In the latest Photographer Spotlight, Flylords caught up with photographer Nick Kelley. Residing in Colorado, Nick has defined a raw and authentic style of photography that can be seen in his work. Check out our conversation and some of Nick’s photos below.
Flylords: Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera?
Nick: My mom is a documentary film producer and she used to work at ABC Sports, so she was always artistic and had cameras around. She encouraged me quite a bit when I was younger. My photography certainly started on family travels and around taking pictures fishing.
Flylords: Would she teach you framing? Or where did you learn the background that you built on? Was it any classes in college or anything like that?
Nick: Never took any classes in school. It’s actually funny, I could not get into a photography class in college because I didn’t have some sort of art requirement, which I think is stupid and funny to look back on now. But no, I took a trip after college with my good buddy. We traveled from Venezuela down to Patagonia and it was the first time I very seriously focused on photography in terms of I’d always been shooting but I sacrificed fishing time and really made an effort with it. And that was sort of the images that convinced me I could do it. Then right after that, I moved to Santa Fe and got a job at the Santa Fe Photo Workshops. They have really well-known photographers come in and teach courses for a week and I worked as an assistant for four months. So I had a different shooter every week that I was able to learn from and that was sort of my most intense graduate school for photography as the way I like to think about it.
Flylords: Was there one photographer in particular that stands out as someone who taught you the most during that time?
Nick: To be honest, no. It was more just like the process and kind of absorbing their workflows and what they liked and didn’t like. When I got a job at Outside Magazine in the Art Department I was introduced to photographer Andy Anderson. And just seeing all the photos come through a magazine of that caliber was very formative in terms of what I liked and didn’t like about photography.
Flylords: What do you think makes Andy Anderson stand out vs. other photographers?
Nick: I loved his simplicity. I think a lot of his images have a pretty clear focus and a lot of dead spaces. This may sound too negative, but they are pretty open, simple, graphic, and cinematic. I love the singular focus of a scene. And then mostly he was just shooting stuff I cared about in the outdoors. So it was kind of an obvious attraction of this is what I like shooting and this guy’s the best in the world at it.
Flylords: Do you think shooting things that you’re interested in bring out the best in your work?
Nick: Yes and no. I mean I often feel like I’m in a little bit of a lull when it comes to shooting fishing specifically just because I’ve spent so much time doing it. But I think you have to be interested in it to bring out your best work.
Flylords: Do you think talent is super important when shooting photography?
Nick: I think following people, I mean particularly in a commercial setting, like having real people that are talented and very engaged in what they’re doing I think comes through in the images 100%.
Flylords: Do you remember the first image that you had published? Or maybe the first one that you really looked at and you were like, this is a really proud moment.
Nick: Not the first one I had published but I did have a shot in the Exposure Section in Outside Magazine of a rock climber in the Grand Canyon that I was pretty proud about. Just because I grew up looking at the Exposure Section of Outside. Then the Patagonia catalog was another big moment, four or five years ago.
Flylords: What was the Patagonia catalog photo, do you remember?
Nick: It was actually with Maddie. We had a full spread of her standing next to a Defender by a gate in Argentina and then another over the shoulder of her.
Flylords: How has working with Maddie influenced your career?
Nick: It’s been really great and helpful for us to have one another. We’ve grown up alongside each other and we’ve been fortunate to have our work overlap here and there over the years. It is really fun to have your best friend and partner out there and always have a subject to take photos of.
Flylords: Do you think social media plays a big part in your job as a photographer?
Nick: I don’t. I would say the biggest benefit to things like Instagram for me now is just staying on clients’ radars. I don’t shoot anything specifically for Instagram or anything like that. I guess it’s just a great way to share work, have a perspective, and get it in front of other creatives’ eyeballs.
Flylords: Do you find inspiration from other photographers on there?
Flylords: How do you think your editing process has evolved and do you think you’re in a place now where you have your own style in that space?
Nick: I guess my introduction to the outdoor photography world is through wide-angle oversaturated landscapes. And I think I naturally pushed away from that and wanted to shoot more gritty details, and closer to subjects, like cutting things off, and shooting a little bit on film or at least being inspired by a lot of film shooters. So that’s a lot of what I’m trying to channel in my work is just a gritty authenticity, and it sounds silly but a lot of the work is done on the computer. Not to say that I’m manipulating or changing things, but it took several years to feel confident in the look I was going for, and both how to shoot and then how to work on it after to get the achieved or desired goal.
