right time. Put yourself in front of interesting things and then magical moments can happen.
It’s a great reminder to me to put myself in front of interesting things even if I have to go all the way out in the desert to do it.
Brent: Let’s jump to the next one Phil. It looks like … this is obviously from Burning Man because there’s something burning in the background there.
Phil: Yes, sure enough. I included that one too because it was an awe inspiring moment to me. It’s very hard for me to pick a few photos out of the literally tens of thousands that I have from Burning Man.
This one was a really awesome moment because it was the biggest thing that I have ever seen burn in my life. It was a structure … you can see what it looks like before it was burned if you go to my Burning Man photo site. By the way, I have a whole site of photos from the Burning Man Festival. It’s called Burnmonkey.com. If you like this thing and want to see more of it, you can see what this thing looked like before it burned. It was a structure like the size of an airplane hangar. The boards are 2x4 boards. You can see how big it must be just from just from the size of those boards.
When they finally burned this thing at the end of the week, we had to stand back probably 200 yards, 200 meters from the thing that’s burning there, I’m shooting with a fairly long lens. Even at that distance, it was so hot that I had to turn away and shield my face because it was blindingly hot even that far away.
I’m standing there in a circle of maybe 20,000 or 30,000 people who are surrounding this thing, a gigantic ring. Everybody is completely silent, just mesmerized by watching this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a huge crowd of people that silent before. It’s an almost religious experience to see something like that.
Brent: Is that why they call it Burning Man? Do they … is it tradition to burn everything down afterwards?
Phil: Yes for the most part. At the end of the weeklong event, they actually do burn a giant wooden man, a wood and neon sculpture of a man. It grew out a festival on a beach in San Francisco many, many years before, 25 years ago and turned into this giant thing in the desert.
It’s called Burning Man because they burn this man sculpture. They also burn a lot of other things like that huge wooden construction. Some Belgian’s came and built out there. It’s a very international event. People come from all over the planet to go to this thing.
Brent: Awesome Phil. We’re on to your last photo. I’m so interesting in Burning Man that we’re throwing in another photo, I normally only do three images. It looks like a sunrise or a sunset image with a beautiful red sky in the background. It’s some structure with lights on … tell us a little bit about this.
Also, the second part of this question is would you suggest Burning Man as a bucket list place for a serious photographer to go to?
Phil: I’ll take the second part first. I do think for a serious photographer of a certain type, it is definitely a bucket list thing. It’s the most fascinating place on earth to take photos. As I’ve explained, it basically turned me into a photographer because it was so interesting just wanting to take photos out there.
But obviously, it’s not for everyone. It’s a very weird and free wheeling event. It’s very difficult to get to; it’s out in the middle of nowhere. It’s very difficult to survive there for a week. It takes a lot of fortitude to actually put up with the conditions. If you’re willing to subject yourself to all the difficulties, there’s nothing else on earth like it.
That particular photo is what they call a temple. Every year there is a different temple of some sort that is built out there. This one, I can’t remember what year that was, probably around 2008 or 2009, was a particularly nice one. It was made out of wood. Of course, at the end of the event it gets burned. I have photos of that on my Burnmonkey site of course.
This was sunrise. Occasionally out there, I do manage to drag myself out at sunrise to try to get pictures in that beautiful light. This was one of those mornings, I got up in the cold and get out of my tent or my RV, I don’t remember which I was in that year, ride my bike in the dark out to this temple which is about a mile away from the main center of things, to be out there when the sun is coming up.
There’s all kinds of activity going on at sunrise out there because a lot of people were up all night. It made a beautiful scene to catch this temple with the rising sun and those layers of clouds behind it. It captures a certain aspect of the mood of the place, an almost magical, mystical feel. This one, unlike the sculpture, this one was post processed in Lightroom to bring up the saturation of those colors and the contrast of the light. I use that photo in my Lightroom course as one of the examples of processing images this way.
Brent: Thanks Phil for that. We might jump into the education and learning section. With this image that you actually use in your Lightroom course. What is your take on education and learning for photographers?
