We’ve long wanted to film famed surf photographer Chris Burkard in action, so when we heard that he was headed to the Arctic with professional surfers to tackle the brutally harsh seas, we packed our bags and followed. In our latest installment of SmugMug Films, we travel with Burkard on his journey with professional surfers Patrick Millen, Brett Barley, and Chadd Konig as they brave sub-zero temperatures to capture moments of raw beauty, adventure, and community. Keep reading after the video to get an exclusive interview with Chris about how he got his start, what he looks for in a fantastic image, and that time he got deported from Russia.
How did you get started with photography?
I did a lot of art in high school. And I transitioned to wanting to explore doing art out in the field, but I soon realized it wasn’t very fun. It wasn’t a very intimate experience to me. You’re just a bystander. When I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my friends surfing and landscapes, I realized I was in the moment. I was out there, and shooting these photos was an extension of the body. It was intimate. You’re a part of it, and you can take it anywhere: social settings, mountaintops, oceans. It was a perfect extension and a great medium of expression for me. To this day I’m seeking out new places so I can bring a camera and experience them.
If you hadn’t become a photographer what would you have been?
Probably a fireman. I don’t know! I worked for many years in random jobs. Before I was working to be a photographer, I worked on cars a lot. I loved old vehicles and the idea of making them how I wanted. It came down to the idea of wanting to do something where people will appreciate my craft and my talents, and I realized that was what made me want to turn machines into artwork. If I wasn’t a photographer, maybe I’d be working on cars somewhere.
How would you describe what you do today?
I’m always seeking out the adventures in life, whether I’m shooting surfing in a cold, harsh environment or shooting a commercial assignment. And that’s meant to speak to the idea of going to a new place, summiting a new peak, or surfing a new wave. It doesn’t matter to me how big or how small. My goal has always been to create images that inspire people to get off their couch and go explore something new.
The idea of exploration is the thing that really makes me want to push harder. It’s the driving force behind a lot of my work.
What do you look for when creating an image?
There’s a lot of technical things I’ll look for. I’m looking for light, contrast, and all those elements that make a good image. But I consider other elements when I’m thinking of how to capture something. Like if there’s historical value to a photo—where I’m shooting a place that might not be around for very long—that’s very important to me.
Coming from an art background, I’m used to trying to put everything I want into this easel shape. I’m just bringing in all the elements. When you’re shooting and photographing in this frame, you have to get everything inside it. You’re really constricted in being able to make it happen.
For me, it’s also super important to push your cameras as far as they can go to capture what you’re seeing. A photograph is usually a two-dimensional item. If there’s anything you can do to make it feel three dimensional, that’s the goal.
I also like the idea of creating images that will carry weight with people. Photos that aren’t driven by advertisements or logos. And it’s super important, too, when creating a body of work that you want to be around longer than yourself.
Given the adventurous nature of your work and the harsh conditions you’re in, are there any great pictures you didn’t get to take?
There’s always a lot of pictures I don’t get, or I feel I haven’t had a chance to capture yet. As a photographer, or anyone who’s a perfectionist, that’s all you think about: all the moments you didn’t get. And that’s just life. You’re striving for something better, and you always wish there’s something you could’ve captured, but if you get them all, you’ll have nothing left to strive for.
What do you consider the biggest challenge about your work?
It all depends on where I’m going. The nature element is the hardest thing, like if I’m going somewhere really cold or somewhere that has a harsh environment. Being in the water in high 30s or low 40s can be brutal on your body, mind, and psyche, and it’s always challenging. You’re always weighing out risk versus reward. Luckily, 90 percent of the time you’re not far from a warm car, but there are those moments when you know in order to get the shot you have to go out and suffer a bit. Those are the times I feel most alive. I have to put in more effort and lose a little bit of skin.
Your explorations often take you to off-the-beaten-path locations. What do you look for?
I’m drawn to places that feel and look more wild. I think it’s human nature to want to see these places, but the reality is most people don’t want to put in the time to find them. So a big part of what I do is try to find spots that will speak to that aesthetic. The location is almost as important as who I’m with and what I’m shooting. Each place plays a huge character role in these stories. Whether I’m on a remote beach in Norway or somewhere in Russia, I want to be in a place that people naturally associate with adventure.
How do you find these places?
There’s a certain recipe. There are a lot of amazing places I could go, but I have to have an assignment that takes me there. I have a list of places I would love to see and love to experience, but I don’t have opportunities to shoot there. But I have a list. And it’s something I tick off as I get to go to places.
With so many places yet to see, is there a favorite place you’ve already been?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been to Iceland 13 times. That place is pretty dang special.
What do you love about it?
The way the landscape is always changing really draws me in. It’s inspiring to me and makes me want to go back because the conditions and climate are constantly evolving. For a photographer, it’s what you’re always searching for. You could shoot only one day there and have so many different conditions.
I don’t like to go to places that wouldn’t be inspiring to me on a personal level. Because if you’re not excited about the work you’re doing, then it’s hard to want to photograph it.
Is there a photography project that’s been the most meaningful for you to date?
The trips I do, I invest a lot of my energy, heart, and soul. That’s why when they turn out successful, it means so much. Success can be measured many different ways, but for me it’s pretty simple: If I feel like I got the images I needed, or got the job done while still being able to experience the culture for myself, then the trip was a success.
I plan for three years or more to do these trips, and when I’m able to set foot on the landscape and experience it, I don’t want to leave anything behind. For me, that’s been Russia, Alaska, Iceland, and Norway. These are places I put a big part of myself into.
What’s been your most challenging to date?
I’d say Russia just because of the logistical challenge of getting there. It took three years to plan and find the place to go.
