For those who have been in or around the fly fishing media space, the name Adam Barker is most likely a familiar one. The Utah-based photographer has spent decades building his portfolio, from traveling the world to photograph famous anglers like Oliver White, to capturing incredible landscape photography in his mountainous backyard. We got the chance to sit down with Adam as a part of our ongoing “Photographer Spotlight” interview series to learn more about his career, how to develop yourself as a professional photographer, and what it takes to build a successful business based around adventure photography. Check out our conversation with Adam, below!
Flylords: When did you first pick up a camera? What model was it?
Adam: First legit camera was an SLR that my dad gave me, it was a Canon FTB. I called it a tank with a neck strap on it. That thing was a weapon more than it was a camera, it was so heavy that I think I’ve still got curvature in my spine from hauling that thing around. It was a really good introduction to photography, which at its very root, is just light and understanding how to expose for light.
It’s not like I picked up a camera and was like, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do. I’m destined to do this for the rest of my life.”
I enjoyed it, I took a black and white film photography class in high school, and that was the full extent of my formal training in photography.
I lived in Italy for two years when I was 19, serving a religious mission over there and I had definitely traveled before that, but it kind of opened my eyes to other cultures, other parts of the world, and really kind of gave me just this insatiable desire to share the world with others.
So, I came home at the age of 21, started at the University of Utah studying public relations, and just continued to hone the craft. As time went on, I noticed that there was more of a talent, a skillset, maybe a little bit more of a natural intuition in myself, and I worked to develop that.
Before too long, I was just totally a slave to photography in a good way. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I graduated from the University of Utah and worked in public relations in the ski industry for about five years, but it didn’t take long, while in that line of work, where I was just like, “Okay, I want to give this a go. I want to try and do this full time.” I just knew I had to try doing photography as a career and if it didn’t work, no big deal, but I couldn’t kind of sit there and wonder for the rest of my life. 2008 is when I jumped off to do it full time and I guess, we’re in almost year 14 of calling it my career.
Flylords: Tell us about the early part of your career. What was your first paid photography assignment?
Adam: This is right up there. I think the first check I ever got for commissioned work was for this dilapidated hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, they needed interior shots. It was quote-unquote architectural, which was a generous term for what I was doing.
It was dark, but it wasn’t super dingy. It’s not like I was shooting meth labs down there without a room number on it, but it wasn’t too far removed.
In fact, just the other day I was browsing my computer, looking for something and I stumbled upon Invoice #001. I looked at my day rate and I was like, “What in the world? What were you thinking?”
Flylords: Are there any important lessons that you’ve learned during your career so far?
Adam: Yeah. Well, to your point, first of all, one of the biggest lessons is… Because you kind of differentiated between photographers and professionals. Everyone’s a photographer, right? Especially with phones these days, it’s never been easier to shoot a pretty good picture. And when the light is really good, you can shoot a really good picture with something that you can fit in your pocket. There are no settings, there’s no nothing, so everyone’s a photographer.
One of the things that I always do is differentiate. When people ask me what I do, I don’t say, “I’m a photographer.” I say, “I make my living as a photographer,” and just the semantics in that regard change everything or the way that people hear it, and the impression that you give them immediately. So if you’re a professional, state it. Then immediately, you’re not their cousin’s brother’s uncles that shoot weddings. “Oh yeah, my… They’re a photographer too.” You want to differentiate that.
Right out of the gate you want to explore what you’re passionate about with photography. Find what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, and what you connect with from a shooting perspective.
Of course, it’s good to explore, especially early on, but kind of try and establish your path. In my case, I chose to say no to bad business from the start and it felt great. It established early on how I would approach photography from a business side, I want it to be a good deal for both parties.
For instance, maybe it wouldn’t pay particularly well for me, from a cash standpoint, but it gives me access to a rad location, different athletes/models, or access to a network that I haven’t had previously.
And then, finally, when it’s time, don’t just dip a toe, jump all the way in and go for it. You’ll never know what you are fully capable of until you’ve got to deliver.
Flylords: It seems that there is a precedent of trading photo work for free destination trips or days with guides, but you approached your career a bit differently. How did you approach your first forays into the fly fishing photography world?
