Hi folks! I’m Brenda Petrella - ask me anything!

Hi NPN!

My name is Brenda Petrella, and I’m a nature photographer based in the beautiful state of Vermont. I’m the founder of Outdoor Photography School, an online resource that teaches both photography and outdoor skills through articles and videos, and I’m the host of the weekly Outdoor Photography Podcast.

Prior to photography, I was the principal investigator of a molecular cancer research laboratory and later oversaw biomedical safety and compliance at a biomedical research institution. In late 2016, suffering from a major burnout and depression, I made the difficult decision to close the doors on my scientific career without much of a plan other than to honor my love of the outdoors and pursue a long-standing interest in landscape and nature photography.

I fully immersed myself into the study of photography much in the same way that I approached my graduate studies in molecular biology - all in. And I never looked back. You can see some of my work on my website at https://www.brendapetrella.com (it needs to be updated!) or on Instagram.

Around 2018, I started a tutorial YouTube channel as an experiment and discovered another passion, which is teaching photography and sharing my reverence for nature with others who also want to connect with the natural world through their photography. It was that experiment that prompted me to create Outdoor Photography School.

My approach to photography is what many would call slow or contemplative and non-iconic. I much prefer to photograph small scenes and the little stories that nature tells than the grand landscape, although when the mountains call, I listen! :wink:

When I’m not doing photography, creating content, or teaching, I love to hike, bike, snowshoe, paddle, do creative projects with my hands, garden, and spend time with my 3.5yr old daughter (Maya), puppy (Cedar), and two rescue cows (Ms. Bovine and Ferdinand).

I’m looking forward to answering your questions for 24 hours starting at 9:00am (EST) on August 3rd. Here are a few rules:

AMA Rules:

  • Please only ask one question by replying to this topic a single time, using the yellow Reply button at the bottom. It’s also helpful to scroll to the bottom while reading the topic to make sure nobody else has asked the same question first, before you ask.

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Hi all! I’m excited to answer your questions today!

Thank you for sharing your story and I look forward to getting better acquainted with your work.

Question: what are you favorite sources to develop creative inspiration?

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Hi Leslie! Thank you for being the first to post! :slight_smile: I think of developing creativity and finding inspiration as overlapping but different processes. For me, inspiration precedes creativity, and both can take many forms. For example, I find inspiration in nature - just connecting with the natural world - from the intricacies of a bird’s nest to the colors of butterflies to fog clinging to the side of a mountain - whatever it is that draws my attention and gives me a feeling of awe and wonder will spark inspiration in me.

Inspiration could also simply be an idea - a “what if” kind of approach. What if I used a slower shutter speed? What if I made this into a black and white photograph? What if I moved so that the light interacted with my subject differently? Having an inquisitive approach can also spark some creativity.

I find studying the work of other artists to be inspire me about what is possible.

Being inspired is not the same as being creative, in my opinion. Inspiration is more passive while creating is more active - it’s the transition from thinking to doing that leads to creating.

When it comes to fostering my own creativity, I find that I tend to cycle between being creative as a photographer or as a content creator/educator to being creative in other ways - like projects completely unrelated to photography. I like to challenge myself to learn new skill sets about something I have no experience. I find having a “beginner’s mind” with a project where the outcome has no pressure opens the doors for me to be more creative in my photography.

In terms of some of my favorite books on the topic, I recommend the following:
Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert
Atomic Habits, James Clear
Do the Work, and War of Art, Steven Pressfield
The Practice, Seth Godin
Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown

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Hi Brenda! Thank you for taking the time to answer questions on this AMA. I have been enjoying your podcast. I was wondering how you got started with the Outdoor Photography Podcast. What has your journey been like with the podcast? Thank you.

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Hi Brenda,

Looking for some insight on how you expose your image.
Do you use the histogram (rgb or brightness) and/or do you use ETTR?

Thank you

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Hey @Brenda_Petrella ! Great to see this AMA.

This is a tough question to ask and I don’t know how to ask it any other way than straight up.

You made a fast transition into the photography business with a fairly aggressive and thoughtful marketing strategy without a lot of established track record in the community (or I’m not aware of it and you can politely disregard that part of my question). I admire this a lot about you, so please take it as a compliment and not an insult!

