So I finished out my senior year and graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BS in aerospace engineering, hoooo nerd points! I spent the next 7 months being the least interesting person alive as I worked and worked, saved and saved, and did absolutely nothing that would cost me money, except buy a one way plane ticket to New Zealand. Then on January 1st, 2004 I hopped on a plane to NZ and spent the next 19 months traveling solo through 20+ countries, learning how to say hello and thank you in 10+ languages, and eating as much street food as I possibly could.
Along the way I had some of the most intense and formative experiences of my life. My values changed and the way I wanted to live my life began to shift. I gained perspective on my American lifestyle and developed a community of international friends. The very person I thought I was began to transform. But when I tried to express this to my friends and family back home I found I was incapable. My storytelling skills were garbage and my photos never did justice to the scene I was trying to portray. Frustrated by this inability to truly share these important moments I started to wonder how I could better portray my experiences so that my audience would feel some of what I was feeling. At the time I had a strong aversion to writing (little did I realize how much I’d come to enjoy it), and so I began to think more critically about my photographs. Not too critically though; after all, there was street food to eat. But that’s how the seed was planted.
Fast forward to mid-2005 and I was completely out of money and headed back home to California. I decided that my previous self was dumb and that maybe science and math weren’t so bad after all. So I went and got myself a job designing communication satellites for Boeing. It was a great job, a great company, and one of the best things about it was the amount of time they’d let me take off work. (In fact, I might still be on an extended vacation; I should probably check on that.) Every year I’d take off between four and five weeks and go somewhere big.
The very first year I went to Alaska, and right before the trip I bought myself a little present: a Nikon D50 digital SLR. The seed of photography had begun to sprout and I was keen to see it grow. So off to Alaska I went with a big camera and even bigger dreams of the amazing photos I’d take with it. Problem was I had absolutely no idea how to use it. I’d twiddle the knobs one way and press the button. Twiddle them the other way and press it again. Composition? What the heck does that even mean? I don’t know, but there’s a moose so let me point my camera at it. Nat Geo, here I come.
But once I got home the truth of the matter came to light. I looked at the photos on my computer monitor and discovered with a sick, sinking feeling that they all SUCKED, with a capital UCKED. But this was an important moment, because it signified a shift in my thinking when photography transitioned from simply something fun to do while traveling, to a Problem To Be Solved. This is what engineers are trained to do: solve problems. And my photos not living up to my expectations? Well, now that was a big problem.
So I dove into the world of nature photography with both feet (is it still a dive if you go in feet first?). I devoured articles on not only what aperture is but why you would bother to choose one f-stop over another. I read about the emotional as well as technical implications of different shutter speeds. I learned how to spot meter, shoot in raw, and even the most important thing of all: how to remove the lens cap. I also found photographers I admired and studied their works, analyzing composition and lighting. How they placed the elements of their photos, what times of day and in what conditions were they shooting, what worked about their photos, and what didn’t.
And you know what happened? My photos started getting better, a lot better. Which made seeking out and taking pictures a heckuva lot more fun and satisfying. It soon became my all-encompassing hobby. And many many days after work (and weekends) were spent out crashing around Southern California looking for the best spots to take the best photos I could.
After about two years of this a few chance encounters led to me earning my first few dollars as a photographer. This was early 2008. First, I made some prints of my best shots to date and took them down to a local painter whose work I admired. I simply wanted some feedback from a professional visual artist, to see if he could offer advice about composition or treatment. To my surprise he thought the shots were good enough that he suggested I enter the Hermosa Beach Art Walk (or maybe as chair of the Art Walk he just wanted my $75 entry fee, hmmm….). He even gave me suggestions of how to create a booth and framed pieces for the fair. So I entered and sold about $700 worth of prints in that one day show. I was absolutely floored!
Around the same time I had entered a photo competition in my home town and after the judging was complete I received two phone calls from the jurors. First they told me to come pick up two of the four pieces I entered which weren’t accepted. Then they hung up. Oh. The next day the jury called back and let me know I’d won first place in the contest. Ha! Fast forward a couple of months and during the awards ceremony I made a connection that led to me assisting on my very first photo workshop. Of course, by “assist” all I really did was make sure no one wandered off and got lost, but hey, I was still earning money (a tiny amount) by leading (shepherding) photographers on a photo workshop. This was the big leagues, man!
Meanwhile I continued to while away the days as an engineer. That is until the housing crisis struck the US economy and Boeing went about laying off thousands of workers. So with visions of all this new photography coin rattling around in my brain I started deliberately writing bad code into our software. And when satellites began blowing up left and right the company traced it back to me and laid me off…..Kidding! In reality I simply went to my bosses, told them I wanted a chance to try making it as a full time photographer, and off I went.
That was the second fateful -yet totally naive- decision of my photo career. I had no idea what it took to run a business, how to attract clients, create and maintain income streams, and constantly fight off the surges of self doubt and utter bewilderment that made me want to scurry back to the safe confines of my Boeing cubicle. And yet, running headlong into building a photo business gave me a crash course in Eking Out a Living 101. At the same time it was another Problem To Be Solved, though orders of magnitude bigger, tougher, and more complicated than simply learning how to use my camera.
I spent the next four years attending art festivals, assisting on workshops, working side jobs (even went back to engineering as a consultant for about half a year), racking up tons of credit card debt, collecting unemployment (thanks, Obama), and even co-founding a workshop company with Jim Patterson, a friend and fellow landscape photographer. And all the while I continued to build diverse income streams from teaching to print sales to licensing to photo contests to recording and selling video tutorials. And eventually, in 2012, I was able to earn 100% of my income from photo-related activities. Damn, did that feel good!
Things continued to grow in 2013, but 2014 was the year that my career changed wildly for the better. Out of the blue I received an email from Nikon asking me to help create sample photos for the international marketing efforts of the D750 camera. Floored, honored, and pumped, I spent nine days roaming around Yosemite and the Eastern Sierra with a prototype D750, taking photos that demonstrated the remarkable features of the camera. Those photos were published on Nikon’s website and in promotional materials around the world. That led to me speaking about the experience at Photo Plus Expo, the largest photo trade show in the US. Things have been on the up and up ever since.
And now here it is another four years later and my business has continued to thrive, allowing me to travel all over the world while photographing the most beautiful places on the planet. I feel immense gratitude for this path I’m on, and I want to turn around and help as many other people as I can. Whether that’s encouraging you to explore and enjoy the beauty of Planet Earth, sharing my photography with you, helping you improve your own photography, or even helping you turn photography into a business, that’s why I’m here.