Today I’m thrilled to have a Stanford classmate, Eric Cheng, on the podcast. Eric is an award-winning underwater photographer, aerial imager and publisher. His work has been featured in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum and he’s spoken internationally at events like TEDx, the Churchill Club, Good Morning America and more.
He’s also well known for being the founder of Wetpixel.com, the most popular community website dedicated to underwater photography and videography. As part of this site, he leads underwater expeditions all over the world which is pretty damn cool.
He’s also held leadership roles at Lytro, the first light field camera company and today, he’s the director of aerial imaging at DJI, a leading quad copter manufacturer.
What I like about Eric is that he has used entrepreneurship to facilitate his lifestyle as an artist. In fact, I recommend that everyone head on over EChengPhoto.com and check out some of his work!
What You’ll Learn
- How Eric created a small niche underwater photography community
- How documenting his experiences on the web got him to where he is today
- Eric’s philosophy on pursuing your passions versus making a living
- Eric’s advice on how to be successful as an artist
- How to get your work noticed online
- How to keep yourself afloat while pursuing your artistic endeavors
- Why you need to realize that you are running a small business if you want to make a living with your art
Other Resources And Books
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Welcome to the, My Wife Quit Her Job Podcast. We will teach you how to create a business that suits your lifestyle, so you can spend more time with your family and focus on doing the things that you love. Here is your host Steve Chou.
Steve: Welcome to the My Wife Quit Her Job Podcast. Today I’m thrilled to have a Stanford buddy of mine on the show Eric Cheng. Now if you don’t know who Eric is, he is an award winning under water photographer, aerial imager, and publisher. Now his work has been featured in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. And he spoke at internationally at events like TEDx, the Chow Chow club, and most recently on Good Morning America.
Now he is also well known for being the founder of Wetpixel.com, the most popular community website dedicated to underwater photography and videography. Now as part of this side he leads under water expeditions all over the world which is pretty damn cool. He has also held leadership roles at Lytro the first light field Camera Company, and today he is actually the director of aerial imaging at DGI, a leading quad captor manufacturer. Now before we begin this interview, I just want everyone to just hit pause and go to echengphoto.com, that’s e-c-h-e-n-gphoto.com, and just go ahead and check out some of his work because it is breathtaking.
Now here is why I invited Eric on the show. Out of all my Stanford buddies, Eric has an incredible attitude about life. And in a nutshell, he pretty much does whatever the heck he wants to do and he uses entrepreneurship as a means to facilitate his lifestyle as an artist. Now today it is actually pretty rare to see him stand any place for long. He is often found travelling the world taking underwater photos in exotic locations, or flying quad copters over active volcanoes and he just got back from Iceland last week doing this.
So today’s episode is actually for all the artists out there in the audience, and I’m hoping that Eric’s story will inspire all of you to take a leap of faith and take a chance at lifestyle entrepreneurship. And with that welcome to the show Eric how are you doing man?
Eric: Pretty good, thanks so much for having me on the show.
Steve: Yeah, really happy to have you and it’s funny, you know we were in school, we were in undergrad together and we didn’t really hang out that much. You went into CS, I went to electrical engineering. And you took a CS job when you graduated right?
Eric: I did yeah.
Steve: Yeah, but then you decided to quit cold turkey kind of long time ago, like over decade ago right?
Eric: Yeah, it was in 2001, I think, I have to do math to go back that far. Yeah, I was at a company called [tiffany?] they were doing something that– actually I didn’t even know what they did when I joined. You know I sort of went to their company with the smartest people I could find and a lot of them were close kind of cohorts I guess at Stanford who were looking for similar things. And I worked there for a few years and really enjoyed a lot of aspects of it, but really just didn’t care what the company did. You know then it was really about, the motivation and the bigger picture view of what I was doing there. And that’s I guess a lot of what we are going to talk about today.
Steve: Yes, so actually let’s just start with that. So why did you quit and how did you get the courage to kind of pursue your own thing?
Eric: Well, I mean courage is relative. You know if you are in a tech company being paid pretty well it’s easy to have a lot of courage. At least I feel like it’s easier to have courage, but when I talk to a lot of friends who are in that situation they ask the same question because quitting is a big deal. You know and it doesn’t– we are taught sort of not to quit from when we were very young. And I ended up leaving– just because I looked around one day and realized that there were people at the company and my colleagues who seemed to actually be enjoying what they were doing in every way.
You know so what I enjoyed were little problems, little technical problems that we would solve together, and kind of the intellectual environment of being in software at a really exciting time, you know at the end of that tech gloom in the 90’s. But I just– I don’t know I thought something fundamental was missing and I was getting a lot of my creative energy out playing the cello, because you know pretty much before photography I was a cellist. And all of my creative energy and spare time went into playing chamber music and hanging out with classical musicians. And that was really missing at work you know in my primary job you know which at the time was taking out like 80 hours a week in a little start up.
