I’m really excited to kick off the “I’m a Photographer: Discussions on the life of a Photographer.” series today.  If you aren’t sure what it’s all about, check this out.  Like I mentioned earlier I’ve read through these interviews and they are all stellar – I can’t wait to share them with you in the coming days.

Our first interview comes from Eric Dacus who is an incredibly talented adventure photographer living and working in Salt Lake City Utah.  Eric works a full time job as a Design Engineer  while balancing a strong passion for photography. He has some amazing things to say about why we do what we do, so I suggest you give it a good solid read. You can find his work here, here, and here and can check out some shots after the interview.

Quickly describe your situation/life as a photographer

The art, technology and craft of photography balanced with the life of a design engineer + FDA paperwork that I do for a living.

Tell us what you shoot, your style and what the perfect day of photography would look like.

The photos I put the most work into getting are of climbing, skiing, or other outdoor adventures.  Style?  I’m still working on that, but aren’t we all?  To try and nail that down though, I like using wide apertures as often as I can, I like images that speak to context but are simple. A perfect day would be hangin’ from a fixed line shooting memorable photos for friends leading climbs in Indian Creek, UT.

Where did the photographic bug come from?  Why do you suspect it hasn’t faded away?

The bug came from growing up with my dad shooting slides for all our family vacations with a SLR. I guess that just imprinted me with the idea worthy trips/adventures/events need photos. I finally got my hands on a dSLR, a few years ago and its has become a major outlet for me. The process of ‘Create -> Share -> Sustain’ has been really enlightening for me.  The sustain part of that loop isn’t financial as much as it is creative. I suspect that having the right reason for photography as an artistic outlet would be why its not faded.

Describe the struggles (emotionally, schedule-wise, frustrations) that come with having a career that pays the bills alongside a passion for photography?

Oh, man, where to start.  First, the internet is a great resource for technical information on how to operate a camera, develop a workflow, and post process images.  However most of what made the first year and a half of owning a dslr much harder than it should have been was a massive feeling of inferiority.  Initially it seemed to me that you had to be a vocational professional to really ‘be’ a photographer. On top of that, you need Canon L-series glass because while your images might be good, but they could be better if you just got a shaper & wider-aperture lens.  Some people may have avoided this stage, if so they probably also avoided lens-review websites and other forums.

All of that really takes the joy out of photography for me.  One, L-series lenses are really pricey ($1000+) and I have other things I can do with the $10-grand that I could spend on lenses. Two, turning photography into even a side business (vocation) is a massive undertaking to do it well.  Three, I already have a fully intellectual and emotionally engaging job (that I actually like).  Photography was/is supposed to be the outlet so I can keep the design mind creative, not compete for time and effort just to buy more stuff.

After attending the Outdoor Retailer trade show this winter (semi-annual meet for basically the whole outdoor industry), and seeing how ridiculously hard it is to actually get outdoor companies to buy images really made me realize I either needed to remain an engineer who takes photos or I needed to become a photographer that used to be an engineer.  Right now, I love designing things too much to become the later.  Being professionally brilliant in two fields simultaneously doesn’t seem feasible.

The most recent victory has been the realization that I’m doing this for me and only me. The badge of having sold images is not the stamp of approval. i.e. “I’ve sold an image, now I must be a good enough photographer.” (is not true).  This might seem trivial, but the freedom from feeling the need to drum up a side business and marketing and networking, etc has been very relieving.

What’s the flip side to that?  What are the advantages of having a full time, stable job?

A design engineer position lets me keep my work and play separate and enjoyable. If I design a total knee replacement I don’t also have to be the sales rep responsible for getting surgeons to use it, and this works better with my personality.  I’m not a salesman at heart.

The stability of a separate vocation removes the pressure to keep up with the market and to sell, sell, sell and lets me enjoy photography as a craft.

How do you find a balance with photography and a 40+ hour workweek – is balance a good word to describe that?

It means balancing the desire to grow as an photographer (artist) with the reality of having a job to do. It also means taking the occasional half day on Friday to get outta town to go climbing and take pictures, or getting up early to walk to work and get a shot of the sunrise over the city.  Lastly, it means that work comes first and photography fills in where it will.

What’s the next big step for you photographically?  What are you working towards?  What steps to you take to realize those goals?

I’m working towards refining a visual style for myself.  Steps?  Shoot more intentionally. That means thinking more about the shots and learning to pre-visualize.

The next big step is actually getting to shoot a wedding in Indian Creek for some friends.  I’ve taken photos at weddings before, and always been happy that I’m not supposed to nailing each one, so this will be a new venture for me.  This one will count. I don’t have ambitions to becoming a wedding photog, but this one is in a place that is special to the couple and gives me an excuse to go climbing in the Creek the next day.

What keeps you going?  What motivates you to keep doing this?

The left brain-ed, analytical, time-line driven work of an engineer doesn’t really feed the soul, or at least not mine. The process of photography, and simply taking time to do small, potentially meaningless personal projects provides a way to engage the right-brain and find a creatively positive outlet from engineering design that then refuels me to go back and work on the things that pay the bills.

The motivation comes from the place of mental and creative balance and knowing that I can return there with photography.  It also doesn’t hurt to have friends psyched to see photos of their latest climbing send or a deep powder day.

Why do you think many people who work full time and have a strong passion for photography are frustrated with their situation?

1) Its easy to think: I’ve got a camera, I could have taken that image, I should get paid for this!  If I got paid for this, I could buy better lenses/gear/etc, then I could get paid more for this!

2) The general vibe of professional (vocational) photographer = good or accomplished photographer.  Also, i I think its hard to go and work a job if you’re less passionate about than your photography. The natural progression of, man, I love photography, this job just isn’t it, I should be come a photographer for a living! seems easy to follow, but ask any vocational photog and its a lotta work.

The hardship comes with how difficult that last step is to actually realize: you will be your own start-up. I’ve read somewhere that most business fail not because they had a bad idea, but because they didn’t understand how to run the business to get the idea sold or keep it selling. The same holds for photography, as a professional you’re job will be to sell images.  Take beautiful ones yes, but if you want to eat, you gotta sell ’em. There is no trick to doing that. Its hard work and persistence knowing the right people to get a start.

Freedom from that frustration, for me, was from realizing that you don’t have to sell images to be a good photographer.

Put another way: a good photographer is simply that.  A professional photographer makes money with a camera.  The later is not required for the first.

What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation as you?

Know why you shoot. Like other things, knowing yourself and why you pick up a camera and what want to say with the images you take is massively important.

Buy only what you need. Rent if you need to satisfy the gear-lust or figure out what it is you do really need.  Keep shooting, the more you shoot the more you’ll learn how to visually say what you want, and it may or may not require that f/1.2 lens…

Career wise,  if your current employment makes you think that a career as a photog might be preferable, maybe the first step is just changing jobs?  Working behind a camera won’t necessarily make your photos any better, but it will mean that you need to sell them. I don’t think there are any fulfilling jobs are don’t require some form of hard work. Knowing what kind of job you’re willing to work long hours and/or weekends for will help filter what you’re looking for in a job.  No one can tell you what that job will be for you.

What’s the best photographic advice you’ve ever received?

Know why you pick up a camera.