Shedding Light on Kerrick James
by Peter Zack and Miserere
Today we have Kerrick James, who has been an accomplished travel, landscape and adventure photographer for many years. His work has been published in over 200 book and magazine covers of publications such as National Geographic Adventure, Sunset, Islands, Arizona Highways, Elle Decor, Alaska Airlines, Outdoor Photographer, Sky, Las Vegas Life, Virtuoso Life and too many others to list. He is also one of the 4 official Pentaxians sponsored by Pentax in the USA. He’s so rarely home, we’re fortunate to have him give us a few moments to share some insights into his career and work. He’s been very generous to send us large image files, so be sure to click on the photos below to see them big.
Kerrick, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for our Shedding Light series. Given how much you travel for work, do you actually pay rent anywhere? It seems you are always on the go and living in a suitcase.
I do pay a mortgage in Arizona, and actually get to sleep there sometimes! Most years I travel at least 180 days and could be gone more but I think you have to balance work with family or else all you have left at the end of the line is…work. I love photography but I love family too.
Could you list a few of the places you’ve been to and a few you would like to still visit or return to. What places have been the most special and why?
This always ranks as one of the most popular questions for me to be asked, and I enjoy answering it as I get to relive some great places and memories. Outside my home territory of the American Southwest I have always loved Alaska, Hawaii and Mexico, and have shot each numerous times. But I would have to say that I dream of returning to Patagonia and the Atacama Desert in Chile, the South Island of New Zealand, and Australia.
Let’s talk gear a bit. Landscape photographers historically often shot medium and even large format film cameras. In fact my favourite for several years was the Pentax 67. I know you’ve had some time with the new Pentax 645D. Have you used it in your work yet and can you give us a few highlights or thoughts about it?
I shot the 67 and the 67II for many years and still have two 67II bodies and a big complement of lenses. I always tried to use the big 67 camera whenever possible, although I was quite happy to shoot 35mm for sports, wildlife and people in travel images. The 6×7 format was very successful for me, and when the 645D was announced for real, I knew it would be a perfect comparison to 67/Velvia quality. I was the first pro to get to test it in the USA and immediately took it up to Northern Arizona to shoot the same iconic locations I had shot for years with the 67. t’s a superb field camera, rugged, weather sealed, quite easy to use, not terribly heavy, hand-holdable if necessary, with amazing image quality, and I can use my 67 glass with the Pentax 67-to-645 adapter. After testing it, I’m glad I have little Velvia left in my fridge, and I’m not buying more. I made two 30X40 inch test prints of Monument Valley images and they exceed anything I have printed from 67 at the same size. [Ed. note: I have seen these prints and can attest to their high quality, beyond what I could have printed from an APS-C file.] In truth, they look like 4X5 prints, handled very well. And you can use old 645 film lenses too. Just stop down enough and use a tripod. The color palette is exceptional, tonal scale excellent, fabulous detail and resolution. Yes, I want and will get one in 2011!
What focal lengths do you most often shoot? It’s my impression that many amateurs will have a bag (or 2) of lenses that they “must have” and yet most pros will often shoot with only 2-4 lenses at most. Do you often travel light and use a few favourite lenses for most of your work?
For the Pentax 67, I own and use the 35mm Fisheye, 45mm, 55-100mm zoom, 135 Macro, 200mm, 300mm ED, and the 1.4 and 2X converters. Mostly I used the 45mm wide angle and the 55-100mm zoom, a really fine performer. For the APS-C cameras, K10D, K20D, K-7 and K-5, I have lenses from 10mm to 600mm, plus 1.4 and 2X Pentax TC’s; too many to list, but on assignment I would typically carry 5 or 6 lenses. If wildlife or sports were in the mix then I’d carry my long glass, but I always carry wide lenses!
Pentax’s DSLR line does not feature a model with a Full Frame (24x36mm) sensor, which is the format of choice for the majority of professional photographers. Have you ever been tempted to “go Full Frame”, and how have you coped with the alleged limitations of the APS-C (16x24mm) sensor format?
