Photographer of the Month Interview: Ken Kaminesky | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, February 2015:   Ken Kaminesky

Our thanks to Ken Kaminesky, our featured guest photographer for February, 2015! We appreciate the time he's taken to share his thoughts, experiences and some of his incredible and breathtaking fine art photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start with photography?

Unlike many photographers, I did not start taking pictures in any serious way until I was in college. What I thought would just be an easy credit course ended up being a choice that changed my life.

Once I started playing with cameras and darkroom equipment, I was hooked. After spending five years in an all boys Jesuit high school where the main focus of attention was on math, science, and sports, I found myself in college surrounded by creative people such as musicians, and other kinds of artists. This in turn led me to look at the possibilities that I just may have a creative side to me as well. It often makes me smile to think that during my time in high school I was not allowed to take art as an optional course. The art teacher told me that I had no aptitude.

After taking a year off from school, I returned and signed up for a three year photography program at a local college. Two years in, I decided that a third-year would be a relative waste of time since I had started working with some local photographers at home in Montreal. In the first few months of working with these photographers, I had learned more than in the first two years in school.

I worked several years as a photographer's assistant before going out on my own. Since most of the photographers that I had worked for were fashion photographers, this is also where I began my career shooting for clients. After a few years in fashion, I gravitated more towards commercial lifestyle photography which in turn led me to shooting stock photography full-time. I signed my first stock photography contract in 1999 with a small Florida based agency and moved on to working with some of the biggest stock agencies in the next few years.

I did this type of photography work until 2008. At this point, I totally reinvented myself and became a full-time travel photographer.

... and what forced you into the travel photography genre?

Interesting that you use the word forced. In 2008 while having some good success with my stock photography career, the business of stock photography was undergoing a rather brutal metamorphosis. The world of photography has changed drastically in the last 15 years and no bigger change came then the switch from analog/film to digital. The smaller stock photography agencies could not afford to digitize their libraries and this left them at a major disadvantage compared to the mega agencies such as Getty images and Corbis. These two mega corporations ended up purchasing all the small boutique agencies save a few and that included the one I was working with the most, Jupiter images.

In October 2008 Jupiter was sold to Getty and that basically meant that I was out of a job. The world of photography, and especially stock photography, was in constant flux and while I looked upon this as a very bad thing when it was happening, today I'm rather grateful. Lots of bad things happened in the years surrounding 2008 but in the end that's what led me to a career in travel photography and that hasn't turned out too badly. Two National Geographic covers, being a Zeiss and a Fujifilm ambassador, having a co-branded filter kit with Formatt-Hitech, and co-founding Dream Photo Tours are just some of the things that I've been able to accomplish in the last five years and the future looks bright. As if that wasn't enough, I'm really fortunate to work with talented, hard-working, passionate, and driven people. Without these people my work and my life would not be nearly as interesting or as fun as it is.

:: I think sometimes people assume travel and landscape photography are one in the same…How does travel photography differ from landscape photography and what parts of the creative thought process differs from one to the other?

They can be similar but I think that a travel photographer needs to be a bit more well rounded in terms of what they photograph. This isn't to take anything away from landscape photographers who face very challenging shooting conditions and situations on a constant basis. However, travel photographers often do more types of photography including landscape, people, cultural, architectural (interior and exterior), urban, and more. I'm not sure that it really matters what we give ourselves as definitions or titles in photography. To me, the most important thing is the quality of your work, the passion you have for photography, and how much fun you're having doing it. Whenever I'm asked who the best photographer in the world is, my answer is always: "whoever's having the most fun".

Every photographer's creative process is quite different from one another. I don't think that there's any one particular right way to approach photography so long as the end result is one of quality work.

:: How do you keep everything lined up with travelling as much as you do? Do you devote times of each day or week to the planning process, or is there a lot of "seat of the pants" type planning?

Time management is not exactly one of my fortes. There are no two days that are the same especially when considering that I may be in different countries or continents from a day to day, week to week, month-to-month basis. So yes there's a lot of flying by the seat of my pants but in the most organized fashion possible. Using that idiom as a way to characterize how I work, there are some days that I can't even find my pants.

When working on specific commercial jobs, photography tour planning, or anything specific like that, I am very organized and work out all the details on specific jobs either alone or along with my colleagues depending upon the work at hand. Planning ahead is indispensable but you always have to be open to tangents when traveling. The road teaches you this over and over again. Eisenhower said it best: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

:: When you arrive in a town or country for the first time how much of what you see and photograph is preplanned, and how much time is allowed for spontaneous shooting? Give us a little walk-through into that process.

The more I do this the more things are planned in advance. That being said, I still love being able to discover new locations to photograph whether it be by luck or by sheer dedication to spending the time out in the field walking around and searching for something new and beautiful to photograph. I'll definitely have a shoot list of locations I'd like to photograph wherever it is I'm going to. Researching is done by looking at Google image searches, places like 500 PX, doing simple web searches for the names of the places I'm visiting.

