Hello Robin! Could you introduce yourself?
Hey! I’m Robin Laananen, a photographer based in Los Angeles who found passion for photography during my teenage years while shooting basement punk shows, leading to working as a freelance photographer in the music industry. The love of collaboration with artists led to touring with them, as a photographer to document life on the road, and sometimes taking the role of tour manager as a means to travel.
I don’t feel I’m able to articulate in words (at least not briefly) as to how it’s felt to travel the world with those who’ve not only inspired me but who’ve inspired countless others worldwide. I feel that not only travel, but the act of traveling with artists who’ve made an impact in many lives, truly teaches compassion, love and provides limitless inspiration. Through trust, I’ve been able to document what life both looks and feels like off-stage, capturing what most don’t see, and all the while, I’ve seen parts of the world in such a unique way.
While traveling, extensively, the only thing that can break through jetlag, or any sense of disorientation, is picking up one of my cameras and setting out for exploration, finding that highest vantage point above the dense city streets or amidst that mountain to overlook the trees. Photography is better than coffee (which says a lot).
My formable and current years are spent shooting anything music, mainly editorially, but I’ve been completely reveling in the chance to explore travel, landscape and nature photography. After all, they are absolutely connected in the grand scheme of life.
While not being able to travel due to COVID, my newly found addiction is waking before sunrise, hiking into “that one spot” and capturing the moments when the sun begins to trickle over mountains, lakes, canyons, the tops of trees. Again, not enough words, I like to call it “the reveal”.
There’s a moment prior to the hike, alone in the darkness, as my headlamp illuminates a small fraction of the surroundings, when a slight fear rumbles through thoughts, which quickly falls waist- side once the first step is taken. “OK, looks like I’m doing this”.
Tell us about your first introduction to photography, what’s your backstory?
As a teenager, I became inspired with photography while shooting punk shows in and around Phoenix, Arizona, as I was immediately drawn to the energy and chaos of a live show. For two years, I took photography, photojournalism and sociology classes at Arizona State University but craved the learning process of just “doing”.
After dropping out of college, I moved to Seattle, Washington, and started working at “The Rocket” magazine, as a receptionist, to get my foot in the door.
I recall the first show I photographed for them was the band Dead Moon, playing at the OK Hotel, on black & white film. I shot everything on film and set up a darkroom in my Capitol Hill apartment. I’m grateful having had that history as I shoot digital as though it was film and not “disposable”. And, with keeping my camera settings on “manual” throughout the years, I can usually get the exposure correct from the start, or at least close. I do miss seeing that photograph come to life in the tray of “developer”!
I began shooting for other publications, and then, for local record label, Sub Pop. I still remember my first shoot for the label was of the Swedish band, The Hellacopters, on the office building’s rooftop (naturally, they loved that one of the cameras I used was my Hasselblad). That was really the starting point of when I worked for more and more International publications and began traveling. I remember, at the beginning, being so broke, eating beans and rice, knowing how to “dress up” a pack of Top Ramen. But I couldn’t be happier, taking portraits of musicians, going to many shows every week, and spending countless hours in my darkroom.
Since starting, how did you develop your style?
I don’t recall having actively developed my style, I feel it comes naturally. Living in Seattle, I could look at a photo and tell you who took it, the styles were all that different. However, through the years, I have gotten better with both shooting and editing, the technical skills. I can be a control freak and like to have my hands on all aspects of the process, meaning the pre-planning and location scouting, the shooting, through to the edit and post-production. I think it’s healthy to have another set of eyes on the edit, knowing that I really tend to struggle with cutting images.
I’ve only recently started working with mood boards, and I recommend it. I’ve found it to be very helpful for communication with who I’m shooting and for my client. If everyone has a different idea of the end result in mind, then someone could end up being disappointed, which can usually be due to lack of clear communication. And, with a mood board and shot list, everyone starts the shoot on the same page, which means I can focus more on the shooting.
I’m usually hired by a magazine or label to shoot a specific artist, or by a brand, and the pre- planning involves initially asking if the magazine/label/artist have any ideas already in mind, and from there, location scouting, styling needs, logistics of timing, budget and turnaround time. If it’s a personal project, I’ll reach out to who I’m interested in shooting, and if they’re game and available, we go from there. I make sure they get something out of the shoot too, whether it be photographs or a video edit, etc.
I do enjoy experimenting when I have the freedom to do so. If I’m photographing someone I know and want to try a different method, lens or filter, etc, I’ll do it then. I think it’s good to continue to experiment as then you’re always evolving. I know when times are busy, it can be easy to just put my head down and do what I’m comfortable with, but then I wouldn’t grow in the long run.
