Interview With Neil Simmons

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Neil Simmons is a photographer raised in Santa Cruz County and he is lucky to live close to many of his favorite photogenic spots around California. Here he explains to Tiffany Reed Briley while he enjoys the challenge of getting the shots he wants while on the road

Hi Neil! It’s great to meet you! First off, tell us a little bit about yourself!

I’m married and a father of two great kids. My family includes my wife Leanna, Jackie (10) and Jake (6). When I’m not photographing I’m out surfing, snowboarding, hiking, mountain biking, playing with the kids, and playing music in my band Fire’s Fury.

I live and breathe this photography stuff so I’m an up early, stay up late, traveling whenever I can kinda guy. I’ll sleep in my car, backpack in the snow, get my clothes and shoes wet, muddy, and wreck my gear just to get ‘the shot’. I’m obsessed with the timing and alignment of things like the sun, moon, tides, stars and the Milky Way in my photography. It’s been really handy to have an app like Photo Pills that helps me to get creative with these alignments. As an example, Photo Pills helped show me that it’s only in June when I can stand on a certain spot at Twin Lakes beach and see the full moon setting at sunrise aligning our two lighthouses in Santa Cruz. It helped me plan a trip to Death Valley where I caught the full moon setting over Zabriskie Point last spring. It is also very handy as it shows where the Milky Way will be in the night sky at a certain time.

As a full-time professional photographer, I find myself doing a little bit of everything. I have photographed over 500 weddings so that has been my focus for a long time. I tell people I shoot weddings, portraits, fine art and commercial work. Portraiture in itself is a very broad category and includes maternity, babies, boudoir, pin-up, families and high school seniors. My busy summer and fall schedule has me grabbing my camera to shoot a landscape any chance I get in the winter and spring. Thankfully sunrise is a good time any time of the year for me to photograph or surf. The light is great and after an hour or two I can go about my day and it’s only 9 o’clock.

As an example of my week, I shot a new hotel (Chaminade Resort), the owner of the Bargetto Winery in his vineyard, the granddaughter of Alfred Hitchcock for a magazine article, exercise clothing for my friend Patrick’s business Yura Sports. I also photographed a few sunrises and sunsets in and out of the ocean for my fine artwork. Finally, I sold a few prints out of my gallery and others from a previous wedding. After all the hard work this week, and since we are expected to have a storm this weekend, I am planning on snowboarding Monday and Tuesday on a few feet of fresh powder in Lake Tahoe. I love traveling as part of my job. Local California pictures seem to sell the best in my area so I focus on Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and other California places and National Parks.

Is photography your full time job?

Yes, I’ve been a full-time professional for 13 years now.

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How would you define your photographic style?

I would describe my landscape photography style as perfectly timed earth art. I plan my artwork around storms that produce dramatic color and clouds at sunrise and sunset. I study the position of the stars, moon and tides, and how they interact with the landscape. Recent examples are figuring out the 2 days of the year where a crescent moon aligns with the arch at Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur with the Milky Way above or aligning the full moon over a lighthouse on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.

Bay Photo Lab has a huge print of mine hanging in their office that I took on the 6 days where an extreme negative tide coincided with a backside sunset view of Natural Bridges (a view you never see unless you are in the water taking photos on those 6 days).

I also put together a rainbow walk during the springtime in Yosemite. To give you an idea, here is a waterfall and rainbow schedule if the elements permit:

Lower Yosemite Falls at 9 - 10 am
Vernal Falls at 11 am - 1 pm
Vernal Falls (another rainbow from a straight angle) at 4 - 6 p.m.
Nevada Falls at 2 - 3 pm.
Bridal Veil Falls from 4 - 6 pm.
Upper Yosemite Falls (which involves a steep hike to the bottom) at 3 - 5 pm.

I also love the yearly moonbows in Yosemite where, on the full moon in April and May, the moon rises at just the right angle and you can see a rainbow at night.

Where was the last place you photographed?

The last place I photographed was a beautiful sunrise at our local arch. The beach next to this arch the locals call ‘Its Beach’ and the arch doesn’t have a formal name either.

I am currently planning a trip to Death Valley to photograph the wildflowers and hopefully meet with a model then take some artistic nudes in the desert. I just got back from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where I was photographing the landscape. Jackson Hole is a photographer’s paradise next to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. I saw wolves, foxes, moose, elk, buffalo and a bald eagle, to name a few. In California we see bears in Tahoe and Yosemite and think ‘what a cute bear, I’ll take a few photos of him and hang out for a few minutes watching him’. In Jackson bears and wolves want to eat you so I had to carry a gun to protect myself. Quite a different way of viewing the world than what I’m used to and I enjoyed the risk/reward.

What was the last image you printed?

The last photo I had printed was picked up this last Wednesday. It was a 24 x 36 metal print by BayPhoto with a flush mount frame. It was sold to the Venetian Hotel and will be located in their lobby. The colored buildings in the photo are the Venetian Hotel, which is an iconic scene in our town of Capitola. It’s a unique picture that I timed at sunrise inside of a wave. At sunrise the sun hits the buildings, which bounces the light and creates a great reflection. This was taken with my Nikon D800E, 16mm fisheye lens inside an SPL waterhousing.

What is your next goal for your photographic journey?

My next goal is to open a ‘mega’ gallery (for a lack of a better word). Rent is expensive here but if I am able to secure a large space with big, huge, expensive photos, hopefully I can make it work. We don’t really have that here in Santa Cruz.

Sometimes it is nice to be around other big galleries so that you create an area in town that people come to visit. Carmel, which is an hour away, has that, as do Hawaii, Vegas and Jackson Hole. Santa Cruz doesn’t have it yet.

I am also slowly veering away from portraits and weddings and more towards fine art and teaching photography workshops. Weddings are tough and a lot of work. I’m still young (37) but I can’t see myself shooting weddings in 20 years. I work my butt off on a wedding for 10 hours, carrying multiple heavy cameras, staying up late, and editing for 20-40 hours after that. It’s grueling and you basically give away every weekend for half of the year. Thankfully I have a great assistant (Meghan) who helps me to edit weddings, portraits and commercial jobs.

Even though I mentioned that California photography sells the best for me, I certainly have on my bucket list to travel to Alaska, Chile and New Zealand. I would also like to re-visit Utah, Columbia Gorge in Oregon and Europe.

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About Author

Tiffany Briley

Tiffany Reed Briley currently lives in Charleston, SC with her husband. They own Charleston Photography Tours and The Photography Workshop Company. Tiffany is on staff at The Landscape Photography Magazine and Wild Planet Photo Magazine. Raised in Alberta, Canada she enjoys photographing the seascapes of Charleston, the majestic vistas of the Canadian Rockies, and is always ready for the next adventure awaiting her.

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