The next episode in the SmugMug Films series focuses on sports photographer and photography education giant, Scott Kelby. Subscribe to the channel now to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free.
Photographer, teacher, business owner, father: it’s impossible to define Scott Kelby as just one thing—or any combination of titles. His love for photography and bringing the best out of other photographers through teaching goes beyond labels. Between videos, tutorials, shooting, and spending valuable time with his family, he still found time for us to ask him how he does it, and where he started.
What did you do before you became a photographer?
I was a full-time graphic designer. My wife and I had a small design firm that specialized in creating ads and collateral material for ad agencies that were too small to have their own in-house art departments.
If you could give yourself advice when you were just starting out in photography, what would it be?
Don’t worry so much about the gear.
And what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
To listen to the advice of people you trust.
What skills did photography teach you that you’ve successfully applied to other areas of your life?
Be flexible and go with the flow. On a shoot, no matter how precisely you’ve planned things out, things don’t always go as planned, and it’s the exact same thing in business. Being able to change gears and go with the flow to create a successful outcome is something I definitely learned from photography.
Any favorite tools and tricks of the trade?
This year I’ve switched from Nikon to Canon, and I’m really enjoying it an awful lot. I’m a sports shooter, and the Canon EOS 1Dx was just born for sports. I’m honestly surprised I made the switch, but it feels like Canon made that 1Dx just for me.
My favorite lenses are their 70-200mm f/2.8 and their 300mm and 400mm f/2.8. I love my ThinkTank Photo camera bags, and I can’t live without my 15″ MacBook Pro, and my iPad air.
Lightroom has made my post-processing life so much easier, and of course Photoshop is a miracle of modern technology that I can’t live without.
My love affair with lighting continues; most of my gear is Elincrhom, but I’ve been trying out some Profoto stuff that is really cool, and I’m kind of a gear hound so I’m always trying out something new. I know, I know, it’s not about the gear, but it sure is fun to play with.
What was the “aha!” moment that led to you building the Kelby Media education empire?
I think it was realizing that there was no one centralized place for learning about Photoshop all year long. There was a book here, or a website there, but there was no real recognized resource that had it all, and had it in one place. So we set out to do that. It took years of hard work and worry, but eventually things started to fall into place for that dream to become a reality.
What was your biggest challenge to turning the Kelby Media idea into reality?
It was definitely funding. We started with $750. Not $750,000. $750. We were living paycheck to paycheck pretty much.
How much are you still involved with the day-to-day running of the Kelby empire, since it is so large and you’re just one man?
I am 100%, all day, every day, involved in it. Luckily, I have a lot of help (including two full-time assistants), and I’m surrounded by a lot of really great, really motivated, and very talented people. My wife Kalebra handles the business side of things, so I can concentrate on the education side, which makes things a lot easier for me. I still have to get involved in everything from marketing to product development, but thankfully she takes care of everything from HR to accounting to customer service and all the stuff I am so incredibly bad at—and she’s great at—so it works really well.
With so many projects, what’s your key to prioritizing?
Sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming and my wife knows exactly that “look” I get when that happens, and she will literally sit me down with a piece of paper and say, “OK, list everything you have to do ….” And then she’ll tell me exactly which order to do what, and ya know what? She’s always right. She’s kind of my secret weapon. Heck, she’s our company’s secret weapon.
Walk us through a typical day for you.
It usually starts with either meetings or a video shoot. I wind up shooting a lot of videos—everything from reviews to features to business proposals via video to online classes, promos, you name it. Some days that’s all I do all day long. But more often than not, my days are filled with meetings, just like today was, but at 4:00 p.m. I leave because we’re taping an online class on location.
There are also days where we have shoots planned to support my live tour, or a book project, or for marketing, or for one of the 100 things they tell me they need images for. Last week I did location shoots, stills, and video, all day Monday and Tuesday, and then Wednesday I’m back in the office for meetings, and then we broadcast a live show every Wednesday. It’s really never the same routine every day, but two constants are meetings and videos—and hopefully a shoot thrown in there.
We’re astounded by all the things you’ve done and how upbeat and positive you always are. Where do you get all that energy?
I’m a really happy person in general, always have been. I’ve led a very blessed life with an amazing wife, two wonderful children, a job I absolutely love, and I’m surrounded by some of the coolest people I’ve ever met who are pretty positive people themselves, because we’re REALLY careful to hire only the very best—from talent to passion to character. When you’re surrounded by that every day, it’s hard not to be psyched and even harder to wipe the smile off your face.
What do you believe has been key to your successful marketing strategy?