I went to Russia for the first time in 2009, and you have to fill out a visa request like three months ahead of time. I was in a crew with four people, and we had to go through customs. I get stopped. They look at my passport. They look at me. They look at my passport again. They look at me. And I realize the entry date on my visa was for the next day. It was the wrong date.
After a long discussion, they put me in a holding cell for 24 hours, and then deported me to South Korea. After recouping a day later, I flew back. It was scary. Really scary. I didn’t get food and water until I talked to the embassy. It was crazy.
It was one of the first places I traveled to that was really wild and remote. And it was such an eye-opening one because I realized for the first time what it felt like to have all your rights stripped from you. It makes you really appreciate being on American soil.
What’s at the top of list for a place you’d like to return to?
I really want to go back to Chile and explore Tierra del Fuego. It’s at the very end of South America, and it looks amazing.
In a lot of your behind-the-scenes shots, it looks like surfers are headed right at you. Have you ever suffered any collisions?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been run over. I’ve had surfers hit me with their board. Cut my nose and other things. Those are the experiences that make it exciting. You’re very much at risk. And it makes it that much cooler, really, being able to be a part of the action. Being hidden in the midst of it myself.
Ever lost any gear?
I’ve lost quite a bit of gear. One time I was on a little boat, and we got hit by a wave. Basically my entire kit went overboard, and I lost about $30,000 worth of gear. Luckily, I had insurance for it.
Speaking of gear, what are your must-haves?
I have a lot of must-haves. It comes down to the fact that I think, man, if I don’t need to use this it’s not going to be much of an adventure!
A multitool is super important when it comes to being somewhere remote and interesting. Obviously having a good, reliable camera is crucial, and that’s personal preference. I like to travel really light and really small, so I use a lot of mirrorless cameras, like the Sonys. There’s usually a solar charger of some kind, whether for cell phone or camera. An ultralight, ultrasmall water-purification device that uses UV light. Energy bars. A light rain jacket is always crucial. A lightweight tripod is always in there. Filters. Almost always a pair of gloves.
If you don’t need a headlamp, it’s not even a place you want to go. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone out driving around, having a great time, then coming back for a couple hours to sleep until dark. That’s when, as a photographer, you know the best light is going to be, or when the stars are going to come out. Nine times out of 10 we’re hiking back in the dark with a headlamp on.
It sounds like you have a survival kit with some camera gear versus a camera kit with some survival gear.
That’s really what it comes down to. I want to make sure that when I’m shooting photos that I’m able to relax, knowing that safety is taken care of. I occasionally have a small rope and carabiner just in case I need to lower down from somewhere. Usually the most unusual thing I have in there is a packet of gummy candy, because that’s one of my favorite things. It’s either a reward after the shoot because things have gone well, or I just got beat down by rain or no sun and I want to have something sweet.
Given the chaos you’re in for your shooting conditions, do you shoot manually?
Yeah, always. I love shooting manually. You really start to work with your camera, and it becomes second nature. I like to have complete control. I don’t want to have my camera trying to make decisions for me.
Do you have any rules when it comes to your overall process?
When I’m going somewhere new, I’m really careful not to research too many of the places I’m going to see because I don’t want to get some interpreted view of what these places should look like on a postcard. I want to be able leave my view and perspective unskewed so I can maintain ultimate creative freedom. That being said, I also want to make sure that I’m being educated on where I’m going, because the more unique the less you know. That’s a really important mantra to have at all times.
If someone decided to pursue a similar path, what advice would you give them?
I personally would tell them that I don’t think school is going to teach you the type of skills you need to do what I do. A big part of this is experiencing things. Learn from a magazine setting or an editorial conference. Study a photographer you like and really understand the hustle it takes to do what they do. Understand what it’s like to be in those commercial and editorial situations where you’re trying to make it all work for a client.
I look back at the time I spent driving down to Oceanside every week to intern at Transworld Surf, and a summer I interned with a landscape photographer. That’s where I feel like I gained the biggest understanding of what photography was really like. I realized what it means to run your own business. And if you still want to do it after that, you should.
Any advice for capturing a great image?
There’s great moments happening everywhere, but for me there’s two main types. There’s the one that happens all of a sudden, which requires being there and being ready, and knowing your equipment inside and out. And the second is the one you’ve preconceived. Sometimes those are really special to me because you have this idea and you get to see it through.
Look for unique lighting situations. Go out in storms and go out at a time when no one else is. That’s when you’re going to capture something unique.
And what about the best advice you’ve ever received?
My grandpa told me to kick ass and take names. I don’t know if that’s good advice or not.
I guess a personal mantra I try to follow is the more you know, the less you need. I’ve always been a big proponent of traveling with less and not being the person who has the biggest, most expensive camera. It’s not that I can’t afford it, I just like to experience moments personally as well as through my camera. If you walk away from any trip and it’s a complete blur because you were shooting the whole time, then you weren’t really experiencing it.
In the end, you should have all these cool stories to share with loved ones and family and friends. At least that’s how it is for me. I always try to be present in the moment and really experiencing it myself, too.
What do you find exciting about the photography industry today?
Now everyone is a photographer. People have cameras and video cameras in their phones. At any time I could have four or five cameras on me. It’s crazy.
What we’re seeing is the emergence of these smaller, lighter cameras being able to capture more real, intimate moments. And I think the idea of mobile photography and how it’s changed photography as a whole is really exciting.
I think we’re really seeing, too, a changing of the guard where a lot of established photographers have lost touch with the people who are interested in their work because they haven’t adapted to these new forms of social media or ways of promoting their work.
Photography as a whole is really moving toward those who are open to sharing. Nothing’s a secret anymore. If you try to keep secrets, people just aren’t going to embrace it. They want to find people who are sources of knowledge and are able to share that knowledge. That’s how I look at inspiration.
