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Photography

Russ Bishop: Mastering the Landscape and the Adventure

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Today, I am pleased to introduce you to Russ Bishop, a landscape, adventure sport and fine art photographer from California. As you will find out, Russ learned his trade in the time before digital cameras and instant gratification, but has fully embraced the switch to digital. He works constantly on reinventing himself and adapting to changes in the industry, which is why he has been as successful as he has been for so long.

Q When did you get started in photography?

My father was a photographer so I was brought into the seam at a fairly early age. He was a large format, black and white type of guy along the lines of Ansel Adams. So I spent a lot of time in the backcountry as my family camped and mountaineered, oh, way back to the 50's, so I was raised in the environment.

I actually got my first camera back when I was about 14. That was a used Leica at the time which was a pretty nice camera. Ever since then I've been shooting Nikon as I kinda gravitated towards the 35mm just being a lot easier to handle as I followed my dad through the back-country and wilderness.

I think the primary thing I learned was patience while watching somebody use a large format view camera, with the ground glass upside down.

Q You already answered my second question, which is “what drew you to nature and landscape photography?” It was mostly your upbringing then?

It was my upbringing, yeah. It was just natural. I often joke with people that I usually feel more at home on a trail than I would on a New York sidewalk. [laughs] And that's something I always like to pass on to younger photographers. Whatever your subject specialty is, you want it to be something you're comfortable with, something you really feel at home with. That's certainly the best way to let your vision and the emotion of your feelings come through in your photography.

Just to backup a little bit, I actually began professionally shooting, I got a degree in broadcast communications and I worked for CBS back in the 80s, way back when. I was a liaison with production companies. But I had been shooting long before that and building up my library and you know, always traveling and doing a lot of adventure shooting, that sort of thing.

I had been building up my library and was aware of the whole stock industry which was kind of in its heyday back in the 80s. Come about 1987 my wife was actually able to get a transfer from down in Los Angeles up to the Santa Barbara area so that's when we moved up to Ventura. I was kinda ready. The saying at the time at CBS was, “It's art if it sells.” And I wanted to finally make that move to something I was passionate about all my life.

It was a natural transition for me and when my wife got the transfer the writing was on the wall. It was pretty obvious. We wanted to move out of the LA area. It's been a little over 20 years that I've been doing this professionally.

Q Your transition to professional photographer is going to be different from people today. In your day you would have to send in slides and slides and slides to a stock agency. How many times did you get rejected?

Oh, lots of rejection. [laughs] In fact, you know, I think that's a good thing and I think it's important for photographers, especially young photographers, to be able to look at their work and kind of, sort of index it through the years. Because it's amazing. I'll look back at my work and sometimes I almost cringe. I think, “Oh my god, I sent that in as professional quality?”

It's nice to see yourself grow. I have to admit, as much as I loved looking at Velvia on a lightbox, that was a pretty sweat thing, I've thoroughly embraced digital as of 2005 and there is no going back. The cost of submitting film, handling film and even the little, you know, notations on all the submittals to clients and whatnot that they were basically liable for the $1500 should something get lost. And unfortunately push came to shove a few times and we had to go through that, which never leaves a good taste in everybody's mouth.

Fast forward to digital and we've left that realm but we still have copyright issues and I'm a real advocate of using watermarks and that sort of thing. Finding that nice balance between presenting your work in a very attractive manner and at the same time letting the world know, not only how to find you but you recognize your rights and copyright. Those are very important things these days.

Q How long after turning pro was it until your business was self sustaining?

It was about by 1990 things were going along pretty smooth. The real benefit was that it was the heyday of stock and five-figure license fees were not uncommon. Things are a little different today. It’s really more of a numbers game.

That's what I tell younger photographers too. Having the passion, needing to be so familiar with your subject matter and your feeling for it that you can constantly grow and reinvent yourself and follow your vision. I often say that I hope I have yet to take my best image.

To look back and see my growth through the years, you know, it's a natural progression. You can't belittle yourself for something you took way back years ago because what you're discounting there is your growth process as you develop.

Q I would like to delve into the stock side of things with a couple of questions. First, do you have any set clients or do you shoot only stock and send it in to the agency?

It's primarily stock. I don't do any assignments, it's primarily stock and fine art. I sell prints, fine art through corporate collections but it's all self assignments. As you can see from my work, I emphasize the Western United States. We have such a wealth out here, it's amazing.