I believe the most important thing we do is let our passion for what we do flow over onto our customers. We love teaching. Our customers can see it in us. They can feel it. They know we’re trying to do something really great for them. They know we’re creating the type of education we want ourselves, and I think they know we use it ourselves—we use our own product. They know we’re for real.
We never set out for that to be our marketing strategy, but it became it because we lived it, and it turned our customers into a giant force of evangelists. We feel very blessed indeed that it happened. I wish I could take credit for it somehow, but it just happened.
You’ve also taken an extremely social approach to your work. Have you gotten new ideas from all this interaction with the photographic community, or have there been any surprises as a result of this ongoing interaction?
I think one of the greatest things that social media has brought to me, besides being able to reach out to an audience, is hearing what they want next. Hearing directly, and unsolicited, exactly where they’re struggling: what they need help with, why they’re stuck, and so on helps me plan what we need to deliver next educationally. And not only what’s next, but how they want it delivered.
This goes beyond social media—it’s why I still teach 24 or so live seminars each year—you have to get there and talk to people one on one to find out where their pulse is really at, what is turning them on, and what they’ve either already conquered or which mountain they need to climb next. Standing in front of 500 photographers and seeing their facial expressions in real time as you teach live on stage is priceless. Nothing replaces that instant, genuine feedback.
If there were similar open collaboration between competitors in today’s photography industry, what cool products/services would you like to see come about that would be impossible without such collaboration between competitors?
I would love to see what a partnership between a big camera company and Apple would bring. I think you see what happens when someone outside photography “rethinks” building a camera. The first thing I think you’d see? The end of f-stops.
You still find time to shoot, too. How? And what’s your favorite thing to shoot when you do?
I really have to make time to shoot. Right now, my favorite thing to shoot is NFL football, and luckily that’s mostly on Sundays and only for around four months. I shoot for a sports news wire service and cover all the home games of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and when they’re on the road, I often wind up shooting with the Atlanta Falcons or Tennessee Titans if I can. I love shooting most sports, everything from motorsports to NBA to major league baseball to NHL hockey.
Kalebra also has a very busy career, so how do you balance having a family and both being so busy?
Luckily, it’s one of the biggest advantages of running your own business. Because of that, my wife and I are able to juggle our schedule to be at every one of the kid’s events at school, including their sporting events and parent–teacher conferences. I’m at every daddy-and-daughter dance, and I clear my schedule for anything that conflicts because our kids, and our time together, is so important to us. We drive and pick up the kids every day from schools; we plan lots of fun, family vacations all year long, and we have well-worn annual passes to Disney World (our favorite quick family getaway).
This all leads to a lot of tricky travel schedules and a lot of red-eye flights so I can be home with the family. If I’m shooting an NFL game on the road, it’s not unusual for me to take an early flight, shoot the 1:00 p.m. game, and then fly home right after the game so I’m home that night with the kids. It’s not exactly “relaxing,” but it’s worth it!
What other things do you do for fun?
I love to travel. The whole family loves it (we started the kids traveling early), so we love to see the world. We also have family travel traditions, like going to Maine each summer to the same little cottages, and our holiday weekend trips to Disney. Those mean a lot to us.
Are you reading anything interesting these days?
Just finishing up a great book on social media by Gary Vanderchuck called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. Really great stuff.
Who are your heroes?
My dad is definitely one. He was truly a prince of a man, and an amazing father with a twinkle in his eye like Santa. I have photography heroes like Joe McNally, and my wife would have to certainly be one of my heroes because of the amazing mother she is to our children, while juggling a bunch of plates in the air.
Could you describe a specific event or moment that stands out to you from your career?
I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, and I will never forget walking out of the tunnel at Soldier Field in Chicago before kickoff the day I was shooting my first NFL game. It was a pretty overwhelming thing emotionally as it had been a dream of mine for many years.
Another was when the back door of the small transport plane I was in opened after landing on the deck of a U.S. naval carrier and an FA-18 Hornet taxied right past us just a few feet away. When I stepped onto that deck, it was overwhelming in an entirely different way, but it was a very powerful moment.
Another moment just happened when my son was competing in a nationwide crew-rowing event. For the first time ever he was rowing a single (his own one-man sculling boat rather than an 8-man or 4-man boat), and I was up on a large bridge over the river, not far from the end of the race course. I was shooting with a 400mm lens, and I spotted him and started firing. I was trying to track him as he rowed, and at one point he was just in front of the bridge and I was cheering him on, yelling encouragement down to him, with tears literally streaming down my face, just like they are right now as I write this.
I shot a lot of pro sports but nothing ever hit me like that did. I was literally bursting with pride. Those shots—those really mattered.