Find Chris online:
Subscribe to the SmugMug Films channel to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free. If you enjoyed the film with Chris Burkard, you may like these artist profiles on underwater photographer Sarah Lee, YouTube superstar DevinSuperTramp, and lava chases Lava Light.
We hope that many of you are out there enjoying your summer and spending time with the people you love most. This week we’re talking to Smug friend Kelsey Gray: climber, world traveler, photographer and author of Alaska Rock Climbing Guide. He’s well known for doing heart-pounding stunts like cliff jumping – stunts that most of us will only ever enjoy in his photographs. So we had to ask the burning question: Why do you bring the camera and is it really worth the risk?
Photos by Kelsey Gray Photography
Climbing to Live
My first foray into climbing was back sometime around 2002 when I took an indoor rock climbing course at the Alaska Rock Gym through the University of Anchorage Alaska. Before that time, I was purely a gaming nerd who had gained almost 65lbs after high school eating cheeseburgers and pizza. With the occasional challenge of who can drink the most ketchup or eat the most salt packets, those were some very unhealthy years. During a routine doctor visit (also partially due to the emotional issues that come with being overweight and with an astronomical blood pressure), my doctor said that if I didn’t get off the computer and fix my blood pressure I would probably have a stroke by 30. I was 20 and that didn’t leave me much time.
After the indoor course, I enrolled in the outdoor course and found that to be even better. I soon after began climbing outdoors with a friend from Era Aviation, where we both worked. Later that year I began climbing with John Borland, who would introduce me to many areas around Hatcher Pass as well as becoming a great climbing partner and friend.
Sometime during my first few years of climbing I became more interested in hiking peaks. My uncle, Dano Michaud, had dragged me unwillingly up a peak called Harp Mountain and the 1000+ft glissade (natural slide down the snow) hooked me. That summer I climbed peak after peak and soon realized that explaining the beauty of the areas was simply not enough. I needed to show it.
My very first camera was a small point and shoot with no screen and not enough megapixels to warrant labeling it on the front. I’m pretty sure it came free with a printer, which was also terrible. After a few trips I realized I needed a better camera. I upgraded to a Fuji Finepix F700 which worked for me for a long time. I then moved on to a Fuji Finepix S9000 before finally making the jump to SLR with the Canon 20D. After the 20D I moved on to the Canon 50D (which was later stolen from my car), and finally to my current camera the Canon 7D.
During my years of climbing I have learned some important lessons about myself, and how I view life. I am never more confortable than when dangling from a cliff with the sun setting and the wilderness expanding in my view. I’ve often said that the journey is not the summit but in the adventure, which I’m pretty sure is a mashup of others quotes, but I can’t discount the great feeling of having made it as high as I can go without actually flying into the air. When I reach the top of a peak or climb and look out over the expanse I have a ritual that I try to do as often as possible. It is as follows:
1. Close your eyes and wait for at least 30 seconds. Let all the emotions, feelings, failures and successes wash into you. Reject nothing.
2. Open your eyes and star directly ahead. Everything washes away, and I can’t help but feel that I was not meant to have a wall in front of me. Cubicles were not meant for us.
Help or Hinder?
There are times when I won’t bring my camera climbing and I usually regret it. The hairy times when the sheep dung really hits the fan is when the camera seems to really come into use, if not for just recording the trip for my own memory. The worst time to have a camera attached to you is when jammed into an off-width. This is the climber term for anything that you can’t wedge your body into but is too big to use a single hand or fist to climb. It’s probably the most uncomfortable situation most humans will ever find themselves in. A 60m off-width can feel like you’ve just run a marathon, sprinting, while holding a log over your head. (If you’re curious about just what an off-width has to offer then Google for the video, “Boogie Till You Poop.”) Add climbing gear to your harness and it becomes worst; add a camera and you’ll pray it doesn’t shatter.
It is not easy to bring a camera as large as a Canon 7D up a climb, especially with consideration of the lens size. I usually stick with the kit lens that comes with the 7D, the 18-135mm, it’s not the best lens but it is light and easy to carry. I would upgrade to a better lens, except I’m always spending all my money on travelling. I like to carry it in a waist pack that I often clip to my harness, just in case it comes off. I know others who use backpacks but I don’t like having to take it off to get my camera out. That is my general kit for all adventures. Not much, but just enough so that I don’t feel burdened by it. The camera is there for my use to record everything that I wish to keep for myself or show to others, so I’ve had to take a rather lenient stance on its value. If I consider it gold then I’ll never bring it to the truly dangerous adventures. There are times I almost have to convince myself that my camera is already gone before I bring it, then I just try and make sure it stays in one piece. This allows me to continue to bring it to the most dangerous situations.
Worth the Risk?
There are others in climbing that are much more advanced in climbing photography than I. I’ve often marveled at their ability to get paid to do the things I’m paying for! But with everything comes risks, such as the photographer that was with Johnny Copp and Micah Dash, two amazing alpinists that died in an avalanche, their photographer (Wade Johnson) by their side. I’ve often had to decide just what is it I want to do, how far do I take this hobby that has become a driving force in life? I’m still figuring that part out. I have found that half of the reason I travel is to take photographs. If I were to lose my camera today it would probably take quite a lot of self-reflection to pull myself from the loss, even if I have the illusion that the loss is already imminent.
Like many other climbers I am driven too heavily by emotions. I would love to say that most of my travelling began as a desire to see the world and experience new things. The truth is that many of my travels have been fuelled by escape, the desire to escape the emotions that come with a loss, whether it is a relationship or the death of a loved one. Over time it has had to change as those emotions were hidden, or in my current case I found someone who truly makes me happy in life. Previously I spent much of the time travelling the world alone, a few of the trips included others. Now I try to share it with others, those who I travel with and those who I get to show through the photographs I take.