I just felt like there was a huge piece missing and I would be escaping to kind of live my life and then come back to work which I also enjoyed, but something was missing. So I just really left, it was a leap of faith. You know I left and– it’s not like I just walked away one day and picked up a camera and became a photographer. You know there was a very long process involved and during that time with a few friends we started a consulting company and did– we did work on the side to fund ourselves. You know and we had health insurance, and so I would say the courage was really leaving the full time gig. But it wasn’t like I left and starved and tried to build myself up as an artist.
Steve: So you actually had a side gig, even though you were working 80 hours a week?
Eric: Well, I mean the side gig was fun, it was being a musician. And yeah, so it wasn’t like I was working as a photographer at the time. And you know anyone who has worked for a startup in Silicon Valley pretty much knows that it’s the most flexible job in the world. You know the goal is to do your work and that takes a lot of your time, most of your time. But if you need to get out for a couple of hours in the day or shop at 2pm and work through the night, that’s totally up to you.
Steve: So actually so had you been doing photography for quite a while?
Eric: I was always a hobbyist photographer, and you know so I knew how cameras worked from a technical standpoint. You know I could tell you all about the variables for exposure and you know in theory how to get a sharp well exposed picture. And I was kind of the guy who always had a camera, who would take pictures of what was around me. So you know I took pictures of my friend kind of constantly during school, but I would say that I didn’t– I wasn’t inspired to be a photographer at the time. You know I had a camera, I liked to take pictures, but I didn’t really know what I was doing with the camera. There was no kind of driving force to push me into doing it in a more serious way, and yeah.
Steve: So how did you discover underwater photography? I mean it sounds very nichy.
Eric: It is, it’s sort of yeah, it’s sort of the ultimate niche photography. I discovered it more or less on accident, but there were many factors that were pushing me in that direction kind of over the years. And the first is that I was really interested in nature and wildlife. So even during school you know at night I would watch animal planet and discovery channel. This is before reality TV, so the shows were actually still good. And yeah, and I was obsessed you know I watched everything you can imagine about every animal in every environment. Kind of between that like 11 and 12pm you know in the evening kind of while you are taking a break in between projects or something.
And so I was really interested in wildlife and I started keeping salt water fish and corals in my dorm room, kind of you know in secret because you are not really supposed to have a big fish tank in your dorm room. And you know when you keep corals; you’ll start to learn about rainecology [ph] and about the waste cycle and all the things that are necessary to keep you — to keep those animals thriving in an enclosed environment. So I became really knowledgeable about the ocean, kind of well I was just doing you know the normal sea stuff and like taking breaks to play music. And I was also sort of an amateur diver. You know I had around 20 dives or something in five years during school, I didn’t have time, I didn’t have the money to do it.
And I had a camera and so all of these things had to merge at some point, and what happened was I planned the trip to Palau, kind of during you know while I was winding down in software, and getting a little bit uneasy. And I went there with a friend and I just — I bought an underwater housing for the digital camera I had at the time, which is a Nikon cool pix 990, you know that, remember that swivel like 3.39 pixel Swivel digital camera. I took them underwater and the pictures are terrible. They are absolutely terrible. And you know I was kind of an amateur diver.
You know I have never taken a camera underwater. Advanced divers were with us and you know I was not an advanced diver at the time. But what I did was open up that world to me, and I just remembered this moment where I was under water and a school of fish swam by for 19 minutes. And we surfaced from that dive, and the dive guides who were with us on the trip just said, “We have never seen anything like that. “You know these guys had been working in that area for many-many years and they just — I mean that was a light bulb, it was this moment when I realized that the underwater world was more or less unexplored. And you could be doing it for 20 years and then go in the water one day and have something that no one had ever seen happen, right there in front of you.
And so that was really the motivation that drove me to become a photographer. I just — I started doing it as much as I could and being you know sort of methodical on the way that I’m about it, just I experimented constantly. I didn’t know that people actually did it in the real world. You know I didn’t know that there was sort of this industry around underwater imaging and it’s very small. But I just did it on my own and started publishing pictures wherever I could; I got published in a couple of magazines pretty early on. And I put everything online and very quickly ended up with a website called Webpixel, which we can talk about, and that’s sort of what kind of bolted me into that world.
Steve: Yeah, let’s talk about Webpixel. So was that just meant to be a repository of photos in the beginning?
Eric: Well, so Webpixel has actually had a long history even before I got involved. So I’m often credited as being the founder and in many ways, I’m the founder of Webpixel on the way that it exists today. But I was working, you know I was sort of going on these trips, I got hired to do satellite web publishing from a boat in Kona, and that was very painful you know to be on a satellite connection in the year 2001. Or maybe it was 2000 even, kind of Nansen [ph] web you know terrible connectivity 2400 [inaudible] [0:13:32].
