Photographer of the Month Interview: Richard Bernabe

Featured Photographer, January 2012:   Richard Bernabe

This month, our featured guest is Richard Bernabe.

We want to sincerely thank Richard for taking his valuable time to answer our questions and share his story, thoughts and work with us! Please visit his site links to see more of his incredible images, and let him know you appreciate this interview.

:: What got you started in photography, and specifically landscape and wildlife photography? Did you ever dabble with any other genres in photography (weddings, portraits, etc.)?

Photography was and is simply an extension of my love and passion for nature and wild places. That's all it is. I was doing lots of hiking, backpacking and fly-fishing trips when I got started and I was carrying a camera with me to document it all. After a while, the desire to return with better pictures became a thrill and I began to study how to improve with each and every trip.

I can honestly say that my proudest achievement as a professional outdoor and nature photographer is the fact that I've never photographed a wedding, someone's baby, or anything else that I wasn't personally interested in. I told a friend when I quit the corporate world in 2003 that if he ever got word of me shooting a wedding, he could assume that things were going badly.

:: Did you take any formal training in photography? If so, how has your approach changed from what you learned in school to what you've acquired through experience?

I never took any sort of formal training, classes, or workshops for photography and I studied economics in college, of all things. I just let my passion and curiosity lead the way.

:: Who influenced you photographically as you were beginning? Any pieces of advice you gleaned early on that stuck with you?

John Shaw because of the instruction books, then Galen Rowell and his sense of adventure and where he was able to take his camera, then Adams, Weston, and the classics. I studied their images and tried to imagine what it was about the scene or the light that turned them on.

:: South Carolina isn't the first place people think of when they think of great landscape photographers or photography, are you from South Carolina originally or did you relocate there?

I was born and raised in New Jersey then lived for a good deal of time in North and South Carolina - well over half my life, in fact.

:: What is it about South Carolina that makes it special for photography, what places do you enjoy most? Being the primary photographer of this style from your area, do you feel any extra responsibility to show the world your region?

South Carolina is a very diverse state, as far as nature goes. Unspoiled Atlantic coastlines and barrier islands, cypress swamps, mountains with wild rivers and 300-foot waterfalls: It has lots of opportunities if one is patient and willing to explore and look. I would say that's probably true for any place, though.

As for any sort of responsibility, I would say no. There are many other good nature photographers from this state and I certainly don't go looking to add any unnecessary responsibilities to my life.

:: Do you consider yourself a photographer first or an outdoorsman first?

Well, it would have to be outdoorsman and nature lover first. As I explained, photography is a derivative of my passions and photography would be an empty pursuit without it.

:: You've done some nice travels this past year or so (Patagonia, Iceland). What has been the biggest challenge to you photographing overseas? As landscape photographers, we're used to a certain amount of "roughing it." Has anything specific stood out that caused problems when you took your craft to another country?

Being away from home and family is the toughest thing. Long stretches of time in crowded airports and on planes are also supreme annoyances.

:: Scariest thing that has happened to you on a shoot?

In 2005, while doing an assignment for South Carolina Magazine, I was kayaking through a black water swamp along the coast when a 12-foot alligator came charging at me from the opposite bank. It was literally running on top of the water at full speed, with jaws agape, right at me before diving under the kayak at the last second, nearly capsizing me.

The guide accompanying me insisted that we report the incident to the wildlife authorities and I was relieved to learn later that the gator was relocated to a more remote river system and not killed. He was a big aggressive, territorial male during the breeding season. They all agreed to name him after me.

:: What challenges do you find the most difficult now that you've established yourself professionally?

Nature photography is an ultra competitive business. So now I work more, travel more, sleep less. Am I complaining? Of course I'm not.

:: What do you think is wrong with photography today?

I am not sure anything is "wrong" with photography. But with the proliferation of digital cameras and new photo hobbyists, there have also been a lot more photography teachers and experts and gurus and such. A lot of what's being taught out there is just plain garbage, because I hear it being repeated to me all the time by my students. Explanations are either incomplete or overly simplified with very little or no clarity.

The whole "focus one-third into the scene" mantra for landscape images is just one example. It's wrong and confusing. And why wouldn't it be confusing? One-third of what exactly?

:: What plans do you have for the coming year? Any projects you're excited about?

I am finishing up some e-books that I'm excited about, as well as more international and exotic travel locations I'll be visiting.

:: What is your favorite piece of NON-photographic equipment that you would recommend someone to purchase?

A really good pair of hiking boots or shoes is what I would recommend. My personal favorite non-photographic tools are my Suburu Outback and MacBook Pro.

:: What is the biggest challenge photographing wildlife vs. a landscape? Do you prefer one to the other?

Well, I believe that landscapes are much more difficult to make so maybe I enjoy the challenge of trying to create meaningful landscape images for that reason.

I've always thought that in order for an image to be successful, it must resonate with the viewer on an emotional level. Pretty pictures just don't cut it. With wildlife, I think it is much easier to anthropomorphize the little critters into an emotional discourse we can relate to. For example, a bear cub nuzzling up to its mother. Okay, here is something we can relate to emotionally that's universal: love between a mother and child. Aside from any technical challenges, the rest is relatively easy. The emotional trigger is there and it translates well to the image.

For landscape images, the photographer must extract emotional content from inanimate objects and things: dirt, sand, rocks, trees, clouds, water, etc. This is much more difficult to do in my opinion.

:: What has been the biggest challenge of the business side of photography for you?

The mundane and trivial tasks of running a business can sap so much creative energy. I'm a big-picture person and I am not always as disciplined and patient as I would like to be with the details of record keeping, expense tracking, invoicing, key wording, etc. I do it. It needs to be done. I just don't like it.

:: What advice do you have for young or amateur photographers looking to get into this business?

Be original. Be real. Do it only for love, not for the sake of ego or money. Definitely not the money!

:: What is your favorite image of your portfolio and why?

Aside from "What camera do you use?" this might be the most frequently asked question of me and I never have an answer. Maybe it's because I don't have a favorite. I might have 100 favorites - those images that represent a special moment in the wild. But I could never single out only one and call it a favorite.

Richard Bernabe

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