Q&A: Growing your Instagram with Eric Rubens

Here’s a slightly different kind of Q&A with a world-renowned Instagrammer and photographer, Eric Rubens. He will chat about how he grew his Instagram followers from 0 to 400K, how he changed careers from engineer to creative, and some of his secrets for taking a compelling photo. Bonus puppy (and breathtaking coast) pictures.

Q. Thanks so much for being willing to chat with me.  How was the sunrise today?

A. Made it up just in time for sunrise today but decided to enjoy it in my backyard with our puppy instead of at the beach! I’m more of a sunset chaser since I live on the West coast.

Q. Aww. What kind is he/she?

A. His name is Graham and he’s half golden retriever half cocker spaniel.

Q. How do you abbreviate that? Lol

A. Haha. Tiny golden retriever. It’s open to your imagination.

Q. That sounds like a nice compromise. I don’t know why I didn’t key in on the sunrise/sunset part. I thought you were always surrounded by a golden light both ends of the day.

A. That’s him and his sister by the way.

Photo courtesy Eric Rubens

Q. My computer just broke from the cuteness. What is her name?

A. Her name is Rosie.

Q. Is she the smaller one?

A. She’s blonde and he’s red.

Q. Ha, so I was right.

A. I can post a couple more.

Q. That’s not fair. It’s like you’re trying to throw this interview and distracting me. (Oh wait, you’re a photographer, so pics are relevant.) Go ahead and post a couple.

A. OK there’s puppy pics for the article.

Q. Puppy cuteness overload! So for my readers who haven’t pored over your Instagram account and pics, can you briefly describe what kind of scenery your house overlooks right now?

A. Our house sits on a canyon about 5-10min from the beach but it feels like another world. There’s tons of wildlife, running and biking trails, etc. But I can also get to the beach very easily to shoot pics which is important for my business. My typical day involves me working on editing pics/videos and business development during the day (pitch decks, proposals, planning trips), then checking the conditions and hour or two before sunset and deciding whether to go shoot or not.

Photo courtesy of Eric Rubens
Photo courtesy of Eric Rubens

Q. Amazing pictures! Did you grow up in a similar place?

A. I grew up close to the beach in San Diego but in more of a beach community so lacking the wildlife. My house growing up was just a few blocks from the beach though which was nice! I grew up going to La Jolla daily which in my opinion is one of the nicest beach towns in California.

Q. I am sure I have been there at least once, but I don’t remember the details much. You’re in between traveling gigs right now? Do you have your bag packed for a trip abroad? Where were you last and where are you going next?

A. I just got back from a trip to Brazil with my wife, Kayley, which was so fun! We did Rio de Janeiro for a couple days then went to Iguazu Falls. My next trip is actually tonight! Headed to Boston for a couple days then to NYC for The Points Guy award show.

Then right when I get home from NYC I pack my bags again for a work trip to the Caribbean with Princess Cruises. That temperature fluctuation should be fun to deal with!

Q. Sounds fun! What is The Points Guy?

A. The Points Guy, Brian Kelly, has one of the top travel websites in the world. He’s pretty much the go to source for travel, aviation, points and miles, etc.

Q. Nice! Are you getting a well-deserved award?

A.I will not be getting an award, but the event is incredibly fun and it’s awesome networking with executives from all the airlines, hotels, credit card companies, etc.

Q. I grew up in the Philippines, btw. Which you said is on your bucket list.

A. Philippines is 100% on my bucket list! I love the fact that there’s so many islands to potentially explore. I’ve been on Instagram since the early days of the app so my focus the past couple years has been trying to get to less populated places or harder to reach destinations. That’s why my favorite trips the past couple years have been to the Marquesas Islands, Azores, Cook Islands, etc.

Q. I hope you get to go to the PI. My family is from Palawan, which is about as close to heaven as you can get in those parts. If you end up going, let me know. I have a lot of family and local eco-tour connections.

A. That would be awesome! I’ve heard such amazing things about Palawan and every one of my photography friends who goes captures such incredible content. Hoping to make it in 2020!