Steve: Yeah, crazy okay.
Eric: And I started you know I was kind of like the technical guy. I had– I was shooting in underwater and– but I had all of this technical knowledge about digital imaging, about networking, kind of the computer stuff that was starting to become important. And I was posting about what I was doing online and I met a guy named David Bradigan who was running kind of– do you remember Steve, Digicams?
Steve: Steve, no I don’t actually.
Eric: It was before DP review there was a site in just reviewed cameras. And there was this underwater discussion forum that didn’t really fit into the site, and kind of span off into a one page kind of scrolling off into infinity website that had digital underwater imaging news. So kind of nobody was doing it at the time. And it was that community just existed for the few of us who were doing it. And we just teamed up and I rebuilt the site and put forums in as a way for all of us to communicate about it.
And I wrote articles constantly you know basically if I had to spend more than five minutes figuring something out, I would write about it and put online. And that sort of — that’s one of the major themes in my life is putting content that has taken me a while to figure out online in a way that it’s easy to find for people. And I’m really compelled to do it and I still do it even today.
Steve: Yeah, I was just looking at skypixel.org which is your latest site on aerial photography and you have all these recommendations and how to guides, and its sounds like these are just problems you experience you just write about it, right?
Eric: Yeah, yeah. That’s right. I mean some of them; some of the problems are really small and esoteric. It’s like, you know, what is this weird little connector called? If you don’t know what it’s called you can’t buy it, you know. And so it took me– if it took me 20 minutes to figure out something, I would just write about it and put it online. But the net-effective writing all the time is that I became really good at writing very quickly, and informatively and that is a skill I think everybody should develop you know, I think being able to communicate in writing online is really important.
Steve: So, in terms of just traffic then did all these articles get indexed? Like do most of the people find you through search or is it just through a community that you have built over time?
Eric: It’s definitely both. I mean, I think anyone who gets really into underwater imaging, maybe not today because so much of community has moved into social media, but certainly at that time everybody ended up finding the content because if you did a Google search you will find it, and if you made friends in the community, you know in the real world, they would all be on it already. And you know, we had people who might be from a little town somewhere, who had come up to me, you know, and if they met me in person and said just, you know, “Thank you, you are, like Webpixel is literally my community outside of work because nobody else in my town does this, and the only place I can find community is online.”
So the audience sort of found, you know, because it’s niche, they found it and it became kind of the place to talk about mostly technique and locations and how to shoot. And we started running expeditions out of it, and you know, I had a lot of places I really wanted to go, these trips became more and more involved over time because, you know we were sort of, we had done kind of like three weeks, and clearer water and started doing shark, lab shark work and whales and seal fish and each one of those has a place you go, and you know, local operator with a lot of expertise, but not necessarily kind of normal mainstream trips that might be run. And so we started organizing trips with the sole purpose of being photographically productive underwater.
Steve: Okay. And these were just members of the community that wanted to go on these trips with you, so you would organize them?
Eric: Yes, I would organize and run them, and members would join. Anyone could join really, but, you know you had to know about it and, so it’s typically kind of these same crew, you know, pull up people who would go with you on one or two trips a year. And these trips, I mean, the longest trip we run were 40 days, I mean they were…
Eric: These are serious expeditions for people who are shooting at a very high level profession.
You know, they could have been professional imagers had they decided to do it, and some of them were. And it was really really fulfilling, you know, to go on these trips. I still some of the, but fewer than…
Eric: I did it in, you know, when I was – when I had a lot more time. I was running six of those trips a year, and a couple of personal trips a year, maybe a couple of assignments for magazines, and then kind of running a publishing company on the side, which included a pre-magazine at the time.
Steve: Wow! That’s crazy, six trips and each one of those are like 30 to 40 days, that’s quite a long time.
Eric: Yeah. Up to, I mean some of the trips were less involved, but a lot of them ended up being, you know [laughing] for long periods of time in very remote areas, and the reason we run trips that long is that some of these places took three to four days to get to, and just because there wasn’t the local [Inaudible] [00:18:41] to just fly direct. And so, if it took, you know, if you are doing a week of travel, you can’t go for a week; you have really go for a serious amount of time.
Steve: Oh! Yeah. Sure. Yeah, so hey Eric, you know, before this interview I actually come through your, almost your entire journal. Just getting an idea of…
Eric: That is old stuff.
Steve: It is old stuff, you know, we didn’t really hang out much in school, but we share common friends which is kind of interesting, but in one of your posts, and you probably don’t even remember this, but you used to talk about how a lot of people used to ask you how you made money as an underwater photographer. Now, here is the thing, a lot of my listeners are– they are kind of hesitant about pursuing the lives that they love because they need to pay the bills, so I kind of want to kind of get your take on your passions verses the need to make money. So, when you first started out as this underwaterphotographer, how did you get by, and how did you get your name out there?
