OP/TECH USA Ambassador Feature: Erik Petersen

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Erik Petersen is a photographer and videographer based in Montana. A stone's throw away from Bozeman and not far from OP/TECH USA's factory!

He is not only a captivating visual creator, he is also a father and an avid adventurer.

During our interview, Erik was quick to mention how much he enjoys exploring Montana with his sons and showing them all of Montana's splendor.

I look forward to sharing with you a little about Erik and his life journey thus far!

Photo by Erik Petersen

How long have you been an ambassador?

I think it's been 3 or 4 years now! A guy who used to work at OP/TECH USA reached out to me about becoming an ambassador and I said, "Sure!"

What straps of ours do you use?

I like to use your neck straps. I need to put in an order for more soon! Because I do 70% video these days and about 30% still photos, those are nice because I can just unclip the strap. Anything I do with video is on a gimbal or a tripod, so I can't have a strap on it. It's nice to be able to unclip and then clip on again if I'm shooting still photos.

Very nice! I'll send some more gear your way!

I enjoy seeing all your work on social media- especially the pictures of your dogs! What kind of dogs are they?

I've got two bird dogs. One is a German Shorthaired Pointer and the other is a Poodle Pointer, it's like a German Wirehaired essentially.

Well they sure are beautiful dogs!


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Photo by Erik Petersen

Can you tell me a little about yourself and what type of photography you do?

I live in Livingston, Montana. I have been a professional photographer since 2000. That's when I got my first newspaper job in the industry and then I spent the next 15 years in the newspaper industry as staff photographer for different newspapers. I'm a father of two boys who are 12 and 13. So that's mostly what I do haha- I get them out skiing, hunting, and hiking... whatever the season is... we spend a lot of time outside playing.

I grew up in Minnesota. I went to Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota. I moved out here the day I graduated college because I knew I wanted to live in Montana for the skiing, fishing, and hunting- all that stuff!

Then, I went to grad school at UM for environmental journalism, which is essentially teaching us how to share complicated stories of the sciences in the environmental world with the general public. My thesis project for that grad program ended up being the first film I ever did called the Hard Way. It's about an 89 year old ultra runner, so that is kinda what launched me into the world of film and video. Like I said, I started out doing all still photography. That thesis project kinda launched me into video. So yeah, I'm at about 70%

That's so neat! It's funny what you said about moving to Montana the day you graduated college. When I was younger, my dad used to always say, "Well I'm just gonna move to Montana!" whenever he got frustrated about anything in life, haha. And now, I'm actually living in Montana myself and trying to get him up here. I tell him, "Dad you've been saying you were going to move up here for years!" There really is something so alluring about the wild, rugged beauty of Montana! It's so neat seeing pictures on your instagram of you out there soaking up all the glory of Montana!

So what made you want to first start photography?

I went to college for communications- journalism. I started out writing. I did a lot of news writing- feature writing. I did a lot of sports writing. At some point in my college career, someone gave me a camera to take photos to go along with a sports story. They said, "Get a photo to go along with the story you're covering." At that time, we were working in the dark room. I would go back in the dark room and be like, "Man, this is so cool!" Being in the darkroom and watching that image magically appear on the paper.... So, at some point I realized that I really liked telling stories with images more than I liked telling stories with words. I think I was better at it too. I started edging more and more to the photo side of things. I still write a little bit. I will still write a magazine story to accompany stills that I took if I'm releasing a film. I guess I'm more of a naturally visual person so it's a good fit for me.

That's fascinating how journalism, or writing, led you to discovering that new passion!

What is your favorite subject to photograph?

I feel like that has changed over the years. Like I said, I spent over a decade in the newspaper world at that time, it was probably sports and after that, I spent a lot of time traveling the world. I did work in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa... all over documenting work for nonprofits. At that time, it was people. I loved shooting portraits in those far away places. Now, it would be hard for me to pick one, but it would probably be outdoor sports, outdoor adventures. That's kind of my sweet spot right now. Whether it is something I'm doing with my kids or scaling a mountain to tell a story through film. I like being outdoors. I like incorporating my passions into the photography or film that I'm doing.

That's awesome! You live in a great place for that!!

Photo by Erik Petersen

So you mentioned the dark room, have you continued doing any film photography?

I JUST dug up my old film camera and started shooting film again. I don't have a dark room anymore. I wish I was set-up for that. I've been kinda messing around with film again and that's super fun to go back to selecting one frame. The camera I'm using is super old and janky so it takes a long time to compose and get the focus and everything right. Then, it's like a mystery because I don't know if the film is any good or anything, haha. It's a breath of fresh air though from the digital world that we live in.


So what is your favorite camera to use in digital photography?

I'm shooting with Sony these days because I have shifted to more video. When I was a still photographer, it was more Nikon. Once I started shooting more video, I switched to Sony and now I have a Sony R3 and S3. I use the S3 for more video stuff and the R3 is my backup or my still camera. Now that I'm shooting bigger film projects, if I'm directing it, I will bring in a camera operator who's got a cinema camera but for the shorter videos I do, I shoot with the Sony mirrorless cameras. They are so compact and powerful. They really work well. They have hit a sweet spot where you can use them for photo or video.

Yeah! The new technology coming out these days is absolutely incredible!

What are some of your future goals with photography or videography?