Stay safe, wherever you are this summer! If you’re playing it safe at home or at the office, you can get your thrills from the other installments in our Photography Perspectives series.
If you’re a longtime follower of our blog, the name Gary Arndt may ring a bell. We featured him in 2010 and he inspired many of us to follow our dreams, explore the horizon and take more photos. Gary’s still traveling the world and taking photos from all corners of the planet. As you’re dreaming of faraway lands and maybe even planning your annual vacation, here are a few tips Gary shared about how to efficiently pack, travel and share all the photos you take when you’re not at home.
Photos by Everything, Everywhere
How did you get your start as a full-time travel blogger?
I made the decision to travel around the world in October 2005 and began my blog one year later in October 2006. I sold my home in March 2007 and have been traveling around the world ever since.
My blog began as a way to document my trip for my friends and family and sort of just grew into something more over time. I made a decision in late 2007 to take it seriously and to see if I could turn it into a business, which I now have.
How many places do you visit in an average year?
The number of places I’ll visit in an average year can vary and it also depends on how you define a place. 2013 has been very busy for me. So far this year I’ve been to 17 countries and I’ll probably be in around 35 by the time the year is over. I’m currently at the beginning of a 3-month trip to visit all the countries and territories in the Lesser Antilles.
This is a dream most of us consider at some point in our lives, but you’ve found success. How did you do it?
I promote my site whatever way I can. I do many interviews online and off. I’ve had my work appear online on sites like OutsideOnline.com, The Today Show and FourHourWorkWeek.com. Mostly people discover me via social media channels like Twitter and Facebook.
Most people are fascinated by my lifestyle before they ever see one of my images or read one of my articles. Simply having traveled for so long and having been to so many places is the biggest hook for people.
As far as recognition, I’ve won many mainstream travel journalism awards for my photography and for blogging. I won a Lowell Thomas Award last year for Photo Illustration of Travel (placing behind the New York Times), a Northern Lights Award for Photography of Canada (placing behind National Geographic) as well as many North American Travel Journalist Association awards and recently a SMITTY Award for my use of social media by Travel + Leisure Magazine.
Tip time: What’s in the travel blogger’s survival kit?
The bare minimum for me is my SRL, laptop and an iPhone. The iPhone gives me the ability to post images while I’m out and about. The SLR and laptop should be pretty obvious.
I also have an iPad, Kindle Paperwhite, and 2 USB hard drives. Over the last 6 years it has actually gotten easier from a technical standpoint. Many of the devices I used to carry with me have all been condensed into my iPhone ( GPS, video camera, point and shoot camera, wifi detector, audio recorder, microphone, etc)
How do you manage files on the road? For example, what storage systems/archiving tools do you use ?
People often assume that I back everything up in the cloud. This isn’t true. I can easily shoot several gigabytes of images a day and uploading that much data from remote places around the world is next to impossible. It is difficult to do even when I’m in the US. I have almost 2TB of images now and I’m not in one place long enough to do that sort of upload.
I have 2, 2TB USB hard drives that I carry with me. I keep them in two separate bags in case one should get lost or stolen. I keep a copy of everything on each drive.
I also have several hard drives at my mothers house. When I visit her, which I do about 2-3 times per year, I copy everything to those drives as well so I have copies in at least 2 locations.
By the time I outgrow my 2TB drives, there should be portable 3, 4 or 5 TB drives available. I upload only my edited jpegs to SmugMug. Those I consider my finished product. I obviously worry about my original RAW images, but so long as my finished jpegs are there, the world won’t come to an end.
I don’t think my system is fool proof or the best possible, but it has worked for me so far. I hope the day isn’t too far away when global bandwidth is big enough and cloud storage is cheap enough that it would be viable for what I do.
Do you shoot at the full resolution of your camera or do you use one of the lower ones to save space? Do you take your photos with the intent to sell big prints?
I shoot everything in RAW. When I began traveling I shot in jpeg and it was a horrible decision. Storage has gotten so cheap that I can not see the point in shooting in anything less than full resolution. I don’t shoot with the intent of selling prints, but I do always have that option by shooting in RAW.
Have you lost any images over the years?
Amazingly enough, I don’t know of any images that I’ve lost. I’ve been very careful about my data storage. When I started traveling, I was backing up my photos to DVD and an old iPod that I had. It was a horrible solution. I remember spending 2 days in Melbourne burning dozens of DVD’s and having to send them back to the US in a big box. I am amazed I haven’t lost anything from my early travels.
How do you deal with needing internet access in remote locations?
I seldom have a problem finding internet. As I am writing this, I’m on one of the lesser populated outer islands in the Bahamas, and the bandwidth here is fine. I’ve spent thousands of nights in hotels now and I’ve become an expert in maximizing my connection. Where in the room I can get the best signal, when to go down to the lobby or when I have to head to Starbucks or McDonald’s. I also have a global Boingo account which lets me log on to wifi hotspots all around the world.
What are your essential photo editing tools?
I currently have a 15″ MacBook Pro Retina and use Lightroom 5.0, and occasionally Photoshop CS6. I also sometimes use SilverFX Pro and Photomatix.
Since you’ve been on the road for 6 years, has your camera changed much?
I began with a Nikon D200 and a 18-200mm lens. Today I use the exact same lens and have upgraded the body to a Nikon D300s.
The Nikon 18-200mm VR lens is far and away the most versatile lens on the market. I can take it out for the day without knowing what I’ll be shooting and be reasonably covered for both wide angle and close-up shots. It isn’t the ‘best’ lens on the market, but it is usually the only thing I need when I leave my hotel room.
I’ve stuck with a crop sensor camera for reasons of weight. The crop sensor lenses are smaller and lighter than full frame lenses. Size and weight is very important to me as I have to carry all my equipment with me all the time.