Eric: I, so, I have really– I am extremely opinionated about the right way for most people to go about what you just talked about.
Eric: Because I have seen so many people do it the wrong way, and the wrong way– it’s not really the right way to put it because, you know, there is a right way for every person, it doesn’t– they are not all going to be the same. But personally, I do not like to be struggling for money while I am pursuing something completely new, because first of all there is no guarantee of success. Most of these fields, the more you get in to these kind of esoteric photography, the lesser the market there is, and the more people potentially there are who are doing it for fun and actually paying to do it. So on these trips that I run, everybody paid to be out there, it was their vacation. And so, to expect to be paid for something that most people are paying to do, I think it’s a very bad– it’s not a good expectation. It’s not appropriate.
Eric: So, you know, this is kind of the hardest area, I think, to make money, and, you know this kind of adventure travel photography. And a lot of people go about it in a sort of round-about way. You know, they become educators, they lead trips. One of the biggest pitfalls, I think in this area is like is going into the dive industry, you know people– if you want to be an underwater photographer, people are “I’m going to go teach diving so I can be under water all the time.” But it turns out that if you go teach diving, you don’t get paid very much, and you don’t get to shoot, you are teaching diving, you are in the water training people and you know, holding people’s hands all the time.
And I just think it’s really hard to go through these industries, you know, to try to– you know, you just like, put blinders on, and like, put your head down and kind of push your way through this industry. So I like to think about ways to go around the existing industry, and you know, this is all sort of hand wavy, but you know, I mean the advice that I gave– that I have been giving to a lot of people who ask, especially young people who still have their whole lives ahead of them, you know, is to become generally educated.
Like make sure you are educated so that you have a lot of options, you know, and, I mean, for example, studying Computer science, Aeronautical engineering or Physics, or something technical, we’re not really studying Computers, you know, Computer science is really about problem solving, as are those other, you know, most technical fields, and I feel like that’s skill set let’s– if you can translate that skill set to another domain, then that you are just you are already ahead.
And so, in, you know, I think there are a lot of ways to make money out there, and you don’t have to just turn off what you used to do and start doing this new thing because it’s going to be very very painful. And so I’m a big fun of the technical industry especially, you know, web development. Some of these things you can do anywhere and make money to support this primary thing you do. And of course the risk is that you end up just making money and then you are like struggling on the side, and the [inaudible] [0:22:47] never takes off.
Eric: And so there is definitely a trade off, and you have to take a leap at some point, and so you know, something that I recommended a lot is to develop an audience in the transition period. So, during this transition period in which you, maybe you have decided I can’t do this anymore what I’m doing for a living, you know I want to pursue this particular artistic endeavor, and I’m just going to go for it. Well, you know this is the age of internet, you can develop an audience, and I just, you know I’ve always recommended that people just publish constantly. You know, like have a goal and a routine and say every week, take what you did that week, collapse it into something presentable, you know, for this whatever your interest is, it could be, let’s say in photography let’s say its three images or one image, and write about it.
You know, write whatever you can, write a paragraph, a sentence, you know, two pages, and then share it, and develop a community online, and just do that for as long as you can. And this is essentially what I did to get into the industry. I just started writing about it and my work started to get noticed, and what happens is if you have aptitude for it, you know, if you are actually generating work that is valuable to other people, and you know this is where art is not– it doesn’t always work this way, but you’ll start getting noticed and you will start to develop commercial opportunities out of the work that you do.
Another hand, if you don’t do anything, if you just sit at home and you hold all your work and you are afraid to show it, nobody is going to notice you, unless you get really lucky. So, I think just getting your work out there, writing all the time, giving to the community at a very free way, you know, like just write about all of your challenges, there are other people who are trying to the same thing, they might be a little bit behind you, they are going to get a lot out of your journey. And the journey is really the important thing and you know I think, getting work out there like that is important. And you know, after a year, if your work hasn’t been noticed, then maybe you should be thinking about going about it another way, you know, like tweak a little bit but at least you are not kind of starting.
Steve: So let’s talk about that a little bit. Let’s say you’ve got good work, but just because you’ve got good work and you’ve put it out there, does it mean that anyone will be able to find it? So what are some ways that you could get people to actually find your work provided that it’s good?
Eric: I think the key is, I mean, there are a couple of ways I think you can do. One is to engage in a community for a long period of time, you know so nobody who just posts and then walks away actually ends up participating in the community. You know, you need to be someone that invests in a particular community. This doesn’t have to be online, this could be, you know, something local if it’s appropriate, and hold on a second, can you do that again because I need to close the door? My wife is laughing.
Steve: Yeah, go ahead, this is all edited, so don’t worry about it.
Eric: Okay hold on a second. She’s very happy, and laughs a lot on the phone. I don’t know this form of happiness.
