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Sean Bagshaw

Landscape Photographer and Educator

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.”

“It took me five years doing all the photography to make my teacher’s salary back. That’s probably the point where I realized that that was the time when I could start transitioning. I didn't have to take every single job opportunity that came along, or really diversify that much. I could start focusing in.”

What were the first few steps when you decided to take photography seriously?

I'm not really a business person or an entrepreneur, and I didn’t have any business starting a business [laughs]. I had no concept of what that was like, or what that meant, or what it required. I’d been a teacher as my main career, and I just had to show up for work and be a teacher. Being responsible for all the business stuff, I didn’t know what that even looked like. My business plan when I started was, “If I can sell a 20 by 30 print for $300–at that time, let’s say I was making $3,000 a month as a teacher–so if I aim to sell ten $300 prints a month, there’s my teacher’s salary. That was my business plan. I don’t know that I ever sold ten $300 prints in a month, ever, in that part of my career but that was my plan. It changed dramatically over the years for the better.

What kind of work did you get at the beginning?

When I started I would accept any job that involved a camera. It was almost entirely local work at the beginning. I was trying to sell prints, so I was trying to get in the art show circuit and hang images around my local area anyplace I could, just to get my images and my name out there. I would photograph portraits. I did a few weddings. I photographed custom furniture. I photographed real estate listings; pretty much anything I could get that involved using my camera. It was OK. It was a great learning curve for me, and it also let me see all the potential revenue streams coming from photography. It also let me find out what my skills were, and what I liked and what I didn’t like.

How did you fall into your niche, then? Was there a turning point where you knew you wanted to do a certain type of photography?

I guess it goes back to my original interest, which was the outdoor adventure lifestyle. I just love the outdoors and I realized as the more I did different types of photography how much my real motivation in photography was tying it to my experiences outside, in the wilderness, in the landscape, or doing some sort of traveling in the world. I knew that that was where my real interest and motivation and greatest ideas around photography were, but even once I realized that, it was still a slow transition. I was able to slowly phase out certain types of work. For example, one of the things I cut was weddings; I told myself I wouldn’t take anymore on. Eventually I phased out photographing people completely. Then after that I phased out commercial, assignment and product-type photography. Every time I felt the adventure and landscape focus of what I did grew and expanded, I was able to give up something else that I was doing and maintain my income level. It was a process, and I think the last thing that I gave up was architectural photography, even though I really enjoyed it. For me, photographing good architecture is a lot like photographing the landscape, in terms of composition and lighting and that kind of stuff, and the impact you want to have. As the main focus of what I was doing kept growing, other things had to go so I could really specialize and be good at something.

That’s really interesting. How long would you say that transition took? It doesn’t seem like it would happen in a short period of time.

No, it took me five years doing all the photography to make my teacher’s salary back. That’s probably the point where I realized that that was the time when I could start transitioning. I didn't have to take every single job opportunity that came along, or really diversify that much. I could start focusing in. As of this interview, this is my 12th year as a full-time photographer, so it was probably five years total to make the transition. It’s only been in the last one to two years that I’ve really stopped doing anything else, stopped taking any architectural assignments or any sort of commercial or editorial-type assignments.

“I know a lot of photographers, though, who are great commercial photographers. They love that kind of challenge. It’s a chess game, or it’s an engineering problem. This is what the client wants, and I’ve got this amount of time, this amount of money to do it. They love that challenge. For me, that was not what I was in photography for.”

As far as challenges go, was there something that you felt was a real struggle at the beginning?

It was all really hard, and it took a long time. I remember right about the time I started my photography business, my brother started a bike shop business. He got it up and running and had to be bringing in income within the first month. He had the pressures of rent, and he had products that he had to buy and all this overhead. Within a month, he already has customers and is making enough money to keep his business going. I remember thinking, wow, that’s also challenging, but here I am, however many years in, and I’m still trying to figure out who my customers are, or how to even generate an income. That was challenging. It was all challenging, but at the same time I guess I went into this business with no expectations and so little knowledge. I was very naïve. I was just prepared for everything to be really hard and a struggle, and that it probably wasn’t going to work. I was pretty sure that at some point, time would be up; I wouldn’t have made it work, and it would be time for me to go to a different job with a definite paycheck. I was pretty well convinced that’s what was going to happen, so after five years, when I realized that I get to keep doing this, it was like a bonus.

Do you ever have these times and periods where you’re disconnected with your work or just feel burnt out?

