Sean Bagshaw is a professional photographer who specializes in landscape and nature photography. He is not only a photographer, but he also writes and teaches his craft. His work has appeared in many publications including Outdoor Photographer, Digital Photographer, Outside, Backpacker, National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian.
The focus of Sean’s business is his fine art prints and stock sales. He has won many awards for his imagery, had multiple print exhibitions, and his work sits in a variety of corporate and private collections.
Sean lives in Southern Oregon where he enjoys wide recognition as the regions premier landscape photographers. I recently asked Sean if he would tell us about his photography, business, and passion for the outdoors.
Tell us about your background in photography and why you chose it as a profession.
I never anticipated entering photography as a career. I became interested in photography during 80s and 90s when I was doing a lot of climbing and mountaineering. I would volunteer to be the team photographer. I didn’t mind carrying the extra gear, I liked documenting the adventures and I particularly enjoyed giving public slide shows and sharing our experiences with an audience. From there I became very interested in learning more about the technical aspects of photography and also understanding what elements make for an artistically meaningful and successful image. In the early 2000s I began exploring the idea of photography as a career and eventually decided to leave my career as a science teacher and do photography full time. I was naive and didn’t understand just how challenging it would be. Knowing what the odds of success are I might not have given it a go but I seem to be making it work somehow.
You live in Southern Oregon and I am an Oregonian as well. What is your favorite part of the state to shoot?
You and I are very fortunate to live in such a naturally diverse, beautiful and largely undiscovered state. It is really hard for me to select just one area of Oregon as my favorite for photography. The rugged coast line, the Cascade Range and Columbia Gorge waterfalls, volcanic peaks, remote desert canyons and amazing old growth forests; I can’t pick a favorite. The Columbia River region seems to have the greatest density of quality outdoor photography opportunities with the Gorge, Mt. Hood, forests, streams, waterfalls, lakes, orchards, wildflowers and grasslands all within about a 60 mile radius. For shear solitude and adventure I like the high Cascade wilderness areas and the remote canyons of the northeast and southeast.
Some photographers are regional and known for specializing in the area close to home while others travel widely. What about you? Do you photograph throughout the American west or stick closer to the home base?
I try to cover both fronts. There aren’t too many photographers photographing the southern Oregon region and the images don’t come as easily here as in other areas. I feel I have done a pretty good job of becoming well known locally and my images do well in the region. While more competitive from a business perspective, I really enjoy exploring the western US and also traveling abroad when I can. It is challenging to produce work in an area during a relatively short visit that is on par with the local photographers who know the land and weather more intimately. In addition, the market is flooded with images from the most popular destination landscapes these days. Travel and exploration is a big part of my motivation so I will continue to photograph anywhere I find a landscape that intrigues me. It isn’t easy, but over time I have been able to make some inroads with publishers and buyers for the images I take outside of Oregon.
You know how challenging this business is. Is there any moment you feel got you over the top or defined your career and success?
I haven’t really had one moment or event that was definitive in making or breaking my career, but I wouldn’t complain if such an event were to take place. With almost everything I do in life I tend to be steady, maintain focus, work hard and try to produce the highest quality work I can. This sort of consistency, reliability and quality builds and leads to new opportunities. Being featured in publications like Outdoor Photographer and Digital Photographer magazines and having winning images in competitions such as the Windland Smith Rice Awards or the International Conservation Photography Awards are wonderful honors and they certainly help with name recognition and credibility, but in my experience they alone don’t make a career in photography. It is the day to day work of getting out there, striving to be really good, creating new images and making sure that those images are seen by and available to a wide audience that has built my business. I know guys who have been in the right place at the right time, such as being on site when an Icelandic volcano erupts or being one of the first to utilize a new technology. I have seen their images go viral and have their businesses explode overnight. Such opportunities are rare and nearly impossible to predict so I prefer to focus on my formula of hard work, excellent quality and developing my own creative vision and style.
What about a magic moment? Is there any event that happened while out shooting the resulted in a top selling image, or a narrow escape, or something you will never forget.
It seems like those moments are happening, or almost happening, all the time and when you least expect them. It is the unexpected magical moment that makes outdoor photography so engaging and fulfilling. I’ve had close calls with lightning, bears, waves, snow, political uprisings, you name it. Photographing a lunar eclipse over Mt. Shasta was a spur of the moment decision that turned out to be a photographic opportunity I bet I won’t get again in my lifetime. It was a fun experiment from which I ended up producing an image that hung in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for a while. One of my best selling images, Red Willow Sea, was also a happy accident. I was on my way to Steens Mountain in late winter. I rounded a bend in the road east of Klamath Falls just after sunrise and was astonished to see an amazing display of brilliant red brush, white aspen trunks, ground fog and beautiful light. I pulled into the ditch and stood on the side of the road frantically trying to capture it. The image I made is one of my best selling fine art prints and has also been licensed and published multiple times in calendars, magazines and Sierra Club greeting cards. The next three days I spent at Steens mountain didn’t produce anything nearly as good. I went back a couple years later to photograph the location again and found that heavy snow had flattened the brush and winds had knocked over several of the trees.
Do you have an all time favorite image you have shot? Please tell us why this image is it.
Almost every trip I go on I come away with an image that is my new all time favorite, and that lasts until I go on the next trip. I guess it is natural to be excited about whatever work you have been doing most recently. In terms of an image that stands out as being the most successful both financially and creatively it would be my image called Double Falls taken in Glacier National Park. While the falls in the image isn’t particularly remote, it is challenging to photograph because it isn’t on a trail or marked on any maps and it is in an area of the park that is closed for much of the year to protect the fragile ecosystem. The day I photographed it I wasn’t even sure exactly where it was and was hiking in the dark through grizzly country to get there by sunrise. The elements of light, color, composition, drama and perspective all came together and it is still one of my favorite images many years later. It has also been one of my best selling prints and has been published multiple times, including in a national tourism ad campaign by the state of Montana.