Q. So let’s dial back for a bit, Eric…how old are you? I am trying to get context of a creative like yourself having what seems like a dream job.

A. I’m 33. I spent the first part of my life dedicated to trying to become a professional tennis player. I played almost daily from when I was 2-3 years old until I was out of college. I won a NCAA championship in college tennis and was an All-American, but realized I wasn’t good enough to play professionally. Since I studied electrical engineering in college, I went on to be an engineer. It was during that time when I was looking for an after-work hobby and photography was the best outlet for me.

I’d drive right to the beach every single day after work to run, catch sunset, and take some pics. Luckily that was right when Instagram came out, which allowed me to share the sunset daily. I had never taken a class on photography or studied anything in the arts/creative space, so I really just figured it out as I went and practiced consistently until I found a style I enjoyed.

Q. I had read a few interviews about you, where you recount that. Where did your writing talent come from? Your captions were what set apart your IG feed, in my opinion. I mean, introspection….

A.To be completely honest, I’m not really sure. I used to have much shorter captions and at one point I realized I put in such effort into capturing the photo, editing, and posting, yet my caption doesn’t reflect that time and energy.

That’s when I decided to spend a bit more time either talking about the photo, the trip behind the pic, or something else on my mind at the moment that perhaps relates to the pic.

Oftentimes I just start writing and end up taking a completely different direction than what I intended. It’s a delicate balance because it’s not really the ideal platform for writing, so I have to develop a point quickly and try to stay concise.

Q. Mmm. Good thought. If you had never taken a photo class before, for what you do now, there’s hope for the rest of us amateur shutterbugs! What do you think brought you to the next level? What kind of sacrifices have your brand of success entailed?

A. Of course there’s hope! Like anything it just takes practice and dedication. I look back on pics I posted years ago and often am shocked I even took the pic! I think improving in photography, or anything really, comes down to a combination of a few things. It’s important to hone your craft and develop your own style, but equally valuable to learn from others in the field. I think I’ve learned most when I’ve gone on jobs or camping trips with other photographers and saw how they approached their craft and studied their workflow. You don’t want to mimic anyone but you can find subtle aspects of their success which may translate to your work.

There’s lots of sacrifices in this line of work that people don’t realize. Traveling a lot is tough on the body and also on relationships with family and friends. Also running a business essentially on your phone isn’t always enjoyable. It’s incredible convenient to always be able to respond, post, or be active no matter where I am in the world. It’s just as important to know when to put the phone down and stay connected in the moment.

That’s a balance I’m always trying to work on.

Q. I appreciate your candidness. On the flipside, what kind of amazing things have you experienced? I’m sure there’s plenty, but maybe name your top two or three.

A. There’s so many incredible experiences! I think many of my favorite moments have come in South Africa, which to this day remains my favorite place in the world. Going on a safari is one of the most magical experiences I’ve had in life. It’s an adrenaline rush that’s hard to compare to anything else and it’s equally beautiful seeing nature in it’s true element.

Visiting a couple of the really isolated destinations I mentioned earlier (Marquesas Islands & Azores) are also really memorable. Those are places I never really thought I’d get to visit in my life. When you’re standing there with a friend or two at sunset, on the edge of an island in the middle of the ocean, it’s a surreal feeling that you just don’t get back home in California

Q. The islands sound amazing. Our family was blessed to go on safari in the Botswana area a couple of Christmases ago; ending at South Africa. It was an experience of a lifetime. Do you, or plan to, have a coffee table book out?

A. I’d love to do a book someday! It’s just a daunting task that I don’t even know how to begin or what theme I’d want it to take on.

Hopefully that could happen someday down the road because seeing pictures I’ve taken in print is so much more rewarding than viewing them on the phone or computer.

Q. I look forward to that. I hope you do it sooner than later. It’s like getting all your photos in for the year, if you don’t do it in batches, it’ll be tougher.

In February, I plan to go on a photography seminar with a talented Navajo artist. I look forward to learning how to use my camera. How much would you say is a gorgeous picture the original, and how much is editing?

