Sean Bagshaw has been a full time travel photographer since 2009, traveling the world over to capture breathtaking scenery. Like many landscape photographers, what started as a hobby soon turned into a full time career. We chose Sean Bagshaw as our first Photographer of the month because of his eye catching images and down to earth attitude. Bagshaw’s work proves that if you are dreaming of travel photography, focus more on the joy of the experience of travel and where that may take your images instead of the images themselves.
What was your job before becoming a landscape photographer and what inspired you to change career paths?
My college degrees are in biology and teaching. I was a middle school science teacher for 12 years before I moved to full-time photography. I first got into photography to document mountaineering, climbing, and other outdoor adventures I did at the time. My photos weren’t at all good…just a record of what we were doing. Over years I became more interested in the art of photography itself and began studying and teaching myself to make better quality photos more consistently.
Eventually, my hobby became a hobby side business that I could do during my summers off while I was a teacher. Then, in 2004 I decided to use my savings to take a break from teaching and try to build an actual business in photography.
My very supportive wife and I agreed that I had 5 years for photography to take the place of my teacher salary. I honestly didn’t think I would be successful, but I thought playing photographer for a few years would be fun and a good pause from teaching. Somehow, in my 5th year (2009), I did manage to make as much as I did as a teacher so I kept on going. Now I’m in my 17th year of doing this full time.
Can you explain the ‘story’ component of taking a good photograph?
To me, photographs with ‘story’ feel like they are about something or they engage my imagination in some way. The element of ‘story’ can come from a variety of sources. It might be that the photographer created the photograph based on an idea or concept she had in her mind ahead of time.
A lot of fine art photography, as well as commercial photography, falls in this category. It could also be that the photograph depicts an actual story that was unfolding in front of the camera. This is the territory of photojournalism. In nature and landscape photography, I find that there often isn’t a literal story being told, but that a sense of story or meaning can be conveyed through elements of light, color, texture, atmosphere, composition, and place.
A camera is a tool for recording what was visually there. But human experiences are more than just what we see. Two people seeing the same thing will have different experiences due to other senses such as touch, smell, and hearing as well as things like personality, emotion, perception, interest, imagination, attitude, and past experience. All of this comes into play when a photographer chooses when and how to frame an image and also how to later develop the image.
Landscape photographs that succeed in communicating something deeper than just what was ‘seen’ have an element of the story in my opinion. The story might be as simple as solitude, power, fear, peace, grandeur, or loneliness or it may invoke elements of an actual storyline about the place or the experience of being there. Particularly powerful images can engage the imagination of the viewer causing them to create their own story in their mind.
Your work is full of vibrant scenes and emotion, but what according to you is your style of photography- what is the most important thing for you to express in your work?
Well, thank you. The motivation for all my photographs is my passion for adventure and exploration in the landscape. My first thought is always of having an experience in wild places, not of taking a photograph of what the photograph might look like. Such experiences were formative for me from a very young age growing up in the countryside of Oregon and long before I took photographs. I often go into the land without a camera and if I could never take another photo I would still explore.
Photography is an extension of this outdoor passion. The camera allows me to focus and appreciate what I’m experiencing on an even deeper level. While I have always enjoyed a sunset or a clearing storm, I never sat and noticed every nuance of changing light or moving clouds for hours on end until I began taking photos.
Photography also allows me to try to capture, hold on to and remember something about an experience. To effectively communicate a deeper experience, I try to work with light, color, dimension, composition, and mood to show something that has an element of fantasy or feels slightly outside visual reality. If one of my images can pass on something about my internal experience or engage someone’s imagination, then that is very affirming.
What was the most challenging place to photograph? Why?
I have a special love for the great mountain ranges of the world. However, I find photographing in the high mountains to be quite challenging. Often times just getting into the mountains is difficult. Hiking and carrying a heavy load at high elevations is always exerting.
The wind and cold and rapidly changing weather can be uncooperative and hard to work in. The light is often harsh and colors are often monochromatic in the case of regions with nothing but rock, dirt, and snow. I have struggled with these conditions in higher elevations in Alaska, the Sierras, the Andes, and the Himalayas. But there is another side to every challenge. High mountains are also dramatic and beautiful and are where I have experienced some of the most photogenic scenery, light, and weather.
How has your work changed with newer technology?
I began as a very poor film photographer in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, digital cameras and digital image development immediately made more sense to me and gave me more control over how my final images turned out.