In addition to the 18-200mm lens, I also carry a 12-24mm lens and a 50mm f/1.4. I probably use those lenses for less than 5% of my shots. I have also rented lenses on occasions. During my trip to South Georgia Island and Antarctica last year, I rented a 500mm lens which was a fantastic decision.
I also have a lightweight carbon fiber tripod from Oben and my camera bag is from Timbuk2. I also use a BlackRapid shoulder strap.
Does your safety (or safety of equipment) ever affect your workflow, what you bring, or how you work?
Not really. I have never had anything stolen and I don’t worry too much about theft. I take common sense precautions and usually never leave anything expensive in my room when I am not around. I keep a minimal amount of gear with me, so I’m not as worried as some people might be if they were on a big photo shoot. I have older camera bodies, lenses and laptops at my mother’s house should I ever need a backup.
So, tell us Can you outline your workflow, start to finish?
1) I take the image.
2) Copy images from the camera to my laptop.
3) Copy images from laptop to my 2 backup hard drives.
4) Edit the images on my laptop.
5) Upload the edited images to SmugMug.
6) Delete edited images on laptop.
That last step is sort of controversial. Basically, images on my laptop are my to do list. As I finish images, I remove them to clear up space. I don’t have a permanent catalog for Lightroom like some people do. This system I developed years ago when my laptop hard drive space was scarce. I also don’t want to have to bring my USB hard drive out every single time I edit photos, as I often do it when I can find time in cafes or on airplanes.
Again, I’m not saying this is the best system, but it is the one that I use.
We hope that all of you – everywhere, anywhere – find a little inspiration to capture and share the moments of your life. Safe travels, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our Photography Perspectives series!
The open road, sweet mountain air, and being alone in nature. As photographers, don’t we all dream about living the nomad’s life? If you’re like us, the thought probably pops up every now and then but most of us don’t actually take the leap and do it. One of our long time friends and Digital Grin veterans, Ron Coscorrosa, has been a subject of extensive envy for the past 2 years. He traded his tech job and high-rise apartment to live a life of sunlight, pixels, and sleeping in his car. So we asked him to give us the skinny on what it’s really like to put life aside and put photography first.
Photos by Ron Coscorrosa
I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but despite being near some of the most spectacular scenery in the American West didn’t pick up a dSLR until 2005, when I was tired of crappy image quality of my point and shoot digital camera (I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure it had a floppy drive and a resolution of 6×4 pixels). It turned out that buying a better camera only made the bad photos larger, not better. Deterred by this sad realization, the camera and some expensive lenses sat unused in my closet until finally overwhelming guilt forced me to start using them more (this process took years). Eventually photography and traveling to beautiful places became a passion, to the point where I quit my software development job in the summer of 2011 in order to travel and photograph full time for approximately two years, without any distractions and without trying to generate an income. During my travels I met my girlfriend and gifted nature photographer Sarah Marino and moved from Seattle to Denver to be with her, and since then we have spent the last eighteen months traveling and photographing together extensively.
You’ve done something extraordinarily brave, something many of us wish we had the gumption to do: Quitting your day job to spend two years doing photography. Was that a hard decision to make? Did you agonize for a long time, or was it spontaneous and immediate?
It wasn’t a hard decision to make, nor particularly brave (at least to me). The hard part was in coming to the realization that there was actually a decision to make, that I didn’t have to live the normal life of working nearly fifty years straight until retirement when at last I would be liberated from the shackles of employment and free to enjoy life fully (assuming I was still alive and still healthy). After thinking about it for a few days, it no longer made any sense for me to continue the path I was on, and I was fortunate to have the financial flexibility to quit my job and be on the road within a few weeks of making the decision to leave.
By that point in my life I was heavily into photography yet not particularly good. I wanted to be able to dedicate myself to photography and pursue it absolutely free of distractions to see where I would end up. So having an alternative to work (in my case travel and photography) was definitely crucial to making the decision. I also didn’t want to be distracted by earning an income or trying to generate money via photography, I just wanted to do it for the sake of doing it itself.
What gear do you need to get the shots that you take? Do you pack differently if you’re traveling domestically vs internationally?
My preferred subjects are natural landscapes, both large and small (including macro and abstract subjects). I used to photograph wildlife, cityscapes, and some other subjects as well but felt I needed to narrow my focus to try and be good at something rather than mediocre at everything.
Currently I’m using a Canon 6D as my primary camera, with a series of rotating lenses (all Canon) including a 14 prime, 17-40, 24-70, 70-200 f/4, 100 macro, and 100-400, all subject to change pending future insurance claims.
I don’t distinguish between foreign and domestic travel as much as traveling by car or traveling by plane. If by car (my preferred choice, though it doesn’t work so well over oceans or apparently on I-5 over the Skagit river in Washington state) then everything will come. If traveling by plane, I typically won’t bring things like backpacking packs, extra food (unless it’s Iceland, where $3 gas station hot dogs get old after a few weeks when nothing else is open in winter), extra boots, etc. For both types of travel I will bring backup camera bodies and tripods, as inevitably something will fail on a trip and securing a replacement is a hassle that has potential to interrupt photography.
How has your gear held up to your adventure? Is it true that you buy tripods in bulk?
My gear hasn’t held up at all, which is typical for landscape photographers who are in the elements (salt water, sand of various types, fresh water, waterfall spray, rain, and extreme temperature variances). I’ve had more experiences with Canon’s repair department than I care to recount. I’m on my third camera in two years. I have three tripods and none of them are fully functional (though I haven’t bought any in three years, it’s now getting to the point of ridiculousness and I may have to buy one soon). The only pieces of gear I can actually recommend are my RRS plates and ballheads.