Phil: It’s terribly important of course. The difficulty that we all have is figuring out how to do it. What’s the best way to learn? Some people can learn from books and some can’t. Some people can learn from videos. Some want to take personal workshops. It’s often very expensive to try, just like the camera gear itself is expensive, especially workshops, videos or things like that.
That’s what led me into wanting to offer some inexpensive learning mechanisms on this website that I created, the Steele Training site. As I explained earlier, I wanted to deal with the frustration that I had where I couldn’t find the instruction that I wanted as an amateur. I couldn’t find it at a reasonable price.
I thought the internet will make this possible. Why don’t I try to capture the things that I am learning, as I’m going along and then immediately teach it? There are a lot of really advanced, really good photographers out there who try to teach, or they would like to teach, but they are so advanced that it’s very hard to remember what it was like to be an amateur. They’re way over the heads of some of the people who are starting out and trying to learn.
What I like to try to do is, I like to try to figure out “what do I want to learn to do?” and then I learn to do it. Then immediately after learning it myself, I try to make a course or a video or some instruction to teach it while it’s still fresh in my mind, while the learning process is still fresh in my mind, so that I don’t get so far beyond the audience that I can’t speak at their level anymore, if that makes sense.
Brent: It definitely does. I actually first found you online on YouTube from some of your reviews of radio triggers that you use. Thank you Phil for actually, when you figure something out, putting it out there and letting everyone else benefit from it, that’s great.
Phil: I like to do that too. I do, I put a lot of stuff out for free, even though I make some courses that people can buy. I like to put free things out there, both because it helps people find me and connect with me, and also because I just know how frustrating it was for me to try to learn this stuff. I’d like to turn it around and give some back and help people figure out this stuff.
Brent: Definitely. When there’s so much stuff out there, for instance the radio triggers that I was looking at, at the time. I was looking at the pocket wizards and all sorts. I thought, “There must be something that’s easier and cheaper.”
I did the research and I started following you from that, because you tested them all and then you came up with your own opinion of what is really good. From then I’ve looked at things that you’ve done. I’ll follow you from now on. What is Phil doing? That’s what I’m going to use. That is great.
Phil: Thank you. That’s very kind, I feel gratified, thanks.
Editing Software and Workflow
Brent: Can you tell us a little bit about your editing and your work flow that you use with the different software? You obviously use the Lightroom and Photoshop suites. Can you tell us a little bit more about, from start to finish; you photograph an image, where do you go from there?
Phil: A big change has happened over the time that I have been doing photography for around a decade now. I started out using Photoshop a lot. Now that has almost entirely shifted to Lightroom. That’s been the biggest time saver for me. Lightroom didn’t even exist back then. Now I’ve shifted to where my entire workflow is almost all done in Lightroom. I’d say 90% of it is done in Lightroom and about 10% is done in Photoshop.
The reason this has become a big time saver is because Lightroom can handle the entire workflow from the moment you import those photos from the memory card to organizing them and key wording them and cataloging them and then into editing them and then into the exporting them for web galleries or slide shows or making prints, it’s got the entire workflow all contained in one place.
I had Lightroom for a couple of years and I dabbled with it before I really figured out that I had to adopt it entirely from end to end to get this great big boost in efficiency. Once I did, once I swallowed that bitter pill and learned how to do it all the way through, my productivity increased a huge amount.
I could do five or 10 times as many photos as I used to be able to do when I was trying to do them all in Photoshop. Of course there are still some things you can only do in Photoshop, usually more advanced editing. It’s useful to have and I still use it maybe 10% of the time for that advanced editing.
That transition from doing a mixture in different tools to trying to do the whole workflow in Lightroom was a revolution for me as far as productivity went.
Brent: You photograph in RAW, do you Phil?
Phil: Yes, it varies. It depends on what I’m going to do with the photos and what the job is. There are some things where it’s not worth taking up the disk space to use RAW images, if they’re just going to be used small on the web. If they’re not going to be art prints.