This might be a surprise to some, but I have no interest or real need to go to Full Frame. I shoot both editorial magazine and commercial assignments with my K-7 and now with the K-5, and as both Getty and Corbis take those files from me without complaint, I am happy. Among other issues, I like having light and rugged camera bodies and lenses. While I’m strong enough to carry the Pentax 67 system, and have done so for many years, its not a bad thing to be able to travel light(er) when I need to do so. And, the new Pentax 645D blows away any of the Full Frame bodies for quality!
Stepping back in time, what got you interested in photography and when did you begin shooting? Was there a shot you took early on that made you realize this was the path you wanted your life to take? Do you remember the shot and can you discuss it?
I was chiefly intrigued by landscape photography in high school and early on in college, and then began to shoot people and really expand my horizons. Working people into the landscape really made my career take off, but there’s not one seminal image that made me say “I want to shoot for the rest of my life”. I simply knew that for me, photography was the perfect blend of visual, intellectual and physical challenges, and an art form of endless fascination. There’s nothing I’ve ever experienced that has brought me the thrills and growth I’ve made in this medium. I’ve sacrificed much for love of Photography, but it has been more than worth it. I’ve never looked back since I made my choice.
What elements do you look for to create a successful photograph? Is it the time of day? Certain things you think are essential?
It all begins with light, and what you can do with great or meaningful light, but honestly, in the end its all about emotion, emotions that arise from taking or viewing an image. Making a super image is a buzz, a high, and recognizing and blending graphic elements, light, tonality, timing, gesture, everything you can steal from a 3D world and render into a 2D document, well…what could be better?
I see you also teach seminars; did you attend classes or seminars when you were starting in Photography or are you completely self taught?
I was self taught in high school, growing up in a house of cameras, but studied photography as an art media in college, at Arizona State in Tempe, Arizona. I’ve always been a bit of a teacher, and like to share knowledge, so being asked to teach photo workshops was a natural for me, although a surprise when it happened about ten years ago.
A lot of people enjoy shooting landscapes, what inspires you and what has influenced your work over the years? Do you have any favourite shots you’d like to share with us? If you were to offer one or two tips to our readers, what would you consider to be the most important things to look for or consider?
Early on I looked at masters like Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams, and later learned from viewing David Muench, Carr Clifton and Galen Rowell. One tip would be to watch carefully when storms are going off. Stormlight is my favorite because of its inherent drama, and I try to anticipate the path of the light so I can be in the right place when it breaks. Rainbows are a special interest of mine, even here in the desert Southwest!
Another tip is to shoot every variation you can imagine when the light is great. Don’t shoot just a few images and think you’ve nailed it. And also, don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the moment, as it will never be the same again for you.
With all the interesting places you’ve visited, I’d love to hear a story or two that stands out. I suspect you’ve seen some very unique things in your travels.
I’ve been lucky enough to shoot double rainbows over the Mittens of Monument Valley, the Green Flash over the Pacific in Hawaii and other places too, eighteen red cloaked climbers on the summit of Mt. McKinley (from a plane thank God), dozens of male gray whales from the air in Bahia Magdalena, shot from a 600 feet high parasail in New Zealand… These and a thousand memories of times and images are always swirling in my head, and greedily I want more.
I know you named a cave that you were the first to photograph professionally. Tell us how that happened.
In 1994 I was scouting along the Colorado River north of Lake Havasu City for a new guidebook to the American Southwest. I saw a group of kayakers putting into the river and got myself invited to join them on a one day exploration of Black Canyon. This is the canyon where the Hoover Dam was built in the early 1930’s and it was just being opened up to public access from the dam road for recreation. We kayaked and canoed downriver until we dipped into a tiny cave. I took a photo with a fisheye zoom lens that seems to expand interior space. A few days later I showed this image to the photo editor of Arizona Highways Magazine, who assigned me on the spot to shoot a story on the opening of Black Canyon to the public. I needed to caption all my images for the editor, and our group of kayakers had marveled at the rich green color of this water in the flooded cave; late in the day, low angle sunlight bounces off the cave floor up through the clear Colorado River water and it seemed that we all took turns being suspended over an emerald crystal. So I captioned it Emerald Cave for the story, and the name seems to found acceptance. I still receive, and answer, queries from people around the world about this magical space, and how to find it. The image below was the cover of the July 2007 issue of Popular Photography, who had commissioned me to shoot the Emerald Cave as part of an article on high ISO photography.
