Lucas Gilman is one of the leading adventure photographers and filmmakers in the industry for the last 20 years. His powerful and incisive images run in top publications & advertisements worldwide and his love of adventure and addiction to color creates his distinct style of photography and filmmaking. I’ve had the good fortune to work and learn from him on a couple of different occasions.
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“I would say you only have one chance to make a first impression. I would say if you’re wanting to work figure out who your client is first. If that’s National Geographic figure out what kind of portfolio you’d need to build, to impress National Geographic. And I’d say that you need to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. And until you’re ready to show them your portfolio. Don’t do it. You only have that first chance once.”
“chance favors the prepared mind” the old Louis Pasteur quote
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Follow up with Lucas
Where are you based these days?
Though Lucas grew up as a mountain kid in Colorado, he wanted to get the ocean side experience, so he and his family live in central California now.
How were you introduced to the outdoors and adventure?
Growing up in Western Colorado, Lucas always loved skiing and travel. He attended the University of Colorado – Boulder’s writing program but changed his focus after taking an Intro to Photojournalism class. He got hooked on photography while studying under famed New York Times photographer Kevin Maloney and got his first photos published in the Denver Post.
Lucas went on to intern for the Denver Post throughout college, where he got his first real taste of working as a professional photographer. He describes his experiences working for the Denver Post as “trial by fire,” taking the assignments that no one else wanted. “I learned a lot, but it was trial by fire and from there…I decided that at some point, I wanted to produce quality over quantity.” He wanted to go out on his own as a freelance photographer but was advised by Rich Clarkson, a mentor and Director of Photography at National Geographic, to move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to work at the Jackson Hole News and Guide and Jackson Magazine.
Lucas took the advice and ended up falling in love with Jackson Hole. He loved the freedom he had to cover stories that interested him in the outdoor world while building his freelance business.
What else did you do while you were in Jackson Hole?
During his six years living in Jackson Hole, Lucas photographed pro polo players from around the world, kayaking, mountain biking, and backcountry skiing to name a few subjects. “It’s a veritable playground for an outdoor adventure photographer,” he says, reflecting on the range of his work.
The biggest obstacle to the growth of his freelance adventure photography business was the travel impacts of winter in the mountains. After considering the next steps in his career, Lucas moved back to Colorado, where he could rely on the Denver airport to travel more consistently.
What was your first outdoor adventure commercial shoot?
Lucas was working for many companies at the time, but recalls shoots for apparel and hard goods manufacturers like Patagonia, K2 Skis, and Atomic. He wasn’t necessarily focused on any specific area of outdoor adventure photography but found himself receiving gear from companies and shooting as often as possible.
Is there a shoot in your past that was particularly epic?
Lucas recalls that one of the craziest things that ever happened to him was during a job for Nikon, where he joined his friend, Redbull athlete Robert Ortiz, on a kayak trip in Chiapas, Mexico. After hiking miles into the jungle, Lucas shot the athletes kayaking off of waterfalls for the shoot, only to be surrounded by Zapatistas wielding machetes who attempted to extort money from the crew. Lucas gave the men whatever money he had on him, was released from the custody of the Zapatistas, and sprinted the few miles back up the river to escape.
You said you originally majored in writing in college, do you ever write stories of your adventures?
Lucas admits that he never made a point to let magazines know that he was a writer, wanting to focus primarily on photography rather than being pulled in several directions for a project. He concedes that writing is an important facet of getting work because photographers have to be able to write a creative and concise pitch to get their projects picked up and sustain their freelance income. “80% of what I do is on the backend in the office, coming up with concepts, coming up with creative ideas, coming up with angles and things that have generally been done before,” Lucas says, “not necessarily reinventing the wheel, but trying to go out and continually have enough, for lack of a better term, irons in the fire.”
Tell us how you go about developing the story or anatomy of a shoot
Things have changed over time and there isn’t one specific recipe Lucas relies on, but he emphasizes that working with athletes and developing relationships is paramount to his success.
As his business has grown and technology has advanced, Lucas has transitioned more into directing and his team has expanded to shooting video, in addition, to still photography. Recalling a shoot for Land Rover in Telluride, Colorado, he remembers that his crew handled shooting both stills and video which not only worked out for the bottom line but also increased the quality of the output, as the project was more stylistically cohesive. “That was something that I started running with to continue to grow the business, because in these times there’s always going to be a video aspect for all of these shoots. So why not embrace it instead of swimming upstream against it.”
Where do you get your inspiration?
“Pretty much everywhere,” Lucas says, “you gotta be on the lookout for all kinds of opportunities. Coming through the outdoor adventure world, that’s the bread and butter. But I really try to find inspiration everywhere.” Lucas recalls pouring over photo books at his college library looking for inspiration from subjects ranging from classic Ansel Adams outdoor photography to fashion, food, and fine art. “Just going out and trying to find that visual stimulation to use that as a springboard to go out and produce things, to use techniques to take new and interesting pictures.”
