7 Insights from Graduates of the RMSP Summer Intensive

Starting and maintaining a career as a professional photographer is more competitive than ever, yet the ease with which pictures can be taken and shared has made the barriers to entry very low. In the face of such professional challenges, the Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) stands out as a trusted Mecca for intensive career training.

Above Photograph © Ben Reed

Based in the heart of Montana's "Big Sky" country, the RMSP experience starts in June, with Summer Intensive (SI), an 11-week foundation in all things photography. Following SI is 4 weeks of focused study sessions-one course per week, selected from 11 options-during which students work with a variety of practicing experts. The program's final component, Advanced Intensive (AI), is a six-week master class offering essential business training and pro photography techniques. Each session may be taken separately, but the continuous experience of all three is strongly recommended.

An intensive, immersive learning experience

Ben Reed / One of Ben Reed's favorite surf images, shot during a workshop with Brian Bielmann and Michael Clark. "Little did I know, attending that workshop would lead to an apprenticeship with Brian," says Reed. That initial connection quickly developed into a friend/mentor relationship, which finds them working side by side on any given job, to this day.

"There's probably nowhere else on earth that offers a more intensive, all-encompassing photography program in a four- to six-month time period," says 2010 RMSP graduate Ben Reed. Now based in Hawaii, Reed came to the program with absolutely no photography experience. "I'd never heard of aperture, shutter speed, or ISO; it was as foreign to me as brain surgery," Reed admits. "It wasn't easy starting from scratch; I had to learn all the camera functions, composition, editing processes, color correction, lighting, and printing, at the same pace as other students with prior knowledge of photographic principles. It was an arduous task, but I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a professional surf photographer and RMSP was my path to achieving that."

While photography was uncharted territory, Reed came to RMSP with a college degree and work experience in sales. When searching for the right photo program, his criteria were pretty specific. "I knew I wanted a school that was all photography, but I didn't want to spend four years in school learning," he explains. "I had already spent five years at university, so I was accustomed to the typical higher education learning environment. While those experiences were great, RMSP does not represent that form of learning in any way, shape or form. You don't feel like a student at RMSP, you feel more like you're part of a family."

Hands-on instruction and professional contacts for ongoing business support

Krista Welch, LoveSongPhoto / A wedding party at Kelley Farm, in Bonney Lake, WA. "I've built a wedding-photography business that I'm proud of," says Welch. "Most new photography businesses don't last more than three years, so I don't take the fact that I'm still standing for granted!"

Seattle-based wedding photographer Krista Welch, also a 2010 graduate, offers further perspective on RMSP's unique learning process. "In today's world, there is so much information on the Internet that anyone can learn new skills by watching videos online," she notes. "But nothing beats learning in real time from experienced, practicing photographers. You can't beat making those personal connections with teachers and other students."

She describes how to get the most from such a dynamic learning environment. "If you go, go with all your heart. Ask a ton of questions and work your butt off. Try new things with an open mind, and take advantage of the time you get with RMSP's teachers. They'll have your back in the real world if you need them. Build a network of trusted friends while you're there. You can help each other build your businesses."

Discover new passions and channel new strengths

Jim David / David photographed a river rafting trip on the Little Colorado River, with Grand Falls as a backdrop; Navajo Nation, Arizona. "I learned fundamentals at RMSP, but most importantly, I learned that I now had the resources to tackle any unknowns that were put before me," he says.

Jim David, a 2010 RMSP graduate considered himself a highly skilled amateur when starting the program. "I had more than the basics down (so I thought), but when I decided that I wanted to pursue photography as a career, I knew there were a number of areas where I needed to build my skills. The immersion program enlarged my understanding of photography's fundamentals. Initially, I was very uncomfortable with things like lighting and studio work, but I emerged from RMSP with a solid foundation in those areas, which have become central to how I shoot today."

Master your gear

Fatima Donaldson / To capture this glorious sunrise above the clouds at Haleakal National Park in Hawaii, Donaldson set out at 3:00 am and drove up a crazy, windy road to the summit. "It was a truly amazing experience, and worth every second," she says.

"RMSP really emphasized understanding your equipment's capabilities and limitations, says Fatima Donaldson, a 2009 graduate. "Photography is not a cheap hobby or profession. It's necessary to make constant investment in equipment, and knowing what you are buying, why you are buying it and the goals it will help you achieve is essential to making educated purchasing decisions."

Yet, the school's emphasis on gear does not mean students need to arrive in the program fully equipped. In fact, it's just the opposite. "The school's mantra is that having a camera is good enough, so don't feel like you have to go out and buy a big expensive camera, lenses, or flash attachments," says RMSP graduate Tom Fields, as part of a 2015 alumni panel for prospective students. "In fact, I'd encourage you not to. The school has an educational discount program with various suppliers (including B&H) and there are all kinds of presentations where you get to look at and put your hands on different equipment. I came with a camera and one lens, and I'm glad I did," he adds. "After all the lens and equipment classes, I went home and was a smarter buyer."