Steve: That’s good.
Eric: She’s in the other room on a conference call. Okay, sorry about that. Can we back up to the last question?
Steve: Jeez! We were talking about how to get early traffic to your site.
Eric: All right. Okay. So we were talking about getting early traffic. Okay.
Steve: Yeah, you can just start wherever.
Eric: Yeah. Okay, okay. Yeah, so I think, I mean, my perspective is that you should engage in a particular community and actually participate in the community. So you know, you can reach out these days to basically anyone online, and if you are putting out work that is really interesting to a particular audience, people are going to re-share it. And, this might sound like, I’m putting a lot of emphasis on social network and stuff, and in some ways I am, and I think it’s certainly can’t hurt to be really involved in a community and engage in the community.
So this doesn’t mean that you post a picture and then walk away, you need to post pictures and you follow up with people who are engaging with you, and you become a notable person in that particular industry, or a knowledgeable person, you know, someone– when that person goes off and has a commercial opportunity related to say underwater photography, they might say, “Oh! Yeah! I remember this guy, he posted the screen pictures, he answered my questions, let’s go back to him and see if he’s available for work.”
Steve: Yeah. I’m just– I’m listening to everything you are saying right now, and it’s pretty much exactly how I started my blog. I– let’s see I started in 2009 and for that first year, I was just writing, and I don’t think anyone was really reading…
Eric: [Laughing] Right.
Steve: And it was only after a while something happened after the two year mark, and I started getting noticed, and then all of a sudden all these opportunities started coming in, but it was a long drawn out process where I wasn’t sure what the heck was going to happen.
Steve: How soon did Webpixel get traction or with your work that when you are posting photos online?
Eric: Webpixel, I mean, it was slow because digital cameras were not being taken seriously at the time, so you know at the time people who were interested would engage, but most people especially professionals weren’t, they weren’t considering digital as being a valid option for professional work. And in many ways I think they were right at the time, I gave a lot of talks about this stuff, this a thing that, you know any emerging industry, there only going to be a few experts in the beginning, and so they are going to call on you to come talk about what you do.
And I would go up and talk about digital imaging, and there would be, you know the old school guys in the back, I could see him sitting there with their arms crossed, and I just knew that they were going to challenge me, you know and ask questions and be upset about things. And the trick really was to not to be an ass hole back, you know the trick was to be– to talk about the potential of this, regardless of the current environment, you know. So it’s really about, I’m not trying to change anything you are doing, what I’m saying is that you should be aware that this exists, and that its moving forward very quickly and it could be really interesting.
So this is little off topic I guess, but in general I think, you know having a consistent voice when you are talking, that’s polite, professional and educational is important, which can be very– it can be challenging to stay that way, I have– I certainly have challenges in that area.
Steve: You know, so one thing that, so I’ve had a couple of people email me regarding, you know they have these photos that they want to sell, and so they kind of throw up an online store and they put their prints on there, but then no one buys. And it’s mainly because they don’t have their own voice, they don’t have a presence out there, and they don’t have a following. But in terms of just kind of making it as an artist, is there some sort of element of salesmanship? Did you ever feel like you were, you know salesman? Did you try to sell your own prints at any point and basically how did you keep afloat, you know did you try to sell your own works at the time?
Eric: I found that balance to be a difficult one to ride for me because I don’t really want to market my work you know, and that sort of I think the people that I know who are most successful as artists if they are 100% working in their art form you have to be a salesman, and you know and you have to go out and find those opportunities. And you know the trick is finding opportunities that don’t compromise your work and in photography unless you really love shooting something that’s commercials, and I certainly have friends who love the work that they do and the work happens to be commercially viable you know without much of a stretch in terms of imagination, but some people love to do things that are just not that interesting from a commercial standpoint.
Eric: And that’s where it gets really hard and you know that’s why I talked about going around the industry a little bit. You know I think for me personally I am more fulfilled by doing what I want to do as a photographer say half time, than I would be if I struggled and if I were a photographer a 100% of the time and I had to do a lot of work I didn’t want to.
Steve: Okay, So you kept both worlds separate then?
Eric: Yeah, but the other world was publishing in the same industry and kind of expeditions and you know it was really– it was providing value for my audience in a different way than selling an image to them you know. So there are different ways to be valuable as an artist and one is in this way that is not like a drift sale here of the picture you’ve taken.
Eric: I think I very much could have gone in that direction you know if I decided that I wanted to be a gallery artist or to be focused on stock photography or something, I could have changed the sort of work that I presented to the world, and instead of sharing stories, you know in some way that was interesting to people which might result in something which licenses you know some print sales and you know two more people signing up for the next expedition you know.