Since then, the advances in digital cameras and image developing software have continued to extend what is possible and how good the final image quality can be. Years ago I was frustrated by not being able to adequately depict many of the things I experienced in nature.
Now one can make excellent and accurate photos in high dynamic range light, low light, and even starlight that previously wasn’t possible. Techniques such as focus blending, perspective blending, and time blending can now overcome many traditional shortcomings that cameras have had. Today’s high-resolution mirrorless cameras can are small and light but can create large prints with detail that could only be achieved with a large-format camera the size of a small house back in the film days.
What are the 3 biggest pieces of advice you have for budding landscape photographers?
1. Use whatever camera and lenses you can afford now. Don’t let gear keep you from creating.
2. Get outside as much as you can, always have your camera and photograph a lot.
3. Don’t worry about not doing it right. Make lots of mistakes, take mental notes and use them to learn.
Which artist or photographer inspires your work?
When I was starting out, Galen Rowell was my biggest inspiration for the way he saw light and combined adventure with his photography. Over the years, many more of the landscape masters influenced me and today there are so many great photographers who inspire me I couldn’t name them all.
What other gear besides your camera equipment do you recommend landscape photographers bring with them?
Most important for me is one of the durable and comfortable backpacks from f-stop Gear that are designed for active adventure photography since I’m often out all day hiking, scrambling, or skiing.
These days a smartphone is an essential piece of gear for planning, navigating, weather forecasts, tides, moon phases, camera settings, communication, and much more. Proper clothing for the conditions, water, food, and a way to bring coffee in the morning round out my kit.
How much prep do you put into taking a photo? Or are they mostly spontaneous?
I don’t ever stage a photo or travel to a place to take a specific photo so, in that way, they are all spontaneous. I just get out there, explore, see what I find, follow the light, and pay close attention.
I get the camera out when enough elements converge to grab my interest and I’m never sure when that will be. However, I do spend a lot of time researching, reading about places, studying light and weather, drawing inspiration from others, planning trips, and returning to locations in all seasons over many years. From that perspective, I guess a lot of prep goes into every photo.
What are your hobbies and other things in your life you do to relax and have fun outside of photography?
Traveling, skiing, biking, backpacking, mountaineering, surfing (badly), road tripping, van camping, reading, talking, and eating.
Which photo of yours are you most proud of and why?
I don’t know that pride is something I associate with my photos any longer. I enjoy looking at many of them because they appeal to me visually or they bring back a good memory. As I said earlier, it’s the experiences I have in the landscape that are my motivation and not the photographs themselves.
The photographs are a nice bonus, but if I could create the photos without having the experience, I doubt I would even do it. Whenever someone shares with me that one of my photographs has spoken to them, made them think, inspired them, made them happy, or brought back memories I feel proud about that, but I don’t get to decide which images those are.
How has landscape photography changed your life?
It has allowed me to slow down, live in the moment, be grateful, appreciate what’s right here right now, value the environment, see places and things I wouldn’t have, and meet people I wouldn’t have. It has also provided a living for me and my family and shapes how I spend a great deal of my time each day.
Do you have a favorite lens and camera body?
How do you educate yourself to keep making your work better?
I am always reading, listening, and watching what others are doing. I also love experimenting and trying new things to see what I think. The most powerful way I learn is through teaching so I learn something new, or I learn it better, every time I lead a workshop or give a presentation and especially when I produce a new video tutorial course.
Talk about your luminosity masks course, and any other courses and books you offer.
I began using luminosity masks as a developing tool in PS after reading Tony Kuyper’s groundbreaking article about them in 2006.
I produced my first video course that included luminosity masks in 2010 and has since collaborated with Tony and his now-famous TK Panel to create several courses on luminosity mask techniques. The Luminosity Mask Masterclass, which came out in November of 2020, is my latest and most comprehensive course on the topic to date.
The masterclass contains 50 lessons on the most useful methods and techniques I know. It will help anyone who uses Photoshop to apply the precision and control of luminosity masks in their image development. In addition, I have a selection of other courses on a variety of Photoshop and Lightroom topics, including the user guide for the TK Panel itself. I also share shorter image developing tutorials on my Sean Bagshaw Photography YouTube channel.
My fellow members of the Photo Cascadia team and I have published a few books, both electronic and hardbound. The two most recent are our e-book Photographing Through The Seasons and our coffee table book Oregon, my Oregon: Land of Natural Wonders.