As such, what have you found to be most challenging and rewarding as it relates to applying your marketing chops to launching your photography career? Any unexpected roadblocks?

Cheers!

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Hi Alfredo! Thanks so much for listening to the podcast - I’m glad you’ve been enjoying it! I have been an avid podcast listener for years, and podcasts (like Matt’s F-Stop Collaborate & Listen) played a huge role in my own photography education. I had always had it in the back of my mind to start one some day.

During the pandemic, I revisited the idea because I was honestly starting to burnout on creating YouTube videos. I wanted a way to still provide educational content, but in a more meaningful (to me) way. YouTube is great for many things, but rarely do people watch an entire video. But, most people will listen to a whole podcast. I felt like I could have more of a positive impact with the podcast, and so I pursued that.

I also wanted a way to connect with other photographers. NPN is a great platform for that for sure! But having an hour + conversation with someone about their work is just a different kind of connection, and I wanted to be able to share that with others, and also provide a platform for photographers to get their work out to new people.

My journey so far with the podcast has been really great. I wasn’t sure what to expect - whether I would be able to keep up with a weekly production pace, whether I would be able to get guests to come on the show - whether people would listen! And it’s all worked out so far. And I’ve discovered that I really love it.

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Hi Brenda,

What is your favorite photo of your portfolio right now? And of course, why?

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Hi Eric!

Great question. I definitely use the luminosity histogram to check my exposure. I primarily shoot with a Nikon Z7, and one thing I love about it is that I can see the histogram in the electronic viewfinder. I rely on the histogram to check for clipping highlights or crushing shadows, and less so on whether I’m exposing to the right or left. I let the scene and the composition I’m creating to determine that.

I know many preach about the benefits of ETTR (it’s “cleaner” to bring down the highlights than to bring up the shadows), and that is true especially for low light situations and if you need to boost the ISO. But if that’s not the case, then I don’t worry about that so much. Sometimes, I will purposely expose to the left - usually when I’m photographing waterfalls - because I’ve found that that actually works better for me when I’m post-processing the image later. Because the histogram represents a JPG file (even when shooting in raw), sometimes I get highlights clipping in my raw file (when viewed in Lightroom) of the highlights in waterfalls.

Mostly I just preview the luminosity histogram, but depending on the colors in the scene, I will also check the RGB histogram to make sure none of those channels are getting blown out. This is easy to do for things like fall colors, for example.

Hi my name is gill vanderlip.
Do you shoot totally in manual or also use auto in trying to capture the shot you are looking for?

Beautiful work. I really love the black and white photography.

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Hey Matt! Thanks for your question, and no worries - I’m not easily offended, and I appreciate your straightforwardness. It’s interesting to hear you say that I had an aggressive and thoughtful marketing strategy because I never had a strategy or a real plan for that matter. I feel like I’ve mostly been throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks! :sweat_smile:

When I left my science career, I didn’t know that I would end up pursuing photography full-time. I was pursuing it “full-time” in terms of it being an obsession, but simultaneously, I was also trying to start a consulting business on “greening up” laboratories at research universities. Over the course of the first year post-resignation, the green labs idea never really got wings, whereas photography did.

At first, I thought I would sell prints, do licensing, stock, etc., without realizing that was an unlikely path to success (for me anyway). I then started teaching photography and realized that’s where my strengths were and, importantly, I really enjoy teaching. So, I switched gears and decided to pursue that avenue of the business. Of course, because I hadn’t yet established myself in any professional way, who would want to learn from me? I would say, that has been my biggest challenge - overcoming imposter syndrome and also being comfortable with charging what I’m worth. I’ve had a hard time figuring that out, if I’m honest. I’m much more comfortable sharing freely what I know, but of course, that doesn’t pay the bills…

So my strategy, if you want to call it that, has been to provide value while I figure out my path. It’s been helpful, I think, that I’m self-taught in that I know first-hand what many of the pain points are for people learning photography. And if I can help relieve those pain points with educational content, then everyone wins! I help someone out, and it helps me establish credibility.

