For this week’s edition of The Creative Journey, I’m excited to be featuring Sean Bagshaw. For those of you who may not be familiar with Sean’s work (anyone…?), his images, tutorials, and willingness to help others are second to none. Sean creates his images with a masterful approach both in the field and the digital darkroom, and all it takes is one look at his portfolios to be inspired to get out and explore. Make sure you check out Sean’s website and Facebook page to keep up to date with his work! I want to thank Sean for taking the time to share his story!
I was reading that before you pursued photography full-time, you used to be a teacher. What encouraged you to take the leap into photography as a career, and looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions that you had about landscape photography compared to how you view and value it now?
I was a middle school science and math teacher for about ten years, and I loved that job. My Wife was also a teacher, and we really put everything into our careers. The turning point was when we had our own kids, and gained an awareness that we weren’t able to continue putting the time and energy into being teachers that we had been while also being able to be the parents that we wanted to be. That’s when I started looking for other work opportunities that would give me a little more flexibility. I had been doing photography more and more seriously as a hobby for about ten years and for whatever reason I just thought that I would stop teaching and pursue photography as a business. At the time, I didn’t really have a good sense of what was involved, and looking back now, that was really what enabled me to take the leap. Knowing what I know now—even though it’s worked out really well—I don’t know if I would have had the courage to go for it.
For me, starting a photography business wasn’t a quick process. It took a lot of time to build it up to where it is now. I gave myself five years after the switch to get to a point where I was making the same salary that I was when I was teaching, and I fully believed that it wouldn’t happen. But, it was one of those experiences that I couldn’t pass up. I decided that I needed to give it a try, and if it failed, I figured I could go back to being a teacher. Now, it’s twelve years later and I’m still here and doing great.
From a business standpoint, landscape photography has really changed, and I came in right at the time when the big change was happening. When I started my business, it was pre-digital, so there were fewer landscape photographers about. Entry into the photography world was a little more challenging, especially professionally. For a long time, the business model for landscape photographers had revolved around print sales and stock image licensing. When I started to pursue photography as a career, all of the research that I had done was based on that business model. That was also right around the time when digital photography was becoming popular, and that caused print sales and stock image licensing to decline rapidly. So I was trying to build a business all while at the same time a lot of the things I was focused on were going in different directions.
The upside was that I came in and adopted digital photography right at the front end. In that way, I was very fortunate because that somewhat made me one of the early authorities. I was one of the people who was experimenting with different techniques both in the capture phase with digital cameras and also developing techniques. That’s really where my business was able to grow and take off: through teaching, instruction, and growing a large online presence. Looking back at it now, I think I was fortunate that I didn’t have a lot invested in how things were done previously.
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?
I think one of the biggest struggles for me early on was finding revenue streams, and also, as I found ways to do that, looking for what it was that I really wanted to do. When I started, I pretty much just took any job that involved a camera. If I could sell prints, I sold prints. If I could license an image, I did that. High school senior portraits, weddings, real estate, architecture, magazine assignments—you name it, I did it all.
Over time, I started to realize that if I’m trying to be a one stop do it all photographer, I’m not going to become good at any one thing.
As my business grew, I started assessing which subjects really spoke to me, and I started to let go of the things that didn’t. Every time I let something go it would be a leap of faith because I was also letting go of a revenue stream. But I knew it was important to use that time to focus on the things that I enjoyed the most. That was always a little nerve-racking, but I just kept continuing that process, and as I did I realized that the original reason I got into photography was because of landscape, nature, and travel.
I’ve followed your work for a number of years and would consider you one of the masters of post processing. Not only have you mastered the techniques, but it’s clear that you’re very confident in your approach and style. What advice would you give to other photographers when it comes to developing or following their creative vision while processing?
I think personal style, or vision, is certainly something to strive for as a photographer. I think mastery becomes real once your body of work is identifiable as your own and it doesn’t look like a mix and match of a bunch of different styles. Pursuing the idea of finding your own voice or vision is essential in growing as an artist.
Early on in my career, I got that advice from a very successful professional photographer who was a friend of mine. He told me that I needed to find my own personal voice, and for years I was in search of that, yet it seemed like I could never really find the answer. I got to the point where I figured that maybe it wasn’t something that I’d ever end up finding. And then, after seven or eight years, I started to look at my body of work and realized that there was a theme that had developed, and it had just come naturally. It developed from constantly moving forward and focusing on the subjects that spoke to me and that I enjoyed the most. It wasn’t something that I had to make up, or decide on, It just came from the act of being passionate and constantly trying to improve as a photographer.
I now realize that if you photograph passionately for a long enough period of time, pursue it from a creative perspective, and don’t copy what you see elsewhere, your creative voice will develop naturally.
And the exciting part is that it’s ongoing. I don’t think you ever reach a place where you decide that you have nothing else to learn. I would say my vision and personal style is constantly evolving and will continue to.
You have a very large following on Facebook, with your audience almost reaching the 200,000 mark. For some people, the social media side of things can be draining, or discouraging. How has social media affected your photography career and are there any specific approaches you’ve learned, or take to help you with it?