Adam: I did. I think I drove a harder line earlier in my career than I do now. It’s interesting that perspective that I have now because then, I was looking up to pros like Val Atkinsons or Brian O’Keeffe, some of the more veteran photographers in the industry who were obviously paid well for their work. Of course, there have always been people trading work for trips to lodges. But, for me, that was a no-go from the beginning. Trips needed to be paid for and paid, which made it hard. I had a lot of, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
For a lot of clients, it seems that good enough is good enough. My approach was always, “When good enough is no longer good enough, you can hire me.”
I just kind of drove a hard line for a while there, but I think the important part is to preface that with the portfolio and quality of work. Yes, I was a somewhat new name in the space early on in my career, but all it took was three images included in the email for somebody to be like, “Okay, the quality is there.”
That’s the advantage of what we do, it’s quite easy to immediately justify who you are and what you do. It’s a little bit harder to connect the dots from, “This is me,” to, “Hey, we’re doing a commissioned shoot together.” But, I have softened over the years and I think that comes a little bit from being a little less hungry as my career has gone on. Earlier in my career, I probably was really more black and white on these things.
I’m would say, “Dude, this is what I do for my job. I’m going to make it worth your while, and I’ve got to be paid.” And I would kind of look at it that way with other photographers now as well, you have to do right by the industry.
I think when I was younger and I would say, “Well, shoot, I don’t want to screw anything up for anybody else. I don’t want to undercut anybody else. I want to make sure and do this professionally, and in the right way.”
As the years have gone by, I truly think there are a lot of right ways, I don’t judge anyone for anything. If you want to go shoot a trip for free, I don’t care, that’s totally your prerogative, right? If you feel that there’s value in it for you, then go for it.
It does however make things difficult for clients and photographers because there’s no standard. On one hand, clients could go to one photographer and they’d be like, “Yeah, just host me and I’ll give you everything on the hard drive.”
And then, on the other hand, they may encounter a photographer who’ll say, “Hey, I need you to pay my traveling expenses. I need you to pay me a creative fee, or a day rate, and I’m going to give you 15 images per day with five years of unlimited usage.”
Flylords: I was talking to an older colleague who was lamenting about the death of the $2,500 image with big brands in fly fishing. He and I were going back and forth about how it’s the photo buyer’s market right now. You’ve probably seen this shift firsthand during your career, what are your thoughts on that?
Adam: Yeah. Well, first of all, I’ll say that the $2,500 image is not dead, it’s not a total unicorn, but still out there for sure. And so it’s not dead and I guess there are still clients that value A-plus work, even over A-minus work. You got to find those clients, but they’re out there.
I want to preface this all by saying, much of this industry is built on relationships. Relationships are paramount, no matter what business you’re in, but especially in this industry.
The other thing I would say to that is, a number of years ago… I want to say it was 2016, but I had a really hard year. It was just… Man, it was like hitting my head against a brick wall. I just was trying to get work, couldn’t get work, and keep in mind, this is not at the beginning of my career, this is eight years after I started. So I was very much established, I had a name out there, I had the portfolio, but for whatever reason, it was just tough. I ended up posting on social media talking about how frustrated I was that other people were doing more work for less money, undercutting photographers like myself. And some random commenter gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever got, “Adapt or die.” Now, that’s not revelatory. We’ve heard it a bunch, but it has stuck with me forever. We can find a way around it, and we can find a way to do better and be better, or we can sit there and complain, and nothing will ever happen.
Flylords: What is the hardest you’ve worked from scouting to hiking, to getting there for one shot?
Adam: I usually like to pre-visualize shots, meaning I will have thought about it quite a bit before going into the field. The difference between a really great sunset image is not how colorful the sky is, it’s how have you put that image together, right? How have you composed that image? How have you arranged it? What have you included? What have you excluded? And that’s a process.
Let’s say we’re out fishing for the day. I will kind of take everything in, especially if we’re on new water. If I’m on my home water, I’ll likely know what’s happening, but I look at angles.
