It started with a waterfall.
Nathan (then my boyfriend, now my husband) lent me his camera--a little Canon point-and-shoot with the ability to change the settings over to full manual. He'd given me a run-down on shutter speed, aperture and it had sort of made sense. And there I was, dangling over the Lewis River on a little rocky overhang, setting up for my first long-exposure photo with a tripod. I clicked the shutter button, waited a second, and WHAM.
The beautiful silky-smooth water with the surrounding greenery glowed up on my screen and I freaked out with joy. I had no idea I could do that!
This single photograph began a multi-year chase of waterfalls, rivers, mountains, lakes and anything wild and beautiful; preferably barely-accessible or at least requiring an adventure to get there. I became so addicted to the resulting photographs, the postcards of where I went, that I spent most of my non-working hours out in nature--this from a girl who really didn't like to go out in the rain before. I bought hiking boots, a lot of Gore-Tex, rope, waterproof gloves and a list of other things to help me in my trekking. Nathan and I started camping a lot and going on road trips. He bought me my first DSLR. (I love this man.)
The act of photography started transforming not just me, but how I saw and experienced life.
A few years later, I photographed my first wedding. I begged someone to let me give it a try, showing my landscape portfolio and promising nothing but to do my very best. I had a great time, but it was utterly nerve-wracking to be responsible for memories like that (P.S., don't do this, try second shooting instead). I quickly realized that I'd need to master "the other end" of my camera: zoom lenses, flash, fast shutter speeds, harsh sunlight, minimum aperture and basically the direct opposite of all the as-long-as-possible exposures and even-lighting situations I'd been making my style all about. Not to mention all the other stuff: posing, lighting, communicating, understanding a basic wedding schedule... Y'know. Small stuff. Really easy.
That same year, I won a heavily-competitive award for my landscape photography which came with a trip to Yellowstone National Park to work with four professional photographers and three other students. The workshop host was Scott, a professional photographer from Washington. On the last day of the workshop, I sat with him in his truck while we all stalked a group of Bison in the park. We chatted about photography and life and goals. He then changed my life with one innocent question: "What about weddings?"
I'd worked for years, quite successfully, in a weird merge of the legal/technology world. Stressful and all-consuming, I'd stumbled into this niche of a career straight out of college and became engulfed. I lived in the Bay Area for a year, working 70-90 hour weeks, then moved back to Portland where I worked 50-70 hour weeks. I was burning out. Tired. Frustrated. Running to nature to balance me out. Waiting desperately for the vacations that would take me away from the stress, barely able to shed my phone long enough to actually relax. It was intellectually challenging and I loved the continuous problem solving, but the long line of law suits and unhappy, stressed-out people was draining my soul dry. I couldn't look at anyone over 40 in my industry and say, "Yeah! I want to be like them!"
This "What about weddings?" thing caught me off-guard. Wait. I don't want to be a starving artist. I told Scott that and he laughed. He told me he'd help me figure it all out, if I wanted to give it a shot.
What have I got to lose? I thought.
So, I did. I liked people just as much as I liked landscapes, and who knew? Maybe I could integrate the two. People got married in really pretty places, right? I figured there had to be girls like me, and guys like my husband. People who loved the outdoors and wanted to inject as much raw atmosphere and beauty into their celebrations as possible. To create an unforgettable and utterly personal experience, surrounded by the people and places they loved so much. And we needed photos that really told that story, atmosphere and all--so why couldn't I be that photographer?
I was totally unprepared, completely out of my element, but determined as hell. I asked a lot of questions, tripped and stubbed my toes on a lot of small details, worried about so many of the wrong things, and still somehow doggedly began finding people who'd let me shoot their weddings. Perhaps my enthusiasm won people over. I think it still does. That and Scott's continual support and encouragement.
I have a lot to thank Scott for. Without him, I simply wouldn't be where I am today. He opened doors for me without shoving me through, gave me opportunities I had to work hard for, introduced people to me and walked away to let me figure out what to do with the relationship, told me the things I needed to hear, asked questions that needed asking, invited me to amazing workshops and conferences, encouraged me through some really big fat hard days, and gave me advice that I still hear in the back of my head every single day.
One of the very best, most basic things he taught me was to choose clients carefully. Difficult and counter-intuitive as it was in the beginning, this has made my career as a photographer so fulfilling. The times I didn't listen, I paid for it. I adore my couples, and I was right! There ARE people like me--they love atmosphere, adventure, emotion, fun and beauty. Some of them even want to be photographed at waterfalls! The relationships we've built are both amazing and humbling. I've been invited in to witness and document the most emotional and vulnerable moments in peoples' lives, received hugs that almost hurt in their intensity, cried at a lot of weddings where I barely knew anyone, given piggyback rides and hugs and camera lessons to many adorable children, and most of all, become a much better person because of all of this. It's love. Not just between the bride and groom and their families and friends, but connection and caring and taking care of someone because you want them to be able to remember this. Forever.
The other thing I feel very blessed to have learned early, encouraged even more by people like Justin & Mary Marantz, Anne Almasy and Dane Sanders, is the simple but all-important "Why". I feel so many of us photographers don't have this deeply rooted in our souls, and it causes us to make serious mistakes. We NEED our Why, because it keeps us going: Why do I continually choose this path? What keeps me on it, and makes me able to slough off the negativity and crippling doubt that inevitably pops up? How do I stuff the frustration away when someone diminishes my craft, tells me how to do my job, or sticks an iPad in the aisle during the first kiss? What gives me the strength to photograph each wedding as I would my own, even when I’m tired and hot and creatively drained?
This is Why: I love photography because of the connections it both shows and creates between people. It's about telling an authentic story, not just shooting for a Pinterest board. It's about real, emotional moments, and being ready for them. It's about building trust, and being trustworthy. It's about having the courage to tell a potential client "no" when you know you're the wrong photographer for them. It's about creating a time machine for people to hop into and re-experience their lives in beautiful detail. It's about understanding love and life so you can capture them. It's about really, truly taking care of people. It's about loving your work and believing, really believing, that what you do is irreplaceable and unique.
I do believe that. I feel it in my chest as I hug my couples at the end of the night. I see it in the eyes of their moms when they see a family portrait years in the making. I hear it in the voices of my brides when they tell me the photos make them feel truly beautiful. I know it as I go home after a wedding exhausted, feet aching, fingers sore, happy and full to the brim with all that makes life wonderful.
This is Why. And here I go--forward to more adventure and connection and love and beauty. I'm so glad I have all of you to share it with.