Lucas has grown his business by “using the technology, figuring out that these things all have a place and a purpose. How do we use this technology to our advantage instead of looking at it as though it’s ‘Oh, all these people are just cutting into my bread and butter and my bottom line.’ Let’s embrace this technology and go out and produce content which we wouldn’t have been able to do before.”
Reflecting on his creative collaborators, Lucas says “I like to say that I work in a collective, I collect friends and associates, which are really good at what they do. And by doing that, I feel like it makes me stronger.” “Photographers have a very me attitude,” he admits, “I produce the photo, I do this. I’m looking at this in a bigger picture sense.” He feels like his success has generated from his attitude of “How can my tribe make me stronger?’ and his willingness to “bring those creatives together, who oftentimes have much better ideas than I do.” “All of a sudden you’ve got your mini agency for your project.”
On dealing with disappointment and rejection, Lucas encourages photographers to “to keep, pounding the pavement and having faith that what you’re doing is good photography.”
Are you shooting anything with phones?
Lucas thinks newer phones, with their advanced cameras and technological abilities, are remarkable and can be useful tools. He has the new iPhone 12 Pro, which takes spectacular quality pictures, and typically uses the phone more casually, for everyday shots and vacation photos.
What’s the best camera?
Lucas’s short answer is “a camera you can carry with you, because it’s the one you’ll have with you when you want to take that photo.” He recognizes that “it comes down to what you’re comfortable with and what you’ll actually go out and use.”
How has Covid impacted your business?
Because of international travel restrictions and his hesitancy to put himself into risky situations during the pandemic, Lucas has flown far less than ever. He also recognized that by traveling amid the pandemic, he might be risking his reputation, which would affect his livelihood.
In order to get through the height of the Covid pandemic, Lucas pivoted his subject matter. “I still wanted to do photography and be creative and produce video projects,” he says. After taking stock of his options and passions, Lucas got a camper van, developed relationships with outdoor recreation companies that lacked social media content, and began developing a portfolio while traveling domestically.
Do you have a favorite thing you like to cook?
Lucas has dabbled in everything from high-end sushi to Japanese Wagyu, but admits “if I could pick one style of cooking, it would be cooking over wood out in nature.” “So the way we used to cook – low tech and just enjoying the sights, the smells, and the sounds, producing regionally sustainable, produce and meats and things.”
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into photography?
“I would say you only have one chance to make a first impression…Figure out who your client is first, if that’s National Geographic, figure out what kind of portfolio you’d need to build to impress National Geographic. And I’d say that you need to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. Don’t go for it until you’re ready to show them your portfolio. You only have that first chance.”
Lucas also recommends taking the time to develop your craft as a photographer. “The more things you can do the better photographer you are. Can you shoot in miserable conditions? When the light isn’t great? Can you still produce? I think that’s the difference. There’s a lot of amazing photographers out there, but the difference between a true professional and somebody who’s an amateur is that the true professional can produce something in any condition.”
If you were able to hang a huge banner at the front of one of the trade shows, be it an outdoor show or a photo show, what would it say?
“Chance favors the prepared mind, the old Louis Pasteur quote.” Lucas believes that “the more you put into something, the better results you’re going to get.”
Do you have any daily routines you use to keep your sanity?
“We do day trips, we walk the dog, we do all the things that we can safely do where we can go. We like to take the camper van and go up near San Simeon, which is near Hearst Castle, and take a picnic, bar, grill there – hang out and just spend the day on the beach, social distancing, letting the dog run – just be out in nature.”
“Just appreciate what you have,” Lucas says, “what are the things that could be positive out of it, because if we dwell on the negatives, it’s hard to move forward…that’s human nature right there.”
Do you have any favorite books?
“My photo book thirst is kind of thirsty, Lucas says.” He recommends ‘Dogs’ by Tim Flach, a British photographer who takes high-speed sync pictures of dogs and other animals. Other favorites are by Chris Ranier, Ansel Adams, Annie Liebowitz, and Tom Magnuson.
Do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear under $100?
“I would say a multi-tool would be the one thing I would recommend everybody have,” Lucas recommends the Leatherman Skeletool for its diverse range of abilities. “That would be the number one thing…if I could spend a hundred dollars. That and a headlamp. Those two things should be in every photographer’s bag.”
For photography-specific gear, Lucas recommends a 10 stop ND filter, which allows you to take long exposures during the day.
Is there anything else you’d like to say or ask of our listeners?
“Try to keep everything in perspective and remember that we’re we only have one planet. Let’s all kind of work together to hopefully keep it as best we can get out the other side.”
Where can people find you?