Researching time of day, season, sunrise and sunset positions, blue hour times, high and low tides, and other things like this are vital to capturing the perfect shot. If you're looking at historic sites, private properties, and national parks I'd recommend research into opening times, renovations and restorations, holidays, special permissions, tripod and or camera restrictions, and seasonal blocked paths and roads.

While it may sound ironic, it's easier to have more time to be spontaneous if you planned some of this stuff in advance.

:: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you while on a shoot?

Thinking long and hard about this and I'm coming up with very few instances where anything truly scary has ever happened to me on the road. I honestly hope that it stays this way.

I mean sure, I've had things like scorpions in my rented home in Costa Rica, almost stepped on an alligator (a big one) in Florida, driving on to White Sands missile testing grounds without knowing it and noticing the trespassers will be shot sign, falling asleep while driving on the freeway in Boston (long story but lucky to be alive), insane turbulence on a flight going through 100 mile an hour winds, and I even ate at a Taco Bell in El Paso… The horror, the horror.

:: How do you protect your gear with all of the travelling? When you go to big cities like Rome, Florence, or Paris that are notorious for pick-pockets and petty theft, what kind of precautions do you take for shooting with expensive gear, and having to be out sometimes at odd (more dangerous) hours?

Show no fear. Show no gear. Mostly by using common sense and not being flashy with expensive camera equipment one can be relatively safe anywhere. It's when you overthink these things said bad things tend to happen.

Keep your gear out of sight until you need to use it. Since most of my work is tripod based there is no point for me to have a camera out and on display for everyone to see. I'll also often use small padlocks on the zippers on my bag or backpack. I'm also very aware of my surroundings and keep my eyes open for situations that can put me in a position to be taken advantage of. I stay away from crowds as much as possible, same goes for dark alleys or any other place where I'd be alone, cornered and without an exit strategy.

My bags never leave my side or my sight. This is a giant inconvenience a lot of the time especially when alone but I don't see any other way. I also never carry much cash with me. Today, there is no point in carrying cash when most everywhere accepts credit or debit cards. For passport, wallet, or other important documents and papers, I carry these on me in the zippered pockets preferably one or two layers deep.

Don't look like a tourist, you may as well paint to target on your forehead that way. Look confident and like you should be somewhere and people will assume that you'll be less likely to be intimidated. I honestly think that good luck also has some bearing on all of this. I've been fortunate in many instances where I've been alone at all hours of the night or morning in places that were very unfamiliar to me.

:: If you had to describe your style how would you explain it? What key steps in your development as a photographer do you think helped mold that style?

Pure awesomeness... Ha! I kid.

I'm not sure I'm the right person to qualify what my style is. I'm not sure that I really believe in labels either. I'd just like to be remembered as someone who worked hard, loved what he did, had passion for the craft, and once in a while… Even took a good photo.

I think the key steps to developing any style in a good way is to have relentless drive and dedication. You can have all the talent in the world but without practice, patience, perseverance, and Photoshop skills, it would have been difficult to achieve any of the successes I've had.

:: What challenges does the portrait work you do present that the travel work does not? How do you prepare for this differently?

The kind of portrait or lifestyle imagery that I used to do was more of a collaborative effort than much of the travel photography that I do today. I worked with teams of models, assistants, and producers to get this work done. While it may just look on the surface like I'm taking quick shots of people in random locations, it required a lot of preproduction and planning to get these shoots done. Booking talent and scouting the locations we wanted to shoot at took a fair amount of time and effort. The more I shot, the more chance I'd have of getting salable images, so I'd shoot at a machine gun rapidfire pace as opposed to the more meticulous way I approach my travel photography today.

I would travel to Mexico several times a year, two weeks at a time, in order to photograph as much as I could since the talent was less expensive and it was easier to get permission to shoot in some interesting locations. Plus hey, it was Mexico and shooting in warmer climates during the winter while it was freezing cold back home in Montreal did not seem like a bad idea. Come to think of it, it was a pretty freaking awesome idea and I truly do miss Mexico. Great country, wonderful people.

I'm looking forward to shooting more people travel work in the near future and the skills I acquired while doing my lifestyle stock photography work will come in handy.

:: Does all the time away ever make you consider getting into wedding or strictly portrait work at home to balance out things? What about that genre of photography either interests you or disinterests you enough that you wouldn't add it to your list of services?

I quite like being away. So, that part of the job is actually enjoyable for the most part. To be honest, I'd rather jump into a pool of boiling lava rather than photograph an event or wedding. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for people who do wedding and event photography well. There are no second chances in this type of photography and my hat is off to those people who can nail a shot on the first try each time they're presented with that kind of situation. I just have no interest whatsoever in having that kind of pressure on my shoulders. If photography isn't fun, what's the point in doing it?

