It’s something that I hear almost every week. Working my booth at an art show or farmer’s market, it’s almost inevitable that at some point somebody will approach my work, glance over the assortment of photos I have from different locales, and mutter… “Geez, so all you do is drive around the country taking pictures? I want your job!”
First off, yes, I am extremely fortunate to get out and do what I do. I love it. I love photography and I love to travel. These are longstanding addictions, neither of which I have the will to break. As each year goes by I pour more and more of my life into this pursuit, and rambling around the country taking pictures is absolutely the ultimate goal.
But it’s not that simple.
Though implied and suspected by those who give my portfolio a twelve second passing glance, I don’t lead some idyllic carefree lifestyle that consists of driving from one roadside attraction to another, rolling the window down to snap a beautiful photo, then sighing in content as I move on to the next. (No nature photographer does.) In fact, this isn’t even my full-time job. Right now, my photography business is just something that I do on the side. It’s something that I’ve gradually built over the last four and a half years, with countless hours of hard work, plenty of uncertainty and lots of determination. For every evening I’ve gotten out to photograph a beautiful sunset, twenty more have been spent awake after midnight hand making greeting cards or matting prints. The majority of the sunrises I see are in my rearview mirror, driving to the farmer’s market or to set up for a show in the pre-dawn hours. All profits from sales are reinvested into the business, usually for purchasing supplies and upgrading gear. Success is measured simply by keeping afloat.
The vast majority of my photo excursions either take place around Iowa or on opportunistic side trips while traveling for other reasons, such as visiting family in other states. In fact, after nearly five years in this game I’ve just finally gotten to the point where my business can fund one photo specific trip a year; and even that means going for broke. There are a lot of risks involved in dipping deep (very deep) into the business account to bankroll a trip. A week of bad weather can seriously hinder photographic efforts. So can an unfortunately timed illness or mechanical failure. Dysfunctional elected officials could even throw hissy fits when they don’t get their way and deny access to our national parks. You just never know…
At the same time, there are absolute requirements that come with setting out on such an endeavor. You have to find ways to put yourself in a position for success. You have to understand the geology, accessibility and terrain of targeted locations. You have to know how lighting will dictate an intended shoot. You have to believe that the time and money you invest in travel will result in quality images that will enhance your portfolio and advance your sales. You have to be confident that once you get out there you’ll find a way to overcome obstacles and make things happen. You have to get the shots.
I recently returned from one such trip that really did have a lot on the line. Over a year ago I decided that the time had come to attend a photography workshop. To this point I have been mostly self-taught and I realized that the best way to improve my skill would be with some additional education and guidance. While there are many options out there, I also decided that I wanted to join a workshop lead by Gary Hart, a professional photographer whose work I have followed and admired for years. In addition to Gary’s beautiful photography he writes an exceptional blog that quickly convinced me of his qualifications, his ethics and his teaching ability. (www.eloquentimages.com) I have known all along that if I ever took a workshop, I wanted it to be with him.
Workshops are not cheap. Neither is travel from Iowa to California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada, where my chosen instruction would take place. I spent the better part of the last year skimping and saving, first to pay for my workshop tuition and then to come up with money for travel and upgrades to gear. As things developed I was faced with the option of flying or driving out west. Both would be similar in cost after factoring the expense of renting a car for my week in California, but driving would obviously require a considerably greater investment in time. Being on the road means being away from loved ones, and my wife Cris is eyeball deep in her PhD work, amidst a very stressful semester. If for nothing more than an occasional back rub and person to hear about her day, it’s hard on her when I’m not around.
On the other hand, driving would allow me the chance to see and photograph so much more. The biggest draw being an opportunity to spend some time in Colorado. It’s a place I’ve been to many times, but have always passed up since getting more serious about photography. It’s also a very popular vacation destination for people from Iowa, and a source of constant requests at my shows. A few extra days in Colorado would actually be a sound business decision if I could come up with some sellable images. Then again, let’s not kid ourselves; it was a personal decision as well. Do you seriously think I could pass up the chance to spend extra time in the Rockies?!! (My ever supportive wife also understood…)
What came of all of this was a 4,500 mile, two and a half week road trip from Iowa to California and back. I passed through six states, visited six national parks, and shot over four thousand images along the way. Starting tomorrow and continuing for the next couple of weeks I will be publishing daily accounts and photos from that journey. It’s my hope in doing so that I can further share my experiences and give a behind the scenes look at what it really means to be an aspiring nature photographer, out on the road.