Most of my gear failures are from gradual wear and tear in the elements rather than single dramatic incidents. One exception would be one of my aforementioned tripods which had a leg severed by an incoming iceberg on a beach in Iceland. Fortunately my own legs are of higher quality than my tripod’s legs and I remained unscathed.
If you consider your car gear, and I do, it’s held up fairly well despite 80,000 miles in two years and continual driving on roads that it is ill suited for, including numerous drives to the Racetrack in Death Valley, sliding down wet clay roads in the San Juan mountains in Colorado after a thunderstorm, going high speed over a rock disguised as sagebrush at Toroweap in the Grand Canyon and impaling the gas tank, driving twenty miles in slick mud near Escalante, Utah after an afternoon snow melt, navigating down steep rock shelves at Marlboro Point in the Canyonlands, and, the most expensive, getting stuck in deep mud on a remote desert playa two and a half hours from the nearest towing company.
You’ve spent the last two years doing crazy things like living out of your car so you can be in the right place for a sunrise shoot. What’s the best thing to come of it? What’s the worst aspect of it? Would you keep doing so if you could afford to, indefinitely?
For some reason, sleeping in a car brings much more scrutiny than sleeping in a tent (a more societally accepted form of cheap lodging), but to me, car sleeping is clearly superior in every way (save for backpacking, where sleeping in the car is not an option for obvious reasons).
It is more comfortable (especially with a twin foam mattress in the back), takes less time to set up and disassemble (in that it doesn’t take any time), can be used in noisy and windy environments, and comes with a full heating and cooling system. It is also more flexible, given there are always more roads than there are camping areas and none of them require a reservation in advance. It also allows me to be nearer to where I want to photograph for sunrise, letting me sleep longer.
There are some downsides, including questionable legality in certain places (though it rarely is an issue if you’re in after sunset and out before sunrise), occasional lack of public restrooms, and lack of showers. If the choice is between showers and photography, photography always wins. If it’s between showers and sleep, sleep usually wins. Apologies to any member of the general public that we may have came across while in the midst of a long photography trip…
If I had infinite resources I would still travel and sleep in the car because the main motivating factor is convenience and not to save money, though I’m sure the car would be a lot better!
You don’t sell your work. In fact, you don’t take measures to protect it – it’s out there for all to see, enjoy and use. What’s your philosophy about that? What is your philosophy about taking photos in general and sharing them on the web?
Actually that’s not entirely true, all my work is copyrighted and can only be legally used with my permission. It is true that I do not watermark images and would never consider doing so. There are so many elements that go into making a compelling photograph that ruining it with an excessive or distracting watermark seems to undo the entire point of taking the photo to begin with. Measures such as right-click protecting images will only deter the lazy, as those with even limited technical savvy can download any image that is displayed in a web browser.
I do not sell my images or prints not because I’m against doing so in principle, but because I would currently rather spend my time on photography and travel. Sarah and I are writing a few location guide e-books that should be out by mid summer, but other than that I don’t have any immediate plans to sell my work or make money from my photography.
As for sharing images online, I do it all the time, mainly to tell stories of the places I’ve been and show people what I’m photographing. I’m not a big fan of the quid-pro-quo culture of many online photo-sharing or social media sites where the goal seems to be to solicit praise or get attention rather than engage in any meaningful dialog (some of which may be critical of the image being shared). I have met a lot of photographers online who have since become friends in real life, and that wouldn’t have been possible before, though I do wish there was less ego-stroking and more thoughtful discussion in general.
If you could sustain your lifestyle through photography sales and keep doing what you’re doing, would that change your perspective on image protection/pricing?
I don’t actually believe I can sustain my lifestyle through photography sales, as my lifestyle currently doesn’t involve spending any time marketing or selling photos. There may come a time when I believe that spending a little time on marketing and selling, or conducting photo workshops, would be worth the larger payoff of being able to do photography full time (which would be a different but possibly acceptable lifestyle), but right now I’m enjoying the flexibility and freedom of being able to photograph whatever I want, whenever I want.
After completely submerging yourself in photography, are you ‘photo-ed out’ or are you still passionate? Are you planning on going back to work?
I am definitely still passionate but my priorities have shifted since I began. I no longer feel any pressure to come away from an outing or a trip with something to show for it or feel like I’m missing out on photo or travel opportunities. I am more able to take risks and be comfortable if they don’t pan out because I still have a gigantic and overwhelming backlog of photos I’ve barely even looked at. I’m much more interested in coming away with a unique or personal take than nailing an icon shot at peak conditions (though I still photograph icons occasionally because they’re iconic for a reason – they’re inspiring beautiful places). While I am not where I want to be as a photographer (and probably never will be, and this is good!) I believe I am finally on the right path and have a vision about what I want to accomplish with my photography.
I will be going back to work before the end of the year, and plan to use that time away from extensive traveling to process more photos and possibly dust the cobwebs off of my blog or at the very least create some new cobwebs.
How far in advance do you plan your travels? Do you plan for major meteorological or astronomical events?
For domestic trips, we usually plan a few weeks in advance (though a trip to the Colorado Plateau can just as easily become a trip to Death Valley if the conditions aren’t good). For international trips usually a month or more in advance. The only trip we planned for meteorological events was a March trip to Iceland in order to see the aurora (which we were able to witness several times and it is an amazing spectacle that deserves to be seen in person) Once we are on a trip, we go wherever we feel like going. There are so many random variables that one cannot plan for (weather, clouds, foliage, general conditions) so I feel it is better to be flexible and react to what’s there rather than follow a strict itinerary.
You’ve got a dedicated group of friends in your social circles, but what’s your philosophy about shooting or traveling in groups?