If it’s some little event thing, an event at my kids’ school or something where these aren’t going to be art prints, they’re going to be photos that are uploaded to a website or something. No point in shooting RAW for that as far as I’m concerned.
When it’s something where I feel like I might want to make big prints or I might need to be able to extract a lot of information out of the shadow areas, the exposure might need to be adjusted a lot, then I’ll go RAW.
Brent: You shoot RAW or JPEG; it doesn’t matter, depending on different situations. You then import it into Lightroom or you download it on to your computer. You probably back it up somewhere on to another disk. You then import it into the Lightroom suite, catalog it, sort out the best images and from there you might process those and then export them.
You’re saying you only do a little bit in Photoshop. Do you then edit those exported images in Photoshop before you put them out there or do you do everything in Lightroom?
Phil: I do everything in Lightroom for 90% of the photos that I take. It’s sufficient for almost all the photos from beginning to end. But there are certain photos where you still – let’s say you want to clone out some object in the background or replace a person’s head from one shot where they’re blinking and they’re not blinking in a different photo in a group shot, you have to swap a head or something. Some of those things you can still only do in Photoshop. It’s increasingly small because with each generation of Lightroom, its tools get closer, and closer to what Photoshop can do. Because with each generation of Lightroom I do more, it started out maybe 70% of my workflow is in Lightroom and 30 was in Photoshop. Now it’s down to about 90 and 10. Maybe with the next generation of Lightroom, I’ll be able to go 95 and 5.
Creative Process and Pre-Visualisation
Brent: Phil, tell me a little bit about your creative process. Do you … when you’re going out there to create these amazing images especially at Burning Man. Do you pre-visualize what you want to create and then get there at a certain time to actually create that image or do you just go with the flow?
Phil: I am definitely a pre-visualizing person. I like to plan it out. I tend to get ideas probably like a lot of people, I get these ideas in my head when I’m half asleep or when I’m driving the car or I’m in the shower or something. This idea for a great photo will pop into my mind. I always try to keep notepads around, because when I have one of these ideas, I want to quickly sketch it out.
I’ll sketch, I’ll use little stick figures for people. I’ll show the lights where I want to have them to capture this idea before it’s gone from my head, because if I don’t, I’ll never remember it. I have a whole folder full of these ideas of things I want to shoot in particular places or particular times or with particular people.
On the other hand, a lot of event photography including the Burning Man photography is going with the flow, because once you’re there, you have to just react and find what’s going on and make the most of it.
Even when I’m going to do an event, where I’m going to have to go in with the flow a lot, I always try to walk into it with at least a few ideas of things that I definitely want to capture so that I know if nothing else, I will come out of this with this particular photo that I had in mind. That that one will be in the bag, everything else beyond that is gravy.
Brent: Phil, can you tell me a couple of the projects that you’re currently working on?
Phil: Yes. There’s an upside and a downside to this transition to teaching which I’ve been doing since making the training site. The upside is that teaching is very satisfying and it gives me a lot of great interaction with people who are learning from me. It motivates me to do a lot of photography related to the teaching.
The downside is I end up doing almost all my photography directly related to teaching not as much personal work anymore. I need to get that balance back, shift back over to doing more stuff just for the fun of it that’s not aimed at teaching. That’s one of my current projects is to try to get back to more personal work.
On the teaching front, I’m working on a couple of new courses. One thing is, I’m updating my Lightroom course because as you may know, Adobe is about to release Lightroom version 5. They’ve announced a public Beta. I have that Beta right now and I’m working with it so that I can update the Lightroom course so it will still be current after Lightroom version 5 comes out. That’s one thing I’m doing.
I’m also working on a whole course on event photography. I’m really eager to do that one because all of us as photographers are event photographers to some degree.
Even if it’s just, you’re going to take photos of your kids’ birthday party, whether it’s at that level or whether you want to become a professional wedding photographer or you want to do night life events or fashion shows or whatever, to some extent we all get called on to be event photographers if we’re the person in the family with the camera.
So there’s a huge need for this. I know from the questions I get from my own subscribers and my audience that a lot of people have tons of questions about how to do better with all event photography. I’ve been working on that for almost a year now. I’m hoping within a few months that this event photo course will be complete.