The lifestyle, people, portrait photography type work that I do has really become a very secondary part of what I do. I'm not sure that I'll ever get back into it in a serious way since I'm already quite overwhelmed with the amount of work I have to do on my travel photography work. I am looking to do more cultural type travel photography in the future. Places like me Myanmar, Vietnam, Japan, and all over Africa and the Middle East, present unique opportunities for me to expand my photographic horizons. These are all places that I'll be running photography tours as well and I want the photographers that join my Dream Photo Tours to get the most opportunities to get varied types of travel imagery.

:: What places that you have not visited are on your bucket list and why?

Antarctica… Because it's freaking awesome and one of the most remote places in the world.

Norway… Similar to Iceland which is one of my favorite destinations in the world and yet still offers unique vistas and landscapes. I'm always fascinated when looking at photographs of Norway.

Turkey… It just seems like a travel photographers dream come true in so many different ways. Stunning landscapes, incredible cultural imagery possibilities, deep rich history, beautiful architecture. Sounds good to me.

The great North in Canada... While I spend so much of my time outside of my home country, there is so much that I or anyone for that matter has not seen in Canada. The far north in Canada is vast and seems to go on forever. We rarely ever see images from this part of the world. I'd love to get an opportunity to explore and photograph this part of my country and share that with the world.

Everywhere in Europe I have not been is also on my list and the list could go on pretty much forever.

:: What is the one misconception you think most casual photographers and the general public has about what you do?

I think that a lot of people believe that my life is nothing but jet setting around the world, living in fancy hotels, eating fine foods, and living the high life. I often hear people tell me that I am "living the life" or that I'm lucky. My answer to that is that the harder I work, the luckier I get and that I am not living "The" life but rather living "My" life. The grass often seems greener on the other side of the fence and I guess it's also partly due to the fact that I tend to share more of the positive aspects of my life as a travel photographer then the negative sides.

The truth of the matter is that this is hard work, long hours, lots of uncertainty, and the monetary rewards are often not all that great. On the other hand, I don't know too many photographers who got into this line of work that had money as a priority in their life. The same can be said about me.

Every once in a while, thanks to the work I do, I get a chance to stay at five-star hotels and eat at some Michelin starred restaurants. Honestly though, that's the exception to the rule. When it does happen I'm very grateful. It's nice to have these things happen every once in a while, if it happened a lot more often, I'm not sure that I'd appreciate it nearly as much. More often than not I'm eating cheap or lousy food on the run, not getting enough sleep or exercise, staying in low end rented apartments, flying on redeye flights and never in business class. I am jetlagged, exhausted, and get way too many colds and flus. All this is a small price to pay for seeing such beautiful and awe inspiring places that I get to visit and photograph but it is far from glamorous.

:: From a processing standpoint how do you approach where the 'fine art' aspect of an images stops and the accurate portrayal of a location for a travel shoot starts? Travel/lifestyle photography to me seems in a gray area between the art aspect, and journalistic approach of documenting a location…curious your thought process with this.

I certainly do not consider myself a photojournalist, so there is no gray area for me when it comes to how I portray a location that I'm photographing. My only goal is to make that photograph look as good as it possibly can and that is my way of paying homage to the place I'm shooting.

I'm photographing and expressing my vision of a location and so in my mind it does not have to be a literal representation of what's in front of me. After all, there is no true reality when it comes to photographic representation. Color temperature, change of lenses, a different perspective, exposure compensation, slow shutter speed, depth of field, these are all manipulations of the scene a photographer he is trying to capture.

There is no pure photography and anyone who calls themselves a purist is fooling themselves.

:: What advice do you pass on to those looking to get into travel/lifestyle photography as a possible career path?

  1. Be willing to invest a lot of time into developing your portfolio. Then, be willing to spend countless hours including evenings and weekends at work. If you have passion for your work, this isn't such a hard thing to do.
  2. Be willing to invest money into your business. I'm always surprised at how many people think that they can start any kind of business without making a financial investment.
  3. Take some business courses. This is a business and not a hobby. There's a big difference between running a photography business and taking pretty pictures.
  4. Be prepared for a roller coaster ride. While roller coasters can be scary they can also be a lot of fun. Same can be said for the life of a travel photographer.
  5. Don't just be good at taking pictures but get good at planning, research, and all kinds of preproduction.
  6. There are very few people in the world who make a living as a full-time travel photographer. It's a very challenging and competitive field. Do this because you have passion for travel and photography. That's a great place to start.
  7. Most of all, have fun! When photography stops being enjoyable, then there really is no purpose in pursuing it especially as a career.
Ken Kaminesky

"My only goal is to make that photograph look as good as it possibly can and that is my way of paying homage to the place I'm shooting."

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