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Richard Bernabe: My Best Work is Done when I Am Alone

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Richard Bernabe is not just a widely published photographer and writer from South Carolina, USA, he also leads photography tours and workshop throughout the world, he has just published two eBooks. I caught up with the photographer recently and asked him a few questions for you.

Blood Sport - Brown bear zeros in on a hapless sockeye salmon, Moraine Creek, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska
Blood Sport - a Brown bear zeros in on a hapless sockeye salmon, Moraine Creek, Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Two recent eBooks from the author, Essential Light and Essential Composition, paved the way for this interview. I knew Richard Bernabe work from Canon's 2009 calendar, Portraits of Wind, which features 13 landscapes and wildlife images of the southeastern United States, but not much else. When I recently had the chance to read and review two eBooks published by the author, I decided it was time to explore some more work from the author.

Richard Bernabe passion for nature goes back to his youth. He remembers that as a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey, his idle time was spent "exploring the woods behind our house or the small pond two blocks down the road, learning the name of every tree, bird, or bug that I encountered."

Moving to the rural southeastern United states as a young teenager would create the conditions that led to a career in outdoor photography and, in 2006, his first book, South Carolina Wonder and Light, which features the natural landscapes and wildlife of his home state, South Carolina.


The Lost City - Machu Picchu, Peru
The Lost City - Machu Picchu, Peru

Q Who is Richard Bernabe?

I’m a professional photographer and writer from South Carolina, USA.

Q How did you discover that you wanted to be a photographer?

It’s not so much that I “discovered” that I wanted to be a photographer, but instead I became aware over a period of time that it was my “calling,” for lack of a better word. When one is confronted with their life’s passion, they are either forever saved or ruined. Luckily, I was saved from a pointless corporate existence by the need to express myself and the things I loved through a camera and lens.

Midnight Magic - Mt Kirkjufell (463 meters) is a beautifully shaped and a symmetric, free standing mountain on the northern coastline of Iceland's Snaefell’s Peninsula to the west of Grundarfiord Bay. Danish seafarers, who frequented this part of the country in the past, called Mt Kirkjufell “The Sugar Top”. Kirkjufellsfoss is a short but very well-situated waterfall near the distinctive mountain.
Midnight Magic - Mt Kirkjufell (463 meters) is a beautifully shaped and a symmetric, free standing mountain on the northern coastline of Iceland's Snaefell’s Peninsula to the west of Grundarfiord Bay. Danish seafarers, who frequented this part of the country in the past, called Mt Kirkjufell “The Sugar Top”. Kirkjufellsfoss is a short but very well-situated waterfall near the distinctive mountain

Q Looking at the dates, it was 10 years ago you decided to go full time as a photographer. Do you regret your choice these days, when living from photography seems to be harder than a decade ago?

No regrets at all. Each year my business is stronger and more successful than the previous, regardless of what’s going on out there in the world. Getting through the first two or three years were by far the most difficult and it was touch and go for a while. It very easily could have been ruined instead of saved looking back at it now.

A decade ago, the business environment was different than it is now, but not necessarily easier nor harder. The marketplace is always changing and with those changes come opportunities. It’s a pretty awesome time to be a photographer, in my opinion. Plus, I’m doing what I love so what’s to regret?

The Tree Lord - The Angel Oak on Johns Island, South Carolina
The Tree Lord - The Angel Oak on Johns Island, South Carolina

Q You're a photographer from South Carolina. It is not a name most people will associate with the word photography. From your photographs, though, it seems it is as good a photographic place as any other. So what is it that makes it special and what are the attributes needed to discover the beauty of places that are not in the "must see" charts for photography and most photographers?

South Carolina has a lot to offer photographers, but I just don’t spend as much time in my home state as I used to. There are mountains, cypress swamps, natural beaches and barrier islands, just to name a few features that might appeal to nature photographers.

Passages - Autumn maples captured with slow exposure and vertical panning of the camera.
Passages - Autumn maples captured with slow exposure and vertical panning of the camera

Q You've been to Iceland and Patagonia, usual destinations for photographers. And you mentioned you intend to visit other locations too. But if you were told you could only choose a place to photograph for the rest of your life, which would you choose? Why?

I’m not sure I could limit myself to only one place. I do admire those who choose to dedicate themselves to one particular geographic area or subject and sacrifice breadth of photographic expression to depth. I think I get bored too easily and would rather explore new places and things. There’s also the exhilaration of rediscovering old haunts that you haven’t visited in a while and feeling as if you were seeing it for the first time all over again.

On Earth as it is in Heaven - Iguazu Falls (Foz do Iguassu) at sunrise, Brazil
On Earth as it is in Heaven - Iguazu Falls (Foz do Iguassu) at sunrise, Brazil

Q In 2006 your first book, South Carolina Wonder and Light, was published by Mountain Trail Press. You've recently launched two eBooks, Essential Composition and Essential Light. What does writing mean to you and how do you feel having launched two eBooks about essential aspects of photography?

