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Paul Zizka

Adventure Photographer

I first encountered Paul's work about a year ago when I started getting deeply interested in night sky photography. I found his account while scouring Instagram for others who had a similar passion and I was immediately inspired by his work. The more I got out to shoot the more I had questions about how these photographers make it all work in life and business. This interview with Paul is the first in a series of interviews with adventure photographers where I try and uncover some of the challenges they face doing the work they love.
- Matt Quinn

Tell us a bit about what you do?

I do adventure and landscape photography out of Banff here in the Rockies. I've been doing it full-time for about eight or nine years. I do a little bit of commercial work, so I have clients like Lake Louise Tours and Parks Canada. I suppose I would call myself a freelancer. I go out and shoot the material and then, find a way to monetize it to pay the bills. Increasingly, I do a lot of instruction as well. I would say workshops are probably fifty percent of my income now, and they involve introducing people to beautiful parts of the world. Additionally, I try to help get people where they want to go with their own photography.

What was your path to becoming a full time photographer?

I started out like a lot of people, just with the little point-and-shoot documenting my own adventures just to show the folks back home, "Hey, here's what we're doing. Here's what it looks like around here." At the beginning I did what everybody did. Once in awhile, someone would say, "You know, you have a pretty good eye. You should consider taking it a bit more seriously." I started out spending the summers working at a little lodge here to pay for school and explored the mountains in my spare time. By the time I was done with school, I'd met my wife at the lodge I worked at and it was obvious that we wanted to live in the mountains going forward. The idea was if we're going to live here, we'd try to find a way to be outside as much as possible. We didn't want to lock ourselves in. I considered different things that I could do to maximize my time outside. Two were guiding and photography and I did both for couple years or so. Eventually photography started to take over and I decided to just fully focus on that. I started off doing more commercial work, I think, partly because it was more reliable as a source of income. I've been phasing it out a little throughout the years to just make more time for what I really like to shoot best which is the truly creative work; adventure and landscape photography.

Describe the turning point where you knew "Okay, I'm going to do photography from this point on"

I don't know if I can point to a specific moment, but I suppose it was when I committed to doing photography exclusively. I think the way I've felt about those types of careers is that it's something that's hard to do on the side. It's hard to have one foot in the 9:00 to 5:00 with your day job and then, one foot in the semi-pro photographer world. I think that if you want to know what could be, you have to just take the leap and go for it. Just ditch everything else in your life and fully focus on that one passion. I think that's where things started to change for me. I decided to commit to being in Banff and focused on doing photography for a year to see how it went without relying on other sources of income.

So, what did that first year look like? Was it just a lot of building your portfolio?

I think, like a lot of people, I had a romantic version of the career as a photographer in my head. I used to think: Okay, I'm going to be shooting every sunrise/sunset, go out on adventures and it'll all be edited, ready to go by noon, and someone will have bought the images by suppertime. I quickly realized that like any other job, it's got its downsides. In the first year it wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be. I spent a lot of time pushing my work, putting it in front of the right people, and doing the accounting and tasks that are not very glamorous. In the end, I realized if it's field time that I'm really after then I'm almost better off doing the 9:00 to 5:00 job and then, shooting on the side. I personally ended up really enjoying having my hands in all the different parts of it and being able to see everything through and knowing how to run all those different aspects of a business.

No doubt you went through some challenges in that first year, can you name one of the most challenging things you overcame and how you did it?

I would say the main challenge for me since the beginning, and it's still a challenge occasionally, is just refining balance. That's because when you're self-employed, you quickly realize that the more you put in, the more you get out of it. When good things start to happen, it becomes sort of addictive, where you could just work twenty four hours a day. There's good things happening. You see the direct result of the labor and of the effort that you put in, but then, as we know, there's other things in life to juggle. I have a two and a half year old now, I work from home, and I don't want to stop playing in the mountains. There's a lot of things that I like to do that I don't want to give up on. Juggling all that has been challenging, and I wouldn't say I've overcome it, I think that I've gotten a lot better at it.

How that happened, is through being organized and thorough. Regardless of what happens, setting aside that time for all those different things, for all those little priorities. No matter what happens, you're committed to it and you're not going to switch things around. It's amazing how you think, "Oh, wow. Next week is going to be pretty quiet, actually. I'm pretty excited about it." Then, next thing you know, Monday arrives and the week's filled up again and there's so much going on.

