Professional iPhone Photographer Kevin Russ Documents the World an Instagram at a Time

Kevin Russ’ job is to travel the country and take iPhone photos. Are you jealous yet?

Apr 17 2013, 1:00pm
Kevin Russ in his natural environment.

Right now Kevin Russ is sleeping in his car somewhere in central New Mexico, but by dawn tomorrow he’ll have hiked to the top of a nearby mountain where he’ll take a photo with his iPhone 5. Assuming he’s able to find a signal somewhere, he’ll upload a version of that photo—also processed within his iPhone—to his almost 45,000 Instagram and Tumblr followers. By tomorrow evening there’s a good chance he’ll have sold a print of that same mountaintop photo. This is his job. Are you jealous yet?

It’s been almost a year since the 30-year-old began leaving his home in Portland, Ore., to travel the country and take photos with his phone. At the moment he is on the first leg of a road trip that will take him through Arizona and up to Montana before entering Canada and eventually reaching Alaska sometime this fall. He has a vague idea of when he wants to be in each place, but there’s no timeline that he has to follow and no supervisor that he must check in with.

All photos by Kevin Russ, used with permission.

Photography began as a hobby during college, but it wasn’t long before Russ was shooting portraits so often that it was wearing him out. “I was meeting someone new every day,” he told me over the phone. “They would book a shoot and I would say yes. That was always a stretch for me because it wasn’t natural for me to be outgoing.”

To recharge, he traveled to the Portland coast to shoot landscapes without the hassle of models and contracts. Looking back, he remembers how that trip inspired him to consider a new life on the road. “It all started from wanting to see other places,” he said.

After his visit to the Portland coast, Russ began taking longer and longer trips. He was still using a DSLR until one day last March when every shot he took didn’t look right. Frustrated, he pulled out his iPhone and snapped a photo through Instagram. It sold the next day. He now uses his iPhone almost exclusively because of its convenience and ability to process photos.

Russ also thinks that people appreciate how he uses the same equipment that they have in their pocket. “I think people can connect to the photos a lot more because people have an iPhone or a smartphone with a camera,” he says. “If they were shot with a professional camera then I don’t think they would’ve caught the same attention.”

Pro photographer Benjamin Lowy is one of the biggest advocates of cell phone photography and his Instagram photo of crashing waves stirred by Hurricane Sandy made the cover of Time last year. But Russ is possibly the only photographer who completely relies on his cell phone photography to earn a living.

That means he can only keep traveling as long as people keep buying his photos. But when you see his pictures, it doesn’t seem like that should be a problem at all. They are almost uniformly magical. "Photogenic landscapes” is what Russ calls them, but there is also a surreal, otherworldly tranquility to the valleys and hills and even the coyotes and bison that star in his photos. 

Every day he uploads several photos to his Instagram account where almost every image on his feed has at least two or three thousand “likes.” In fact, he has become so popular that followers will sometimes join him for a day or two on his journey. 

He’s had at least half a dozen meetups in the last month, and another popular Instagrammer named Lindsay Crowder flew down from San Francisco just to shoot with him. “I decided to go to Arizona for a few days partly because it had been somewhat of a dream since discovering his work,” she told me in an email. “Every photo is a masterpiece, crafted with the perfect light and composition. I think his photos are also provocative and real. Each one evokes emotion for me.”

How does Russ produce such stunning photos? It turns out that his process is exactly what he tells each of the many people who ask him on Instagram and Tumblr. The first step is to find a beautiful location. This isn’t as hard as it might sound because Russ plans his route to run through national parks, and people on Instagram who know the areas frequently recommend trails.

“I don’t even ask for suggestions,” he said. “People just see where I am and tell me stuff, and if they’re willing to volunteer that information without me asking then it must be a pretty good spot.”

He looks for landscapes that could be in a movie—“I’m a big Disney fan"—and he tries to capture them around dawn or sunset, what's known as “the golden hour,” because of the soft, magical qualities the light gives photos taken around this time. Even photos taken by an iPhone.

