Pro Skills: Robin O’Neill Talks How to Become a Pro MTB Photographer

All photos courtesy of Robin O’Neill

For some careers, there is a clear cut path carved from education to office. Want to be a lawyer? Go to a four-year college, study for the LSAT, go to law school, take the bar and start applying. It’s just as formulaic and ritualistic for many jobs out there. Like any job in the creative field though, the trail to a full-time photography gig isn’t always as clear, and it certainly gets a little less obvious in niches like adventure sports photography.

Sure, there is photography school, but how do you meet athletes? How do you get your foot into a marketing rep’s office? Is it best to shoot racing or adventure, editorial or commercial? Ask any two pro mountain biker photographers and they’ll likely give you different answers and share the GPS coordinates for two different trails, each one that got them to where they are now.

Robin O’Neill is a full-time photographer who specializes in mountain biking, skiing, and adventure photography. We reached out to O’Neill to find out how MTB photo hopefuls can use some of the ingredients that she’s found helpful to develop their own recipe to success.

First off, tell us how you got started with photography.

I started when I was doing some NGO work. In Guyana I was with Youth Challenge International and then I went and worked in Zimbabwe with the Zimbabwe Women’s Bureau the next year. Basically, I signed up for a volunteer project to help out in Guyana, South America, and brought the camera with me and learned it there. And then I got really into it and I wanted to document it and then it kind of just sparked that it was a way for me to express myself and to document what was around me.

After that, I went on a 60-day canoe trip and documented that. I just started bringing it along with me, basically, on all my experiences.

How did you get your first camera? Did you have any friends or relatives who were photographers?

Yes, and no. I think when I was younger, my dad was taking some slides of the family on his visits and travels to different places. So I actually grabbed it from the hutch in the hallway and asked him if I could use it for the trip.

And I used that camera the whole time, actually, until I went to photo school and then I had to get a different camera, because it was just pretty basic for what I needed.

So your initial foray into photography was basically adventure photography?

Yeah, I don’t think I knew about that category. But it was adventure photography. I grew up in a city suburb so I had to really hunt for these experiences, because I didn’t actually have anyone in my family or anyone that bikes or skis or any of these things. This wasn’t something that was in my household. So, whatever adventure I think I could find I would do, but it wasn’t like they were part of my daily exposure.

I just remember a slideshow in high school, where the people were going to Swaziland, to do some work with the community there, and they did a slide show. But I was like, “Oh, I need to do something like that.” So I don’t know what clicked but something clicked. It was an exposure that I wouldn’t have gotten through through my house.

Did you study any certain discipline in photography school?

It was all-around. It had all the different modules that you had to do. I was more drawn to that photojournalism aspect of it. But there was portraiture, wedding photography, a bunch of studio work. I do remember specifically in the fashion photography part, taking off and going for hikes.

But one thing I will say is that, that lighting that learning about light, and not necessarily just studio light, but learning about how that defines the photographer popped up at that school for me, and I’m actually grateful that I do know how to use all those tools.

How did mountain biking come into the picture?

I moved to Whistler. I came up here to learn how to ski. I didn’t ski, and my family didn’t ski, so I thought, the only way to learn is to move somewhere where there’s skiing. So I had moved there in the fall, and then in the spring, I literally got on a bike and fell in love. It just clicked, I loved it. And, I immediately kind of like hopped on to groups of people that were doing trips or things like that.

So that was how it happened. It was more of moving to Whistler, and then learning to ski, and then the best byproduct of that was that in the spring, I uncovered this sport that I was in love with.

And did you just start taking your camera out on group rides?

No, never. I think that that’s what most people do. I still don’t do that. First of all, my friends aren’t professionals. And also, I wasn’t shooting bike at all, until a bunch of years into it. But I still don’t do that. I might start to do that a little bit more. But I tend to just love riding, so I’m used to having one hat on or the other. It’s very difficult for me to swap objectives.

So how did you start shooting more mountain bikes and crack into that realm?

I signed up for a competition [Crankworx Deep Summer], because I’d done the winter one, and the only reason I was able to get athletes was because of my connection to Chromag, as friends of mine, and they helped put forward some athletes that I could use. And I used a lot of like regular people as well. But I had a Brandon Semenuk cameo in there and Matt Hunter, because they were on Chromag. And yeah, that was the first time really that I’d shot biking.

What was the process like planning Deep Summer and then working with MTB athletes for the first time?

So a certain amount of planning went into place in terms of ideas of like what I wanted to do, but a lot of it is definitely instinctual and so being off the cuff like that is really helpful and I guess it lends itself a little bit to my personality or my style of shooting. But, it was an amazing process. I loved it. Super hard work, but I still love to do collaboration. And maybe that’s the difference I have. I don’t have a specific vision fully set. And so the athletes are able to build the image with me, which is awesome.

How did your career evolve after Deep Summer? Do you feel like it helped launch your mountain bike photography career and what came after?

I can’t remember how it all works but I would say it definitely launched. Winning back to back, winter to summer, it launched work and recognition, for sure.

I always had a mortgage to pay, so I never did much editorial, but I think that’s what the key is for most amateur mountain bike photographers. My understanding is that most people shoot on spec, trying to get into the magazines, and recognized by editors and recognized by the industry. You know, people buying ads and things like that will come through and then they’ll start to see the person a lot.

