Forrest Mankins is a commercial and outdoor lifestyle photographer living in Durango, Colorado. Since 2011 he’s shot all over the world, and as a former touring band member, he’s well-accustomed to life on the go. We were able to sit down with him to find out what inspires him—and get tips for becoming a travel photography pro.
When did you first become interested in photography?
Growing up my mom had—and she still has—bags and bags of undeveloped film. She was constantly shooting—and always on a Canon. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old, I was taking her T50 to the field behind our house, trying to photograph deer and other little wildlife shots. I watched her take countless photos of us and later on, looking back at those photos refreshed that desire to learn how do it.
How did travel become such an integral part of your life?
I’ve always been an outdoors person. Growing up my pops had a backpacking/canoeing shop, so my parents really encouraged us to get outside. When they had my two older sisters and I, they didn’t really slow down. They just brought us along whatever they were doing. From an early age we were going down the San Juan River in a dory boat or going to the Boundary Waters in Canada. So that’s kind of always been a thing for me. Then later I was touring in a band. I wasn’t doing photography so much then, but through the act of touring I got back into travel.
How did you become a travel photographer?
I’d always been interested in photography, and after touring for a couple of years I was getting kinda burned out on the project. I thought I should probably do something about that. In 2011, I bought a Canon AE-1 Program and started teaching myself the settings, exposure, etc., all before I ever got my first camera, which was a Canon 60D . Everything I’ve ever had has been Canon.
In between touring I would go off on these trips out West—just me in my truck, sleeping in the back of the truck. I didn’t really know what I was doing photography-wise or trip-wise, but I just started sharing those photos and tried to consume everything I could to learn as much as I could. I think it was 2013 when I was approached for my first photography commission. After doing music, it felt so amazing—like, “Wow, I can actually get paid doing something I like.” That was pretty eye-opening for me.
Once I started doing that, I would put the money I earned back into traveling. I’ve been in that mode for awhile now, full time since 2015. Just getting busier and busier—I’m still completely obsessed with photos. It’s been wonderful.
How does travel inspire your work?
On a recent road trip in Montana, I looked into the side view mirror of my Land Cruiser and just saw this scene—it was honestly just the last light of the day as the sun went down mixed with the glow of headlights on the highway behind me—and I shot it in the reflection of the mirror—I never do things like that at home. It made me cognizant of the fact that I was out of my element somewhere new, so instead of just being on autopilot, I was actually experiencing the place, looking and feeling and wondering and trying to bottle that up and bring it back home into everyday life. Travel is a tool to appreciate everything in life more, even the seemingly mundane, day-to-day things. It’s an exercise in noticing things.
Do you have a favorite travel photo?
In 2014 I drove the Land Cruiser out to Homer, Alaska. Homer is the terminus of the United States Highway System. It’s literally the end of the road, and through that project I was able to fly my dad up to Alaska for the first time in his life. It’s somewhere he’d always wanted to go. He was the reason that I was there and had wanted to go there, and I took a photo of him sitting on the back of the Land Cruiser in Alaska. And that is by far my favorite photo.
What types of Canon cameras do you use and why? What features of that camera do you find particularly helpful in capturing beautiful shots while traveling?
I’m currently using the 1DX Mark II and a 5D Mark IV with the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L III, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II, Canon 50mm 1.2L, and Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lenses. My 24-70 on the 1DX II is my go to setup for everything—I probably get 75% of my work done with this setup. I love that I can cover almost everything, landscapes, portraits, action, you name it. I do a lot of commercial shoots for travel bureaus as well, so having everything covered from wide to tele is super important to me. The image quality I get with Canon cameras and lenses is absolutely amazing, I’m continually blown away with how well they handle so many harsh situations and conditions. On both the 1DX II and 5D Mark IV I’ve been shocked at how fast and accurate the autofocus is. I shoot a lot in low light, and when I shoot people they’re usually in motion, and the amount of keepers I get out of a shoot now is really cool.
I also started shooting with the T7i over the fall and I’ve been loving it, having professional image quality in a super lightweight and portable form factor with awesome features like the articulating screen and great battery life is crazy! I have always been happy with my cameras, but seeing how far they’ve progressed is really astounding.