Afterwards, he’ll process the image with the VSCO Cam or Afterglow apps. Both are 99 cents on the App Store. He recommends the “4” or “5” filters on VSCO Cam, or the “Russ” filter on Afterglow. You read that right—the filter is named after him, though he says he doesn’t use it much anymore because the effects aren’t quite strong enough.

“It doesn’t mess with the colors at all,” Russ said of his filter. “It just makes a basic contrast adjustment, but it lifts the darks and it brings down the whites a little bit.” So, in theory, now you too can take a photo like Russ.

Once an image is adjusted to his liking, Russ will upload it to print shops like Society 6, licensing groups like Stocksy, and other outlets where photographers can sell their work as prints or iPhone cases. Russ mastered the art of listing photos from his previous career as an iStock contributor (you can find his work under titles like “Young Male Reading a Bible to a Homeless Man”) and photo inspector, and sales from all of these stores have kept him afloat for most of the past year. Yes, Kevin Russ is basically living the dream of many amateur photographers, but it’s a dream that wasn’t earned easily.

“Setting up your life back at home to not be there, or not see your friends that you’re used to seeing all the time is something that I think a lot of people don’t want to do or can’t do,” he told me. “But it’s something that has to happen if you want to travel a lot.”

Living in his car isn’t too bad, he says. He has a sleeping bag for when it gets really cold, but usually he builds a nest out of blankets in the back of his car. “It’s definitely not as comfortable as a bed,” he said, “but it’s a small sacrifice to be able to save that much money.”

Life on the road has brought a few adventures. Last September, Russ’s car broke down in Colorado and he spent a week in a homeless community while a mechanic fixed his ride. One time while in the Rocky Mountain National Park, he was briefly accepted into a herd of moose.

But mostly the days run into each other with little to separate them except the changing scenery and the odd characters, like Kenny the hippie farmer who invited Russ into his home after he saw him taking photos of his two-day-old horse. Together they planted a fruit tree and cleared a water trench before Russ hit the road again, armed with a warning to avoid the drugs at an annual Montana hippie gathering that sits along his route.

Saving money is very important when you’re a professional iPhoneographer who spends his working life on the road. Daily expenses can add up, especially when they’re thrown on top of the mortgage that Russ still has to pay on his home back in Portland. He has renters, but to make up the difference on his mortgage Russ lives on a diet rich in oatmeal, ramen and tuna.

To keep things interesting, he’s taken to adding Sriracha to his tuna sandwiches (“It kind of tastes like I’m eating a sushi sandwich.”) and in Tucson he stopped at a Costco and stocked up on apples and tangerines. Somehow, he hasn’t gotten sick of the food yet. “I think until I get more of a steady income, I’m going to stick to eating as cheap as I can,” he says. “Unless I start having any health issues, but I feel fine.”

It may be impossible to have a truly steady income when you’re doing what Russ is doing, but he’s had a promising run so far. I asked Russ what he earns in a month and it was clear that he had never really added up the different sources of his income, but his quick math suggests that he earns something in line with the middle annual national salary range for photographers. His checking account held just a couple thousand dollars when his current trip began in January, not even enough to pay his taxes. But when Russ checked his account a few weeks ago, he was surprised to find it held nearly $10,000 and he could finally pay off what he owed. 

Some of his success might be chalked up to a recent spike in attention. In January, The Atlantic called Russ “the iPhone’s Ansel Adams,” and his photos are starting to spread throughout the Internet. But Russ thinks that if anyone is as motivated as he is to see the world then they’ll find a way to make it work. “I don’t think it’ll look exactly the same for any two people,” he said. “But I know that there are a lot more jobs than just selling photos that can be location independent that you could have and travel around.”

Planning for next year is almost as difficult as guessing what will happen tomorrow. Russ figures he’ll return to his parent’s home in California by the end of November. After that he could turn his car east and make his way to the other coast. Or he could head south to Central America. “I’m leaning more towards that,” he said, pausing to consider his options. “Sometimes when it gets too easy or too safe it can get a little boring. And up here in the States it’s nice and easy, but sometimes I want to see something different.”