Since starting, what has worked to attract fans and followers?
I feel that I found more success and broadened my audience by both regular, consistent posting and engaging with comments and other people’s posts. It must not be forgotten that it’s called “social media”, so it’s meant to be a platform to engage with other human beings.
People love authenticity and seeing behind the scenes, beyond the “perfect” day. The majority of what is shown on social media isn’t real, and within boundaries, naturally, I’ve found people to appreciate and be more receptive with more transparency.
After a few years of not having much of a following on social media, I began to post consistently, at the same time each day while engaging with other “like-minded” individuals. The consistency eventually pays off, and posting at the same time each day, depending on your time zone, makes it easy to remember on my end. But I wouldn’t suggest posting just to post, it has to be a photograph you’re proud of. I don’t mean it has to be perfect, but should be an image you’d like to see.
Be genuine. There’s so much content, everywhere, all the time, so feeling a “real” human connection can make a difference.
Through starting as a photographer, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The more prepared you are, the more you’ll be able to focus on the shoot itself. And no matter how much preparation you do, chances are that you’ll have to go to Plan B or C. I learned this while living in Seattle and planning an outdoor shoot for aesthetics or due to lack of available indoor location … and the rain would come. And, when photographing musicians, plan that they’ll be late, and you’ll have less time than originally allotted. Get as many shots as you can, and with as many (nearby) locations. And it doesn’t hurt to put the drummer up front.
Overprepare and overdeliver. Get in the habit of downloading your SD cards immediately after a shoot, followed by backing up, while charging your batteries, that way you know you’re ready to run out the door at a moment’s notice. I know that if my case is packed and shut, it’s ready to go. Though I’ll crack open my case to give my lenses a good cleaning the night before a shoot.
Build a website. There are many easy ways to have a lovely looking website these days, there’s no excuse not to have one. Personally, I use Squarespace, and I love it. If you’re depending on social media, imagine if your account gets hacked and shutdown, there goes all of your hard work. I still remember when Myspace was the thing. Your website is something you can keep up with the times.
You learn from your mistakes, and everyone makes them. I remember one of the worst things that happened due to not being careful enough was losing about 75% of a shoot due to my medium format film being exposed while a bike messenger was sent to drop the rolls off at the print house. I hadn’t double taped the shot rolls, and they opened during his (short) ride. Unfortunately, the shoot was Hasselblad heavy due to a marketing angle, so I didn’t have a whole lot of 35mm to fall back on. It still hurts to bring this up. Take the time to take all the precautions. These days, that translates into having multiple backups of both your raw and processed photos. “They say” that you should have the backups in different locations should the storage be robbed or catch fire, etc. Back up when traveling too. I lost 2 weeks of work from a tour while on the road in Europe due to a crashed laptop. It only takes once for you to learn, but you remember it for life. I guess, technically, that’s two hard lessons for me – one analog, one digital. Never again!
Invest in yourself. I never make myself feel guilty to invest in new gear as it will always end up paying for itself. Spending money with learning is also part of that category. If you’re not learning, you’re not evolving.
What’s your biggest achievement so far?
The time when I realized that I was shooting full-time as a freelance photographer is by far my biggest achievement. And I mean that time when steady work is coming in, as payments are always months out. When I found myself being the “go to” shooter for magazines, then record labels, is when I knew I was onto something. Even during the early times, when I was broke and fixing up 99 cent packages of ramen to eat, I was happy as I was doing what I love for a living. That passion keeps you going. Reaching the milestone of being flown out of the country to shoot is an indescribable feeling.
Personally, one of the most sincere and satisfying compliments is when a band reaches out to work with me either based off photographs I’ve taken of another artist, or ones I’ve taken of them in the past. I’ve been hired mostly through word of mouth, from overdelivering quality work and being super easy to work with. It can take effort for a person to feel comfortable in front of a camera, let alone forget you’re there while in a recording studio or on tour. I’ve been hired to photograph an artist for a magazine, then months later, I get a phone call from their management asking to come document them in the studio or on tour. That means a lot to me, there’s a trust built during time spent with them and my camera.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
With COVID grounding travel and temporarily removing the use of my passport, I’ve taken to solo road trips, in a campervan and feeling reinspired while getting back in touch with nature. Without going into too much detail yet, I’m currently working on a project that will involve another road trip, during the Spring months, and I do hope to take the project overseas as soon as things begin to ease up.