What recommendations would you give an amateur photographer looking to improve their travel photography?
Start with YouTube. There are so many how-to videos. You can find a how-to video just to learn about exposure for any camera model you own. One of the things that is great about digital photography is that you can actually see in real-time what your adjustments are doing for the camera right there. So take an hour or two just messing around on YouTube, and then after that you can start concentrating on the images you actually want to make. It’s just like learning an instrument—you can learn endless scales and have this rote knowledge, but that doesn’t really help the way learning your favorite song does. So get the technical practice and experience by actually trying to create something that expresses you—I think that is the best way to learn and make progress and stay motivated and excited about it.
Of course, we don’t want to copy other people, but everything we do in any field is informed by other people. For example, say you’re headed to Smoky Mountain National Park over the weekend and you just got a camera, and you don’t really know what to do. You should go online and look at some photos of Smoky Mountain to find some benchmarks—then try to take a couple of those shots. This is practice. If you ever take a photography class, you’re going to be asked to copy something exactly like this for the sake of learning. So I say early on, start copying things to help you figure it out. Find a shot that you really love and ask yourself why you really love it. What is it about the photo? Is it the lighting? Is it the place? Is it some movement? How can you recreate that?
What’s the biggest difference you can tell between an amateur and a pro photographer?
The biggest thing for landscape is lighting—actually, for everything it’s lighting. But other than that, when you see a photo from someone that’s more advanced, usually the thing that you feel is the feeling they were trying to portray to you. You probably immediately get the mood and you’re probably looking at exactly what that photographer wanted you to look at.
A lot of times when you see beginners shooting, whether it is landscape or portraits or anything, you see a lot of extra things in the frame. But just like when you watch a movie, if you see a car going by far off in the distance, you will probably infer that that car is going to show up because in a movie there’s nothing random.
It’s the exact same way for photography. You are in control of the things that go in the frame and that is the only thing that’s going to transfer that emotion or message to the viewer. Because they don’t know your train of thought—they weren’t there. So you have to work as hard as you can to distill it down and make it really digestible for people. And that’s, I think, the hardest thing when you’re starting out. Besides the subject in your story, everything else is just taking away from your photo. Sometimes you can just be so excited to be making something that you love and you think, “Oh, I could fix that later on the computer,” and often that doesn’t work out right.
What does your editing process look like? How do you balance capturing all your beautiful content with getting it ready to be shared?
So if I have it my way I come back to my office and do it. But honestly this is how it normally looks: I am out on location and it could be the end of the day. I’m on my old MacBook Pro with a bad screen. Wherever I am, I import everything and I immediately back it up. Then I take those photos into a program called Photo Mechanic, which is just a way to quickly look through the photos and pick my favorites.
After that I import photos into Lightroom and because I previously had the photos in Photo Mechanic, my “favorites” will show up with a star rating immediately, which saves a lot of time. Some shoots you might shoot a couple hundred photos in the day, some shoots you might shoot 4000. So to be able to get through a lot of photos quickly and efficiently without having to make a lot of decisions is paramount. After that, if it’s a first shoot, I create an overall look for the photos—pick the lighting, the look, and kind of tweak as I go—and I turn that into a preset that applies to all of the photos for that shoot. Then I export everything into Dropbox, so that it’s saved on a hard drive and also backed up one more time on the Cloud. Backup is something that is often overlooked. It’s not thought about it until you either a) run out of storage or b) have lost a hard drive.
Why do you choose to shoot with Canon?
My mom shot Canon when I was growing up, so learning on cameras like her t50 and my first AE-1 Program just felt natural. These are cameras that had been on the market for years (even decades) by the time I came across them, and they still felt like, and were, these incredible tools. They got even better with age. Canon was the logical choice for me, my father always says to buy the best or buy twice, so I started with Canon and that’s what I’ve been shooting professionally for almost 6 years now. I’ve had a lot of bodies over the years, the 5D Marks I-IV, 60D, T7i, 6D, 1DX II—I won’t even get started on the lenses, and I’ve never once been let down. Time and again I’ve put these tools through the toughest conditions while expecting the utmost in quality and I’ve never been let down. Running my own business and shooting for a living, I have a lot of things I can worry about, and my gear isn’t one of them.