How I Got My Job, As an Adventure Photographer

Jason Thompson partners with brands to produce strategic visual content in the outdoor space. Based in Bozeman, Montana

Unveiling the Lens: My Journey into Photography

When I’m asked about my career as a photographer, I often jest that I’m a 20-year “overnight” success story. But the truth is, my path into this captivating world was anything but conventional.

The Beginnings: A Mix of Naivety and Grit

Let me take you back to a younger, perhaps more naive version of myself. I wasn’t the most talented photographer around—far from it, actually. Names like Gordon Wiltsie, Kris Erickson, and other adventure photographers before me seemed galaxies away from my own aspirations. Yet, what set me apart was a blend of naivety, a chip on my shoulder, and an unyielding work ethic.

For the past 15 years, I’ve danced with outdoor brands as a freelance photographer. How did I do it? Simple—by diving headfirst into the industry’s changing tides. The era of digital cameras and the internet has democratized photography, opening doors for anyone with a lens, a vision, and willing to grind it out.

People often ask for my secret sauce. I tell them: there’s no magic recipe. Instead, I offer these guiding principles that have shaped my career:

  • Always Be Curious
  • Never Stop Learning
  • Find A Mentor
  • Grasp Business Nuances
  • Embrace Hard Work
  • Love To Suffer
  • Trust The Process, Hold The Vision
  • Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.

Rejections? Oh, I’ve had my fair share—more “nos” than I can count. But I’ve also tasted victory along the way, celebrating wins and envisioning the future I sought. Crucially, I had a support network, and a safety net of trust in times of uncertainty. 

The Early Days: Unexpected Turns and New Horizons

Picture me, 25 years ago, a young dreamer with a passion for soccer and a turbulent home life. My ticket to college on a soccer scholarship was snatched away by a twist of fate. Suddenly, I found myself in Montana, a land of endless possibilities as a wide-eyed youngster.

Photography became my solace, a lens through which I explored the world beyond my own. Growing up with limited means, I was accustomed to pushing forward with little in my pockets. And being ok, with living frugally. But the camera? It offered me a gateway to curiosity, an invitation to unearth societies and adventures unknown.

One unforgettable journey stands out—a 16-day odyssey across America on a Greyhound Bus, armed with a Hasselblad 4x5 camera, capturing portraits of fellow travelers. This was where my passion met the purpose, where every click of the shutter echoed a newfound freedom. I spent more than a decade working as a mountain guide and ski patroller as a way to hone my mountain skills and travel the world while being paid. And learning business tactics.

The Patagonia Breakthrough: A Brush with Destiny

Then came Patagonia, a name whispered in awe among outdoor enthusiasts. For five years, I mailed my 35mm slides to their archive department, hoping for a spark of recognition. And in 2010, it happened—a licensing offer that felt like a celestial embrace.

My image graced the Patagonia website, adorned their coveted Catalog, and found a home in their Seattle store. I was elated, transported to a realm where dreams met reality in vibrant pixels.

I didn’t have a foot in the door at Patagonia. No, my journey was one of persistence, of consistently delivering work that resonated with their ethos. Soon, other brands like Outdoor Research, Dynastar Skis, and Discrete beckoned with their own opportunities.

The Freelancer’s Rollercoaster: Navigating Highs and Lows

But amidst the highs lurked the shadows of burnout on my mental health. Freelancing was a thrilling ride, yes, but it also tested my resilience in ways I hadn’t imagined. The erratic rhythms of feast and famine in my bank account weighed heavy on my spirit. And relationship with my wife.

It was during these ebbs that I learned the harsh truth of burnout, a relentless companion on the journey to creative fulfillment. By 2019, the allure of commercial photography began to wane, and I found myself yearning for a new horizon.

A Shift in Focus: Embracing New Horizons

Enter the pandemic, an unexpected pause in the whirlwind of my life. It was a time of reflection, of grappling with the realities of my chosen path. The rollercoaster had taken its toll, and I found myself seeking something more.

Coding beckoned—a world of logic and creation that intrigued my restless mind. Yet, it was the realm of User Experience & Visual Design that truly captivated me. In this new terrain, I found echoes of my mother’s love for learning, a legacy that now guided me toward fresh adventures. Now, I use this additional knowledge to bring added value to my clients.

As I look back on this journey—from naive dreamer to seasoned photographer, from the highs of Patagonia to the depths of burnout—I realize that every moment, every click of the shutter has shaped the artist I am today. And the adventure continues, each frame a testament to the relentless pursuit of curiosity and creativity.

Much Love - Jason