If you haven't set aside creative time, time for family and time to connect with fellow photographers it's easy for something to fall through the cracks. I try to be as organized as possible. I've got some people helping me out now so they keep me accountable. They help me have structure, too. I think structure is not something that's easy to find in this field of work.

How do you balance doing your creative work and then, marketing your brand?

It's such a delicate dance of just going out there and creating content you're excited about. However, if nobody ever sees it, what's the point? You have to spend a considerable amount of time thinking about, "Okay. Who needs to see this image and who has the budget? Who might be interested in spending money in licensing it?" Especially when you're freelancing. It's a daily juggling act, to be honest. Sometimes I'll realize that, "Oh, my gosh. I've just been pushing my work down different avenues for awhile. I haven't been out in ages."

I think a part of me is always assessing the balance and reminding myself: "Okay. Maybe I've been overdoing it a little bit with the field time. It's nice to shift things a little bit more towards pushing the work online and all that." The opposite is really easy to notice. I know when I haven't been out for awhile and I need to get creative because I see it in my own behaviour and stuff like that.

It's a tricky one. Honestly, I don't know that I'll ever fully figure it out. Maybe I've just partly accepted the fact that I'm always going to feel pulled in a couple different directions. It's a conversation that I have weekly with my wife. She helps me with some of the stuff and we have one employee who helps out a lot. We meet weekly to talk about stuff like this. "Okay. Where are we at? Do we need to shift the balance one way or another?" Everybody pitches in and then we build the schedule around that conversation.

What does a typical trek in the wilderness look like for you?

It varies quite a bit. I'm fortunate that I live in an area where if I only have an hour to play with, I can drive up to Two Jack Lake and ten minutes later, I'm there, getting creative. At the end of a big day of editing, I can go out for an hour and just to get my little dose of creative time. In some instances, I'll take day trips. I definitely have a few trips every year that are multi-days, where for three to five days here in the Rockies. We'll typically go on mountaineering trips, key mountaineering, in the winter. There's a few of those a year and then, there's the odd trip abroad.

I just got back from Greenland. I was there for a couple weeks just shooting my heart out. A hundred percent field time pretty much, very little editing, very little action on social media. Of course, you pay for it when you get home. It's time to switch the balance the other way pretty quick, but yeah, It varies a lot. Sometimes it's just the one hour window that I have to work with and sometimes it's a full day. Sometimes it's a couple weeks into the wilderness.

What are some of the productivity tools you use to keep organized?

Wunderlist - We've used Wunderlist quite a bit. I've got my to-dos, my wife has hers and Kelly, who's helping out, has hers. Just being able to quickly prioritize things and drag and drop; It's so user-friendly, so efficient. When someone thinks of something to address at the next team meeting, they just throw it on the list. Everybody can see it, everybody gets a notification that it's been added.

Sunrise - We use the Sunrise app too, for calendar purposes and to coordinate everything and make sure that I'm not double booking things.

PhotoPills - I also use apps that help me stay efficient in the field because they'll tell me say where the Milky Way is going to rise and when. When my field time is limited, efficiency is always important. I use PhotoPills quite a bit. That's really an awesome one.

Star Walk & Photographer's Ephemeris - Both great ones.

Stellarium - There's a great desktop app called Stellarium. It will pre-visualize the night sky so you can plan ahead. I find the nighttime photography very time-consuming so whatever I can do at home to plan is great.

How do you stay on top of email?

Ah, jeez. Yeah. Everything that goes to the general inquiries email address goes to Kelly, who helps us out. She's our nearly full-time employee. She knows how to handle a lot of those inquiries now because of course, ninety percent of them are always the same. "What gear do you use? Do you sell prints?" and this and that. A lot of those inquiries I never really see myself and instead Kelly will receive them and will reply to them. Sometimes there will be things where she really needs my input, whether it's an opportunity of some kind or just a tricky question about prints. Getting some help and getting another person involved has just been so huge for us. I wish I'd done it two years ago. There are things that she's way better at than I am and way more efficient at than I am. It makes so much sense. That's opened up a lot of field time for me and that's really been a turning point, I think, in terms of my quality of life and my mental health and decreased my stress level quite a bit.

Beyond that, I think we're all pretty organized with Gmail and just using labels and prioritizing and all that. For social media, we use Hootsuite quite a bit to try to keep things organized. We're active on many social platforms and if you don't have a system, you can end up pouring so much time into it.

What's some of the best career advice you've been given?