Photography is perfectly built for social media, because people really connect with visuals, compared to just text or words. Being involved in social media almost right from the beginning really helped me as well because I was able to get in when there weren’t a ton of people trying to share photographs. That enabled me to build followings before there was such a huge sea of images, information, and just general noise out there.
That being said, I have seen people in the last couple of years come on late in the game, and because what they have to share is compelling and interesting enough, they have built a big following, so it’s not like you can’t do it.
For me, social media is a love/hate relationship and it does take a lot of time and energy. It is interactive, but largely with a number of people that I’ve never met, so in that way, it’s not the same as meeting with people face to face who I have real relationships with. To spend that amount of time interacting with people who I don’t get a real connection with is challenging. But it is helpful because most of my business is based on word of mouth and building a big footprint. It’s one of those things where my business probably wouldn’t function without the social media element.
In terms of what I have found has worked well for me with social media, I would have to say consistency has been number one, but not to the point of spamming. I think it’s also important to be social in your approach. I truly try to make my social media feeds useful, helpful, educational, interesting, and interactive. I do very little selling through social media. I always let people know where they can find out more, but for the most part, I’m genuinely trying to share my passion or my knowledge, and hopefully people find it useful and that’s why they keep tuning in.
The other important part is just sharing images that people find enjoyment in viewing. All of those things combined have seemed to work for me. It’s been a slow build, but I feel like I’ve built a set and loyal following. There is just so much content out there, and unless what you’re offering is truly intriguing, interesting, and valuable in some way, then the audience doesn’t come.
Keeping on the topic of social media and acceptance; what are your thoughts on authenticity and do you think it’s important for people to embrace their own creative vision? A lot of the times this is easier said than done. Any tips?
I think first off, whatever it is you’re sharing needs to be of good quality, imagery especially. It needs to be work that catches people’s imagination or eyes. There has to be something there that causes them to pause long enough, rather than moving on to all of the other stuff that’s out there. Uniqueness is essential.
The other thing for me has been to do it in a way that I enjoy—whatever that looks like—and not get caught up in numbers, or how many people have commented or shared. That should never be the main reason. Any opportunity to share my work and get feedback or interaction from other photographers is worth it. Like I said, it’s been a very slow build. I had a Facebook page basically in the first week when they made Facebook business pages a thing.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in thinking that the value of an image has to be based on the size of a following or a response.
I’ve tried to really stay separate from that, and I would encourage other people to do that as well. If you’re doing photography because you love it and because you’re passionate about it, then do it for that reason—for yourself. I think sometimes people try and create certain types of images because they see ones that get a lot of attention. And even though that may not be what they really want to do, they think that they need to create that style to get attention online. Do what makes you happy, don’t worry about what other people say and definitely don’t listen to anyone who is critical. That happens and you need to have a thick skin. As long as you keep sharing from your heart, and sharing things that are of value, whatever type of interaction comes about is just a bonus.
Keeping on the topic of social media; what are some of the biggest benefits for you? What are the differences compared to when it didn’t exist?
I think back to before the internet days when I would do gallery shows. If I had a hundred people come through the gallery on opening night, it was a huge success. Nowadays, online, even without a large following, having a hundred people see your image and a few comment on it is something that happens quite commonly and quickly. You need to keep that in perspective. I think people have a mindset of: “If I don’t have two hundred Facebook followers, then what’s the point?”.
I was reading that your interest in photography was influenced and began because of your time spent outdoors as a climber. As a full-time 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?
When I started photography I was doing a lot of outdoor adventure and it was purely about documentation. Photography was a way to share those adventures with family and friends. Through that process, I noticed a couple of things. First off, when I was photographing adventures in the wilderness, I was a lot more engaged and present with what was going on around me. I was really connected to it because I was trying to study and pay attention to the scenery, or the light. It felt like it grounded me in the experience, as opposed to being lost in my head.
Traveling with a camera I found makes me more aware or present in the experience. As I took more photos, sometimes by accident a few of the images would be more compelling to myself or other people. I always wondered, out of a group of a hundred photos, why do people gravitate towards one or two specifically? And that’s what started me on a search to find out what makes a good photograph. The more I did that, the more I found I connected with my outdoor experiences through my photography, and the more consistently I created images that communicated my experiences in the wilderness.
Eventually, I found that I was going on backpacking trips with a whole different perspective. It now wasn’t about getting to the top of a mountain or trying to see how fast I could get from point A to point B.
It became about trying to find and locate not only those visual scenes, but also complete sensory experiences, and to capture those experiences in some way through my images.
That’s where I still am, and that’s why my business eventually came full circle back to landscape photography. Nowadays I do have to schedule my photography, I’m not out constantly. I go on specific trips for photography, and that’s all I focus on during those times. The rest of the time, I don’t do a lot of photography. When I’m on family trips, I shoot with my iPhone, or if I’m on a mountain bike ride, I don’t pack along my camera with me anymore, I just go and enjoy my ride. There are certain times where I feel the need to be creative, and that works much better for me, as opposed to just trying to be out all the time, and trying to force something to work when nothing is really speaking to me.
