Isaac Johnston is a photographer, filmmaker, director, and adventurer committed to living a contagiously passionate life. Whether he’s behind the lens or in front of it, his enthusiasm and infectious excitement has helped him quickly develop a career within the creative industry. He’s dedicated to doing things well, focusing and pursuing joy, surrounding himself with inspiring people, and being authentic to his craft - this combination has helped him thrive on the path from office job to professional creative.
His work emanates a certain amount of freedom and authenticity and has worked with the likes of Land Rover, Canon, BMW Motorrad, Asics, Blundstone, and TINCUP Whisky.
What sparked your interest in photography and what led you down the path to pursue it full-time?
I never considered myself a creative until about 4 years ago - but in hindsight I’ve always had a creative side. In my late teens I started playing music and was in a band from 18-22 that toured all over the US and a bit internationally. I was always trying to be creative on my BMX bike or snowboard, trying different tricks, back flips etc. For me, photography wasn’t something that came through my radar until phones started becoming popular and I knew enough at the time to realize the photos I was taking were awful.
I had a full-time job leading a team of 15 people at a vacation rental company in Whitefish, MT. I loved the people I worked with, loved my job, but I was always craving more adventure and less time in the office. One of the things we specialized in was the professional photography of our rental properties. I quickly learned that good photos made our properties more compelling and better for business. This is what I was doing when I first met Alex Strohl and he told me “Hey, I have this extra camera, wanna play around with it?” We started hanging out and shooting all the time. I remember thinking “woah this is fun, but how come I suck?”.
I didn’t even consider myself a photographer for the first 2 years of shooting, it was just a fun hobby. I started making money and I still thought this was just a fun hobby.
I didn’t even consider myself a photographer for the first 2 years of shooting, it was just a fun hobby. I started making money and I still thought this was just a fun hobby. In reality I went from shooting my first photograph to being a professional in less than a year.
I always knew that my job or the company I was working for could crumble at any second or a better opportunity could come along and I would have to risk it. So that’s what happened, I didn’t get fired, I didn’t lose my job, but a better opportunity presented itself through photography and I took the leap. My wife and I talked about it a lot and she was super supportive. We did something Tim Ferris calls “Fear Setting” - thinking about the worst possible outcome. I knew I could always go back to an office job one day, so I went for it.
We’ve all heard the phrase “social is king” these days – what are 3 tips to expand your presence without it?
1. Expand By Using Social As If It’s Social
Use social as an intro for yourself rather than as a tool to get more followers. Be genuine, show interest, and realize that you’re reaching out to an actual human being on the other side of that message or comment. There are a lot of people I’m friends with on instagram with less than 3000 followers that are very talented and that I try and include as a model or as an assistant on shoots. I want to be around them and have them creatively be a part of my life. They are people that have genuinely used the platform to reach out and be part of the greater social community.
Use social as an intro for yourself rather than as a tool to get more followers.
2. Your Presence Is How People Know You
The gold rush is over and no one is going to go from zero to 500k ever unless they get there another way. You can’t get famous on instagram anymore. One of the ways that I am always trying to expand my presence is to always look into other ways and opportunities to make work that I appreciate. I am always reaching out to agencies that I know want to do creative projects. Right now especially I am reaching out saying I’m a self produced creator that can do all these cool projects and that I’m based in Montana, a state that is starting to open up from COVID-19 stay at home measures. I am constantly trying to reach out and see how I can help them, not necessarily reaching out with my own huge projects, just constantly and genuinely introducing myself, and seeing how I can be of value. So try and be mindful about your presence and how you come across to people and potential clients, it’s important. The network you grow can be of huge value introducing you to different agencies or clients, but make sure that connection is solid before you make a big ask.
Just constantly and genuinely introducing myself, and seeing how I can be of value.
3. Do More Work You’re Proud Of
People will naturally find you if you’re doing work you’re proud of, so focus on making good work. I wanted to start being someone known for video, so I started making 4 slide instagram videos, editing them, shooting them on my big camera, editing them on premiere or final cut and uploading them again onto Instagram. From that I’ve gone all the way to direct Asics shoe commercials and I didn’t get there by just twiddling my thumbs thinking about getting better at video. I practiced a lot, I found a niche making short 4 slide, 15 second, 1 minute IG stories about my adventures and life. I did it over and over again, I’ve done over 70 now in varying lengths. That expanded my capabilities and people started knowing me in that way. I had a body of work to show and get work from, you can do the same.
People will naturally find you if you’re doing work you’re proud of, so focus on making good work.
To sum things up you don’t need followers to do these three things:
You have a new workshop launching on Strohl Works soon! Tell us a little about what we can expect and why you wanted to embark on this project?
Working with Strohl Works is an honor, I never really thought of myself as someone that would teach photography techniques. I am very medium agnostic, I think the important part is the story and the mechanics of photography is only there to help better tell that story.
I think what we can expect is a scrappy freelancer's guide to creating the work that you want with some nuggets on overcoming resistance and the obstacles to go from your day job to your dream freelance job. How I did it, how you can do it with a family, how you can do it with a full time job, or how you can do it if you don’t have any money. There's gonna be techniques in there to teach you about a lot more than nailing mechanical technique, but how to really get out there and get paid to do what you want to do. How to make deals so that you can go get the resources and tell interesting stories. How to have a big bold idea and get it funded and use that for consecutive projects.
That’s what you can expect - I’m super excited.