I am lucky that I found a partner in Sarah who is equally passionate about photography and likes to photograph the same subject matter as I do. Photographing together enhances our individual experiences and there is almost zero conflict or friction (and though we are often at the same location our photos are always quite a bit different). Once you start photographing with more than three people I personally believe that you are compromising on photography in favor of being social (which is fine, if that’s what you are trying to do). Some areas and locations are just not conducive to small groups let alone large ones (and large photo workshops in these areas are annoying and in my opinion irresponsible). The idea of a “photo walk” is absurd to me. It’s a social outing; it has nothing to do with photography. So I prefer to photograph with Sarah and occasionally with one or two more people, but beyond that it’s too crowded. Photography to me is personal, not social.
What countries/areas are next on your hit list?
For foreign locations, Norway, Scotland, New Zealand, and Patagonia are near the top, but I’m just as happy in re-visiting old locations with a new eye or with different conditions or seasons. One could spend their entire lifetime in, say, Death Valley, and still only scratch the surface of what’s there. I’m not really in favor of hitting the landscape photography destination circuit like I was a few years ago. There’s plenty to photograph almost everywhere.
If you’ve enjoyed this guest post, don’t forget about the other posts in our Photography Perspectives series! We love hearing from photographers from all walks of life, and hope you do, too.
Streams of light illuminating motes of hoof-churned dust. Storm clouds swirling over the Serengeti. As photographers, don’t we all dream about that? Please welcome guest blogger Andy Biggs, founder of Gura Gear, African Safari leader extraordinaire, and SmugMug Pro. Gura Gear’s Kiboko backpack was inspired by Andy schlepping his gear thousands of hard miles trekking to the ends of the Earth. In it you’ll discover oodles of thoughtfully designed, photography-smart details to carry your cargo. Check it out here, and keep reading to find out how you can win your own to keep your gear safe on your next adventure.
Making The Most Out Of The Light
By Andy Biggs
When we think of dramatic photographs we often think of brilliant sunsets, saturated colors and a sun that hugs the horizon. Emotionally speaking I think many photographers are looking for those kinds of in-your-face lighting situations. Well, I have to say that much of the time we as nature photographers have to deal with lighting situations that are less than ideal. Ok, most of the time lighting is sub-par, or at least not what we are expecting. Here are some ideas on how to think about your photography in a different way, and how to come home with photographs that still stir the soul.
Let’s be honest. How many times have you gone outside with the intention of going to your favorite location, wait for a long while for sunset and then realize that the light didn’t meet your expectations? This happens to me when I am out on safari on a daily basis. It is something that I just have to deal with. What to do? The best approach is to accentuate the good things and try to eliminate the negative things.
Skip the Sky
Case in point. When the sky is overcast, grey or just not exciting, don’t include it in your photograph. As a wildlife photographer, that means that I might point my lens down more to include more of my subject and less of the sky. I also will use a longer lens that will include less of the environment. The photograph is more about the main subject than anything else, so I will go for a tighter shot than I would normally want.
As a general note, when I compose a scene I like to think of the potential photograph as a game: I attribute a plus, neutral or minus to various elements in a scene. My goal is to eliminate the minuses and accentuate the positives. The neutrals are just there because they have to be there. I use my shooting position, focal length and shooting angle as my variables to get all of the best pluses into the scene and to leave all of the negatives out.
Because the sky is overcast, this means that the light that is falling on my subject is soft. Think of the light as if it is coming from the largest soft box on earth. There is a rule of thumb with lighting: the larger the light source, the softer the light. Well, a cloudy day will yield a very pleasing and flattering light, which will help accentuate colors.
Exploit Texture and Motion
Another approach that I use is to blow out the sky and turn my image into a black and white photograph. When a sky is mostly grey and has no definition in the clouds, it is very easy to overexpose and blow the skies out. This doesn’t always work for color photographs, but it is a great technique for B&W images. You end up with a high-key lighting situation, and it makes it easy to draw attention to what matters most: your subject.
I find that marginal lighting allows me to get creative with shots that have a very low success rate. When the sun has gone away for the day, or when it goes behind a cloud, I seek out pockets of soft light that work for blurred panning shots. I slow my shutter speed down and experiment with about any subject that can be found.
Midday light can also be challenging, because the light that is directly overhead can create harsh shadows that have a distinct clue color cast to them. Rather than compete with the light, I find that by avoiding the direct light I can get some decent images. One type of example would be a leopard who is in a tree. I can end up with soft light on my subject’s face and body, due to the shade of a tree, and still get an image that I am happy with.
Spend your time thinking about how you are going to use marginal light to your benefit, as opposed to letting it take control over you. Photography literally means ‘writing with light’, and you will never be able to photograph without light. Use the lighting situation to your advantage and you will find yourself coming home with images that you are happy with, even though you had not though of those types of images before.
Remember to use what you have, and use it wisely. Be flexible with how you approach your photography, and don’t go out looking for only one kind of shot, because the light may not be what you want it to be.
Enter to Win a Kiboko 30L Bag Loaded with Photo Goodies
(This giveaway is now closed. Keep reading to see which lucky folks won big.)
The Kiboko 30L is a magnificent bag, designed by photographers for photographers. It’s lightweight (only 4 lbs), durable, and features a butterfly opening, allowing for unique customizable configurations for long lenses and multiple SLR bodies. The newest incarnation features a removable waist belt and fewer zippers for snag-free travel. In fact, SmugMug’s very own In House Pro, Andy Williams, swears by it. What more could you possibly want?
Here’s how to get yours:
- Step one. Visit our sweepstakes page on Facebook.
- Step two. ‘Like’ the page.
- Step three. Answer the questions on the page.
That’s it! We’ll announce the winners on April 30, so stay tuned and come back.