“Okay, where’s west? Where’s east? Where’s the sunrise, where’s the sunset? How can I use this to my advantage as the light gets better throughout the day? Am I doing silhouetted images? Am I doing backlit images? Am I doing side lit? What are we fishing for? Is there going to be a splash coming up that I can backlight? Is there a hatch?”
And, that’s all thought out throughout the day, and as the light gets better, I start to kind of put it together more in my head.
The hardest I’ve ever worked for a shot was probably that famous image of a permit in the wave with Oliver White that was the cover of the Flyfish Journal.
When I think about just getting absolutely slapped around for days and days, and I had kind of this vision in my head, this is a type of image that I’d love to get. And that trip, for four days, I think we’d caught two fish. Finally, on day five, we got a permit.
I knew that I wanted Oliver to be in the upper right-hand third of the frame and the fish needed to be in the back left-hand third of the frame, and I wanted to focus on the fish. It needed to be tech sharp, but I needed to be a connection to the rod and all those things. Looking back, I would consider that one of my top photos ever taken. The way that I say it is, “You could give me a pet permit and a wave pool, and I probably wouldn’t be able to create that image again, and that’s very satisfying, right? Because that’s photography. That moment, we’ll never recreate it.
Flylords: Are there people that you’ve worked with, like Oliver, where the dance between photographer and subject feels like a natural thing? When they can see from your perspective, almost looking through the viewfinder and saying, “I know what Adam’s looking for”?
Adam: 100%. It’s probably even less of, “I know what Adam’s looking for,” and, “I know what will help Adam. I know what will help make for a really great shot and then I know, if I do my job, Adam’s doing his job.” Having a professional on the other end is crucial with something like fishing. The difference between somebody that knows what they’re doing and somebody that doesn’t is that they might extend their actions by even just half a second or one second, which gives me a couple more frames.
The other part is that it’s a collaborative effort, I’m friends with these guys. Oliver and I’ve been buddies forever, we hit it off early on, and I think you want to work for the people that you want to work for. And Oliver doesn’t work for me, we work for each other when we’re out there, right?
For instance, we just got back from Seychelles and I ended up shooting with Drew Chicone the whole week, we connected immediately. Drew was a super high-energy guy, and we’re very similar in that, we wanted to go, go, go. Immediately Drew and I knew, “Okay, we’re going to get stuff done together.” Because he can do his job, allowing me to do mine, that connection, it’s paramount.
I don’t ever really want anyone on the other side of the lens to feel like I’m just using them as an accessory. I try and connect with them beforehand and I’ve got them for half a day, or even just a couple of hours, and then as soon as the shoot’s done, that’s it and they go their way. I don’t love those transactional relationships, I value real relationships, I value friendships. And in the end, to me, that will produce A-plus work or at very least, let’s say it doesn’t, I’ve got a great friend. I’ve got a great memory, I’ve got a great experience. I would much rather die in a room full of friends, with no images on the wall, than die alone with a bunch of pretty pictures hanging up.
Flylords: When you’re on shoots, do you ever pick up the rod? Or are you glued to your viewfinder chasing the shot?
Adam: When I go and shoot fishing, I fish a lot as well. Because, if you’re spending eight hours a day on the skiff, there’s only so much you can shoot. So for sure, I’m going to trade-off. When Oliver and I go on a trip, he knows full well that if the shooting’s good, I’m shooting, but if the shooting sucks, I’m fishing.
Flylords: So you just got back from Seychelles. What adventures are next on your horizon?
Adam: So I’m working toward the book, a coffee table book, and I need one or two more exotic destinations in my mind. So I don’t know where that is. I’d really like to do New Zealand, I haven’t done New Zealand before. I’d really like to do a shoot focusing on dirt bike trail riding. I’d love to combine back roads, trail riding, finding some really rad remote streams, and tie the two together.
Other than that, man, I don’t pursue those big trips like I used to, and that’s mostly because, to be perfectly honest, I like being home. I like spending time with my boys, I think I’ve become way more of a homebody.
I guess the short answer is, I don’t know, but I like to keep an open mind and try and keep myself sharp, so when that opportunity comes, I’m ready. A lot of my time right now is spent pursuing well-paying commission, work that pays the bills, and sometimes that includes fishing and sometimes it doesn’t. But I always make time for those epic trips.