I could have just gone that route and tried to sell imagery, but I think I would have had to change the way that I shot and you know when I have done image sales. The pictures that sell are not my favorite images. They almost are never my favorite images, but they sell and so you know I might do an addition and just keep at a gallery or something. And I do this very infrequently you know, I have my work is only in very few physical locations and that’s 100% because I don’t have the time to manage that side of the business.
Steve: Okay and so it sounds like by keeping everything kind of separate in a way your art is your art, and you have the freedom to do whatever you want with it, and the way you make money it still related to your art, but it’s kind of more tangential, is that…
Eric: Yeah, I mean that just happens to be the way that I did it.
Eric: You know I certainly have friends who have managed to be 100% artists, and you know I mean that’s almost impossible unless you are very lucky. You do have to run a business and you know I certainly know a lot of people who are photographers, but really what they are doing is running a small business, and they have to be smart about that. You know these are the guys after a one year licenses expires for a picture, you know they are on the phone with the company saying would you like to renew or would you like to take your picture down, take the picture down you know.
Steve: I see.
Eric: Most people don’t do that, they are not organized enough, they don’t have an office messenger or someone they can work with to do it, if they are not doing it themselves. A lot of artists just don’t think that way which is probably why they are artists you know and I just happen to be in the middle, you know I really think of myself as being– I’m usually considered to be an artist by technical people, and I’m considered to be a technologists by artists you know.
Steve: Actually that’s true, I’m an engineer, I consider you an artist, that’s true. So hey, let’s talk a little bit about community, so what were some of the things that you did to kind of foster this community of underwater photography or was it– did it just come naturally? Did you not even have to try that hard?
Eric: I mean I think I didn’t really have to try that hard, but only because I was producing a ton of content all the time
Eric: So one of the things that I did for example in the industry was I went to the big industry shows, and I covered them exhaustively you know. I talked about every single product that was relevant for the particular audience, and I made relationships with the people who ran all those companies. And so I went back year after year and pretty soon everybody knew me at these conferences, and I was sort of cemented: I was in the industry without having to push my way through the industry.
Steve: I see.
Eric: You know I sort of just– I was a conduit from these companies to keep people who might be interested in their products and– but only because I was really interested in the industry. You know I was fascinated by all the gear, there was a huge shift happening in general photography between– you know from film to digital, and a lot of the established players out there were having a hard time in the transition.
The one that transitioned– everyone transitioned eventually, but you know, some transitioned earlier, and I just happen to be there as the guy who knew how to do it, and had all the technical information, but wasn’t you know shooting a 100% of the time necessarily. I wasn’t a threat you know.
Eric: And this community is really friendly anyway, and everybody you know it’s a great, I mean underwater imagining world is fantastic you know, for the most part.
Steve: And you reviewed all these things and wrote these articles just for fun, right? Because it was something you were genuinely interested in.
Eric: I mean I think I would have done it either way, what I ended up doing was opening up advertising on the form, and it wasn’t advertising in that, that you know we didn’t– first of all there was no advertising infrastructure available at the time, so it’s not like I could use you know adsense or something from Google and just open it up. And even if I had it wouldn’t have been that useful because it turns up if you open it up for certain topics like, let’s say you write an article about photographing sharks, so the ads that come are about shark fishing you know because that’s a big industry, and people pay a lot of money to kill them or shark fins or whatever.
Steve: Which totally goes against what you believe in.
Eric: Yeah, so I felt we had a police and you know band companies in the system and so we– what worked really well is working with all of these small companies who were supporting this niche industry you know, who weren’t necessarily doing advertising anyway, but you know this was the ultimate targeted audience for those companies.
So if you go to Webpixel now and you look at the group of sponsors on the right hand side in the column, they are mostly smaller companies generating very specific tools for this audience and we also– and we kept the advertising really cheap because you know, I didn’t have the staff to, like a sales force going out looking for advertising and taking money from whoever would give it to us. You know we were very selective in who we accept as advertisers, because we didn’t want a giant player who could discount and run everyone else out of business.
Eric: We didn’t want to necessarily support them you know explicitly on the site because that would have caused a lot of problems in the greater community. And so the advertising income at least ran he site you know, it enabled me to spend time you know technically in upgrading service like just doing whatever was required to keep the site up, hiring the coders eventually to help do the things that I didn’t have time to do. And so at least I wasn’t pouring money into running a website.
Steve: Sure. Okay and to all the artists out there who are listening, the people that want to sell their own prints and what not, what sort of advice would you give them today if they’re starting out? You already mentioned putting out content on a regular basis. You also mentioned– I don’t know if I’m saying this correctly, but don’t necessarily focus on selling your work. Find other ways to just get by why you kind of enjoy the art that you’re producing. Do you have any other sort of advice to give them?
Eric: Yeah. I think– and these are just the ways that I went about it personally, but of course there are a lot of different ways to do it. I’ve enjoyed doing some of these mainstream articles. They are usually articles that have– potentially have interesting content, but a terrible headline, like a buzz feed type headline.
