Brent Hall

How I Run a Visual Media Company While Doing YouTube Tutorials On The Side.

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September 15, 2020

Who are you and what kind of content do you create?

I’m a full-time photographer/videographer/YouTuber based in New Mexico (the best place ever). I run a visual media production company called Light Benders Visuals, where we specialize in adventure, travel, extreme sports, live events, and commercial photography, videography, and cinematography. Due to the pandemic, all big clients and live events work were canceled.

Luckily, I am also a YouTuber (I still struggle with calling myself that right now, lol) and am finally getting big enough (51K subs as of writing this) to become both financially viable and a more full-time gig on its own. While I don’t ever wish a pandemic on anyone, as it has personally hit and affected my own family, I must admit that my channel, and YouTube as a whole, have seen a significant increase lately. It has afforded me the time to put more effort into creating more content and growing my audience. 

I do all of these, run the business and the YouTube channel with my wife Brittany and our son Tristan.

Our 12-year-old son Tristan, who is growing into a nice gear mule, lighting grip, and model (paid in full with video games, tons of food, and skateboarding gear).

Since we started traveling full time for the business a few years ago, we decided to pull Tristan out of public school and homeschool him. That was the best and worst decision we ever made as parents, LOL. Seriously though, it has allowed us to do much more, and to do it all with him as well, which has been (mostly) remarkable, and I don’t think we could do what we do, to the same extent without homeschooling him.

We do hire people as part-time subcontractors to help us with more prominent clients and projects, and eventually (maybe another two years), I think we will be ready to hire more full-time employees.   

Let's go down memory lane, tell us your backstory! 

Well, I’d like to think that it involved a lot of talent, skill development, and luck on my part. So I’ve been into photography ever since I was 11 (25 years ago, yuck) when I got my first SLR film camera and hung out with my mom and step-dad in the darkroom when they were in college. I then got into skateboarding, and in my mid/late teens became a sponsored skateboarder. 

I was always taking pictures of my friends and teammates skating around and in contests. Eventually, the companies and contest organizers saw my images and started asking me to do some paid work, which was awesome. This system went on through high school and into the military when I joined the navy, and photography went from just sports to travel and landscape photography.

This is where the luck (depending on your perception of things) comes into play. So I got hurt pretty bad a couple of times, had a few surgeries, and after a lot of physical therapy, the Navy said I would never go back to normal again and medically discharged me. So now, I’m a disabled veteran, and I get VA disability.

So, while it sucks that I got hurt and permanently (partially of course) disabled according to military standards, this has been an enormous help in my life, financially, that it has allowed me to be able to focus more on the things I want. However, it certainly doesn’t cover everything. It has always given me enough to feel safe about stepping into a creative field as a full-time vocation.

I did play it safe though, went to college, got my degrees in geology and geochemistry, and went to work as both in the private sector, but I was still doing photography and taking my cameras with me wherever I went. While I was in grad school, I ended up going with a couple of my professors, who are world-famous and leading experts on the geology of the Grand Canyon and filming a bunch of stuff for their research.

This routine started turning into some paid work and helped build and diversify my portfolio. I also continued to skate and snowboard and started teaching my son as well, so of course, I was always photographing him doing these things, and my wife was photographing me doing them as well. All of this really helped to build a strong portfolio, and we eventually started getting enough work to quit our “normal jobs” (Brittany was a linguist working in L.A.).

We were able to move back to New Mexico, the best state ever, where most of our previous clients were, and it just snowballed from there. Brittany eventually came up with the name Light Benders Visuals in probably 2013ish. She got the inspiration from The Last Airbender animated show (we’re big anime fans. I know it’s dorky and we’re cool with that). We wanted something that wasn’t just my name and photography because we both knew that we wanted to grow this into something bigger than just me.

I always envisioned a beautiful studio in Santa Fe (the best city in the world and I’ve been to a LOT of cities :P), with a bunch of family and friends as employees and a full-on production company and art gallery. The closer we get to that, the more stoked and motivated I am to make it a reality: manifest destiny, you know. 

How do you brainstorm ideas for your content and your advice in getting the creative juice flowing?

I get my inspiration from all over the place. The world is just full of it! I spend a lot of time alone and meditating (always have, my whole life), so a lot of stuff just pops into my head when I let myself wander and wonder ;). I get a lot of visual creational inspiration from watching movies and reading books. Then I want to try something I saw or read about and create it for myself, whether for a YouTube video or a client commercial or whatever. On the photo side, I’ve always been inspired by traveling. I’ve gone a lot in my life, more than most I’d suspect, and I still want to photograph everything, so there’s no creative rut there, usually. The past decade or so, though, I’ve gotten my business inspiration from my son. 

