It’s “Guest Blog Wednesday” featuring Austin Mann!


Wow, thanks to Scott and Brad for giving me this rad opportunity to guest blog. I’ve been an avid Photoshop user for about 15 years and have been impacted by Scott’s amazing books and tutorials for as long as I can remember, so it’s really cool for me to get to do this.

Most of you don’t know me, so here’s a little ice breaker:

10 Ways I’ve Used Gaff Tape in the last year:

1. To reduce terrible chafing between my legs while shooting at Witch’s Rock in Costa Rica.
2. To patch up holes in my mosquito net over my bed in Tanzania
3. To hold up the water bladder I used to bathe in Sudan
4. As a bandaid to keep the blood from my cut finger off equipment
5. To keep the insane knot-untying raccoons out of my bag while camping on the beach in Costa Rica
6. To strap my camera to the top of a piece of rebar for a time-lapse in the earthquake zone of Beichuan, China.
7. To attach my camera to my hand while paragliding in the Himalayas
8. To make it unbelievably difficult to steal a camera I wanted to leave on a construction site for a 5-day time lapse (used like half a roll on that sucker, it worked!)
9. To hold my battery charger into a really jankity outlet in India.
10. To keep the spitting cobras out of my cottage in Zambia

Using gaff to set up a time-lapse in rural China

I finished school about a year ago and since then I’ve been able to travel through about 20 countries working with a variety of different missions-based organizations on assignment to capture what they are doing abroad (both through still and motion picture.) My work is typically used to share what they are doing with others in efforts to raise money for the organization in one way or another, whether it’s sold as art or just connecting with donors on an emotional level.

It’s definitely been a whirlwind of a year and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had and the failures I’ve endured. I could write forever about all the ins and outs of travel photography; how to prepare for a shoot in 140°F Sudan, how to pull off an album cover shoot in an earthquake zone in rural China or even how to get the best seats on international flights (without paying an extra penny!)

But instead I want to write about a fundamental approach and mindset that has had a huge impact on my photography and my life. I don’t quite know what to call it but it’s really summed up in the quote, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  I have two stories to illustrate this concept, and I’ll start with this one:

At 8 years old, my dad put an Apple IIsi with a scanner in front of me. He showed me how to use the basic tools in Photoshop (version 2.5 at that point) and gave me the freedom to start playing with his expensive equipment.  I used to collect ball cards so I immediately started scanning a few from my collection. The first time I scanned a card of Michael Jordan and another of Damon Stoudamire and then switched their heads in Photoshop I was totally hooked. I even started cutting out the pictures and designing my own cards (watch out Upper Deck!)

Exploring the digital world on an Apple IIsi at a very young age

A few years later on the last day of 6th grade (May 1998) my dad walked into my class as I was leaving school and he was holding a fresh print out of the most drool-worthy computer I’d ever laid eyes on. It had just been announced at MacWorld and was called the iMac and I needed to have it. It had all kinds of new bells and whistles such as a whopping 4.2GB hard drive, a totally new and unprecedented interface called Universal Serial Bus (USB) and it was even so cutting edge it didn’t have a floppy drive.   I knew I wanted it and was determined to figure out a way to get it.

I went straight home, the wheels in my head spinning, contemplating how to get one of those beautiful iMacs on my desk. It was $1299, which was more money than I’d ever seen in my life, but I knew it wasn’t out of reach.  I ended up making hundreds of lawn-mowing flyers and passing them out all over my neighborhood. Within a few days, I was mowing about 10 lawns on a weekly basis and was well on my way to to $1299.  By August, when the Bondi Blue beauty became available and summer was over, I had about $1200. My Dad helped pay the remainder, and at the beginning of my 7th grade year I had bought my own iMac. I spent thousands of hours on it, tinkering around with Photoshop, Flash, Claris HomePage and so much more.

Looking back, I can now see how beneficial those hours were to my career. I picked up a camera about three years ago, but hit the ground running because of all the years of experience I’d had in Photoshop. In fact, I really started as a digital imaging guy that used a camera. I could see what I wanted in my head but didn’t understand how to use the camera, so I would get it as close as possible in camera and then put it in Photoshop and do some serious editing to complete my vision. Now, as my knowledge of the equipment has increased, the tables have turned. I create my images almost completely in camera and use the editing process as an emory board instead of a jackhammer.