I miss photographing people, and the musicians I’ve met or worked with have been on my mind throughout these past months. Personally, I know how hard it’s been to be grounded, with being so used to living out of a suitcase, so I know they’re struggling too. I do love that musicians have found creative ways to continue to inspire despite how bleak things have looked outside the window, and I look forward to seeing what they’ve created with this time behind closed doors.
I’ve also completely embraced being more of a one-woman band, with plans to delve more into slow travel and tourism photography. I feel that, with all that’s happened, tourists will spend more time in one place, learning more about the culture and the people living where they’re exploring, and I’d love to inspire that through photography and writing.
What’s in your camera bag these days?
I’ve been using Canon for years, since I started with Nikon shooting film.
Canon was the first digital choice I went with once seeing that most photographers I admired used them. I currently shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III, the 24-70mm 2.8 lens being my favorite go to, especially on the road. I also bring a 70 – 200mm, and the lovely prime lenses, the 35mm and 50mm. I use a Brevitte “rucksack” backpack, after having to “ground” my hard “Case Cruzer PSC200” that I’d take on tour (like a “Pelican” case but made for camera gear with a laptop compartment in the lid) and get portable, doubled with a waist pack by Hex for the easy access to my headlamp, batteries, cards, etc. I love my Peak design travel tripod and sling strap. And I have organizers by Moment within the bags to make everything removable on a pinch.
I use the DJI Mavic Air 2 drone after upgrading from the Mavic Mini. I had the Mini for a couple of months to become used to using a drone while simultaneously getting over the stigma of using a drone. I feel it’s a good idea to have a drone in your gear collection, so long as you don’t rely on it for everything. That’d be too easy.
I’ll usually always have my Fuji x100T strapped around my neck, while running through an airport, through the halls of a hotel, while helping to get the band onstage, or jumping in a taxi to get to the highest point of a city. I love the camera. It makes sense that I bought my first Fuji from a suggestion made by a musician friend, who’s also a very talented and published photographer. I had been looking for a lightweight point and shoot that I could use without sacrificing quality. The Fuji x100 series is that. I’m on my third one as I tend to grab the latest revision when they are released.
My MacBook Pro from 2015 is still holding strong, though I am starstruck with the new ones.
So, everything listed:
- Canon EOS 5D Mark III
- Canon 24-70mm 2.8 lens
- Canon 70 – 200mm lens
- Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.2 L USM Lens
- Brevitte “rucksack” backpack
- Case Cruzer PSC200
- Peak design travel tripod
- DJI Mavic Air 2
- Mavic Mini
- Fuji x100T
What software and platforms do you use for your photography?
I might have a slightly chaotic post-production method utilizing Capture One to download my images and process them, to be taken into either Photoshop or Lightroom, depending on how I’d like to edit. I feel that most photographers use Lightroom these days, but I really like the organization and process method of Capture One, and I’ve been using Photoshop for years. One day, I’ll streamline.
My site is hosted by Squarespace, which I’ve loved using as it’s super easy to use, and their technical support is on point. I have my email linked to my website; my Gmail is a personal account at this point.
For deliverables, if the client files are too big for Dropbox, I’ll pick up a USB stick or external hard drive to ship to them.
What is the most rewarding part of being a photographer for you?
I love that moment when I’m going through the shots for the day, and there are ones I knew were keepers when I took them, but when I see them on the screen… It’s ALMOST as satisfying as using a darkroom in the past, to see that image be slowly revealed while soaking in the developer. You know it when you get it.
And, I have to include the part when an artist reaches out to me based off other work I’ve done.
Music continues to mean so much to me as one of the most inspiring forms of art, and life in general, especially having seen what they go through to tour, etc., so when a musician reaches out to collaborate…well, it really doesn’t get much better than that.
As of current, reaching an incredible point after a darkness into morning hike is so rewarding, trying to capture what it feels like in that moment through a photograph, especially when there’s not another soul around. This planet is just amazing.
What is your favorite location to shoot?
The highest point of anywhere, whether it be a mountain in the middle of nowhere or a skyscraper in a densely packed city. Life feels different from that perspective. With that being said, I’ve been more drawn to nature these days, with everything that’s happening, feeling more grounded, but I do still love the highest point. I’m very inspired by the most desolate of locations, naturally, Iceland being my favorite place on the planet. The thought that such incredible and amazing nature can actually be your demise is not avoidable.