Having a kid really opened my eyes to what I wanted and how I wanted to live, and most importantly, I wanted him to live. Mark Twain said travel is the death of prejudice. More specifically, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

And that always really resonated with me. Since Tristan started traveling, his whole perspective on life changed, his academics excelled, and most importantly, his empathy developed and grew. Now that’s all I want to do: travel with my son, and it motivates my wife and me to make this business work.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve done a lot of hard jobs, but it’s also the most rewarding by far. 

In terms of the workflow (for YouTube), we usually have videos that we need to do, like gear reviews or brand deal videos and whatnot, but we try to do multiple videos a week, which can get tedious quickly. So we try to write things down a lot. Brittany loves her old-school pen and notepad, but I just do it all on my phone and computer. We write ideas for videos that we have down, so we don’t forget them, because I forget things pretty quickly these days. For tutorials, Brittany will often create an outline of roughly what I need to say and give me estimates for how long I can talk about certain things because when you watch my videos, you’ll notice I do love to talk (and write :P).

Other times, we just grab the cameras and go, because we want to do a vlog-style video and have a good idea of what/where we want to photograph, and I generally know beforehand if it’ll make a decent video or not.  I also ask our audience a lot. I interact with them as much as I can, through comments and DMs on Instagram and FB, that sort of thing. I think it helps to grow an official channel, but it also keeps me going with content ideas because they always want to know what I didn’t know. 

What are the tools and platforms you use to help with your brand?

Oooh, technical stuff. I love it! So gear-wise, we’re all Canon these days. In the old film days, I always shot Nikon, but since digital came around and now with us doing so much video, we’ve just stuck with Canon. I also pre-ordered the R5 and the R6 (I’ll probably have the R5 by the time this article goes out), and I have the RP as a 3rd backup and vlogging camera, so we’re excited about going all mirrorless. I already sold my beloved 1DX2 and 5D4.  On the back end, we are all PC, no Macs, and Adobe ( Premiere and Photoshop, no Lightroom though, I hate it, lol).

I’ve been a hardcore PC enthusiast my whole life, from coding on my first Commadore 64 to running the original Premiere and Photoshop back in the early 90s, and I’ve always just stuck with it. 

As far as platforms to help us with the business, YouTube is our biggest one. I don’t put nearly as much effort into Instagram and Facebook. I hate Twitter, never used it, and never will. I don’t use anything else, oh except Mailchimp (I know it’s old school at this point, lol) for my mailing list. Then, of course, there’s my website, which I host through SmugMug mostly because they offer such an easy way to integrate print sales. Though I am toying with switching to SquareSpace because, for the exception of prints, I think it’s just an overall better web hosting site. I also use Big Cartel to sell my digital products (preset packs and sky libraries, etc.).

Just now, I finally got YouTube to turn on my memberships feature, so I’ll quit using Patreon and migrate over to YouTube for that. It makes me super stoked because it keeps people right at YouTube, and I can do more with it, and do it much more comfortable. Other than that, Excel is my best friend. Kids learn to use Excel properly! It’s the most powerful thing out there for business production, and I am so glad I paid attention in school for learning it. I make spreadsheets for everything, and I get into it, like a nerd! I’m talking about writing crazy codes and equations to do things for me and calculate, formulate, and color code and all that stuff.

It’s fun, but more importantly, it helps keep me organized. Oh yeah, one more subscription I have is for Freshbooks. That company is fantastic, and I use them for all my client invoicing and big project stuff. They make online paying and client communication and business organization so easy. It’s excellent when tax season rolls around (though I pay quarterly, so I feel like I’m always doing taxes, lol). 

What were your fears starting out? How did you handle it? 

They were the same as they are now: stability and longevity. I was, still am, and probably always will be petrified of those things, especially since I left such a good traditional career. This pandemic made those fears worse for most people, but it did something a little different for me. While I am still afraid of the ups and downs of owning a business in the creative field, the pandemic solidified a thought or mind-frame I’ve always had: humans and societies will still need creativity and art. That’s the biggest thing everyone in the whole world turned to when the lock-downs started happening. YouTube views sky-rocketed, music sales, book sales, etc. So it has motivated me, even more, to keep pushing through the fear. 

Another type of fear that hit me early on (in the YouTube world) was negative comments. The world is full of trolls, LOL. I’ve always been in the spotlight, so I was kind of already used it, but this was different. For the first year or two, comments hurt, and I paid way too much attention. Yeah, I’m dead to the world when it comes to negative comments now. I took some acting classes and a lot of public speaking in college, which helped, but you just have to have thick skin to deal with that kind of stuff and be able to push forward.