Building confidence

Former Miss North Dakota Laura Harmon gazes out a window with her boyfriend; Grand Forks, North Dakota. (Right) A newly betrothed couple kicks back at Turtle River State Park, Arvilla, North Dakota. State and National parks are among the Manstroms' favorite places to photograph. Photographs © Jamie and Jeremy Manstrom

Without question, the top attribute attendees have gained from their studies at RMSP is confidence. Wedding photographer Jeremy Manstrom explains, "There's a super-low barrier to entry for photographers, as well as a lot of competition, but we felt we were able to separate ourselves from the rest of the field really quickly, mostly because we were really confident. We really felt like we knew what we were doing and our business has grown every year, quite nicely."

Manstrom attended RMSP with his wife Jamie in 2010, after having second thoughts about pursuing a Biology career. "I had never taken a picture with a DSLR and Jamie had completed a 2-year photo program, but wasn't very satisfied or confident in her knowledge base. The takeaway from RMSP? "It was everything we had wanted and heard college could be but faster, better, and less expensive," he notes.

When asked about their biggest accomplishment to date, Jeremy says, "Being able to travel the country, meet so many amazing couples, help them capture moments they'll cherish for a lifetime, and calling that our full time job!" Jamie recounts a story about one of their images being featured on a billboard in Times Square.

Jamie and Jeremy Manstrom / The Manstroms pose in Times Square in front of the Revlon billboard featuring their photograph (in the background, at left).

"Revlon found one of our images on Instagram and asked if they could use it for their love is on' campaign. That same week we were booked for a New York City wedding, which allowed us to see the billboard. We didn't necessarily get booking inquiries as a result, but we find being published definitely helps build our brand and reputation with future clients," she says.

Learn to leverage your photography for business success

Fatima Donaldson / Donaldson's fine art photograph, "Reach IV," portrays an elephant reaching for a Marula nut (used to make Amarula Liqueur), in Sabi Sands National Preserve, South Africa. This work has been exhibited and purchased by collectors in several states.

Branding and marketing are key components of an image maker's toolkit. Donaldson, who came to RMSP with more than 15 years of experience as a corporate marketing consultant, knows this inside and out. "I didn't necessarily move out of my profession, I just learned to leverage the photography with the relationships I had in corporate marketing," she says. "So now I focus on the corporate image work instead of comprehensive marketing efforts. I help my clients understand how to use images to help reinforce their brand. The commercial work has been a solid revenue stream," she points out. "This helps me to focus on my fine arts work, which has yielded corporate installations. The corporate piece has become the doorway to getting huge fine arts installations in corporate buildings. Sometimes you've just got to be creative and approach situations not as an obstacle, but look at the opportunity that might await you instead."

Adds Mike Tittel, a 1999 graduate and a current instructor in RMSP's professional studies program, "SI opened my eyes to the many ways I could make a living with my camera. Attending the program also taught me to be my best critic, and to strive to learn more and grow with every shoot. That continual desire to push and grow creatively has served me incredibly well in my career."

Tap the drive to grow and innovate

Mike Tittel / "When I started out, I don't think I ever realized how profoundly photography would impact my life, or the experiences it would allow me to have," says Mike Tittel. There's not much that can top getting to do what I love, day in and day out." Pictured here, Patrick Faulkner skis Jupiter Peak, at Park City Mountain Resort, Park City, Utah.

With the hindsight of 16 years shooting for global brands, Tittel identifies several elements that have contributed to his success. "First is a solid brand and consistent marketing that involves creating new work and pushing it out through multiple marketing channels. Yet, having solid work will only get you so far," he says. "You have to know who is hiring for the type of work you create, so you need a highly targeted list of prospective clients."

With this target in mind, Tittel continually expands his portfolio, "in a way that pushes me as a photographer. Without the constraints of a client, I am free to really struggle or fail, which is where the growth comes from," he says. "Bottom line: clients want to see that you can offer more than pushing a button. Be in relentless pursuit of growth and never stop challenging yourself."

Krista Welch / Welch captured a groom's unscripted reaction to his bride's joke during a quiet stroll after their West Seattle wedding. She recalls memorable advice from an RMSP instructor not to specify a photography discipline if asked. "Because during that summer, you learn it all, you can do it all. It broadens your horizons a lot," she says.

Learn more about the Rocky Mountain School of Photography on its Website, and click here for a week-by-week recap of RMSP's 2015 Summer Intensive sessions.

To view more work from the photographers who contributed to this article, click on the names below.

Ben Reed

Krista Welch

Jim David

Fatima Donaldson

Tom Fields

Jamie and Jeremy Manstrom

Mike Tittel

For more information on everything photography, check out B&H's Learn Photography portal. You'll find video tutorials, tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews. B&H is "The Professional's Source" for learning about photography.

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