Photo courtesy of Steve Halama
Vladimir Pcholkin was born in Moscow, Russia, but lives in the United States. In the last 40 years he has traveled extensively around the world as a travel photographer and filmmaker. His work has been published in numerous books and magazines including Vogue, Elle, Time, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and more. Currently, Vladimir has over 10,000 Instagram followers and nearly 10,000 YouTube subscribers. On YouTube, he takes his viewers around the world to incredible destinations and gives tips on travel and stock photography in compelling 2-15 minute segments. With his many years of experience behind the camera, his work is concise, beautiful, meaningful, informative and honest. This time, we are fortunate to see Vladimir as the subject, and ask him some questions about his journey with the hope of inspiring current and future stock photographers. Vladimir has a YouTube Channel and uses the name Beekeeper Stories, which you can find the link to here.
To begin, why is photography and filmmaking exciting for you?
That's a hard one. Probably because I love to be creative and I don't know any other way to do it, but through creating images. This was and is my life. It takes me around the world, helps me to meet incredible people, eat amazing food. Photography is what makes me who I am.
Tell us how you got started in photography, and then, specifically with stock photography? How old were you? What inspired you to pick up the camera for the first time? Did you always imagine that this would be your career?
I started taking pictures for fun when I was 13-14 years old. At 19, I published my first picture in the newspaper and began my professional career as a freelance photographer. Since then, I have never really considered any other career. Photography was and is the only profession I know and love. I have always worked as a freelance photographer.
Where does the name Beekeeper Stories come from?
My last name in Russian means Beekeeper. As in many languages, some last names come from professions. I guess some of my ancestors were beekeepers.
You have been able to travel around the entire world with this career. (How many countries?) What is your favorite place you have travelled? Is there anywhere in the world you haven’t travelled to yet but is on your list?
Last time I counted it was more than 70 countries, but many places I have visited multiple times. I have many great memories from very different places, mostly related to the people I have met. But if I have to choose one country, it would be Italy. Obviously there are plenty of places where I haven't been. Right now I am working on a new visual storytelling project. So for the foreseeable future my travel will be related to that, most likely in the countryside in Italy and Spain and in wilderness areas in Norway and Scotland.
You have tried a lot of food and had many adventures around the world. What is your favorite food? What is the most memorable experience?
My problem is I love good food, pretty much anything. I love Asian food like Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Indonesian and more. But I also love Italian, Spanish, French and many other cuisines. I eat way too much, and it is hard to stay in good shape. Because of the nature of my work I travel alone most of the time, so the opportunity to have meals with local people is always very memorable. When I film my documentaries I always make sure that I share meals with people; sitting and eating around the table creates the next level of communication and helps me to establish the very personal relationship necessary for documentary work.
Did you have formal training? Were you always successful making money with photography? What was the learning curve like?
I didn't have formal training in photography because at that time in the Soviet Union there were no schools to teach photography. I learned photography by taking pictures and looking and analyzing every image of other photographers that I could find. That was before the internet, so I was trying to look at as many magazines and books as possible as well as go to photography exhibits. I was lucky to start earning good money in photography very quickly. Of course, most of the money I earned I put right back into photography projects and equipment.
What equipment do you use for your stock photography photos? What is the minimal amount of equipment and supplies required for someone starting out in stock photography with a low budget?
Nowadays you can create stock images with pretty much anything from a mobile phone to high-end cameras. As always it's not about equipment, it's about ideas. I have images I snapped with my compact digital camera which are selling over and over again. It very much depends on what you're planning to shoot. Most cameras are good, but different subjects require different lenses. Try to spend minimum on equipment and use your money to pay for your projects and not for gizmos.
On your YouTube channel, you have covered fascinating subjects such as a graffiti artist in Colombia, a boat maker in Venice, a fashion designer in Tanzania, and a guitar maker in Norway. How do you choose the subject you film? What makes a subject or a person interesting for you?
I like doing stories about people who work with their hands. Unfortunately craftsmanship is disappearing. Our life is filled with more and more easily replaceable, generic, disposable items. That's why I feel it is important to do stories about people who are trying to preserve traditional crafts. It is also extremely interesting to meet these people. All of them do this work for love, often supporting their craft with other income. All of them are truly passionate about it. I can relate to that because even though photography was my lifetime profession I never felt that it's only about money. Even after all these years there is nothing I love more than creating images.