Otherwise, it’ll ruin your life. I’m never a negative person back, though. I do a lot of meditation, yoga, that sort of thing, and it helps. I don’t want to fuel the fire, and I realize that you never know why someone is so ugly online, so it’s best to let it go. 

I was also pretty awkward in front of the camera when I first started. Well, not so much as uncomfortable, but more just rigid. My thing was that I taught a lot of science in grad school, geology, chemistry, physics, etc., so I was used to teaching in that way, and that’s what I kind of did when I started. My videos and my on-camera personality were more rigid, like a science teacher. Brittany quit her job and started being my camera lady, and she helped push me to stop being so stiff and just to be myself (because I’m a pretty chill and quite a hilarious person in real life). Then, the more you do it, the more natural it is to be on camera, and you just get better as you go. 

How did you build your brand to where it is now, take us through your process.

Ooh, this one could be long, too. I’ll try to keep it concise (I fail at that a lot, lol). Let’s start with initial funds. I mentioned the part about luck before, with my disability money, that helped, and not everyone will have that. I started using my school grants for equipment, too, because again, luck. I had the VA paying for my college, so I used the extra to build my gear every semester (not sure if that was wise or not, lol). By the time I graduated (the last time), I had amassed a pretty decent amount of gear, though most of it was semi-pro level stuff.

So when I was working a good job as a geochemist, I took out a business loan and got some real pro gear, which helped take my skills up a notch and mainly helped my perception as legit pro clients. The other part of the loan, I spent on travel, because what would all that gear do if you don't have anything trendy to shoot with it. Plus, travel experience helps when you want to be a travel photographer, lol. Luckily I was able to snag some pretty big 5 figure client gigs in the snowboarding industry right after that, and I paid the loan off pretty fast. 

In terms of YouTube, I’d say I started posting videos semi-regularly probably in like 2012/2013, but still never took that part of it seriously, especially since that’s when I was finishing up grad school and when working full time after that. It wasn’t until 2016 when my wife quit her job (I had left mine in 2015) to help me out and we started traveling full time, that I began to think YouTube could do something. We spent another two years traveling full time, homeschooling Tristan, and doing mostly client work in the travel and extreme sports industry (which was and is fantastic, and I can’t wait to get back to it).

It wasn’t until New Year’s Day 2018 that I did a State of the Channel video for YouTube and said that I would do two videos a week, henceforth, when the channel started to grow. At that time, I was at 1500 subs, and now 2.5 years later, I’m at 51K and growing at a nice linear pace. I should be at 100K by next spring at the latest. 

One of the biggest things that helped grow my channel (and this is a blessing and a curse) is when I started doing videos about phone photography (Check this video out). There are so many people out there who have phone cameras and want to do better photography, and I wanted to help them. I also still wanted to do more advanced stuff, and therein lies the problem: my channel split and the new dichotomy both helped and hurt me. Many other pro photographers started looking down on me because I’m a pro too, and I tell people it’s okay to use a phone. Then a lot of people with phones love my stuff, but then they see me do things with my big cameras and crazy photoshop tutorials and all that and they don’t like it, so they unsub.

Luckily though, even with the dichotomy, I still see positive growth. It’s always been my hope, since I started attracting beginners and phone people, that I can help lead them through the photography evolution. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they found me because of phone stuff, and then I’ve inspired them and helped them grow and get new gear and all that kind of thing, and that’s why I love it. Creativity doesn’t care what equipment you have, just create, and keep moving forward. 

For someone who wants to get into content creation, what is your advice?

I think that last sentence sums it up, LOL. Don’t worry about gear, especially in the beginning. The more you learn about artistic principles and the more you get out there and create, the more you’ll naturally learn about your gear, and then you’ll start to know when it’s time to upgrade because you’ll be pushing the limits of what you have. Another quotes I live by: “Comparison is the thief of joy” (old saying), and “Those restrain their desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” (William Blake) Those two quotes have been with me my whole life, and always help me.

Do your best to stay positive, don’t fall prey to the trolls and general negativity in the world, and stay motivated and follow your desires. Just start creating, and don’t stop. 

How did you finally commit to X platform rather than your regular day job?

I think I already answered this one up there in one of those ridiculously long answers, LOL. When I started getting enough work, I quit my overwhelming day job. My advice would be that you don’t need the creative business to be a full-time job right away. Don’t get impatient with it, cause this stuff takes time and effort. On that note, having a stable regular job can help you focus on the side hustle without stressing over the necessities like bills, food, etc., and can also help fund your creative passion, gear, and trips. Also, take some time to learn not only your craft and your equipment and skills but also the business and marketing sides.