Last year I took a trip to Europe; France and Italy. I traveled around North America, Canada and Hawaii, but primarily the Western United States.

Q Pick one of your shots and give us an idea of the time involved from prepping and planning to go on the shoot. Was this something you specifically went for? Did it happen by chance? And then coming back, after taking the photo, the time involved on the backside.


This is the photo Bishop chose to talk about.

That's something I've replicated a few times on a back-country skiing trip in the Sierra Nevada. That was a planned shoot. That particular shot was taken in Rock Creek, which is up in the Mammoth area of the Sierra Nevada along (Hwy) 395.

It's a great place in the winter time because it's always reliable for snow. It's one of the coldest places in the Sierra and the trailhead actually starts about 9,000'. It starts at 9,000' where the road ends and you ski up to 11,000'.

That particular image was taken right at dusk on a back-country ski trip and the tent is just lit with a very small lantern, a LED lantern. That setup is fairly simple. 24mm lens, which is really one of my primary lenses for landscape and adventure sport. It's just a great field of view and the depth of field is fantastic so it's really one of my go-to lenses.

In that shot, lining up the peaks, it's just a beautiful skyline, nicely silhouetted and there is a little bit of dusk light and the warm glow of the tent. There wasn't any manipulation needed, post-processing-wise. Very straight forward.

Q You mention the 24mm. Lets us know more about the gear you use, please.

Going back to the early days, I followed in Galen Rowell's footsteps quite a bit. He was definitely one of my inspirations along with Art Wolfe and Ansel Adams, of course, with my father's work. [Rowell's] whole motto of traveling in the mountains, a mountaineer first and foremost and a photographer second, I really subscribed to that. Traveling fast and light.

So, the early days of film, prior to digital, I was using what Nikon would classify as more of a semi-pro model camera, like the FM and FE which, ironically, even National Geographic photographers like Dewitt Jones and Galen Rowel chose those same models because with film you didn't need the heavier camera like the F3 or F4s. That wasn't something you wanted to carry in the back-country. Being able to travel light.

Again, 20mm or 24mm lenses. Back in the days, prior to the current state of affairs with the zooms being of such quality that they actually can supersede that of primes. Now my favorite is a 17-35mm and the 70-200mm which are just fantastic lenses. Those are my two primary lenses today

Backing up a little bit. The 24mm, probably the first 10 years of my career, was my primary landscape lens and the 105mm was my ideal short telephoto for portraits, candid or even nature detail.

Q At this point in your career, do you have any assistants or is it just a one man show?

Nope, just a one man show. I haven't had the need for that yet, although I've had a lot of offers. [laughs] Sometimes it would be nice to have the company, but part of that fast, light motto is just that; being able to carry the gear, but I'll add that the flip side of that is also being in good physical condition.

In fact, I just read something today, I think it was in Sierra Magazine, about somebody stating that a person should never carry a pack that's over one quarter their body weight. And I had to laugh. Often times my fanny pack, I use LowePro packs and I carry an Orion pack in front, will have close to 10 pounds in it. Quite often between ski gear, climbing gear and photography gear on my back. Plus camping gear, I will often times carry 60, 70 pound pack. I kinda had to laugh at that

The point being that your physical conditioning is as just as much a part of your gear and your preparation for a trip as is research and knowing your equipment.

Q You mentioned Galen Rowell and Ansel Adams. Who are some other people have given you inspiration in the past or even today?

On the landscape side I would have to say Eliot Porter. He pushed color work and set the stage back early on. These days David Muench is quite an inspiration for me, following him and his blog.

Of course, he just got back from the Arctic circle and I like his approach. He specializes more on the humanitarian side too. I like his real open ended approach and of course the emphasis on vision, again, knowing your equipment and being able to work on that vision and being able to see and develop your eye.

Q Is there anything else you would like for people to know about you?

In the future, I'm looking forward to branching out a little bit and possibly making it to Iceland and Patagonia in some of my travels. Doing workshops, which I'm not doing currently, is possibly on the horizon. So those are a couple of things we may have in the works.

As I said before, I just want to emphasize to the younger photographers getting started, whether they decide to do this as a living or primarily as a hobby, the main thing is to follow their passions and let that come through. Let the emotion come through in their images.


You can find more of Russ' work on his website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

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