New Zealand is up there too. New Zealand was the one place where I completely underestimated travel time due to the 2-lane “highways” being so very windy and hilly, always. After the first day, I had to sit down and restructure my whole itinerary to allow for more breathing room, as much as I love “pedal to the metal” driving. Seriously, I do enjoy that.
What is your best memory as a photographer?
This is a hard and nearly impossible question! Rather than putting a spotlight on a specific shoot, or on the times I’ve had the opportunity to photograph musician heroes of mine, or how it feels the first time you’re paid to travel as a photographer, or even that feeling of absolute satisfaction when going through images following a shoot being absolutely exhausted but too excited to sleep…
I thought of when I flew to London for the press check of my first published book, “US/THEN”, a hardcover book of photography documenting life on the road with Los Angeles-based band, Warpaint. The world is such a digital platform these days, so to have the experience of watching my book come out of a 4-color press is like no other. I spent a few days in London, in-between tours, taking the train to the print house outside of the city, getting prints made for a showing at the Somerset House, the whole trip was something I won’t soon forget. Though the attempt to leave is also memorable as it was the day, at Heathrow, when all of computers in the Queen’s Terminal (Terminal 5 housing British Airways) shutdown for over 24 hours. Everyone’s flight got canceled, military police showed up, and after helping the elderly couple standing in line behind me book a nearby hotel, I fled to my own non-descript old-timey hotel I found on “hotels.com” while retreating to the terminal parking lot. Hotels were going quickly with everyone being stranded, it was a frenzy as people suspected a giant hacking after hearing it was all British Airways systems worldwide.
While entertaining a celebratory glass of champagne and a salad at the downstairs restaurant, I called the airline to hear the woman on the other line admit to not knowing when I’d get home. I didn’t care, aside from having a time constraint due to a looming tour date starting in the States, I was content. At least I wouldn’t be burdened with having time to unpack before leaving again.
What makes the difference between a good image and an iconic image?
An iconic image transcends time. it’s one that’s relatable and tells a story we all want to experience or have experienced. A trigger of emotion.
A good idea to always remember that “a picture says 1000 words” and ask what story you’re telling with that photograph.
Some of my all-time photographs are the iconic black & white photos of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the vivid colorful shots of David Bowie. The ones that take you into that moment are the ones I still draw inspiration from.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
One silver lining to being stuck at home for months is being able to catch up on reading and diving into podcasts. If I’m being honest, most of the books are non-fiction books on travel, mostly Lonely Planet’s travel anthologies, like ‘the Kindness of Strangers” with authors writing about experiences they’ve had while traveling, along with books about mindfulness and mental health, like “Untethered Soul” by Michael A Singer. I also dove into “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” after watching the HBO mini-series. The story is real dark, but it’s so well written.
The podcasts are more in the self-help/motivational area, along with business and life coaches – like Dr Joe Dispenza (also read “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself”, Lewis Howes, and rereading “The Power of Now”.
I’ve also taken on mentors, from afar (of course) by learning from those I admire. The Wildist workshops are a solid example as they have lovely ones available. It’s priceless to learn from those who’ve been there/done that, and even more so when they can teach you in a way that’s also inspiring and encouraging.
Understandably, 2020 opened the flood gates for reflection and deciding what I really want out of this life. Through reading, meditation, delicious (vegan) cooking and daily pilates, I’ve been able to keep a pretty healthy mental state as things fell apart outside my window. Through much work, I can honestly say I’m “embracing” the uncertainty, and I’m excited to see how things unfold.
Advice for other photographers who want to get started or are just starting out?
Go out and shoot. I think getting past the idea that everything has to be perfect and just shooting is the best way to learn. I’ve learned so much from trial and error, from my glorious mistakes.
I began by photographing friends, and I really can’t recommend doing that more. I grew up around skaters, and that was a big influence of mine, the skate photographers. It’s not as easy as it looks, but I tried.
Through my years living in Seattle, nearly everyone I knew played music, so I had those friends to call on. Think of who you know and take them out with your camera, because it’s good practice for technical reasons but also to get used to directing someone. Everyone ends up having fun, and you’ll gain the experience and familiarity with your gear!
Practice shooting at all times of the day. The sunlight can change dramatically, so it’s a good idea to know how that translates through your camera.
Talk to who you’re photographing. When I used to assist, I would be surprised how much I’d notice the photographer not communicating with who they’re shooting which can be uncomfortable. The person you’re shooting should never have to wonder if they’re “doing it right”.
Be kind. And communicate.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you’re on this site, it means photography means something to you, and I’d love to hear from you!