It doesn’t matter how good a creator you are if you don’t know a lick of business stuff. Taxes, invoicing, business licensing, and marketing are all that (except the sensational excel spreadsheets, which are fantastic, and you need to learn to make them), as they are also super necessary.  

Tell us your best milestones in being a content creator.

The first time I went semi-viral, was in 2015, I think. I made a tutorial about how to do long exposures of waterfalls without a filter, and for some reason, that one took off. I think it did like 200K+ views that year. The next big boost my channel got was in 2018 when the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 came out. It was the first phone to have multiple apertures and a bunch of other great camera features. I got it and did some videos on it from a professional photographer's viewpoint. That brought a lot of people in and created the dichotomy. 

After that, whenever a new Galaxy phone came out, I did the Pro Mode features a video on it, and those always do well. I also had some other photography basics videos, some natural phenomenon videos (lighting, eclipses, etc.) do well. Now it’s all just kind of added up, and because of all that little stuff, I now have a stable and growing YouTube channel, and the brands are noticing, and opportunities are getting more frequent and much more lucrative.

What are your marketing strategies to grow your brand?

I’m not the best marketing strategist, for sure. I don’t do too much on that end, just sharing to social media and that sort of thing. I have been getting a little better with using YouTube to push my digital products and my workshops lately, though, and I recently started a mailing list and plan on doing more consistent newsletters. I guess some of the brands I work with and projects I do for them help share my content, but not always.  I’ve done a few collabs with other YouTubers, but that hasn’t gained any significant followers. For the most part, I just keep on doing my own thing and pushing forward. 

How do you handle brand deals and sponsorships? 

I only deal with brands that I use and love or feel like I would have bought their stuff. If they don’t meet those standards, I usually turn them down. I have, in the past, reached out to a few brands that I liked and wanted to work with, but I think I did that too soon and experienced a lot of rejections. Now, it might be a bit different if I were to try again, but one thing I learned (at least for myself) is that the bigger I get, the more the brands I like tend to start reaching out to me. 

I also tend to stay away from the cheaper or knock-off stuff too. I learned that the hard way. Well, I mean nothing wrong has ever happened to me with brand deals, but I did take an inferior rip-off light of a brand that I like. There wasn’t much info on the brand, and I thought I’d give it a shot. It was, as I secretly suspected, a crappy product that kept breaking and just didn’t function right, and quality control issues plagued me. I hate doing negative reviews, but I had already filmed most of the video, and their customer support was almost non-existent, so I had to include the sketchy things in my review.

That video didn’t do well anyways, and after about a year or so, I completely took it down. I also took another deal one time, for a product that wasn’t related to my channel. Still, I did find a way that I thought cleverly tied it into my channel, that video didn’t do well at all either. So after that, I stuck to brands that I know and love, or that are decently reputable, and with plentiful amounts of info about them and their products online.

Also, I’d caution you to be attentive of when companies reach out to you. They may be semi-reputable or popular companies (though usually foreign), and want to give you a superior product that you like and would use, but then tell you that they want you to buy it off Amazon with your money. Later, they will pay you back. They do this because they want verified purchases on Amazon, and then they require you also to leave an Amazon review.

I’ve seen other decently sized YouTubers do it, but I could only tell after getting a similar deal. Then I go on Amazon to look up the product reviews, and there is the YouTuber’s video review on Amazon. I just feel like that whole process is sketchy, and I’d instead work with genuine and honest companies that can only write off their products for marketing and send you what they want. If you’re going to take monetary compensation for a video, make sure you have your contract, or at least be very clear about your terms.

Things like noting how many revisions and edits you give them are essential because they could screw you over by making you re-edit or change jobs or film something differently. Another thing, I don’t want to tell anyone how to run their channel, but my advice would be to be very careful about taking paid product reviews.

People can usually tell when you do that, and it often comes off as disingenuous, and if you do make it, by law, you need to disclose that it is a sponsored video. I don’t personally take paid reviews, but I always tell my audience when I’ve been given something for free, and on top of that, I always tell them that all my thoughts are my own. I have no contractual requirements for my product video other than to make one and share my thoughts, and then I usually end up doing a surprise giveaway for it. Its things like that will help you grow and solidify your trustworthiness with your audience, and that is super valuable. Last thing on brand deals: it has to be more worth it to them than it is to you.

So if you are reaching out to a company, you need to make sure that you have more to offer them than what you’re asking for in return. Always under-promise and over-deliver. I have a few companies that have kept coming back because of that and are now regulars and friends, even. 

I hope that helps, and if you ever want to know more, just find me on YouTube or IG and hit me up.

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