Do you always carry a camera with you? I ask this because sometimes I find that just spending time away from civilization and soaking in my surroundings can revitalize my vision. Do you do anything like that to try and look at the place you’re in a little differently?
No not always, although I do feel partially undressed without one, and I never ever want to be caught cameraless when the magic is happening. It is important to see and feel the environment and connect with it, and get your ideas sorted out. But serendipity always rules over pre-planning. Seize the moment and make the day!
What if any other art forms interest you? How do they influence your work?
I do look at other art; painting, drawing, sketches. Photography is just a technically potent means and method of ‘painting with light’, and ideas can be universal among mediums. We are visual beings first and foremost, as I’m fond of telling my writer friends.
Since a lot of your work has been published, are you shooting for the magazine cover or are you shooting what you like and then submitting it for possible publication, or are you shooting ‘on assignment’ for certain shots a publisher wants?
When out in the field, or shooting in the city, whether on an assignment or shooting for my own stock, I always think of covers. Covers are a particular challenge to create, and to land a prestigious cover is a special thrill. I have always shot more verticals than horizontals anyway. I do always shoot to the parameters suggested by the photo editor, and then try to go beyond those boundaries. I like to surprise photo editors with a new take on a subject, and find ways to satisfy myself as well as the client. Its work, but a better ‘job’ would be hard to find!
The Photography business is changing even as we speak. What would you do differently today if you were starting out in this line of work? What advice would you give a young enthusiastic photographer who wanted to make a career out of travel and adventure Photography?
First I would advise taking a vow of poverty for the first few years of being in business! Second I would say ‘learn to write!’ Even if you don’t write and illustrate travel features as I do, you need to write well to pitch for projects, maybe to blog, to write emails that people want to read. Third, look at pictures in the media constantly and learn to make images better than what are currently in vogue. Finally, get serious. We’re in a communications business, and we provide both a service and a product. If you don’t treat this as a real business you’ll never make a living at it.
The current economic crisis has hit some segments of the Photography industry especially hard. For example, wedding and events photographers are seeing their business taken over by “uncle Freds” and “mums with cams”; is the travel and adventure segment also being hit? With the ubiquity of DSLRs these days, are you finding your clients are more likely to source their travel photos from Flickr rather than hire you to travel somewhere to take them?
I think this ‘recession/depression’ has hit all segments of photography—stock, assignment, workshops, everything. Even other photographers like to shoot travel imagery and always have. Now there is a glut of “acceptable” travel material available from worldwide sources, and many of these source just want the photo credit. They aren’t trying to sell enough images to make a decent living, and don’t actually know what their work could be worth, or perhaps even care to find out. Microstock, royalty free images, agency volume deals…it’s been a fast race to the bottom for the last decade. In the past, even when assignment work was slow for me, I could always count on stock being a baseline for my business. That is no longer the case. And yes, real bonifide assignments are few and far between now, a handful a year when I once did 25 editorial shoots in just one year for one client alone.
Kerrick we appreciate the time you’ve given us today and would like to have a second part to this interview some day. We’ve only touched on the landscape work and there’s much more to your portfolio that would require another full interview to explore. Thank you for your time and I hope we can take this up again some other day.
Its my pleasure to share ideas and pictures with your audience. So many fine teachers shared with me over the years and its a treat to give something back. Travel well, and see before you shoot!
Please visit Kerrick’s website to see more of his work, or follow his occasionally updated blog. Kerrick teaches numerous workshops throughout the year and is also available for private one-on-one photo instruction on location in the American West and Pacific Rim; see his website for details.
All Photos: ©Kerrick James.
|If you enjoyed this article and found it useful, please consider buying us a beverage. Better still, support EtL by making your online purchases through our affiliate stores—it costs you nothing extra and we get a small commission from every item.|
Note: Links in this article might be to one of our affiliate stores. Purchases made from our affiliates through these links will benefit Enticing the Light at no extra cost to you.
- Shedding Light on John Mireles
- Shedding Light on Gordon Lewis
- Shedding Light on Haje Jan Kamps
- Shedding Light on Gianni Galassi
- Shedding Light on Carrie Sandoval
Tags: Adventure, Interview, Kerrick James, Landscape, Pentax, Pentaxian, Photographers, Photography