Steve: I hate those.
Eric: Those headlines are terrible and I almost never click through. Unfortunately I have participated in producing the content for some of those stories, and what I found is that it’s not a particular picture that anyone wants; it’s the story around the picture that people want. So you can get a story to go viral or to be published, and you can get people to pay you for it if you actually have a story. If you went out in your backyard and took a picture of a bird, that maybe a really beautiful picture, but there is no story around it.
So the stories that I produce tend to be around some event or some series of weird things that happen that just led to a strange picture being taken. This happens a lot with sharks– people like sharks, so it’s pretty easy to get articles published. Some of these strange scripts I’ve done like volcano stuff, like volcanoes are just unusual, they look fake, they are really weird, and if you combine them with something like drones which are new and kind of– it looks like a sci-fi moment. That story is fascinating for people.
So if you do a trip like that, maybe you can piggy back on another trip, but a lot of these weird stuff is centered around access. So I think really it comes down to community, like if you don’t know– if you’re not a part of the community people don’t trust you. You are not going to have access to any of this stuff. So it’s really building your brand, your personal brand overtime and not doing things to compromise the integrity of that brand. That’s really important over time.
Steve: And then it’s a long term– so one thing I always emphasize is that it’s a long term process. You should be willing to invest at least three to five years I would say on developing your brand in order to bear the fruit later on.
Eric: Yeah, I agree. And I’ve seen some of my friends have done it really successfully. I’ve always been impressed by the people who actually go do it. Most of them I’ve found have some support network under them. They’ve saved enough for a couple of years, or they are married to someone who helps support them during that time, or there are still working and they are doing in all their spare time. Most of them have something that allows them to do– to pursue their artistic endeavors without this insane burden that would come with not being able to…
Steve: To pay the bills.
Eric: Pay your rent or something.
Steve: For sure.
Eric: On the other hand I think if you’re too comfortable, for many people it’s hard to produce interesting work. Many artists I know draw inspiration out of suffering or– you need an experience that motivates you. For me it happened to be going under water, from going to really remote places and seeing things that are really unusual. Everybody has that thing that motivates them, and it’s very rarely sitting in comfort on your backyard, by your pool or something.
Steve: That’s true. Actually that’s a good linden to your most recent project on Skypixel.org. What is SkyPixel all about, and is this your way of producing kind of like the next Webpixel for aerial photography?
Eric: Yeah. SkyPixel started in the very same way that WebPixel started in that I was figuring things out and spending a ton of time combing forums online to get some piece of information that was critical for me. I’ve just posted and it’s a Tumblr site. It’s very simple, and the goal was always to develop it into something else, something that was a community site for aerial images. And what happened was I ended up going to DJI. The aerial pursuit kind of threw me into the industry in a much larger way.
And then I talked to them about it, I think leaving the site up is fine. I’ve been posting to it constantly, but it’s very hard for me to develop it as a commercial enterprise while I’m working at DJI. So it’s a little bit of a conflict of interest there.
Steve: How did you get the position at DJI? Had you already established yourself as an authority in the aerial imaging space?
Eric: Yeah. I would say that I did establish myself as an authority, whether I actually was one at the time it’s different, because what happened was that there was an established long time hobby community doing– flying fixed wing RC aircraft, and then doing quadcopters, kind of building them from kits for many years before. I have been watching that space for a long time, but I wasn’t– I didn’t participate in the space. I was sort of a silent observer.
And then when things started becoming easier, a little bit easier I still had to build some stuff, but when it become actually feasible to put a camera in the air without spending most of your time trying to put the camera in the air, when it became a useful tool for photographers I jumped all in, and I’ve been waiting for a way to put the cameras in the air for many, many years. And so what happened was because I had come from the photography world and I was already established as a content producer, I wrote an article for Auto Photographer.
The magazines were really interested in the possibilities, and it wasn’t going to be someone from the hobby world because there are not in the photography world, and there are not necessarily out shooting interesting content. Some of them are certainly, but I became an authority only because I managed to kind of link the…
Steve: The two worlds.
Eric: That technical world and the photography world and in fact I was challenged online by it. These– in the hobby forums people would ask, “Where were you five years ago?” And I would just say, “I was in the field producing content. Where were you?” And I was very straightforward about it. I just said, “I think the intersection between our worlds is temporary and forced, and I expect for aerial imagery to move out of hobby into the mainstream as set of tools.” And hobby will be hobby. It will be there. You’ll still be tinkering, it’s great. I think the hobby world is fantastic because people test a lot of concepts there. But I think this is a much bigger thing than hobby and it will move right past and separate itself.