Here’s the juicy prize list:
- Grand Prize: 1 Kiboko 30L backpack ($429.00 value); 2 free years of SmugMug Pro ($300 value); 1 Monocular ($349.99 value); 1 Really Right Stuff TVC-24 Versa Tripod ($910.00 value), 1 Really Right Stuff BH-55 ($375 value)
- 1st Runner Ups: 1 free year of SmugMug Pro and $75 Gift Certificate to Gura Gear
- 2nd Runner Up: 1 free year of SmugMug Pro and $50 Gift Certificate to Gura Gear
Thanks to everyone who entered our Gura Gear giveaway. We shuffled, tossed, and mixed up all the entries and randomly picked the following winners:
Grand Prize Winner: Randy Ellen
1st Runner Up: Shawn Kinney
2nd Runner Up: Osman Ullah
Just cuz’ we love ya, we also randomly picked 20 people to win Smuggy T-shirts. The lucky folks are: Radu Margarint, Kevin Whitehead, Larry Johnston, Kristine Philipp, Lamar Smith, Ken Holmes, Chris Holtmeier, Janet Wheeland, George Rodriguuz, Christine Ruffo, Kris Dome, Kathy Brundage, Zach Blackwood, Brittany Ann Spriggs, Wendy Peterson, Jamie Raddatz, Peter Williams, Joe Sterne, Joseph Orchard, and Jim Sylvain. Congratulations everyone! We’ll get in touch with you by email this week.
If you didn’t win this time, take heart. We have many more giveaways coming up for all Smuggers.
Have Bag, Will Travel
HDR Master, Travel Photography celeb and SmugMug Pro Trey Ratcliff kicks the year off right: With calendars!
Check out his exclusive, all-new photo beauty here. Twelve famous photos are printed on high-quality, thick glossy paper and saddled stitched for durability. It’s the perfect way to stay inspired and plan your own around-the-world adventure.
Win Yours on Facebook
He’s sharing the love with fellow Smuggers and offering 10 copies of this lucious wallhanger to 10 lucky fans.
1. Like our Facebook Page HERE.
2. Share this blog link or contest FB post with your friends.
3. Post one of your best Travel photos and tell us the story behind the shot. You can post your photo on our FB Wall or in the comments below.
We’ll pick 10 winners on Thursday, January 19, to win a calendar, PLUS free Smuggy swag for themselves and a friend. That means you AND a friend have a chance to win, so spread the word and share the love :)
Huge thanks to everyone who entered this contest. We loved seeing all of your photos and hearing your stories. Here are the randomly-selected winners, in no particular order. They will each win a 2012 Stuck In Customs calendar, PLUS cool Smuggy swag for themselves and a friend.
–Jonathan Wilson of JawSnap
–Knapp Hudson of Stone Coast Photography
–Bernardo Franco of Framing Colours
Congrats everyone! Katherine from our team will get in touch with you in the next few days with info on how to collect your prize.
Rick Sammon‘s a big name in the photo biz and his reputation is well-deserved. He’s always out shooting, teaching and sharing his expertise (and his RICKSMUG20 SmugMug discount code) with photographers everywhere. After all, it’s his love for life that makes him so appealing to pin down and chat with… if you can catch him.
But we know where he’ll be on June 18th, and you can be there, too. No charge. No fee. Autographs optional.
2011 Times Square Shootout: Where and When
Shoot with Rick in one of the most iconic and photo-rich places in the world: Times Square! So clear your cards, pack your bags and show up in Duffy Square in Times Square at 5 PM, June 18th. He’ll kick it off with a big group photo. From there, anything goes.
We’re green with envy as we type because it’s such a great opportunity and it’s totally free. If you’re in New York and can go… GO! But if you can’t make it, that’s OK. The happy clan will pop their photos into this pool on SmugMug by June 22nd so the rest of us can see what we missed.
For the information about the event, check out Rick’s blog post here.
Build Buzz and Win Stuff
To get you charged, we’re giving away goodies to a few lucky folks. There are two ways to win:
Option 1) Join the shooting session. One Rick-picked winner gets a free year of SmugMug Pro AND a gorgeous MetalPrint of one of their Times Square shots. A perfect way to remember your incredible day in the city. We’ll announce Rick’s pick for the grand prize on
June 27th June 23.
Option 2) Spread the word. Follow @smugmug and @ricksammon and then tweet this to get your name entered:
Join @RickSammon and @SmugMug ‘s Times Square Shooting Session for fun and prizes, 6/18. Please RT. Info here: http://smu.gs/lMe1lG
On June 20th we’ll randomly pick some winners from a hat and send them a care package of SmugSwag, PLUS a free year of SmugMug Pro (Value: $150, not including bragging rights).
RECAP OF DATES
June 18 at 5pm: Meet Rick in Times Square. Commence major shooting session.
June 20: We’ll announce the winners of Rick’s Twitter contest (option 2).
June 22: Deadline for uploading Times Square shots to Rick’s gallery.
June 27 June 23: We’ll announce the winner of the shooting session (option 1).
Happy shooting… and don’t forget to bring cab fare. ;)
We drew a few names out of a hat and picked a handful of photographers to win a care package of SmugMug Swag, plus a free year of SmugMug Pro (Option 2). Congrats to @nicole627, @meggiemagoo, @DatsPhoto, and @OffsideElement! Please email katherine [at] smugmug [dot] com for more info on how to collect your prizes.
Rick got so excited about all your amazing photographs, he went ahead and picked his favorite early. Drum roll please…
The big winner of the Times Square Shooting Session, handpicked by Rick himself, is Margie Strange, for this shot:
As the genius behind Rick’s favorite shot from the day, Margie will win a gorgeous Metal Print of her shot, plus a free year of SmugMug Pro. Congrats Margie!! To collect your prize, please email Rick.
Read Rick’s recap of the whole day, plus see some of his other favorite shots here.
Thanks everyone for getting together for such a fun day!