The best advice I've been given would be to just remember why you do it. I've got notes all over the place reminding me to think about that. Any photographer will get the little ego boost when your stuff starts to do well on social media. It's a pat on the back but it can lead to taking photos for the wrong reasons. I mean, we all start out shooting for ourselves, but eventually the business aspect of things can take over and then, the creative time can vanish. I know for me I'm not at my best when I haven't been out in the field for ages. When I'm not at my best I just need to remind myself why I got into this business: "Okay, you know why I started? Because I like to be out in the wilderness and I need to get out. Today, I'm going to make some time for that. I'm going to shoot stuff that I would shoot. I'm going to try to shoot the way I would regardless of the online influences. I'm going to try to not press the shutter and think, 'Well, will people like this?'"

It's an easy trap to fall into with social media. It's easy to start robotically creating recipe-based shots that I know people will like. From a creative standpoint, they don't really do a whole lot for me. I look at the image and I'm like: "You know what? That will do well on the various platforms, but I know it's hardly cutting edge work. It's not something that I was ever excited about at any point, so why did I even bother?"

Right. I mean, it's easy to get caught up in just harvesting likes in the social sphere. You're saying that: "Don't just do work to harvest likes. Root yourself in the 'why' instead?"

Absolutely. At the same time, I'd be lying if I said, "Well, who cares about the followings and the following and the likes and all that?" When you start doing photography for a living, you have to have some sort of following on social media; when it's time to sell workshops or prints, that's just the reality of it. There's still a way to gather a following and still be true to what you like to shoot. I feel like I've definitely been guilty of shooting stuff just because I know people will like it and I know it'll do well. I think I'm getting better and better though. I remind myself that I'm going to shoot because I love the way it feels and the way it looks.

When there's following of a certain size, you know you can't please everybody anyway. You just put it out there and say: "I hope you like it, I like it, I hope it makes you feel a certain way. If not, well, that's just how it is." I encourage everyone to shoot the same way and just put it out there. Keep your work personal and true to yourself. There's always going to be someone out there who won't jive with it, but that's just art, right? It's a personal experience.

So, why do you do what you do and what makes it all worth it?

I think it's something that I've had trouble describing. I think sometimes I'll go out in the field and everything just works out. Then, I see the creative side within me just come alive and I realize that it's always there, but it's dormant a lot of the time because it's obscured by a whole bunch of other stuff. When I really get in tune with that feeling and I have a really great time in the field–even if I don't come up with images that are groundbreaking or anything–I'm just happy. I almost feel like a little kid again creating for the sake of creating, regardless of the outcome. For me, it's kind of a rush, it's kind of addictive. I love to go in the field and feel that creative side of me come out.

That's also why I love teaching and so much of my time is spent on workshops now. I love to bring that feeling out in other people. I love to go out on workshops and with people who say, "Oh, I'm really not a creative person" and then after a few days with them, they realize, "Jeez ... Yeah. It is truly in everyone." I see them go beyond the idea that they're not a creative person and just embrace the fact that, yeah, they have a creative side to them. I want to make other people aware that they have that same creative spirit to tap into. I think in our society, as it is now, that being creative is not something that we're steered towards very much. If anything, it's the opposite. There's so much that gets in the way of our creative selves. For me, it's all about that state of mind that I get in when I'm out in the field–when I'm in tune with the wilderness–and I'm able to document some of that magic that happens out there.

That alone is worth it, but then if I can come back home with an image that I can share with the rest of the community, it's even better. I see people relate to the image even though they've never been anywhere close to that area, or they've never been anywhere close to ice climbing and they're like, "Oh, it's like I'm there." The image makes them feel a certain way and it can stir up some strong emotion. In an online world that sometimes feels dry and lacking, in terms of emotion, if you can stir things up that way, it's very rewarding. I'd say the combination of those things is why I like to get out there.

Is there anyone you'd like to see featured on Ways We Work?

I would say Doug Urquhart who's a video time-lapse guy. I've never figured out how he manages to get that stuff that he does and yet he has twenty four hours a day like everybody else. I'd be really curious to hear his thoughts on that.

Then, someone who'd have really great things to share also is a good friend, Dave Brosha, who's a photographer out of PEI. He has a huge following, three kids and just probably the busiest person I know. I would love to know how he makes it work. I mean, I spend a lot of time with him, but how he maintains that level of energy through everything that he does and enthusiasm is quite remarkable.