I would say that I was only an expert and that I was very early in putting cameras up in the air from a creative stand point. And DJI found me because I was producing interesting work, and I was of course posting about all the stuff that I was doing. And then I had a lucky introduction through the chairman of the board who is like a friends with– a friend of the family. Sort of a lot of different things pushed me in that direction. And that’s the thing I found is if you put thousands of hours into something, a lot of different forces are going to start pushing you into positions of expertise. And if you’re not putting that time in, if you want to be a photographer and you shoot one hour a week, you’re not going to make it. It’s just not going to happen, unless you get really lucky. Maybe there are people who manage to make that work.
Almost all of my spare time was spent tinkering in the garage during that time, and going out and flying all the time, developing the skill set necessary to not think technically when I’m in the field. And most of it is about overcoming the technical huddles, so that you can kind of direct your efforts creatively without struggling. And…
Eric: I think if you don’t put that time in, you can’t do it. It’s much harder.
Steve: I kind of have a selfish question for you here. You have a CS background, and it sounds like you’ve used those skills a lot over your career even though you we’re actually working at a tech firm. So my question for you is, for me right now I’m a little bit torn whether to go completely on my own, because my online endeavors have exceeded my day job. And one of the things that I’m struggling with is that if I were to leave, I wouldn’t not be able to develop hardware anymore. So do you struggle with that, with your software? And do you code anymore? Do you miss it?
Eric: Well, that’s a good question. It’s strange because I have ended up participating in a company that builds hardware. In the past I was software focused, and all about online web community. I don’t miss coding. I don’t miss it all. I think other people code really well. On the other hands, I think having the skill set has been really useful for just figuring out this, the technical parts of what I do. Because it’s just problem solving, and it’s not always straight forward. I think there have been some projects I have done that have brought me back in the coding, mostly scripting image processing stuff to allow me to build animations for example.
At Light Trail I was doing light field imaging and I what’s really in a product role there, but I did some coding on the side. I wrote a light field video player for example, because nobody else had the bandwidth to do it, and I could do it in a rough way that was the working prototype as a proof of concept. The computer science skills have been really useful for me in photography because everything is digital. Here’s a very basic example, storage is a huge nightmare, and this is something that I’m really passionate about. Storage backups, kind of maintaining the integrity of your work over many-many years is something that is beyond the scope of understating of most photographers.
Eric: And so I feel like I get that for free, and it pisses me off. I’m very upset about it all the time because I feel like many photographers– especially if you’re going to the video world, you’re no longer the target audience for most consumer storage, but you’re not the target audience for enterprise storage, and nothing exists in the middle. And that’s kind of the space we live in. So I sort of get understanding of that for free with the technical background, and I feel sorry constantly for people who struggle with things like data. It’s not just a fun thing to have to deal with.
Steve: Yeah. Occasionally I’ll see a Facebook run pop by how you had to wait like three days for your volumes to sink up or something like that.
Eric: Yeah, yeah. There’s passion around that. I think there’s a company that I think to be in need.
Steve: Eric we’ve already been talking for quite a while, want to be respectful of your time. If anyone wants to check out your awesome work, where can they find you and where can they contact you?
Eric: Well, my main website these days is echengphoto.com. The same site you mentioned at the beginning. That’s E-C-H-E-N-G photo.com. Also if you’re interested in underwater photography, check out webpixel.com. I read about aerial imaging at skypixel.org, .com is now an aerial imaging sharing site that DJI does that I’m not really involved with, but it’s there as well. And I’m also really active on social media. I’m on Twitter as echeng. I’m on Facebook, I’m sort of everywhere.
Steve: Yeah, you are everywhere. Yes.
Eric: Yeah. I guess finally the site that I don’t share a lot, but I put a lot of my efforts into is my Vimeo site. So it’s vimeo.com/echeng. I do a lot of video work these days, it’s mostly experimental. But there are things like live broadcasts from [Inaudible] [00:50:41] and that was many-many months ago.
Steve: Yeah, yeah.
Eric: It led to things like this Good Morning America thing last week. So if you’re interested in kind of experimental use of video, that’s a good place to check out as well.
Steve: And you have your videos linked up on your sites too, right? Echeng Photo has a lot of videos on there as well, right?
Eric: Yeah, if you go to…
Steve: Yeah, okay.
Eric: If you go to echeng photo and click on video link, some of my work is there.
Steve: Okay. Well, Eric hey, it was great having you on the show, and finally I’m really happy we got a chance to connect. Thanks for coming on.
Eric: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me, and I’m easy to contact, so get in touch if you have anything you’re curious about.
Steve: Sounds good. Thanks Eric.
Eric: All right thank you.
Steve: All right. Hope you enjoyed that episode. I’ve known Eric for quite a while now and I really love his story. Basically he spent a couple of years working for the man, had an epiphany, and decide that he was going to take advantage of his life and do whatever the hell he want to do. And when I look back, he’s done some amazing things. From being a leading underwater photographer to now being the director of aerial imaging at a leading quadcopter company. It’s been awesome.
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