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Photographing Our Home: The Story of Brandon Cooper

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Sometimes our journey takes us to unexpected places, and events we weren’t prepared for opens doors to brand new possibilities. Someone who knows this better than most is photographer, real estate agent and philanthropist Brandon Cooper.

Brandon was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario, but grew up in a family with deep Northern Alberta roots. His father, who worked in federal politics, resigned in 1994 and the family moved back to his hometown of Peace River, AB, where they operated the regional airline Peace Air. When Brandon was only fourteen years old, he left home to play hockey at a private school in Saskatchewan, but returned to Alberta when he graduated from high school and ended up in Banff, where he started working at Earls Restaurants. It was this job that eventually took him all the way to this community; the owner of Earls Banff happened to also own Earls Fort McMurray, and Brandon was asked to come up and help for a few weeks while they underwent a renovation and brought in new ownership. “What was supposed to be a three-week stint has turned into thirteen years,” he says.

It was after he made the move to Fort McMurray that an opportunity to get involved in Real Estate opened up, and he became a licenced Realtor in 2004 and it wasn’t until eight years later that he began to dabble in photography. “I started shooting listings for a couple of other Realtors” he explains “and I very quickly realized that I enjoyed shooting homes much more than selling them”. This is how the photography business Realpics was born. Immediately catching the photography bug and driven by his aspiration to improve his craft, it wasn’t long before Brandon had consumed every book, watched every online tutorial and attended every workshop he could find about Real Estate photography. His business partner and mentor Tony Colangelo has nothing but respect for Brandon’s ambition.

“Brandon is one of the most driven people that you will probably ever run across” he explains. “For many people, the word, ‘driven’ has some negative connotations associated with it, for example ‘driven to climb the corporate ladder no matter who gets stepped on along the way’. Brandon is not driven by such things, his drive is aimed at achieving excellence. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. For example, he is driven to improve his craft -- always looking for ways to improve his photography technique and his photography business.”

Brandon had first reached out to Tony in 2014, after he had run out of new educational material and feeling that he had hit a plateau in his photography, asking for guidance. “I asked him five times before he finally agreed to mentor me,” says Brandon. It might have taken a few tries, but in the end, they both agree that it was the best outcome. “One of the very positive consequences of Brandon reaching out to me to be his photography coach, is that we quickly became good friends” explains Tony. “Brandon even flew out to Victoria to help me with a couple of photoshoots in the spring of 2015. We have found that our personalities mesh really well together and I think this has certainly contributed to our friendship strengthening over time.”

The evacuation of May 2016 created an unexpected new development opportunity for Brandon and Realpics. “We left town in a hurry with no laptop, no camera gear, but just the clothes on our back and two cute kids,” he tells. Once the dust had settled and it became clear that they weren’t going to be returning home anytime soon, Brandon found himself with a lot of time on his hands, which opened up the opportunity to launch a new division of Realpics; real estate photography consulting. “This is a venture I had been considering for quite some time but never had the time to focus on” explains Brandon. “In mid-May, I reached out to Larry Lohrman, who is the owner of Photography For Real (PFRE), which is the largest community of Real Estate photographers in the world with over 20,000 members, and offered my services.”

Within just a few days he had been contacted by almost 30 clients. Over the next six weeks, as Brandon and his family bounced around Alberta, he was consulting Real Estate photographers from all over the world. “The response I got from my consulting was bigger than I ever could have imagined! It got me thinking there’s really something there” he says. This realization lead to the launch of Cooper Colangelo Photography Workshops, which held their first event in October of 2016 and had attendees from all over North America. Building on the success of that first event, they have since announced several international workshops, including one in Las Vegas in April 2017 and another in London, England in the fall of 2017. The plan is to eventually expand to Australia and other parts of Europe.

Brandon’s career and reputation as a Real Estate photographer since the conception of Realpics in 2014 has skyrocketed. The largest community of Real Estate photographers in the world, Photography For Real (PFRE), hosts a monthly themed photography contest and according to the owner Larry Lohrman, just placing in these contests puts you in the top 1% of real estate shooters worldwide.  Brandon won his first contest in April 2015, then again in February, March and April 2016. He became the first ever to win three in a row, and the first ever to win four total. His partner Tony has since become the second ever to win four.

At the end of 2016, Brandon was named PFRE’s Photographer of the Year, becoming the second Canadian ever to earn this distinction. “This was hands down the biggest accomplishment of my professional career and it was a goal I had set in early 2015,” he says. “Being named PFRE Photographer of the Year has raised my profile in the industry and massively impacted the success of the Realpics consulting service and Cooper Colangelo Workshops.”

Brandon and his wife Jodie made a conscious decision to call Fort McMurray home and raise their family here, and the community has come to be extremely important to them. One of the things that stands out to them most about Fort McMurray is the diversity and the opportunity to expose their children to a wide variety of different cultures in the community that they call home. “Although we don’t have a ton of spare time between work and the kids my wife and I are extremely fortunate to have professions that offer the chance for us to get involved in the community,” explains Brandon, “whether it be supporting non-profits or volunteering at local events, there is always an opportunity to pitch in.” One such opportunity came knocking in the spring of 2016, when Brandon was contacted by Colin Hartigan to take aerial pictures of the various neighbourhoods of Fort McMurray. These photos became the last aerial images taken of Fort McMurray before the wildfire, and they have since become a piece of history.  “The experience,” he says “was absolutely incredible. The actual flight itself, hanging out of a helicopter was such a thrill but to be able to capture our region at such a beautiful time of year was unforgettable. We never imagined that they would be the last.” When the fires hit, Brandon and Colin immediately started talking about what could be done with the images. In November, they had decided to make them available to anyone who wanted them, with all proceeds going to the United Way community campaign. They were able to donate about $6,500, while at the same time providing people with treasured memories of their neighbourhoods.

Brandon and his family also work closely with a charity in Los Cabos Mexico called Feeding Los Cabos Kids (FLCK). FLCK has eleven kitchens throughout the Los Cabos region, serving on average 10,000 meals per month. “We have helped them develop their brand, finance some projects and plan to ramp up our efforts over the next few years,” he says.

In the coming years, Brandon says that his goal is to keep growing as a photographer, service the amazing people of Fort McMurray and eventually see the world on assignment. “In five years’ time, I see Realpics hosting a couple workshops per year in different areas around the world and who knows, maybe the kids will take an interest too. Knowing Brandon, everything is possible.