It’s almost impossible to describe Robert King’s photography without using the word “epic.” It just is. The 29-year-old photographer’s work is filled with grand landscapes that pop with brilliant colors and huge-scale imagery. It feels alive, pulsing with a certain spirit of adventure. These aren’t just pretty pictures, they seem to hum with the energy of the person behind the camera.
King is a guy who worked in tech and left the conventional life and all the money behind to live his dream of traveling the world and taking pictures. Now, shooting full time all over the world (with brands like Chevrolet, Lululemon, and Breitling) he’s just generally giddy about life — a guy who gets so excited talking about the places he’s seen and has yet to see that he almost stumbles over his words. He takes joy in what he does, but more than that, he takes joy in the grand adventure of it all. And it’s this joy that’s so apparent in his photos.
A million people can (and have) taken photographs of the same places — the same beautiful waterfalls, rock formations at sunset, winding roads through the mountains — and yet, they aren’t all the same pictures. Part of that is skill, equipment, or luck (light, weather, sky etc), but there’s an intangible force with nature and adventure photography. In the best shots, you can almost hear the breathing and smell the sweat of the person who climbed to get to the top of some mountain or ledge. And in the very greatest, you feel the pure exhilaration of experiencing that place at that moment in time. King’s pictures have that intangible quality that draws us to them and, in turn, inspire us to want to get out on the road (or in a plane or on a boat) to see the world with that kind of joyous spirit of exploration.
We spoke to Robert recently and he told us about some of the craziest experiences he’s had getting a shot, the views he can’t get enough of, and why it’s important to travel with no expectations.
How did you end up becoming a travel and adventure photographer?
I kind of grew up all over the world. My parents met in Saudi Arabia, and they worked in public health. And I was born into this traveling family. I spent the first, probably, 12 years of my life living in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Europe for a while. Eventually, we moved to Australia when I was 11 or 12, and I felt like I loved traveling because of that. Then when I turned 19, I moved to the US for college, got a finance degree, and started working for a sales company in San Francisco. But I was always traveling. Always doing trips when I could, but those were typical working schedule trips, a week here, two weeks there.
Then I got a job with a tech company based in LA, and I started to travel more and more for work. So, I would use that to tack on little trips here and there. I thought, “You know what would be a cool way to share this with my friends and family? If I got into photography.” I made the jump and bought a good camera. One of my friends in LA was a full-time photographer, and he encouraged me to go with a slightly nicer, more expensive model. I remember being really hesitant at the time because it was just a hobby. I’d travel; I’d take photos. But then that hobby became more passionate. I realized, “Wow, if I could kind of get good at photography, it would be a way for me to travel.”
At one point did you decide you wanted to shift to photography and travel full time?
Well, I was a director of sales at a huge tech company in the US, and I was making great money, but it wasn’t necessarily as fulfilling as I wanted it to be. So, I was taking photos for fun on the side, and then a couple years ago, I had the opportunity to leave the company. I used that as a kick in the butt to try to make photography happen. I was like, “If I’m not working as a photographer by April 2018, I’m going to go back to a tech job.” And I just really hustled. I got some really good sponsorships from some awesome brands, and my Instagram started growing. Then I partnered with Lonely Planet a few years ago, and they feature a lot of my travel stories. So I would create content from an awesome destination, they’d feature it on social media, and that helped to gain my following — which then allowed me to work with bigger brands.
Is it different working with brands and having those parameters versus being a hobbyist?
I got to go to Qatar last year with their Tourism Board. I’d say that’s probably my favorite way to work with someone, to actually just work with a tourism board or a travel company because it’s really in-sync with what I like to do.