I just started a production company of sorts, to house all the video work that I'm doing, so probably growing that and finding more cool stories to tell. My bar or goal for my films is the Banff Mountain Film Festival. It's been my measuring stick. I've gotten 3 films into that festival so that's kinda the big one for the outdoor adventure world. It's all outdoor adventure film like skiing, kayaking... that kind of stuff. It's the gold standard for outdoor adventure films. I would love to get another film in that festival.

Even more importantly than that, it's about finding compelling and powerful stories to share. I've gotten a few of those that I'm working on right now- excited to put those out into the world. The visual stuff of photos and videos is one aspect of the whole freelance life. There's this whole business side so I am trying to focus more on the business side right now- to figure out systems that will work so it's not just me.

I've been doing freelance since I've left the newspaper industry so I've always sort of been a one person show. Now, I am dabbling with bringing on more people, starting this production company- seeing how much I want to work...seeing how much I want to take on... what's a good fit... how many people. It get's more complex. The more people, the more projects- but it allows me to tell more cool stories.

I totally get it- as a creative person, myself, I have to really consciously think about more of the business side of things versus just creating all the time and that is hard!

Yeah! I'm just about like ever other creative person out there. That's not my strong point. I'm about 20 years into this photography profession and still working on figuring that out. It's a struggle because we just want to take photos and create art. The business and marketing part is hard. I taught at the University of Montana for a few years and I would always tell my students that they should really consider getting a business or marketing degree. There are some reallly good photographers out there who can't make a living and there are so many mediocre photographers who can sell their work or sell themselves and make a million.

It's so true! Having those processes in place is crucial!

What are some of your favorite projects you've done so far?

I think the work I did in Afghanistan and Pakistan was some of the most impactful for me and others documenting the work of the NGO. They built schools in super rural, remote parts of those countries. Personally, that was one of the most profound projects for me. On the film side, probably that first film I did because it was the first film project I did and it got into the Banff Film Festival that I mentioned. It kind of set me off in this whole new path. Especially at that point in my career, I think I had been a still photographer for probably 15 years at that point. To find a different medium that was still visual and still creative, but with a slightly different twist on it was really refreshing for me at that point in my career. It was still visual, still creative, but it was hard. I really like those challenges.. stretching and trying new things like that. That film really set me off in a whole new path in my career.

Are you talking about the film you mentioned earlier? The one about the 89 year old runner?

Yeah, the Hard Way. It was about his life. He lived in a cabin outside of Missoula and cut all his own firewood by hand. He did things the hard way to stay active and vital in life. There are a lot of life lessons in it and it's about building character.

That sounds so interesting! Is it a full film?

It's a 20 minute film. Most everything I do is short- about 20 minutes or under. I haven't done a feature length yet. I'm working my way up to that, but that's a pretty big chunk to bite off for me.

I would love to be able to share some of your video work in the blog!

Yeah, I'll send you the link to the one I did a few years ago that I did in conjunction with Patagonia. I got a grant from Patagonia to do a film on a proposed gold mine located near Yellowstone National Park and how a group of locals joined together to show that there was already a really robust touring industry.

Yes, that would be great to see and to be able to share with our readers!

What advice would you give someone starting out in photography or videography?

Probably just to shoot everyday- practice. At my first newspaper job, I was the only photographer at a 5 day a week newspaper so I was thrown into the fire- and you have to produce. Even if you don't have that external deadline for yourself, I still think the best thing you can do is shoot everyday. You learn the camera, composition, all the basic stuff that is super important as you progress in your photography. Yes, practice.

Photo by Erik Petersen

Earlier you mentioned something about if you want to make photography or videography into a career, then it really helps to have a marketing or business background. I think that was great advice as well.

Yeah, and you know, it's not like you have to go back to school for that. You can certainly find online classes or tutorials... or talk to people that are doing it well. There are ways to do it without going back to school for it but in my eyes, it is like 50% of being a photographer. You not only have to market, but you have to know invoicing, taxes... All those things you don't think of when you're dreaming of being in this exotic location with your camera. The reality is that there are a whole bunch of people with amazing photos stored away in a hard drive somewhere that are never going to see the light of day. Including me! I'm still pulling old photos off of hard drives- looking for a home for them where I can get paid for some of that.

So good! Yes, you don't have to spend a fortune on education, but having some insight and practical knowledge you can apply is super helpful! I for one am not going back to college anytime soon haha! SO glad there are really good free or affordable resources out there!

If someone asked you about OP/TECH USA products, what would you have to say about them?

I think I would say the clip system is great. Whether I'm doing a time-lapse or throwing my camera on a gimbal, it's so handy to be able to quickly click both in and out. One of my pet peeves is the camera strap that comes with the camera in the box and you have to thread it through. It feels like it's on there permanently. Having that quick release from the is a selling point for me. The other product I do use a lot are the black body wraps.

Ahh yes, the Soft Pouch-Digital D- Series pouches! I personally love those!

Yeah I use those a bunch when I'm going back country skiing. If I know I'm going to shoot at the top of the mountain, I don't want my camera out for the entire ski up or hike up. I just put one of those around and put it in my pack. Or, if I'm hunting, it's nice to have the camera protected.

That's great! Thank you so much for your time Erik! I can't wait to share this with our readers! We really appreciate you being an OP/TECH USA ambassador and can't wait to see all your future adventures and the compelling stories you'll tell with your creative talents!!

Connect with Erik and see his work using the links below!