I was introduced to Sean's work after doing some research on photography post processing techniques. His photographs had a depth and feeling to them that many other photographers just didn't have. I really connected with Sean's work after working through his video tutorials on image processing and got a better understanding of the mechanics of developing a photo. His instruction went beyond the technical and allowed you to think about your imagery as more of an art form rather than just a photo. Sean shares how he transitioned from teaching to full-time photography, how long that transition took and how he learned what type of work he cared about most along the way.
For those who might not know you, give us an idea of what you do.
I am a landscape, nature and travel photographer and a photography educator. When I started in photography everything I knew about the business said that you made your living from selling photographs, so that became my focus for a long time. Before I was a photographer, I was a middle school science and math teacher for about a decade. I had a teaching background, and when I stopped teaching and started my photography business a lot of people asked me if I would do workshops or photography education. At that time I thought, "no, I’ve done my teaching thing", and I didn’t necessarily feel qualified to teach photography. Like I said, I was a middle school science and math teacher. Eventually, I added teaching to my service offering, and now it’s become one of the bigger pieces of what I do.
Tell us a little about your path to becoming a photographer. You touched on it briefly saying you were a teacher. Give us a bit of the history on how and why you made that transition.
I enjoyed photography for quite a few years before I thought about doing it semi-seriously. My interest in photography started through doing a lot of outdoor activities like expeditions, rock climbing, mountaineering, and other various things like traveling. It started off as a want to document the trips for myself and family and close friends. As I got more and more involved in those adventures and grew a bit of an audience, I gained a few sponsors for some local events. I would give presentations, like public slideshows about the adventures that I was doing.
My interest in photography really started out purely as an amateur. The more I did it, the more I realized how enjoyable it was. I also began to notice that certain images resonated with me and I felt they had some other quality other than just being documentary. Out of a slideshow I would give–which might have 100 to 200 images–there would always be a couple images that seemed to resonate with the audience too. In these circumstances, I would wonder what it was that made a photo more impactful than others? That’s what really got me thinking about photography more as an art form or a form of expression. After this I looked into how to do that on a more consistent basis and how to create images that have more of a personal impact with people.
The transition from teaching into photography was somewhat accidental. I’d been teaching for a long time, and the push to take photos escalated when my children were born. I really loved teaching and I put a lot of time and effort into it but when I had my kids, I realized that I didn’t feel like I was doing a great job at being a teacher anymore. I also wasn't able to do as good of a job being a parent as I wanted to. It was a time management problem. That’s when I started looking for other things I could do for work that would free up my time a little bit, or at least be a bit more flexible with time. I had been enjoying doing photography semi-seriously at that point and I thought, naively, “Oh, I’ll start a photography business. I’ll just become a photographer.”
Did you balance the two at the same time?
I did for a while. As a teacher, I had summers off, so there were several years where I was doing a lot of photography on the side. This was back in the late 90s or early 2000s. I had a website, which was kind of a big deal back then. I started selling and licensing images, but purely on the side, and not seriously at all. For some reason, I don’t know why, I thought that I’d take the leap straight from teaching into being a full-time photographer. Most of it revolved around some life events that gave my wife and I some resources. We had a couple deaths in the family that we received a small inheritance from. It was one of those things where we had some money, and my wife was very gracious and supportive in saying, “All right, if this is something that you think you want to do, we can cover it for a couple years here. If you’re not making back your teacher’s salary within X years, then you’ve got to go back to teaching or go find another job that’s going to make up that income.”