Of course I’ve been saying that for the better part of the year that it’s a couple of months away. I’m really serious now saying, “I think it’s just a couple of months away till I have that course finished.”
Brent: Good. It sounds like you need a little bit of help to finish that off.
Phil: I’m actually getting some help. I have a photography partner who I have involved in this one named Julie. She’s a very experienced event photographer. She’s working on it with me. That’s helping to some extent. In some ways it also gets more complicated when you have two people involved.
Best Photography Advice
Brent: I agree. For the last question before we wrap up, what’s the best advice you can give people that are getting into photography or have a digital SLR and want to just improve their photography?
Phil: The best thing I could tell any photographer is just to shoot what you love. That’s necessary because photography is hard. There’s a hard learning curve, it’s a thankless task to try to get up to speed especially if you want to get good enough to make money at it someday. You have to spend a lot of time going through the long learning process, the long maybe suffering learning process.
The only way that you’ll really be motivated to go through that process is if you’re doing something that you love so much that you would do it no matter what.
That’s what happened with me going out to the Burning Man Festival and getting inspired to take photos there. I didn’t set out to become a photographer. It happened as an accidental side effect of my desire to capture certain images.
I wanted to create those images so much that I was willing to do whatever it took to be able to make the images the way I could see them in my head.
You can only get that dedication if you’re shooting something that you love. If you’re just shooting something because you think it will make some money that could kill your love of it.
I even have one friend who used to be a very good photographer and then he started shooting weddings because he needed the money. Shooting weddings just killed his love of photography. Now he doesn’t even pick up a camera anymore.
It’s the classic example of the opposite side of what I’m talking about. If you’re shooting what you love, whether you’re going to make any money for it or get any attention for it, you can never go wrong because your own satisfaction is what’s driving you to do it. As long as that’s the primary goal, then you can’t go wrong. You may just accidentally grow into success as you go.
Brent: That’s some great advice Phil. Shoot what you love for sure. Great Phil thanks. Thank you so much for talking with me. I’ll just run through a few things that we actually went through today.
You’re obviously a man of many talents. You’ve done a lot of things in the past. We’ve spoken about your amazing images at Burning Man. How you got inspired with photography, how you became an accidental photographer from the images you got at Burning Man. Also how you captured those first few images with no fancy gear. I like that.
We ran through a couple more images where we had a burning structure and also that Burning Man should be on any photographer’s bucket list too. We’ve run through the education and the learning, the amazing Lightroom, Photoshop and other photography courses that you’ve got on your website Steeletraining.com.
We’ve also run through some of your new courses coming up, Lightroom it was version 5 coming up and then the event photography course. Also your golden nugget over there; shoot what you love which is just amazing advice for anyone getting into photography.
Phil, can you tell my audience or anyone listening to this, how they can get hold of you or learn more about what you do?
Phil: The best way is go to my website at Steeletraining.com. I also have the website for the Burning Man photos at Burnmonkey.com. If you go to Steele Training, you can sign up for my free tutorials there. If you get on my mailing list, then you’ll immediately get access to all the free stuff that I have there.
Also you’ll be getting updates from me when I put out new free photo tutorials. You’ll find how you can contact me on Facebook or Twitter if you do that stuff. That’s probably the best way to do it.
I hope Brent you can maybe put some links on the page here with this interview to bring people to my site or to my particular courses.
Brent: For sure. I will do Phil. When is Burning Man? Because I need to come out and meet you over there. We can photograph together.
Phil: Yes, the end of the summer every year. I’m actually not certain whether I’m going to be out there this year or not. I did it every year for about a decade. I missed a year because of health problems. After that little interruption, I haven’t made it back. I missed two years in a row.
I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to be able to put all my work on hold for the month that it takes to really pack up, go there and live there in an RV and come back and go through all that trouble or whether this is going to be another skipped year. We’ll see.
Brent: Thank you very much Phil and have a great day.
Phil: Thanks, my pleasure.