This week I’m very excited to showcase Paul Zizka as our featured photographer. Paul is a professional mountain landscape and adventure photographer based out of Banff, Alberta. His work is widely known and showcases amazing and unique moments in nature, including dramatic night sky work. I’ve always been motivated and impressed by Paul’s incredible work ethic and humble attitude. I want to thank Paul for his time and effort taking part in this interview. Make sure to visit his website and Facebook page to view more of his amazing work!
I’ve been following your work for a number of years now and your passion for the wilderness and work ethic have always been an inspiration to me. It’s been great to watch your work consistently grow in exposure and popularity over the years. Looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions that you had about being a professional photographer compared to how you view and value it now?
I didn’t have a real sense of what the day-to-day was going to be like. I idealised what it meant to be a full-time artist thinking, “I’m going to shoot every sunrise and sunset, have all my editing finished by noon, the images sold by suppertime and then do it all again tomorrow.”
Today I have a better sense of what’s involved behind-the-scenes in running a photo business. It’s more than capturing the images. It’s about putting those images in front of people and getting creative – not just in the field, but also in how you’re going to monetize those images.
What were some of the early struggles you faced in your career, do they still exist today, and how have you managed or dealt with them over the years?
It’s been difficult to find a balance between my time in the field, getting my images in front of the right people, the accounting, branding, and any other day-to-day operations of running a business.
Another struggle is creativity. Once you start making photography a business, suddenly you have to be concerned about what people think of the images. You cannot detach yourself from what the public likes.
If nobody likes your work, it won’t work. But you also don’t want to fall into the trap of shooting fully for the public.
If you do, creativity evaporates – suddenly you’re just shooting for others and no longer doing it for the same reasons you had when starting out. I started out at one end of the spectrum where I shot 100% for myself. I soon recognised that I needed to put something out there that others would enjoy. The pat on the back and the online approval was nice – so I did more of it and ended up on the other end of the spectrum.
I still oscillate between both ends. Some days I realise I’m too concerned about what other people might think and remember that I need to get back to that creative space. It’s a daily dance. It’s always on my mind.
Inconsistency and self-doubt seem to be two of the biggest road blocks stopping people from reaching their true potential. Have you ever suffered from those, and if so, how do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking creative or emotional drive?
Because of where I live, I rarely go through periods of time where I feel uninspired. I see a lot of articles about “How to Boost Yourself to be Creative in the Field”. Fortunately, it’s not something I’ve had to deal with. I’m mostly always excited and fired up to get out.
Regarding self-doubt, I do have those moments where I think, “what if everything I’ve been doing all along is bland and uninspiring and people have just been terribly kind to me?” I then find it useful to go to people who will give me an honest critique and opinion on where I’m at with my work. It’s easy to keep shooting for a long time without getting honest feedback.
Whenever I hit a roadblock of any kind in photography, the issue tends to be that I haven’t been out enough lately. These moments of uncertainty vanish when I simply get out and hit the trail – even if it’s just the roadside or half an hour of creative time at the end of the day.
It’s easy to look at other photographers who are successful or popular and think that everything came easy for them, when really, that couldn’t be further from the truth. What is one failure or major challenge you’ve had in your professional career, and how important do you think it was in regards to your growth?
Not to get caught up in the online circus as much. It’s so easy to make things up when you look at everything you see online. The truth is that you only see a tiny part of people’s lives. One thing I’ve failed at and continue to get caught up in is letting go of my creativity in favour of online attention. You need some, but it doesn’t take long to stray from where you want to be. When you decide to make your art your living, it’s a struggle that everyone encounters at one point or another.
You’re very active on social media and have a large following on multiple platforms. How has your online presence evolved over the years and what are some of the rewards and also challenges that it presents?
One of the biggest shifts happened when I realised that the more time I spent and the greater my following became, my online presence evolved beyond the images. I became a part of the brand. People signed up for the photography and wanted to get to know me as well. My voice then became vital – it needed to remain professional, not forced and kind. You are your brand. Everything you put out, not just online, will be seen as such.
The first reward that comes to mind is how an online presence enables you to put your images in front of many people in a way that wasn’t possible before social media. Previously you had to find a publisher or be featured in a gallery. Now you can put your work in front of millions of people – it’s blown the photography world open regarding exposure. It’s also been an amazing way to connect with other photographers and find inspiration. When you need inspiration, you don’t need to go far.
As mentioned, with challenges, it’s about selling out your creativity to gather a following. Everyone likes the pat on the back, but it’s fleeting and is not a sustainable way to do photography. Don’t allow this to dictate your self-worth as an artist.