One look at your website and you can tell that travel is a big part of your life. What motivates you to visit and explore new places, and how has travel affected you as an artist?
I love being able to go to the places that I’m familiar with, or that I would consider in my backyard. That enables one type of photography. But a lot of the thrill and the fun is about exploration and adventure, and the idea of expanding my awareness of the world. It’s a lot of fun for me to go to a new area, and experience everything for the first time with my camera. That being said, I know that my success rate for top quality images is going to be much lower at a place that I’ve never been before. And the effort level—both the research and just being extra attentive on the ground—is going to be a lot more work. But in a way, it’s that freshness or additional effort and concentration that’s required, and the idea that success is a little more elusive in new situations, that makes it intriguing.
There’s just so much to see out in the world, both culturally, and environmentally. There are so many different landscapes and weather events, and the only way to get the full range of experiences is just to be out. Some of my favorite photographs were completely unexpected, they just came from me being out in the right place at the right time.
It’s also exciting for me to go to a place and not know what I’m going to see. For example, a few years ago we traveled to Slovenia and Croatia. There were a couple of well-known photography locations on my list that I found on the internet. I visited those spots and I was happy with the images I came away with, but there are thousands of other photos out there of that same location that are as good if not better than mine. But then there were a couple of spots during that trip that I didn’t know about before I got there. In those situations, I had no preconceived ideas, and I was able to find things and create a few images that really speak to me. Being able to create photographs that really are unique to me, and that I just didn’t recreate is becoming more and more important to me.
If you had to pick one thing that has influenced you the most as an artist, what would it be and why? A turning point in your career, or before your career started? Article, book, person etc.
I would say that would have to be my photographer friend I mentioned earlier. He is many years older than me and was a professional for a few decades. He’s been a huge influence on my photography, especially early on. He is the only photographer I knew personally when I was starting out that was doing it as a career. Even though his work is completely different than the type of photography that I did, he is really a wonderful person that gave me a ton of encouragement, but also critical, straightforward, and honest advice.
There were also lot’s of other photographers and books while I was still in the excited hobby phase of photography that had a big influence on me. Art Wolfe, Galen Rowell, David Munch, Jack Dykynga. Those guys really fascinated me and I devoured their images whenever I could find them. I read everything that they wrote and lived vicariously through their books and writings.
Currently, there’s so much inspiration out there. My friends and colleagues in the Photo Cascadia group are all great sources of inspiration for me. I consider them great friends, and we have a really awesome relationship in that we’re able to share and interact with one another through a combined interest, but there’s no competition or ego present. And then there are so many people I know, mostly through the online world, whose images and approaches to their photography just really get me excited and I enjoy that too. It’s been a wide range of people who have influenced me.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing benefits that come from being a photographer. 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?
Photography has been a way for me to communicate with others and have a creative outlet that energizes and makes me feel connected to the world. I’m able to have an experience in the landscape, but it also gives me something that I can bring back and share with other people. That would probably be the most important thing. But I would also say that the interaction with other photographers is also really important to me. I love sharing, teaching, and being able to interact and communicate with other people who share similar interests. Those two things have brought a lot to my life. I think photography is one of those things that is a unifying activity that crosses all kinds of boundaries. Being able to use the internet and have a connection with people from every continent and every culture is amazing.
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like they don’t have 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?
Balance is a big challenge, especially for someone like myself who is married, has children, and is also very connected with friends and family who are outside of the photography community. To be honest, I’m not sure I did balance it well in the beginning, and that’s something that my Wife and I, and our family have been re-evaluating over the last couple of years.
I was never as immersed in photography in terms of time as some of my friends and colleagues who are single and don’t have kids, and I remember feeling like I wasn’t out doing the work nearly as much as them, and that was true. But also, I think that I was so focused for a long period of time on trying to make it go as a business, that in hindsight now, I’ve learned there were a few years where my life wasn’t in good balance. Even though I was physically present with my family, mentally and emotionally I was focused elsewhere. I would say I even have a few regrets about the past, but this process now about finding balance is exciting.
A lot of it’s just being mindful. When I am working on photography and my family isn’t around, it’s work time, and I get immersed. But when I get home from a trip, or the work day is over, I need to switch out from photography mode and be a parent, a dad, and a husband. That’s always a challenge I think. I’m a person that get’s very focused. I’m a mono-tasker who focuses on one thing at a time. So for me, it’s probably more difficult than it is for some people.
I would encourage anyone to be aware of the idea of balance in your life because it is easy to exclude important people, events, and experiences if you’re completely focused on other things.
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?
I’m going to go off the track here a little bit, and go to a completely different genre and part of the world. There’s a guy on 500PX named Michal Karcz. He does photo illustration/composite photography. His work starts with a photograph, but a certain amount is digitally generated. His imagery is so seamless and intriguing. His control of composition, theme, light, and colour, and the fact that every element comes from inside of his head makes his work captivating. It’s interesting to me because my work isn’t like that, and my brain doesn’t work like that. I find the things out there as they exist and I capture them, whereas he has his own universe in his head.