Some unexpected roadblocks - well, has been having to (or deciding to) hit pause on my YouTube channel twice due to life outside of photography. So, growth there has slowed a lot, unfortunately. Some day I will get back to it! Most rewarding aspects - I would say the podcast has been the most rewarding by far. I hope that answered your questions! :slight_smile:

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Hi Eric,
Oh man! I have to pick? ! Some of my favorites are not yet on my website. I’ve been experimenting a lot lately with abstracts and really enjoying the process. Most of what I’ve created in that realm are decidedly NOT keepers, but it’s stretching my skills and creativity. I’m not yet ready to share those with the world, and I would like to be more thoughtful with how I present and organize new photographs on my website (some day…).

For now - I would say this was my favorite image of 2021:

Why is it a favorite? Many reasons - but here are two. First, it was a memorable day in Acadia after the Out of Acadia conference in Oct, and it was a week of experiences that really filled my heart, and I think of it often. I don’t get to travel as many nature photographers do, and so it was a highlight of my fall last year. Second, I love the complementary colors and how the light softly reflects off of the leaves. It’s a straightforward composition, but there is still a lot to explore.

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Hi Gill! Thanks so much for your kind words. I photograph almost exclusively in manual mode and occasionally in manual mode with Auto-ISO. I know a lot of landscape photographers who prefer shooting in aperture priority mode and use exposure compensation, but every time I attempt that, I just go back to manual mode. It works for my brain. I’ll switch it to Auto-ISO when I need to be really focused on a changing situation - like with wildlife photography when getting the shutter speed and focus is more important (to me) than a little noise from using a high ISO.

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Hi Brenda - Thanks so much for doing this AMA for the NPN community. I am curious about how your podcast has influenced your photography practices, both positively and possibly negatively. If I were in your shoes, I could see all those conversations sparking a lot of ideas to try, interesting new relationships, etc. I could also see those same conversations sparking way too many thoughts of comparison, having all those new ideas drown out my own ideas about photography, etc. Maybe I am just too easily influenced but I find that I am happiest with my work when I do not have a lot of outside voices pushing in, and I wonder if you ever feel this way about your podcast. I look forward to your response. :slight_smile:

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Hi Brenda! How has your scientific background affected your current career in photography? Do you believe it allows for a different approach than many people?

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Hi Sarah!
Thanks so much for your question. I would say the conversations I’ve had on the podcast have had a positive impact on my own photography practices. The guests I’ve had so far have been pretty aligned with my own approach of photographing what resonates with me (rather than what’s popular), being observant and curious, and taking my time - so I would say that I have felt more validated than pulled in a different direction.

That said, although I aspire to develop my photography to the level of many of my guests some day, I’ve learned from their stories that that takes time and practice, and we’re all on our own paths/journeys. I do like to try new ideas and experiment and see if those approaches could be incorporated into my approaches and growth, but I don’t usually get too worried about comparison. More often I’ll end up thinking - huh, how did they do that? Or why didn’t my photograph turn out with that feeling? And then I try to figure it out.

I would say two of the biggest negative of doing the podcast is feeling like I can’t take a break, which would be nice to be able to do, but I have yet to figure out how to get that ahead of schedule - and related to that - having less time to do my own photography. That’s been a challenge for sure.

Hi Ben!

I love this question, and I actually answered it a bit in this podcast episode if you want to listen: https://www.outdoorphotographypodcast.com/answering-your-photography-questions/ - but basically, I think my science background influenced my photography in a few ways. I think I’m naturally inclined to be curious, observant, and to want to solve problems or figure things out. It’s probably what got me into science in the first place, and those traits just became more ingrained when I was doing research. I believe being curious about nature and present enough to be observant are so important to finding compositions. I find composition is a big puzzle to solve, and I enjoy the process of figuring it out.

And that brings me to another aspect of being a scientist that has helped me, and that is being willing to experiment and being comfortable with failure. It’s not that I don’t get disappointed when a photograph does not work out the way I intended, but I use each one as a learning opportunity of what I can do differently next time to get closer to my vision.

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Thank you for answering, Brenda! That is indeed a beautiful image. I’ll admit that I have always wanted to find a nice scene of smooth, colorful seaweed like that.

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