Just as it is with photography, writing is a form of self-expression. It just happens to be a form of expression that is not as natural or intuitive to me as the visual arts. I have to work hard at writing and it takes me two or three times longer to complete a writing assignment as it would for a more accomplished writer.

But I am getting better and faster at this writing business and I’m always very proud of the finished product when all is said and done – Essential Light and Essential Composition included – even if it takes me more time than it should. I’ve received dozens of emails about these two books in particular and it’s very gratifying to know I’ve helped people with their photography that I’ve never even met in person.

Q As an author, photographer and writer, do you intend to publish more eBooks and traditional books? And is there a difference between the eBook and regular book process?

Yes, I’ll be publishing more photography eBooks through my eStore in the coming months.

The choice between eBooks and printed books is a matter of personal opinion and one’s comfort level with each particular media. However, printed books are costly, wasteful, and not very convenient to carry around if you want to take 4 or 5 with you on a flight.

As more and more readers become comfortable with the format and technology associated with electronic books, I think we’ll see the printed word become nearly obsolete in the not-too-distant future.

Ahwahnee Dream - Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Valley floor in fog, Yosemite National Park, California
Ahwahnee Dream - Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Valley floor in fog, Yosemite National Park, California

Q You're leading workshops and photo tours. Still you say you had no photographic education, no workshops or classes. So, why should people attend a workshop with you?

I can only teach so many things. I can teach the “mechanics” of the camera and exposure, composition, etc.: the left-brain stuff. I can share my insights and thought processes that go into the image creation process. I can make in-camera corrections to a student’s composition and explain how or why moving three feet to the left completely changed the image for the better, for example. Almost anyone can teach this stuff and I’m convinced that anyone can learn it.

But there are some things that I cannot teach. Curiosity is one of those things that I cannot give or teach another human being. I can plant the seeds of curiosity in another person, however, and see if they germinate or just rot away.

I can gently push someone in a particular direction to see if they continue walking on their own or if they stop and look back helplessly for yet more instructions. Those who will ultimately be successful take guidance and keep moving on their own as passion and curiosity take over.

Under A Malbec Sky - Sunset clouds over Lago Pehoe and Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Under A Malbec Sky - Sunset clouds over Lago Pehoe and Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Q Workshops and lectures are activities with groups of people. But, I guess, your photography is mostly done without people around, right? How does it feel to spend so much time alone with your thoughts and aims, scouting locations, waiting for things to happen, readjusting to unexpected situations?

My best photography work is done when I’m alone and that’s how I prefer to work if I am serious about creating and not worried about teaching or guiding. Some people are not comfortable being alone, but it doesn’t bother me, at least for a few days or less.

During a canoe expedition in 2007, I spent much longer periods of time with almost no human contact and it surprised me how difficult it was. I did a lot of talking to myself during that trip and both of us concluded that we weren’t nearly as tough as we thought we were.

Q Are you photographing what you always wanted? I mean, sometimes photographers have two paths, their own work and what they do for clients, and they're in distinct compartments. Is Richard Bernabe doing the photography he loves? Have you ever felt the curiosity and/or need to do something else? Is it possible to live from nature photography these days?

I’ll take care of the last question first: yes, I am living, so it is possible.

I do nature, landscape, wildlife, and travel photography because I’m passionate about those things. I’ve never photographed anyone’s wedding or baby or senior portrait. Kudos to those who do because they do have a passion for those things. I don’t.

During the lean years, I could have sucked it up and plucked the easy money that was being offered me to photograph these events, but I would have been doing it only for the money. Hey, I gave up a good job ten years ago because I was only doing it only for the money. Why would I want to do that all over again?

My philosophy on this is very easy. Do what you love. Period. Photograph only those things that you love and are intensely passionate about. You will be happier, you will create more insightful and meaningful art, and you will excel at what you do.

Glacial Flow - Bruararfoss waterfall, Iceland
Glacial Flow - Bruararfoss waterfall, Iceland

Q This is a must-have question for many readers, so here it goes: what is your advice to people that want to pursue photography and specifically in the same area you are?

I cannot imagine anyone getting into the field of nature photography for the money. If the reason you want to do this is anything other than love, forget it.

Q Another classic question. What gear do you use these days? And what was your gear when you started?

Now I use Canon DSLRs and Canon lenses. I started with Nikon film cameras and a Zone VI 4x5 large format view camera as well.

Cadence of April - Spuce Flats Falls in spring, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Cadence of April - Spuce Flats Falls in spring, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Q What are your plans for the near future?

Explore as much of the natural world as possible – both here at home and abroad and try my best to stay out of trouble.

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