I’d say that I’m a travel-first photographer. I’ve always loved to see new things, to stand in front of interesting things, to show my eyes things they’ve never seen before, and photography was a way for me to do that. And I’m just stoked that I’m able to do that and be passionate about it because what I was doing before wasn’t the worst job in the world. It’s just I was doing it to save money, to take time, to go and experience those things. So I’ve just been really stoked on how awesome the last couple of years have gone. Just the experiences I’ve gotten to have, the people I’ve gotten to meet, the places I’ve gotten to see. It’s been awesome.
Yeah. So, when you’re working, you’re having these adventures, you’re traveling, but you also have to produce great shots. Let’s say you go on an epic hike — Is it challenging to divide time shooting versus enjoying yourself?
Totally. So, that’s why certain collaborations are so awesome. There’s definitely pressure when you’re shooting for something, right? That epic hike that you’re doing, if you’re doing it for a backpack company or a shoe company, then you have results that you have to deliver. And you obviously want to exceed those expectations. I’d say most of the times, I get a little bit nervous initially just because you never know what conditions you’re gonna get or what the weather’s gonna be. If you’re planning to do a sunset hike, is there gonna be an epic sun? But, from my experience, it’s just always worked out. I’ve learned over time to have way more fun doing it and just be like, “You know what? It’s never not worked out, so let’s just go into this with the mindset that it’s going to and don’t lose track of why I’m doing it.”
I love that mindset with travel in general. It’s never not worked out, right?
Yeah, if your expectations are low — like, if you’re going to a place where everybody tells you it’s awesome and amazing, and you’re expecting it to be awesome and amazing when you get there and, for whatever reason, you don’t have an awesome and amazing experience, you’re already trying to catch up to what other people have told you. Whereas, if you are neutral about things and go through the process of letting the fun come to you or finding the things you want to do and going to do them, you always end up having an amazing time because you have the attitude of “I’m carefree for these two weeks. I’m carefree for this month. All I’m trying to do is have a good experiences.”
You often take more extreme pictures in adventurous locations on your trips. Are you ever in a situation where it feels a little bit dangerous?
I’ve had some interesting things happen to me while I’m traveling. I’d say that when it comes to getting up close to the edge of a cliff… I’m very, very cautious about risk analysis. I don’t think that any photo is worth endangering my life or the life of someone I’m hiking with. I’m never going to try to get too close to an animal in an environment where it could hurt me. Or a cliff just to make the photo look a little bit better. A lot of the shots I take that look that way are probably an illusion just because I don’t feel comfortable. Maybe when I was a little bit younger, I would get close to a cliff or hang my legs off.
There are so many things you can do with a camera, like different focal points or compression that could make something look a certain way. I’d rather learn the craft and make the image look that way through that. There are stories now of people hiking and hurting themselves and falling. But as far as crazy situations go, I’ve been in Alaska, where I’ve been charged by a brown bear, and it was in a national park. But you go through the steps to learn about what to do if something like that happens, so you make a lot of noise, duck into the trees. And you follow all the steps even when that adrenaline’s going through your body, the bear realizes you’re not a threat and walks away.
Or, I was actually in the Dead Sea in Jordan one time, and I woke up early to go to the sunrise shoot of the Dead Sea and got too close to the Gray Zone — which is between Jordan and Israel. There was a curfew at the hotel, but I had no idea because I’d gotten in late. So I went through this insane experience where the Jordanian military thought that I was a threat. They took … I missed my flight. It took 24 hours. I didn’t have a phone, and that was kind of one of those things where I was like, “What am I doing to get a photo?” But it was just a big misunderstanding, and it ended up being fine. But times like that, I’m definitely kind of scared or in a position that it didn’t think I’d be in, but you take precautions. You do research. If you’re smart while you’re traveling, you can avoid any sort of major kind of mishaps, I think.
What would you say is your kind of general aesthetic that’s helped lead to your success. I mean anybody now can get a nice camera and upload their photos to Instagram. How did you differentiate yourself from the pack?