My second story is about how I ended up with my dream job in NYC in 2007. I’d had another job lined up, but it fell through two days before I was supposed to move to the City. I went ahead and moved out there and was back to the drawing board, surfing through online job sites, making phone calls, doing everything I could to get plugged in somewhere.

After two weeks, and still no job, I called my dad in frustration.  He encouraged me to look back through the first jobs I’d checked out and to continue to be patient. That night, I found an academic intern position had opened up at National Geographic Adventure magazine in New York. I was excited to see the opening and immediately sent in my application with resume and all. After a week of waiting to hear back with no response, I decided it was stupid to just be sitting around and to do something about it.

I had taken my first trip out of the country to Tanzania the previous summer and had made a hardbound iPhoto book with the images I brought back. I called home and had my parents overnight me that book. The next morning, I got the book in the mail, looked up the NG’s location on Google Maps and hopped on the subway. As I walked into the lobby, resume and book in hand, I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t talked to anyone there, didn’t know anyone’s name, I just knew I wanted that job.

A mother and her child in Tanzania, one of many images in the book from my first trip to Africa in May ’06

I walked up to the security guard working the lobby and, as confidently as possible, said “I’m here to speak to an HR rep at National Geographic.” He replied, “Okay, what time is your appointment?” Caught a little off-guard, I told him, “Well, I don’t have one.” We talked a bit more and he told me I was crazy to think I could just go up there on a whim.  So I handed him my book and resume and asked him if he could deliver it to someone at NG. After awhile he said, “You know, you seem like a pretty nice kid… I’m gonna take you up there.”

Next thing I knew I was meeting their HR rep, handing her my book and resume. She promised to pass on my materials to their editor and I left elated.  The next day, Sabine Meyer (senior editor at the mag) called me, set up an interview and gave me the job.

My time at NGA working under Sabine really proved to be a launching pad for my career. I learned so much from her and also met a truckload of people that I still stay in touch with today.

These two stories are very different but what they have in common is the will to get something, finding a way, and doing it. The key take aways from these stories are not that you need a slick new computer to be successful, or that you can get a job by walking into a place and talking your way through security…no no no.

What I want to convey here is that you can do anything if you want it badly enough. There’s nothing stopping you! Don’t take no for an answer.  Google it. Search it. Make phone calls. Talk to people.  Break rules. Do something crazy.  Find a way. Make your own way if you have to. I see so many people get “no” for an answer and then just sit their idly for weeks not knowing what to do. Move on or try again! Expect five no’s before you get a yes. This all takes us back to the simple quote I mentioned earlier: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

As if I haven’t made this too long already,  I want to leave you with just a few random thoughts…

Don’t sell your old equipment. Give it to some kid that is gushing with creative juices but doesn’t have the tools to let his talent shine… He’ll use it for hours on end and will probably end up creating killer images that even inspire you. The opportunity it gives him and the joy it brings to you is way more valuable than the lousy couple hundred bucks you might make on eBay.

Also, limitations often spawn creativity. Never forget that. We are all on this quest to get the newest, coolest, slickest piece of equipment because it promises better images. Not true. Some of the most creative images I’ve ever created have happened as a result of limitation. Don’t ever think that because you don’t have the equipment you can’t do it. Don’t drool over equipment, instead seek after knowledge. Study your subject, your story, whatever it is you’re shooting… Find out everything there is to know and you’ll be amazed at the images you end up creating.

Engage people. Talk to everyone. I’m not talking about your clients/talent/assistants but also your cabbie, the security guard, the janitor, your pilot. Everyone has a story… Share yours, give them an opportunity to share theirs and there is no telling what you’ll learn and where that relationship might lead.

Never be satisfied with where you are now. As Bill Fortney once told me, “Be better tomorrow than you are today.” If you do that one thing, where will you be in 5 years? It’s mind-blowing to think about.

If you have questions about prepping for trips overseas, equipment to carry, bags to pack in, my favorite travel underwear or ANYTHING… I love to help so shoot me an email. I try to post informative tidbits on my Twitter pretty frequently so check that out, too.

Huge thanks to all that have taken the time to read this, and to Scott and Brad for the chance share with this audience!

– Austin

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