Flylords: Do you want to talk to us about what your post-editing process looks like?
Nick: I do all the retouching in Lightroom and a little bit in Photoshop here and there. I have a library of looks that I use as a starting point that I’ve developed and saved over the years. That’s typically a starting point, and then from there, I kind of make adjustments specifically to an image. And I guess the other huge factor that I was lucky to learn from the Outside Magazine workshop days is the importance of really good light. So I love that dark late or early light, and I think that contributes a lot to the style of my work in terms of heavy shadows or softer light. It seems obvious for a photographer to say that, but I’d make a big effort to be shooting in light that is desirable to me.
Flylords: Does that mean if you’re on a fishing shoot majority of the day, if it’s just totally blinding light above, do you put the camera down or how do you work around that?
Nick: I either will not shoot or I’ll wait for open shade or focus on small details, but not at all attracted to the middle of the day wide-angle landscape kind of thing.
Flylords: Is that your time to fish?
Nick: You’d think, but it sort of ends up just being my time to sit in the back of the boat and pretend like I’m shooting.
Flylords: Is that how it usually happens? What makes shooting and fishing so challenging?
Nick: I think it’s part of what has attracted me to it and further develop my style too. But it was never about the grip and grins for me and more about the in-between moment, as cliche as that sounds now. So I think the struggle, weather, the slow fishing, and the hours on the bow with nothing happening are awesome and all part of it. But there are definitely challenges.
When you’re on a saltwater trip and a system moves in for three days, you definitely start to panic. I definitely had some trips that are like fully busts that still ended up working out somehow. But I’ve also been lucky to go to awesome places with some amazing anglers that just somehow figure out a way that to get it done.
Flylords: Is there a super dicey moment that comes to mind on one of these trips?
Nick: I was in Cameroon last spring with Jako Lucas and Jeff Currier. And that whole thing was always a little bit on the edge. Never truly unsafe but we missed a flight and had to drive many hours through the north of Cameroon towards the border with Chad to catch this other plane. That was definitely a full week of the head on a swivel. It always felt like shit could get pretty interesting here at any moment.
Flylords: When you go into a trip do you have a pretty extensive shot list that you work off of?
Nick: Yes and no, it depends. I mean there’s a huge divide. For example, going on a fishing destination trip for Yeti or showing up for a couple of days for a commercial shoot. I certainly have boxes that I want to check, but most of the time trying to approach it kind of journalistically and let it unfold with whatever client or product or whatever we’re working on.
Flylords: Do you have a favorite image you’ve shot?
Nick: I’ve always loved this portrait of my friend Ruso during a hunt in Argentina standing with his dog. That was cool because it was a trip that I took a flyer on and just went and did it personally with no client or attachments. And it went really well and was what I was hoping for. I think I’ve probably gotten a lot of work because of that shoot, so it means a lot in the sense that I kind of went for it and that it worked out.
Flylords: How was the recent trip to the Seychelles with the Yeti crew?
Nick: Very rad. An amazing group and an amazing place as you know. Really cool to be back there five years after being on the crew that shot Cosmo and that place, as I’m sure you can attest to, I’m just always so impressed with. But no, we had some bad weather on Cosmo, but also some really good fishing and everyone caught a permit and the species list was off the charts. About as much fun as I’ve ever had on a work assignment for sure.
Flylords: Did you ever stop and need to wake yourself up that you’re like getting paid out there?
Nick: Oh yeah, for sure. And just like so energized by the thought of being in a place like that and having the opportunity and being paid to be there. Total pinch yourself moment. And then I caught a permit on the last day, so it was a total cherry on top.
Flylords: What was it like working on Cosmo and what was your role out there?
Nick: I was sort of the young guy on a crew of four. I did a lot of the producing and getting in touch with the outfitter and then on the ground, I was flying the drone, shooting some underwater, and shooting stills.
Flylords: Any tips for maybe an aspiring outdoor photographer?
Nick: I get this question a lot on Instagram specifically, and I wish I had a better, more concise answer, but shooting what you’re interested in and then shooting it in a way that feels natural to you and ideally different from what everyone else is doing.
It’s been said over and over again, but Instagram created a lot of photographers and there’s so much stuff out there to separate from the pack can actually make it a viable career option, I think you’ve got to be doing something different and also very well. I think characters and real stories are always going to outweigh the cool grip and grin or shot of a piece of gear or something like that. I think photography at its core is about connecting with a subject and it’s the portraits and the faces and the people that stick with people often, not the images.