Fortunately, with photography itself, I have not reached burnout levels. Again, I think how I’ve structured and how I’ve guided where my business went in the sense that I don’t have to be out shooting every day. There will sometimes be long periods between photoshoots, and I have flexibility with my time because of that. I could also generally tell what would burn me out about other types of photography. For example, if I had to be out shooting three weddings a week all year long, and that was the model, yeah, I could see that burnout would be a huge issue. I don’t shoot for two or three months sometimes, usually not that long, but it happens, and by the time I do have a project or a trip or a reason to go out and photograph, I’m really energized to do that. In the in-between times, there’s enough variety of office work and other work that I’m doing that, so far, I haven’t reached a burnout point in anything. I think it’s a matter of being conscious of the things that I could tell I would have burnt me out and letting those jobs go.

Are periods where things don’t go as expected or as planned? How do you mentally pull yourself out of that situation and get your back on track?

That’s a good question. I always go into everything with low expectations. Things would have to go pretty bad for me to be disappointed in how they went. I always assume that whatever I’m going to do, it’s not going to do much. If it does even slightly okay, then I feel okay about it. A lot of times, things end up working out much better than I thought they would.

One of the real challenges I found–especially commercial photography, and one of the things that I didn’t like about it that made me get away from it–was that there would be a client who would say, “Here’s our idea of what the shot we need is. Here’s what our budget is, and we want you to make that shot this coming Wednesday at 2 pm.” The concept of the shot is, “We want this amazing sunrise in the light,” or they would point to other images that I had and say, “We want it to look like that.” The problem was I knew that the particular image they liked was the result of maybe a couple years of trying before I was in the right place at the right time to have that particular light situation in that particular place. There was a huge expectation that for this small window of time, this budget, and this type of image they wanted me to create, was really challenging to deal with. I struggled with that. I know a lot of photographers, though, who are great commercial photographers. They love that kind of challenge. It’s a chess game, or it’s an engineering problem. This is what the client wants, and I’ve got this amount of time, this amount of money to do it. They love that challenge. For me, that was not what I was in photography for.

“There’s not like an end zone you reach with finding your voice. It’s something that you’re working on all the time, and you don’t have to think about it too much, you just go do photography. It’s what comes out of you naturally, without thinking about it.”

How do you balance all the aspects of your life; from being in the field for long stretches of time, and then being away from your family and all those responsibilities?

It’s one of the bigger struggles. Figuring out the balance between my time away out in the field, and the kids, and being here and being present as a father. That’s where I put most of my effort; not just figuring out the balance for me but trying to determine the balance for four people in my family. It’s an ongoing challenge, and it’s a challenge that’s evolving all the time. As the kids have grown up they have more of their own activities that they need support and time from myself and my wife on. As parents, that has changed how the work/life balance looks. As the kids got into school and didn’t need as much time, my wife took on some more work and more recently she is juggling two different careers; one of which involves her traveling. The balance has been an evolving equation the whole time, but I guess the nuts and bolts of it is that what we try to do is look at the calendar way out in advance, and schedule things.

A couple of times a year I do end up being out for a week or two at a time. I could do a lot more of those kind of trips, but I just know that that’s not really where I’m able to be in my career right now. I know that one or two extended trips a year is kind of maximum. Fortunately, I live in a place where there’s a lot of great photography pretty close by. For me to be able to go out just for a night or two or three during the week, and get some good photographs, is totally doable. I don’t have to travel long distances, or spend lots of time getting great photos.

Fitting in some smaller trips like that, and the truth is, in the last couple years, as my wife has been traveling more, I’ve actually been cutting back on how much I’ve been out. At this point, it’s like I have this huge body of work, and I can always add to it, but I don’t feel this need to really get the volume of new images and always have tons and tons of new work, like I did in the past. I feel like I’ve kind of established that body of work, and so I don’t have to be out as much.

E-mail is something that everyone has to manage and organize. Are there any tips you use to stay on top of your inbox?

That’s probably been one of the bigger challenges for me. Early on, I would just kind of watch my inbox. For the first few years, there was almost no e-mail coming in, so any time a new e-mail came in that was an actual business contact of some sort, I would immediately respond to it. I would be doing other work, processing images or working on my website, and keeping an eye on my e-mail inbox. As the flow of e-mail has grown, I’ve had to change that; otherwise I’d just spend my whole day answering e-mails and never get anything else done. First thing I do when I get to the office in the morning is answer e-mails. I’ll go through and answer all the legitimate inquiries and questions people have about my work. I probably spend, on an average day, two to three hours just on replying to e-mail. Whatever is in the inbox in the morning, I work through it, get to the end of it, and then I’m done with e-mail for the day. Sometimes at the end of the day, I’ll check back just to see if there’s any sort of emergency things, but anything that comes in noon through to the evening, then it’s just in the queue for the next morning. That way I know that once I get my e-mail done for the day, I’ve got whatever the chunk of time is left over for other things.

