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.
You can see more of Tom’s work at TomBolPhoto.com, and keep an eye out for upcoming Kelby Training Online adventure photography classes from Tom as well!
I think you said it best when you said ” 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.”
That is so true. Thank you for being a guest speaker and I will be watching your blog daily. You can check mine out as well if you ever have time. I am by no means as good as you but I do have ambition! http://blog.dancingpancakes.com
Tom, I echo what Jeremy says with regards to realizing non paying projects being equally as important. It was so encouraging to hear you say that because I know from my own experience there are times in my business when one month it seems I’m doing more ‘personal’ shooting than ‘paid’ shooting. This used to really bother me and sure there are the bills to pay, but you know what I’ve found is that just by keeping shooting, whether it be paid or not…the work does find you and the paid jobs turn up :)
Reading about the Snow Leopard I found myself wanting to race ahead (probably as you did at the time) to find out what it was you could hear; classic stuff! i can only imagine how you must have felt the following morning when you realised what it had been.
A great read Tom accompanied by some superb imagery!
Thanks for sharing,
Tom, I can’t wait to see the adventure training videos. Maybe Scott can kayak down the rapid and hold the lights! It looks like you are enjoying life doing what you love, I will watch your site for more action!
This post was truly an inspiration. Another artist I will follow closely in the future.
Finally, a replacement for Galen Rowell.
I’m sure Tom would echo those are very big shoes to fill but I agree with you.
A few things, first I am so glad there are photographers like you who climb mountains and hang off rock faces to take pictures, because I am more than happy to refer that work to you! I am not built for hanging off rock faces, my career would have ended on day one.
Second I liked your comments about growing as an artist, about the importance of shooting. In my business I am beginning a push in a new direction, so that means lots of cold calls, emails, letters, and door knocking. In order to remind myself I am a photographer first I am following an idea presented by a local artist named Stephen Poff. It is to shoot some image everyday for 365 days. He did unique self portraits (I don’t look as good) so I’m working on a different idea, but the concept of taking time everyday and shoot at least one image. To put the camera to your eye and train yourself to create an image despite how you feel, or if your getting paid or not paid. Just shoot everyday and push yourself to grow everyday.
There’s a lot of talk about how slow business is, and I know I’m fairly new but it seems to me its slow for those who say its slow. I think shooting your personal work is as vital to growing a business as shooting the next big commercial job, wedding, portrait, or whatever type of photography one may do.
Finally I agree with Ken, Scott should go out with you and create some Kelby Training videos. I think Scott can hang with you on those mountain sides.
Thanks for the excellent post! I have to agree that personal work is both refreshing and fulfilling in terms of personal creativity. It allows us to stay out of the creative ruts that we can sometimes find ourselves in. Thanks for sharing!
All the best,
Great story Tom. Loved the images and especially how you prevent your packs from falling in the water:) As we go back pretty far, I know your affinity for water.
Creating something new every day is good for the mind and the sole so thanks for urging us on.
And I too agree with Ken and Tim. I’d love to see a series of action/adventure training videos that show the rigors these photographers go through to give us those incredible images. Like Tim, although I’m no longer able to climb mountains or hike for days to get a shot, I appreciate and enjoy learning about the hurtles they must overcome to get the shot.
Thank you Tom and all the other sports action photographers in the field. We all appreciate you skills and talents.
Inspiring stuff! So glad you have fun on your adventures and are willing to share that with the rest of us. Have fun!
love your surfer shot, gnarly and tubular…
Great Blog. I had the pleasure of taking a class from Tom at Shooting the West in Winnemucca, Nv. It has changed the way I look at adding light to a subject. Photography of low adventure macro objects like minerals still require light and his tips have helped me get the product for my customer I was looking for. Tom loves photography and shares his knowledge and enthusiam for it. Thanks for your help in Winnemucca.
Great post, Tom. It’s energizing to read about adventure photography. I’m a recently retired school teacher who also shoots photography professionally to pay for his toys. I spend my summers in the rockies hiking and shooting wildlife. Your experience with the big cat would certainly create some vivid images (in one’s mind)! I look forward to learning from you by reading your blog daily and watching your photography. In July I will be climbing Long’s Peak in CO (a 14er) for the fourth time. I’m dragging my DSLR up that hill with me in hopes of getting some great images. Your post here and your blog are definitely motivating for me in this adventure.
Thanks to you also Mr Kelby for providing such a rich and diverse source of photographic information!
Great photos !!
Tom, I lived in Fairbanks for 10 years and want to return one day, maybe to make one of your workshops!!
Love the Kayak shot! Beautiful.
I was a student at one of Tom’s workshops in Miami last summer. It was one of the best workshop experiences I’ve ever had! It was the ONLY workshop I’ve ever attended where the instructor did not shoot one picture, but instead insisted on making himself available for each and every student in the class. He is simply an amazing instructor on how to use light to better your photography. The man has boundless energy and a truly infectious enthusiasm for lighting and photography. Keep up the great work Tom!
That would be one of my favorites guest posts here. Seriously a great job that pursuing adventure sports and living a profession in it.
Fantastic imagery on your website
All the guest blogs are good but this was one of the best I have read. Thanks