I think that is a lot of how people have done it. And they’ll go out with athletes that they know. Or you can go to smaller races where you don’t need media accreditation, but it’s quite great because you get repeated action and you can try out different techniques.

You can also just go to your local Wednesday night race. And then you can kind of get a sense of what works, or what doesn’t work with with this stream of people, which I mean, that’s gold.

For me, I just didn’t start as young and I needed to pay the bills. Spec work, I think, is a bunch of years with not a lot of money coming in. [That’s] just going to shoot with people that you are friends with or other people and making creative images and sending them in when the submission time comes back with magazines. It means that you’re taking on all the risk, or not getting paid, you’re putting all the work out there, and you’re hoping that you may get paid or may be paid in recognition and that you will get seen because, you know, editorial does not pay very much.

But it’s volumes in terms of being a part of a greater community and also a connection with athletes so that you ensure you’re prioritizing them, which I do big time. I want them to be accredited and if they are making images with me, I want to make sure that it’s out there or they’re getting rewarded for that time that they’ve spent. You cannot be a photographer without athletes. They’re fantastic and creative people that deserve recognition and that you can get ideas from. It’s very collaborative that way, and you don’t want them wasting their time either, so that’s another reason to send your images in to magazines.

Do you feel like working with brands will come naturally after editorial work or should photographers reach out to brands?

For sure. Sometimes it’s an introduction from an athlete, sometimes it’s your own research, sometimes it’s being at an event and getting their contact information.

Is it necessary to live in an outdoor-centric place like Whistler to make it as a bike photographer?

The Garbanzo zone in the Whistler Bike Park.

It’s hard to say because that’s the only way I know and that’s how I became a photographer. I think you need to have some access for sure. And not just access. You have to get yourself to the outdoors community. I think you need to have relationships with athletes.

A lot of adventure and bike photographers are male. Was this an intimidating aspect for you or does it feel like there are additional barriers for females which males might not experience?

It’s hard to say not knowing what their experience is. I’m not really sure to be honest. I would say it is an incredibly competitive field. And there are lots of men in it, and not a lot of women. Although that’s growing. But, it’s a very competitive field regardless of gender and you have to have a lot of things that line up for it to work out. And it could be just as ageist. It’s not a career meant for older people either. As soon as you get older you’re not as relatable to the athletes that are younger. There’s lots of things that need to line up I think for it to work out.

Do you feel like there was a process in “learning your worth” or pricing yourself as a photographer? How have you learned that over the years?

I can’t specifically remember. I just know that, that the answer to that was a lot of research, and knowing the value of your own work in the marketplace. That’s doing comparative studies, that’s asking other professionals in the field, asking companies what their budgets are, it’s just a ton of questions and research. And, it’s forever changing so you just have to stay on top of it.

It could be a nonprofit and you don’t want to charge, it could be beneficial to an athlete, so you might want to consider that. It’s a matter of weighing it all. Did this person give you tons of work, or did they give you one job and didn’t pay you for six months? Then you just make sure you always know what’s going on, and learning, and you make might make mistakes and then don’t do it again.

Has social media, Instagram in particular, changed the field of photography and is it helpful for photographers these days?

I think anyone can get their work seen very easily, with no cost associated. That’s pretty helpful. If you’re starting out, and that’s pretty helpful if you have an online portfolio with no costs associated with it. It’s a really simple platform to show your work.

Do you think with Instagram having more and more photographers on the platform, can it make it harder to stand out for a photographer who wants to make it a career?

That hasn’t been my experience but I can appreciate that it would be someone’s experience. To me it’s another marketplace. You can sell images to be used on Instagram, so it’s like another revenue source if you look at it differently.

Have you had success attaining business through social media or more so through having built relationships over the years?

More of the work I’ve done, I’ve either worked with them or someone has seen the images I’ve produced for them. But I don’t think I’ve ever had someone reach out directly over Instagram.

What else would you share with someone who wants to build a career in adventure or mountain bike photography?

I would ask them if they love the outdoors, and if they do and want to use photography as a career. I would say just shoot as much as you can and constantly question and edit yourself, and ask other photographers how you can get better. Make as many connections as you can, and be a good person.

And, be tenacious. It’s an extremely competitive field. If you get knocked down and you retreat, you’re probably not going to succeed. So, I’d say you need resiliency, practice, and a good attitude. Even if you’re not outgoing, be able to reach out to people, whatever way that is for you. You can be introverted and still make it, or pretend for a second that you’re not, because I often have to do that too.

I don’t think artists are very kind to themselves in general when looking at their own work, so you have to have a good attitude and a resilient nature, and are 100% passionate about it.

To me that’s the main thing, because it’s not about the money. I mean you have to make a living, but I’m so happy to be outside everyday and that makes me happy. When I’m outside working I’m so focused that I forget everything hurts, or that I can’t figure this out, or whatever. You’re just in the moment. That makes it a lot easier to be resilient and go back out there.

I just got a call from someone today who went to a camera store and they all said they shouldn’t pursue it. Everyone seems to get these negative comments from people when they try to go into this field and I’m not sure why. It’s hard because it’s competitive but I think the person should decide whether this is the career for themselves, not someone else. Just because something is tough doesn’t mean it’s not for you.

You can keep up with Robin via her Instagram page, and her photos are often on the National Geographic Adventure Instagram page too.

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