Being an outdoor photographer can be exciting, exhilarating and entertaining. But it can also be extremely challenging. Take the time H. Mark Weidman was on assignment for the clothing company Lands’ End. The plan was to photograph sailboats beside a dramatic sea coast and lighthouse. After getting permission from four government agencies, arranging half-a-dozen sailboats with crews, and chartering a helicopter, Mark was ready to go. But once the helicopter and Mark were up in the air, things took a turn for the worse - a huge fog bank swept in.
In fact, weather conditions became so bad, that the helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing. It was a hairy moment, but all the time Mark managed to remain composed and even brought a little humour to the situation – even though his nerves were jangling beneath the calm exterior. “It’s one of the qualities you need as an outdoor photographer,” says Mark, “the ability to remain calm in a crisis.”
Qualities like these have enabled Mark to become a highly successful outdoor photographer for over four decades, and work for a host of clients including, Lands’ End, National Geographic, Du Pont, Apple, Kodak and the creative giant Leo Burnett.
Mark was born in New Jersey in 1954 and studied civil engineering at the University of Vermont. Mark had always had a great passion for the outdoors, and in1973, he was living in Vermont and feeling restless. “I bought an old van, converted it into a camper, and spent six months living and working in a ski shop at Alta, Utah, a Rocky Mountain ski town,” he recalls. Photography had long been a hobby of Mark’s, but that winter, he developed a greater interest in it.
The following year, Mark enrolled in a photography programme at the University of Utah, before transferring to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), in upstate New York. “During a summer at RIT, I was selected for a wonderful job by a professor. I worked for a publishing company, traveling extensively and photographing the Midwest USA for their calendars, books and cards. That experience planted the seeds for what was to come soon after in my career.”
Mark graduated from RIT with a Bachelor of Science degree in Photography in 1978 and got a full-time job at Du Pont, “I was hired to establish a new photo studio,” recalls Mark, “after about seven months I became bored with the work and decided to establish myself as a freelance photographer.” Mark’s first client was Du Pont and he gained further work through the company’s internal clients.
“The first year in business I photographed an annual report for a major computer firm. The photography was quite varied and involved travel throughout the United States and Europe. I shot that annual report five consecutive years, and that led to assignments shooting annual reports for many other corporations. The assignments were varied and always on location; I did not have a studio for many years.”
Annual report photography was typically seasonal, and during the quiet times, Mark would often travel, shooting his first true love, the great outdoors. “Many of the images created during those shoots ended up in books, calendars, magazines and advertisements,” he says, “my wife and business partner, Marjorie Ackermann, handled the stock photo side of the business and that grew to be an important part of our business.”
In the early 1980s, the annual report work led to advertising photography (always on location). “We had already developed production skills for more complex shoots, so the advertising work was a natural progression. That could involve hiring professional models, a helicopter for aerials, trained animals or securing a private property on which to shoot,” notes Mark.
In the 1990s, a major publisher (Graphics Art Center in Portland, Oregon) commissioned Mark to create a coffee table book on the State of Pennsylvania. “I spent significant parts of the next 18 months travelling and photographing the state including, landscapes, industry, history and people. My wife wrote an accompanying essay and the book was very successful.”
Mark describes the pressures on an outdoor photographer, “Unlike the studio, one has to deal with the weather and a host of variables, depending upon the subject. A good location photographer practically needs a minor degree in meteorology. When shooting stock imagery, I usually have the luxury of planning and waiting for good weather. In the advertising world - with its inherent deadlines - we sometimes have to create rain or sunshine, depending upon the assignment brief.”
An example of this was a shoot for W.L.Gore & Associates, famous for its waterproof Gore-Tex material. “I had several assignments photographing the US Army wearing Gore-Tex clothing,” recalls Mark, “one assignment called for soldiers in a rainy, forest environment. There was no rain forecast for the week of the shoot, so we had to create the rain, using a large portable pump to suck water from a nearby river and spraying it over the soldiers – it looks completely believable in the photos.”
Resourcefulness; the ability to think on one’s feet and superb organisational skills are just some of the qualities needed for outdoor photography. An outdoor photographer may be asked to handle all the logistics of a shoot - from scouting locations, to acquiring permits, and ordering props and models. Does Mark prefer to simply come in and shoot or organise everything? “I think like most photographers, I’m a control freak! So, I prefer to handle everything. Also, if something doesn’t go quite right on a shoot, it can be a bit delicate dealing with the client if the error is on their part.” particularly if the problem was caused by their own pre-production actions.”
When it comes to equipment, Mark says, “I only shoot with Canon DSLRs and Leica rangefinder digital cameras.” He says that although camera technology has progressed fantastically in the past decade, “It is still critically important that the successful photographer develop a style and personal vision.”
He adds, “The craft in photography partly used to be about knowing how a scene, a subject and the lighting would translate to the two-dimensional medium of film. Now, the craft is understanding how those same factors will translate to pixels, and equally important, how those pixels can be managed in the computer. I now spend more time at the computer than behind a camera.”
Although the stock photography market has become more competitive, Mark says, “The positive side of the stock industry today is I can shoot digital images and have them online and for sale worldwide very quickly.” Shooting great images isn’t enough, he adds, “Good key-wording is as important as the quality of the imagery. If the key-wording is not good, the best photo in the world will simply float aimlessly in cyberspace.”
Mark has some advice for budding professional photographers, “Don’t get into the business of photography unless it is your absolute passion. It is your passion that will carry you through the challenging times. Learn the craft well; then work on developing your own style. Learn how to market your work, either from a seasoned pro or from a professional consultant. Shoot, shoot and shoot some more. If you don’t find yourself shooting for the pure pleasure of the process that might mean that photography is really not your passion.”
Today, Mark lives and works in Salida, Colorado, where he has a studio. “I use the studio to work on personal projects and for local clients, mainly artists and a few small companies,” he says. But the outside world always beckons; “I’ve always loved the outdoors, and a piece of advice often given to photographers is ‘to shoot what you really love’. That means you’ll understand it better than most and know how to photograph and interpret it.”www.weidmanphoto.com