This article first appeared in print in the December 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
The images are crisp. The story they tell is intriguing. And the emotions they stir motivate us to explore a little deeper. It’s every outdoor photographer’s ambition to engage the viewer this deeply. But the sun doesn’t always shine for the pros and the glossy façade of professional photography can mask the hard work and the hardships required to achieve such a lofty goal. So, this month we sit down with four shooters, ranging in experience from a new kid on the block to a seasoned veteran, to expose the realities of a career making images.
Revelstoke Mountaineer: People used to say ten years or 10,000 images is the path into professional photography. Has this been true for you?
Steve Shannon: I received my first camera as a graduation gift 15 years ago, started selling images around 11 years ago, and started my full-time business eight years ago.
Laura Szanto: I still have a long road ahead of me. But that’s something I find appealing about this career, because it’s a never-ending process of improvement and evolution.
Ryan Creary: I bought my first camera after university and I’d spend all my money on slide film learning the art of perfectly exposing 35mm film, hoping my exposures were bang on. Getting to see your images a week or two after you took them was a wildly different experience than it is today with the instant gratification of digital photography.
Bruno Long: I would think that someone with a good eye, the right motivation, and a career plan could become a full-time photographer in five years or less.
RM: Was there a specific moment when you made the commitment to pursue this full time?
Bruno: In 2013 I had been having a fair amount of success with images being published in magazines so I figured I should commit to the craft and see where the path leads. About a month after making that decision, I scored the cover of Powder Magazine.
Laura: A pivotal moment for me was when I was accepted at the Banff Centre for a photography internship. I became more confident, learned some essential skills and realized I needed to invest in professional gear to be taken seriously.
Ryan: It was in 2002. I had put together my very first submission of about 25 to 50 slides and mailed them to Powder Magazine. To this day, I can remember getting the phone call from David Reddick telling me my very first photo to be published in Powder was going to be used as a cover. That phone call was the catalyst I needed to commit to photography full time.
RM: Is it better to have good technical skills or good luck?
Steve: You need to have the technical skills to capture the scene, and for most of those beautiful images, I’ll just say that good luck looks an awful lot like hard work.
Bruno: A good grasp of technical skills will go a long way, but I think that hard work, dedication, being an easy person to work with, and a good eye can make up for lacking in technical skills. I believe more in creating your own luck.
Ryan: The only course I ever failed was my university photography course. After the professor began asking us to bring a calculator to class I stopped going. So that right there tells you how I approach photography — for me it’s all feeling and passion. My least favourite thing is buying new camera gear.
RM: How big a role does image processing play?
Steve: I try to get it right in the camera, so the raw file I have is exactly what I need to create the image I see in my head. Generally I do very little processing.
Ryan: Editing and processing is huge part of photography and the creative process now. Processing is like the finishing work — it’s what really makes an image shine or come to life. I definitely spend more time than I need to on that part but that’s the only way I know.
RM: How do you differentiate your work in a digital world where images are shared so easily?
Laura: I think it’s really important to shoot your interests. Your passion for the sport, or whatever you really enjoy shooting, will drive your creativity and innovation for coming up with new material.
Ryan: You need to shoot what you are passionate about. Caring less about trends and shooting from the heart is where one will always create their strongest work.
Bruno: Differentiating yourself from others is more about having a very unique style and sticking to that. Repetition and driving home that you can create something consistently will help you draw in specific clients who are looking for that style.
RM: Is commercial work just mechanical or can you find inspiration in it?
Bruno: There are times where work becomes a bit mechanical, especially when shooting events. Things move so quickly during events that you need to be able to create something useable in almost any situation or lighting. With that being said, there are always moments of inspiration.
Ryan: I’ve been lucky — the majority of my commercial and editorial work has been very much aligned with my values and what I’m excited to shoot. However, the times when the weather is working against you and you need sun instead of rain or vice versa, are always challenging and force you to dig deeper to find workable images.
Steve: Every shoot, whether super exciting or not, always inspires or challenges my creativity. Yes, this is a job, but I always try to learn more about my craft.
RM: Can you make a good living at this?
Steve: As far as exact numbers go, it’s all over the map and depends a lot on how hard you work. I have some months that are crazy busy and very profitable, but sometimes there are slumps with very little income for a few months. What most people fail to realize is that taking photographs is the easy part. Being a professional generally means running your own business these days, and that can be challenging!
Bruno: One of the smartest things I’ve heard recently was in an online photography class. The instructor talked about how some people have told him they never work for free. He disagreed with that sentiment, saying, “Of course you can work for free. I can gift my photography to anyone at any time. But I don’t work for cheap. Make sure you get a fair price when you are actually getting paid for your work.” I found that to be a very insightful perspective and something that a lot of people starting out should understand. Know what you are worth.
RM: If you had to change careers, what would you do next?
Ryan: I studied Outdoor Recreation, Parks & Tourism from Lakehead University, so before I discovered photography my plan was to pursue the guiding side of things.
Bruno: I sometimes dream of a classic, nine-to-five, Monday to Friday job. I’m not sure what it would be, but the stability and security of a steady paycheque can be quite tempting when you aren’t sure where your next job is coming from or you are hustling hard to sell an image or convince a client to hire you.
Laura: I would love to be in a band. I was a huge band geek in high school and I loved playing a variety of instruments. I’m no Tash Sultana, but who doesn’t like to make people dance and have a good time.