It’s Guest Blog Wednesday featuring Tom Bol!
It’s an honor to be included as a guest blogger for Scott Kelby! Since there is no higher blogging status, I thought long and hard about what to include here. I decided on some background, some humor and hopefully some inspiration.
I’m an editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. My photo career began as a journalism major in school, but took a turn towards the wild side…literally. My passion was and still is adventure sports. After school I set off to travel the globe climbing mountains and kayaking rivers, spending years guiding in the backcountry. I traveled with camera in hand, documenting expeditions and attempting to capture the mood, atmosphere and drama that was taking place around me. My guiding skills put me in spectacular locations for shooting, my photography skills progressed to help me capture the moment.
But some moments I couldn’t capture. I took part in an Indo-American expedition to climb Nanda Devi, a 25,000 foot peak in the Indian Himalayas. We established one camp on a narrow ridge around 20,000’. I knew this location would make a great shot of our tents perched on the icy ridge with the summit in the distance. We had a full moon, so I went out at night along the ridge to photograph our tents illuminated by headlamps. As I set up in the dark, I kept hearing noises right behind me. I was sure it was the wind….until I heard the heavy breathing. Now this might sound like an abominable snowman encounter, and at the time I was sure it was. I looked over my shoulder and saw something big moving in the shadows, coming right towards me.
That moment was almost the end of my photo career and me as I practically fell off the ridge running back to my tent. Running at 20,000’ on an icy ridge is like breathing through a straw while jogging on a balance beam at sea level; you almost pass out and fall off due to lack of oxygen. The next morning we discovered the identity of the mystery creature. A snow leopard had been in camp, walking right over my shooting spot from the night before. I don’t have a single image from that night. But I remember it like it was yesterday. That is one reason I love photography. It is a catalyst for producing experiences I otherwise would never have.
I think many adventure sports photographers juggle the balance between wanting to climb/kayak and the desire to create images of these activities. When I first started shooting, climbing outweighed photography. Now the opposite is true. I will always like to climb and paddle, but my desire to create images of these activities dominates my choices. Everyone who shoots feels this drive at some level. You just don’t feel satisfied until you have camera in hand creating new work. It is more important to share these experiences with others than participate in them. This creative process is as important to me as the outcome. Constant shooting develops the nuances of my creativity and technical skills.
When I teach workshops I am often asked what is the most important thing to do in developing your skills as a photographer. My answer is stay true to your vision and continually shoot. We all need work to survive financially, but shooting on your own time, especially personal projects, is good for the soul and your creativity. Your technical skills will be more tangible to track, but your creative style takes time to develop and is harder to evaluate. You may not know it at the time, but personal projects define your style and vision down the road. It is easy to talk about your next project and what you are going to shoot, but you don’t progress if you don’t shoot. I’ve come to realize non-paying personal projects are equally as important as paying jobs. I need them both to survive and grow as a photographer.
This concept has lead me to where I am today. I’m obsessed with exploring light, especially applying strobe in outdoor sports. I think waiting out so many storms and cloudy skies through the years got me thinking there must be another way. I love experimenting with different lighting styles to add impact to my images. The more I learn about lighting, the more I realize I don’t know. The subtitles of lighting are endless.
Using 4000 watts of power near raging rivers can present some interesting technical and safety issues. I have kayaker friends who will gladly paddle off huge waterfalls without hesitation, but when I ask them to pose with lots of wattage near the water they get nervous. Maybe they know something I don’t? So far I have only had one flash head float down a river. I was able to grab the light before it pulled the pack into the river. We often put our flash packs in waterproof dry bags used by rafters. This protects packs from quick dips in the river.
My goal with lighting in adventure sports is to add more drama and adrenaline to the sport being captured. Sometimes all that is needed is a pop from a beauty dish to add a little snap to the shot. Other times multiple edgy light sources are used for impact. Lighting ratios go from near fill flash to minus two or more for the ambient light. Often the hardest part is getting lights in place across a river or up on a rock wall. And not breaking any gear.
Photography has allowed me to pursue my dreams, meet new people, experience new cultures and learn a lot along the way. I’m not sure where this career will take me, but I’m along for the ride. I just hope there aren’t anymore leopards in the path.