“There are all these elements to the experience, and how do I communicate those through this photo that is just visual, and is two-dimensional, and doesn’t move; How can I communicate more than what I saw? How can I communicate the feelings and emotions and trigger the other senses? All of that is pretty exciting, and keeps me going.”

What’s some of the best career advice that you’ve been given over your time doing photography?

At the time the advice didn’t make sense to me when it was given, but now that I look back, it was dead-on and it was really helpful. I’m just fortunate that one of my personal friends, who lives close by here in Ashland, was a well known photographer. He was one of the biggest rock band photographers and movie poster, movie promo photographers, of the 70s and 80s. He had this huge career in photography, and went on to do a bunch of other things in photography. I remember early on talking to him about the business. I can remember him saying a couple of things. One was that I need to find my voice in photography. I remember thinking, “My voice?” For years, I was searching for it and I’d ask myself, “What is my voice? David says I’m supposed to be searching for my voice.” I kept trying to make up what my voice was. I’d go out and try to focus on a thing or technique and I would realize, “No, that’s not it. I’m not that interested in that,” and move on. Now, after the fact, when I look back I see that by doing photography and finding what interests me and the way I develop my images and the kind of light I look for, that my voice is there. Unconsciously, it’s there. It’s still constantly evolving too, in that there’s not like an end zone you reach with finding your voice. It’s something that you’re working on all the time, and you don’t have to think about it too much, you just go do photography. It’s what comes out of you naturally, without thinking about it.

The other piece of advice that he gave was around the business of photography. I remember asking him, “When you were shooting this rock band, this big rock band in the 70s, how did you figure out what the price was, and how to charge for it, and how to negotiate a good deal and all that kind of stuff?” He said, “You know what? I never did that. I did my entire career on a handshake. We never negotiated price. I did it because I loved it, and when I started I just wanted to do it. I would do it for whatever was offered to me, and I was so passionate and I did it so much that I eventually got known for it. At the other end of my career we never talked price, because the bands asked me to do their photos just said, ‘We’re getting David to do it. He’s the one doing it, so whatever he charges, that’s what we’re paying.’” His whole idea was, “I just did it because I loved it,” and that was his main concern. A lot of those other types of money issues just worked themselves out. Like how I mentioned earlier about how I started my business without a plan, strategy or negotiation technique, I found this point to also be true, not by any design of mine, but the things that have ended up generating my income were the things that I’m going to do anyway, whether I get paid or not.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worthwhile?

I love the creativity of it. I love the idea of being creative while in the field. It’s all tied back to the fact I love to have experiences in the outdoors, visual experiences, but also the experiences run the gamut of all the senses and emotions. To be there with the camera, I feel like I really notice things in a way that I don’t do without a camera, and I didn’t do before I was a photographer. That piece is really motivating to me, being able to go out and be in the place that I want to be, but then have this creative way to connect with it. Then, once I’ve captured whatever it is that’s really speaking to me and exciting to me, a lot of times it’s light, sometimes it’s location, the way things just fall together within a composition, all those things are really exciting to notice and be creative around. Then, deciding how I interpret that and communicate that to the audience, that’s also really exciting. It’s not just what I saw, and I’m not just doing documentation anymore. There are all these elements to the experience, and how do I communicate those through this photo that is just visual, and is two-dimensional, and doesn’t move; How can I communicate more than what I saw? How can I communicate the feelings and emotions and trigger the other senses? All of that is pretty exciting, and keeps me going.

Who would you like to see featured on Ways We Work?

Somebody who I admire from afar, and who I don’t know but I’m really inspired by their work, is Nick Brandt. His photos are beautiful. He is a wildlife photographer and they’re black and white. They’re almost all animal portraits from an African safari, like Kenya and Tanzania, which is so far from what I do. I see a lot of wildlife photographs, and a lot of wildlife and I have a lot of respect for them, but a lot of wildlife photography doesn’t really energize me. Yes, I love animals, but that’s not where my creative interest is. There is something about his work, it’s so different from mine in that there’s no colour, it’s of African big game, and there’s something in the voice of it, it’s his voice, that really excites me. He’s been doing it a long time. He’s very well known, and I haven’t seen any of his work in a couple years now, so I don’t know what he’s up to.

I’m going to throw one more name at you, because again, it’s so different. His name is Michael Karcz. I think he’s from Poland, and he does photo composite work. It’s all photo illustration, bringing photos together. It’s all fantasy and science fiction stuff. It’s brilliant. It’s amazing, and I have no idea how he does what he does.