A. Sounds like an awesome learning experience! I get that question often and it really just depends on the picture. Sometimes there’s very little editing needed and sometimes I play with color a lot. For the most part, I analyze the image and try to figure out how I can draw someone’s eyes to either the subject or captivating part of the picture. I’ve always been attracted to neon colors which is an effect I try to emphasize when editing pics. I’m always trying to dance on the edge of too colorful or too bright and vivid.

Some people like moodier or darker edits, but my experience living on the beach is exactly the opposite. Days on the beach and sunsets in particular are warm, inviting, and vivid. I think it’s my job to emphasize that in my work.

Q. Yes, I can see that from your pics on IG. I have a somewhat personal question to ask you, feel free to decline if you’d rather…I have a daughter who, after a couple of years of wanderlust, got married recently. For a while there, I wondered if she would ever settle down long enough for that special someone not that I was anxious for her to get married. But how did you and your wife meet and how did/does she feel about all the traveling? (I am also a romance novelist, so I was curious about this.)

A. My wife and I met back home in California through a mutual friend. I was an engineer at the time and just getting into photography. She’s been with me since the start of my career and seen every high and low along the way. She was also big in pushing me to pursue this career, since I struggled for the longest time with quitting my engineering job. It’s always tough being away from her, but luckily she gets to come on quite a few trips with me!

Q. Of course! What a blessing it is then to know each other from the start. Traveling is always more special done with your loved ones.

A. Traveling is way better with family and friends. I’m a huge believer in this. I believe you learn a lot about yourself when you’re alone, but almost all of my most memorable moments or travel experiences have come on trips with my wife, friends, or family. Those always rank higher than solo experiences.

Q. Do you travel with your puppy?

A. We don’t travel with the puppy…yet! He’s only 6 months old but he’s itching for a camping trip soon.

Q. You offer social media coaching, correct? You went from something like 0 followers to 200k over what period of time? And now that number is double? What would you say are the top three things an aspiring influencer can do to increase their social media following?

A. I give lessons in photography and social media often. Building my following has been a slow gradual process over 7-8 years. I’ve been fortunate to be listed in big articles for Conde Nast Traveler, Business Insider, and others which obviously help drive up the following, but there hasn’t really been a huge breakthrough moment. I think the most important thing is getting involved in the community. Treat the relationships on the platform like real ones. Interact and support your friends and fellow creatives and they’ll do the same.

Q. Certainly makes you stand out in that regard. I was surprised how accessible you were, which I appreciate very much. I believe our hour is up, sadly…so in parting, I wanted to ask you one last question.

A. I always try to be accessible. Engaging with the people who support you is so critical. I always try to answer questions and respond to people’s comments on my work. It makes it feel like a more personal relationship versus a mysterious figure behind an account.

Q. That is a great philosophy. What moment made you pivot into this career? You said you were scared to let go of your engineering job for a while. How did you finally let go and jump with both feet in?

A. It’s always scary giving up something you commit so long to. It took me 5 years to get my engineering degree and then I worked 7 years. That’s 12 years committed to a certain path. I think the one thing I realized is just because I’m committing to photography, doesn’t mean my past isn’t of value. I took the approach that it actually made me more valuable. There’s not a huge percentage of photographers who are also confident with math, engineering, and numbers. I saw that as an opportunity to work on creative projects with startups in the tech space and help bridge the gap between the left side of the brain and the right side.

I think I have the background to understand a technical product and also the creative sense to figure out a way to capture content around it and advertise it. Which is a strategy I often use when working with businesses outside of Instagram.

I think you also have to realize you only live one life. It’s very cliche but as you get older it’s scary how quickly time passes. Life is too short to not chase something you love.

Q. What a unique perspective to come from, for sure. And beautiful sentiments. Eric, thank you so much again for graciously sharing of yourself and letting me take a peek behind the scenes. May you continue to enjoy blessings!

A. Of course, thanks for your time too!

Check out Eric Rubens’ Instagram account here.

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