Do you do assignments as well, and if so, what type of assignments do you do?
As hard as it is to pass up paying work I find that I am taking on fewer assignments as time goes on. I know many photographers who really enjoy the challenge of meeting deadlines and figuring out how to orchestrate a successful shoot that meets the client’s specs and budget. I have learned that I do my best work when I can move at my own pace, follow the light and seasons and photograph whatever subject matter is speaking to me in any given moment. My best images are the result of research, patience, perseverance and many failures before finding success…that or pure and simple luck. Assignments rarely allow for either type of situation to play out reliably. It is very frustrating for me to try to create images that meet my expectations when there are constraints on what I’m supposed to photograph, when I have to photograph it, how long I have to get the job done and how much it can cost.
Some landscape photographers have realized that licensing stock images and being published in calendars and editorial publications is no longer a solid or complete business model based on today’s markets. Do you feel the same way? I see you have other products like your Photoshop training programs. Please share your thoughts here.
As a professional I think I just missed what seemed to be the golden era of stock image licensing and image publishing. I have heard the mythical tales of a time when a good photographer could be out in the field all the time, sending his slides to his agencies and watching the money roll in. I never experienced being able to focus on such a narrow revenue stream as a business model and have been diversifying my income sources pretty much since I started. As I have developed a small degree of notoriety and established myself as someone with valuable experience and knowledge to share I have been able to include teaching, speaking and guiding as a growing area of my business. Digital photography is much more accessible to the general public than film ever was. There are a lot of people who now own the same camera equipment I use and want to learn how to use it and where to go to get to great landscape and nature photography locations. The experience I bring from my first career as a science teacher is very helpful in this area. About four or five years ago I started getting requests to do guiding and teach camera and image developing techniques. I now lead or co-lead several field workshops a year, do a fair amount of private guiding and instruction and also speak from time to time at conferences, photography centers and camera clubs. I first developed my video tutorials as a learning supplement to my Photoshop classes. I had enough requests for the videos from people who were too far away to attend a class that I started selling them on their own and they have become very popular. I have several more in the planning stages right now.
Marketing and self promotion is critical to any business and especially photographers. Today, everybody is doing it differently from printed promotions to social media and you are a member of Photo Cascadia. What are your thoughts here as far as finding and promoting to your market and how does Photo Cascadia play into that?
I have abandoned many traditional methods of marketing, such as printed ads and mailers, while others, such as networking, word of mouth, meeting people face to face and collaborating with colleagues, may be more important than ever. While I’m not as organized about it as I should be, I have a loose three pronged marketing approach to getting my name and work out there. First is being visible in public. I try to have a couple of gallery showings of my work each year and I go to show openings, photography gatherings and do public speaking. Being written up in newspapers, magazines and blogs also helps to promote my work. Second, I’m always looking to make contact with industry photo buyers from photo editors and publishers to art directors and art consultants. I ask to be added to call lists and I send in submissions of new work and article ideas. Third is having a web and social media presence. This is now the area where there is the most potential for wide reach and a large audience, but it has also become saturated with photographers all vying to be noticed. It is low cost marketing, but requires a lot of time and effort. I now manage two websites, contribute to three blogs and maintain a presence on a long list of social media sites and photography forums. I’m not a natural salesman. Through the web and social media I like that I post my work and adventures regularly and people can choose to follow it if they find it worthy. I find that the web attracts clients and customers from all over the world and in all aspects of my business, from private and commercial buyers to publishers and editors. Almost all of the people who attend my classes, workshops and private instruction find out about it via the web and social media. Photo Cascadia, the group of northwest photographers I’m a member of, has been a fun project that also helps expand our reach as professional photographers. We have purposely kept it as an informal collaboration amongst friends with a shared photography interest. The primary goals of Photo Cascadia are to share our images and our knowledge and passion for outdoor photography with the photography community. We also want to have fun together and inspire each other. As a group we can be greater than the sum of our parts in many ways. We have found that Photo Cascadia has helped us become better known and establishes a level of credibility and purpose that is hard to achieve individually. The group has enabled us to work with with larger companies looking for a wide range of top level images, such as HTC and ODS.
What advice do you give aspiring photographers who wish to follow in your footsteps?
First of all, if you love photography then do photography whether you make it your career or not. I meet a lot of people who are more interested in the idea of being a professional photographer than they are in making great images. Many of the most talented photographers I know do it purely for the love of it. I see excellent photographers loose their passion because they feel like in order to be respected or successful as artists they also need to make a job out of it, but in reality only a small percentage of photographers do it professionally. Second, if you are headed toward outdoor photography as a career then be ready to become good at many things and wear many hats. These days vast numbers of new amateur photographers are producing images better than the top pros just ten years ago. To make a career of this your images still need to be creative, fresh and technically excellent, but that alone is not enough. You have to have multiple skills to offer. Being able to write, speak, teach, guide, test, review, design, promote, manage collaborate and/or innovate in addition to taking excellent photographs is necessary. Then it’s a matter of getting fully immersed and committed and working at it every day. It can take many years to establish yourself so don’t expect to be paying the rent in the first couple of months.
Please tell our readers where they can learn more about you and what you are up to.
My website (www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com) and the Photo Cascadia site (www.PhotoCascadia.com) are good places to start. Here you can read our informative blog articles, view images, download tutorials and get updates on workshops and other events. For the most up to date information you can tune in at the social photography portal of your choice.