Your images evoke many different emotions and give viewers a sense of adventure and connection that is very unique. They definitely appeal to a wide audience, and rightfully so. What are your thoughts on authenticity and do you think it’s important for people to embrace their own creative vision, regardless of how appealing their style of photography may be to the general public?
Embracing your vision is the only sustainable way to do photography. If you want to keep it fulfilling in the long run, you have to go with creativity over clicks.
Regarding authenticity, to some extent you have to bend reality a little. Why would you put the mundane parts of your job online – like counting postcards and searching through your hard drives for an image? In a way, you’re always curating the work that you share. So set your voice with a level of authenticity that you can feel comfortable keeping up with.
You often travel to remote places in the wilderness, sometimes by yourself in the middle of the night. I would assume that there have been moments where you’ve had uncertainties or fears. How important do you think it is for people to step outside of their comfort zones, and how has that contributed to your growth?
It’s the key to making progress in photography. I see it as a photographer and as a teacher – when people take chances, the learning curve steepens. If they don’t gamble, plateaus happen. It’s easy to get comfortable in photography, but if you choose comfort over something new, you stagnate.
When I force myself to use a lens I’m not familiar with or go to a place I don’t know by heart, I make the most of what I’m given at that moment. This experience taps into the different parts of my brain.
Your images showcase both remote and unique environments; everything from self-portraits in Greenland to ice climbing inside of glaciers. What motivates you to continuously explore and how do you push yourself to pursue goals and new creative ideas?
It’s a primal force. It’s what you have a ton of as a kid yet somehow gets obscured along the way. Photography allows me to tap into this again. It’s tied to exploration. It’s the curiosity to see what’s around the corner and a desire to rediscover familiar places in a new way. I don’t mind going back to Two Jack Lake a hundred times. Mother nature always presents things in a new way. It’s never the same.
It’s great to explore new places geographically but I also love to go back to familiar places and think, “What am I going to be dealt this morning?”
It’s good to self-impose restrictions on your work. Such as going back to the same place at the same time and making the most of the conditions versus waiting for the perfect conditions always to align. Even using technical restrictions like shooting at 70mm for an entire morning. Head out with no expectations for the image you want to capture and choose a place with potential. You’re more likely to get fired up creatively because you’re ready to embrace whatever is out there.
As an outdoor photographer, what are some of the ways that your connection with the wilderness influences the decisions you make while creating your images? How do you make sure that the process doesn’t kill the experience?
It’s so much about expectations. The less you have, the more likely you can have full immersion in that moment. You become more aware of what’s around you – how the clouds are shifting and the water is moving and what the light is doing. You show up open to it.
Put the experience first. You may go home with no images but prioritise the experience and you’re guaranteed to win. You’ll head home with a memory of that place – a place you might never go back to.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your images of the wilderness? Or in other words, why do you create?
I have a mind that likes to document. I started wanting to document the places I visited, even just for my mom and dad. I soon realised that by paying more attention to light and composition, I could take those basic images to the next level, I could make them more compelling and tell more of my story.
Someone who is on the other side of the planet, who has never been anywhere close to a glacier and will never get close to one, feels cold just looking at an image. The fact that they can connect through an arrangement of pixels is just amazing.
This has become one of the powerful parts of photography for me. It’s hugely rewarding for me when the viewer feels a calling to head out themselves and connect with the wilderness.
If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
It has allowed me to experience the wilderness in entirely new and different ways. I’ve become a better observer and am more aware of what is happening.
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like there are not enough hours in a day to accomplish their next goal. How do you balance your photography career with the other areas of your life and how important is that balance?
This continues to remain the primary challenge, especially with the little one. When you work for yourself, the more you put in, the more you get out. You have to intentionally stop and think, where am I at? What am I neglecting right now and what’s getting too much attention? Check in with the people close to you and make sure everyone is happy with the current situation. It’s not all about you.
What is the best advice you can give anyone looking to pursue photography more seriously or as a full-time career?
Take the time to pause and think about why you started out in the first place. It’s easy to set out with just one thing in mind and then get attracted to other reasons for continuing, like approval.
It’s like any other job. It has its fun parts and its less glamorous parts – but it all needs to get done. If you only want the fun stuff, do it on the side after your 9-5 job. It’s not for everyone. You have to put up with uncertainties like where will you find revenue.
Photography in many ways is a selfish pursuit. Get input from outside observers on your voice and your work. Check in with those close to you. Ask them how your pursuit of your art has impacted them.
Here at Image & Rhythm, we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?
Dave Brosha. He’s a great friend. He has touched the lives of many people through his photography. I just like the voice that he has. He is a source of inspiration for so many other photographers. I’d love to see what he thinks about all of these questions!