Yeah. Like you’re saying, everyone can create content now, so the differentiation kind of just has to do with your eye and your style. And I’d say the biggest thing for me is I don’t really have a theme. I don’t mind shooting anything or taking photos of anything. I love wildlife. I love landscapes. I love travel. I’d say it’s a blend of those three things. I haven’t really pigeonholed myself to anything specific, so I get to work with a lot of really unique, really cool companies.
Were there particular trips this year that just really stood out as being really unique opportunities for photography?
I had an awesome year, and I got to visit some places again. Like I went back to Banff for a second time. That is a dream location for a photographer. It’s just everything. You can’t take a bad photo of a place like that. Fiji was another of those places that I went to last year, where not only did I love the way it looked — the reefs and the coral and the waves — but the people were so awesome. And it was just one of the first places I’ve been to in a while where I was so excited to go back. I’m going to try to go back there this year. I went back to Bali last year. I got to go on a Europe trip of northern Italy, Florence, Tuscany. That was all a really cultural, really cool experience. I also went to Oktoberfest, which is something I’ll definitely do again, for the culture.
Might not be the most photogenic place, but like I said, I travel mainly for the experiences. And photography is a way to do that. Oh and I was in Poland with their Tourism Board. So seeing a country that maybe not so many people think is a tourist destination that ended up being a really, really cool, really unique experience. The people, the culture, it’s so different, and then there are these castles and these vineyards and these national parks that I’ve never heard of. I’ve been back to Zion National Park eight or nine times now. Probably will go another couple of times this year. I’ll never not do something because I’ve done it because, as a photographer, I always say that the best photos of something or of a location, a destination, come from the photographers that live in those areas, right?
‘Cause if you’re going every day, you’re gonna have the best photos of it, right? For 10 days in February, I’m going to New Zealand, and I’m really looking forward to it. But I might go to one lake for a sunrise and get average weather, and it’s on me to make the most out of that. Whereas a local person, who lives in that region, is going to be able to photograph that way more often. They’re going to get different skies and different light and different moods, and that’s really hard to do as a travel photographer.
What places are on your bucket list that you’ve never been to?
Oh, my gosh! So many places. Everywhere that I haven’t been is on my list, but I think Japan is really high for me. I’ve been to China. I’ve been to southeast Asia. I just feel like the culture in Japan is so unique. I’d love to experience it, so I’m trying to get to Japan. Other places I haven’t been … New Zealand’s high my list, but I’m actually going there for my birthday next month. So, I’m excited about that. There are so many places in Europe I have yet to see. I want to go to Russia. I’d love to go to Thailand. I’ve only been as a child, so it’d be awesome to go back and experience it now.
My mom is Lebanese, so I’d love to go to Lebanon with her and experience that, how she remembers it, how some of her siblings remember it. Those trips are always awesome ones, where you can see it through someone else’s eyes or they can help you experience it. But, yeah… everywhere. My list is 100 pages long.
You just go through with a globe, and you’re like, “And here, here, and here.”
Let’s go through the A’s. Argentina, Australia.
Would you say you have either a photography or a travel motto? Like if you had a philosophy for the way you choose to experience the world, what would that be?
That’s a good one. Maybe trying to put yourself in interesting, uncomfortable situations and then finding the comfort in them. For example, I did a hike in Machu Picchu. It’s this one you can do that’s five days long, and you’re in high altitude. And it’s uncomfortable. You’re hiking and you’re carrying all this stuff and you’re camping. But finding the comfort in that physical discomfort is something that’s really awesome.
I like to stand in front of interesting things. That’s something I heard a while back. I can’t even remember who said it. But the idea of standing in front of something interesting and seeing it for the first time, it’s such a rush for me. We get so comfortable with our everyday. We get so comfortable in our bubbles, going to our coffee shop, going to our favorite sandwich place, and doing the same thing on weekends — so jet setting out of that to travel, that in itself is just so awe-inspiring to me. So, I don’t know if there’s a motto in there somewhere, but that’s what I try to practice.