Seven years ago, Alex Stead started studying photography as an additional GCSE option at school. Aged 16, he handed back his dad's D300, invested in his own D800 and started making money from his images. Realising the potential of social media for making his name early on in his career, he is now one of the UK's most popular photographers on Instagram, with over a million followers and an enviable client roster including Mercedes, Ritz Carlton, San Disk, STA Travel, Vodafone, Maserati, Lufthansa and, of course, Nikon.

He is also an accomplished film-maker and, after recently filming and producing a 12-part travel series across the US west coast for one of the largest camera retailers in the States, he is about to fly out to New Zealand to shoot a follow-up series. Aerial photography and films are an increasingly important parts of his work, with locations including San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, the Canadian Rockies, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Sweden and London. And he's still only 21.

How did you get into photography and film?

I started studying photography when I was 13, as an extra subject at GCSE outside of school; I loved art so the photography was a natural progression. Then I got a scholarship to continue photography alongside art for A level, then I did photography for a year at university in Falmouth. The filming is much more recent – I only started around a year ago, and I'm completely self-taught. I began doing small videos, then clients I was working with asked me to do more, so Nikon lent me a D500 and I taught myself how to make a movie.

Why travel and adventure photography?

I've always loved travelling but I think it mostly comes from being brought up in London and enjoying the outdoors. I've done studio work and didn't really enjoy it; it's quite controlled. Outdoors, you're never quite sure what is going to happen.

How did you get into aerial photography?

When I left school I took some time out before starting university, travelling, earning a bit of income from my photography and starting to get a bit of a following. While I was in America I had the opportunity to collaborate with a couple of helicopter companies on aerial work in San Francisco, New York and Canada, and from that I was able to put together a portfolio. That led to work with Lufthansa and some filming over Sweden in a small plane, and then more brands started to recognise my aerial work and it's gone on from there.

Photography is far harder in a plane than in a helicopter – plane windows are very small, only around the size of your lens, the wings get in the way and you get a lot of movement. Helicopters are a much smoother ride, they give you so much more visibility and space to shoot, and they are more flexible – you can stop and hover in one position or go around to get your shot, rather than having to grab it as you fly by. I also have my own drone, although I don't use it too much – it's mainly for storytelling in films, to change the pace.

Have you always used Nikon?

Yes, since I first started at 13. My dad had a D300, so I used that for a while, then when I was 16 I bought the D800, and I'm glad I made the investment – it was a huge investment for me but I knew if I wanted to do this seriously that meant getting the right kit.

What’s in your kitbag today?

I've still got the D800, and I now have the D810 and the D500. With the D810 it's all about the quality of the full-frame images, which are just incredible – that's what really does it for me. It's a very rugged and well built camera too, which is important as I put my gear through a lot; it can be shooting in -12° one week, underwater or on a beach with all the sand to contend with the next.

The D500 I use mainly for filming. The flip screen is great, it's a really lightweight camera too, and it's very easy to change the settings – the layout of the buttons is really simple and quick. With other brands you have to go into the shooting menus, and by the time you've changed the settings the moment is gone. With Nikon the layouts are very similar on all the cameras so it's easy switching between them.

I tend to use my 16-35mm a lot – it's one of the first proper lenses I bought and I've always kept with it as I really like its wide angle of view. I'd say it's my standard landscape lens. It's also very light, and it's easier to put filters onto than my 14-24mm – I tend to keep that one for night photography. Then I've got the 58mm f/1.4 which is a really lightweight lens and great for compressed images. I use the 70-200mm f/2.8 for animals and for compressed shots that the 50mm can't get. I've also got the 16-80mm lens which came with the D500 and which I sometimes use for filming. If I'm out hiking I'll take the D810, the 16-35mm, the 70-200mm and the 58mm.

When did photography become your full-time career?

Only about nine months ago! I went to Falmouth University to study photography and I liked it but thought it was very expensive for what I was getting, and I really wanted to work – I already was working as a photographer in my spare time while I was there – so I left at the end of my first year, in June 2016, and started photography full-time.

You recently hit one million followers on Instagram. How has social media helped with your career?

It's my main marketing tool and it's been massively helpful for creating interest in my work and connecting with brands. When you're starting out without anything to prove yourself, especially when you're my age, it's very difficult to connect with brands, so Instagram gives you a way to do this. I'm able to say to them, "Look, this many people enjoy my work and engage with it." I've been on Instagram for four years and it's getting more traction now. It's also a great way to meet up with other photographers – when I'm travelling I often go out and shoot with locals I've met through Instagram.

How much of your work is commissioned?

Quite a lot is now being commissioned. One of my most recent commissions was the Maldives for a hotel; me and a friend went out for a week to experience the hotel, shoot video and photograph it. Definitely one of my favourite jobs so far. I'd been in talks with the agency for two years to set it up, so it's been in the making a long time. I also recently spent five days in Norway, including the Lofoten Islands, which was an amazing trip. Another of my favourite commissions was the Faroe Islands, which I shot for their tourist board last March.

I do still do my own projects, but I do try to get sponsorship for them – I've just got back from Iceland where I managed to get the tourism board to sponsor the accommodation and a car-hire company to sort out a free car.

Do you do much post-production?

Not a lot for my photographs – I try to get as much right in-camera as possible, but video takes hours and hours. For a recent Maserati shoot, 60 seconds of video took five hours of editing, including fitting it to the music.

How much time do you spend travelling?

It's been quite busy recently, probably about two weeks of the month, and I'm away around five months of the year in total.

What are your future plans?

To keep on going, to do more commercial shoots and a wider range of products, including clothes and cars. I've got a Mercedes shoot coming up in next week, then I'm off to New Zealand for a month. Last year I did a travel series driving across the west coast of America, from LA to Vancouver and back with a friend for Adorama, one of the biggest camera retailers in the US , and this is going to be a follow-up series. We're going out there with a US photographer and we'll be making a teaching video with lots of techniques.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

I've had plenty along the way, but for me the biggest thing has been the inspiration I've taken from so many photographers who share their work and have done so many different projects in different places – it makes you want to go there and do that!

What are your top five Instagram tips?

• Create a clean feed with a recognisable style.

• Only upload what you would put in your portfolio.

• Upload in portrait – I've found that more people engage with images in portrait, as they fit a phone screen better.

• Think up a really cool name for your page.

• Interact with other instagram members.

You can see Alex's ever-growing Instagram feed here.

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