How many languages do you speak? How do you navigate through a country without speaking the native language? Any tips in travelling for beginner travel photographers?
I speak Russian and English. I used to speak some other languages and I can still understand a few. But without practice you lose language skills quickly. English is becoming the de facto Esperanto of the world. I can speak English to people in China and in Peru. I try to learn some basic phrases for the countries I travel to, but even if I don't know any language, a smile and gestures will often do the trick. If you want to be a travel photographer, it's important to enjoy travel and meeting people. Don't just be a good travel photographer, be a good traveler. Be good to people and they'll be good to you.
In the current quarantine situation, many photographers are unable to leave their homes. What are some subjects in the home that could be potentially successful in the stock photography market?
We are in a very difficult situation right now. I canceled all my travel this year and am now stuck at home which is not easy for me. I use this time to learn new things about cinematography. In respect to stock photography, I was once sick sitting at home and going out of my mind, so I collected different fruit and vegetables, cheese, wine I had in my fridge and did a series of still life images for my stock agencies. Over the years, I earned good income from them. That's just an example. There are so many things in our homes we can use to create images. Just remember that most successful images in stock are not so much about actual things but rather about concepts. For example, if you have a dog don’t just take pictures of your pet, use your dog to create images of love and friendship.
What is the most difficult subject to shoot for you? What is the most difficult part of the photography process for you?
The most difficult subject -- and the one I love the most -- is pictures of people. The hardest part is sitting in front of computer processing images, I very much prefer to be out taking pictures.
How have you seen the business of stock photography changing from when you first began to now? Where do you see the future of stock photography going?
The biggest change in stock photography is the sheer amount of images available nowadays. I remember a few years back when one of my agencies was showing on their front page that they had 10 million images. Now it is almost 200 million! The biggest change for photographers is that you no longer can earn a living just with stock photography. You need to have multiple streams of income.
Your career is inspiring for many people. Which photographers, filmmakers, and artists inspire you? Who inspired you in the beginning, and who is your current favorite photographer or artist?
When I was at the beginning of my career, I was mesmerized by portraits of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Later I was able to see the works of many other world photographers who influenced my photography. Nowadays I do more and more video, and so I am very interested in the works of cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki.
You have many videos on YouTube with tips for photographers, but for someone who has never seen your videos what is the most important thing about stock photography that beginners should know? How can a photographer transition from artistic photography to being successful in stock photography?
Well, if they haven’t watched my videos they're always welcome. But I would say that the most important skill for a stock photographer is to think like a photo buyer, to understand why people will want this or that image and to create images accordingly.
What is the #1 image that has sold for you in stock photography? Is there a commonality or a pattern with the images that sell well for you?
The largest license I ever got was for an image of Canyonlands in Utah. But I have seen no real pattern, and things change over the years. That said, as a general matter, conceptual images usually sell better.
From your experience with stock photography, what is a subject or a habit that should be avoided absolutely? Have you learned there is something that never sells, and never will?
I have a video on my YouTube channel where I talk about common mistakes in stock photography. Some people think that if you shoot a gazillion images of whatever it will somehow translate into income flow. But before you create any images, start with ideas. That's the hardest part; taking pictures is easier.
Why do you believe you have been successful?
Over the years, I have thought a lot about what helped me to be a successful photographer. First it was the many, many people who helped me. I was young and inexperienced, but I was extremely committed to work hard and to learn. That's why I think I was supported by other professionals in my field. I think for me the idea of a successful career in photography is based on my experience - the first 10 years you work so hard that you don't have time to think. The next 10 years you think more than you work, but your output is much more valuable. And of course at the end of your career you are only thinking - haha, I am not there yet.
What are your goals for the future? Other stories you want to tell? Final advice to inspire future stock photographers?
Currently I am very interested in visual storytelling. What I mean is telling a story by mostly visual means without talking on camera. Creating a script and illustrating it with sequences of cinematic images. I will be showing this work on my YouTube channel.
Stock photography can be a nice source of incremental income. I think the most important thing about stock photography is it offers a chance to improve your photography skills in different kinds of photography and earn some money along the way.