Interview With Jack Graham

How easy is it to start in photography, improve as an article and, eventually, pass your knowledge to others? Jack Graham shares his life experience on becoming a landscape photographer and photo tour leader

Tell us the story of when you picked up a camera. What was it about photography that inspired you to become a photographer?
I have my degree in music and made a decent living as a musician. There are many ex musicians that have become successful as photographers. My musical background inspired me to become a photographer. Photography, like music, is all about the creative process. For me, it’s all about creativity and telling a story. When you play jazz, you take a tune or a concept and interpret it the way you are feeling. A good musician 'speaks' with their instruments or voices. In photography, you take a subject, form a concept and visualize the story you want to communicate. The camera is like a musical instrument in so many ways. I love taking something that interests me and telling my story about it through photography, just like playing a tune and perhaps improvising on it to tell your story. With photography, it’s the image instead of the sound, but it’s really storytelling.

How long were you photographing before you decided to become a pro? What did that process look like?
It was tough, but lots of fun. Just like music, you’d better not only know how to shoot, but how to make a living. I see many pros, great photographers, not doing well because they don’t get the business-end of things. I spent probably six or eight years, intensely learning the craft, before I really became a full-time pro photographer. The word pro is not what it used to be any more. To me, pro means that someone is willing to pay you for your services. I quickly figured out that I loved to teach and wanted to learn how to run photography workshops. I found out who ran the best and spent time working for nothing, or very little money, as an assistant. What I learned first-hand couldn’t be taught in books. It took three or four years to develop a client list, referrals and somewhat of a reputation as a competent workshop leader before any kind of profit showed up. I also learned that this is almost a 24 hour a day endeavor, not a nine-to-five job. But if you are having fun it’s all good.

Describe a difficulty you faced when you first started out, that you had to overcome as a new professional.
I knew very early that I wanted to lead photography workshops. I had a plan and some ideas, but things were not as easy then as they could have been. It’s not easy now for that matter, due to the competition, but knowing where I wanted to be certainly was helpful. When I started out there was no digital, no Photoshop, no internet. There were some difficulties but in certain respects things were a lot easier than they are today. There were two major things that I had to overcome. One was getting known enough to start to develop a client base, and the other was making a living. There were two kinds of folks in photography: those who either married someone with lots of money or inherited enough to be out there developing their business, or folks like me who had to figure things out and prioritize everything.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, magazines and books were the way you got your name out. Even to this day, few people make a good living selling prints. Articles by John Shaw, Art Wolfe, Tom Manglesen, Jack Dykinga, Galen Rowell and others were published in magazines every month. They became the 'Godfathers of Nature Photography', and deservedly so. As a new photographer I learned that not only did you need to take some good images, you also needed to know how to write. I’d look to get published anywhere I could. State Fish and Game magazines, as well as other smaller venues, were the way to go. It took time to crack the bigger publications, but again, it all goes back to time. I was one of the people who got to be a reasonably good photographer, put in the time, didn’t worry about fame and fortune, tried to keep the ego in check and, in the end, got 'found' by folks who wanted workshops and got published in some bigger publications.

Taking out adverts in magazines was a great thing, but funds were very limited. There was no internet, let alone Facebook or Instagram. I had to correctly allocate funds for travel, some equipment, the day to day running of a business. I remember distinctly John Shaw telling me that profit was what was left over after everything was paid for. I saw and heard about others who miscalculated their budgets and quickly went back to a nine-to-five job. I maxed out my credit cards rather quickly, but always knew that if I put in the time and effort, things might work out.

When the internet became a viable entity in the mid to late 1990s, my business grew quickly. It is a lot easier now to get noticed as a photographer – but that can also make one lazy. The other aspect is that now there are so many great photographers all over the world.

When did you start using the Fujifilm system and why did you initially choose Fujifilm to be such a huge part of your process?
In 2012-2013, a client sent me an X100 series camera with one lens on it. I immediately loved the retro look but didn’t take it too seriously until I put it on a tripod in the Tetons, got back to my room and processed the images. I was blown away with the results of this little camera. I then bought a 16mp X-Pro1 and a few lenses. The results were astonishing. I was a staunch Nikon guy for many years and I always said... “How can these Fujifilm cameras be as good as Nikon or Canon?” Well, I was wrong. My decision to switch to Fujifilm was based on the facts that the cameras are built as good as anything on the market. Fujifilm also provides firmware updates frequently, instead of making us go and buy another camera. Additionally, I challenge anyone to compare Fujifilm glass to anything else out there.

The cameras are amazing and the glass is even better! Today, many people tell me they have converted to Fujifilm equipment because its smaller and lighter. I get that, but that shouldn’t be the only answer. It wasn’t for me. Do I like that lighter? Of course, but Fujifilm gear is as good as anything on the market quality-wise, build-wise and image rendition wise.

Did you experience a noticeable difference in your workflow when you changed systems to Fujifilm?
I won’t say that my photography was getting somewhat stagnant, but I wasn’t seeing improvement in my own work. I always ask my clients to go back three years and see if they can notice improvement. If they don’t, something is wrong somewhere. I was a victim of this. I felt I was not growing as a photographer. Yes, I was filling workshops, but I wasn’t making the quality of images I wanted to at that point in my career. Along came the Fujifilm X-T1 and some new glass and, when I put this in my hand, I was instantly rejuvenated. All the dials were right there, at my fingertips, within easy reach. I didn’t have to constantly go into the menu to adjust things and, when I did, it was a user-friendly menu. I could now focus on being creative, instead of worrying about the intricacies of the camera. The camera really didn’t make me a better photographer, but what did was the freedom to see, think and create, instead of dealing with the technical aspects that can be roadblocks to growth as a photographer.

I have heard that the Fujifilm lenses are unbelievable. Were you surprised by that when you got your hands on it? What’s your favorite lens for landscape work and why?
There is a lot of good glass out there. I must say that every lens Fujifilm has produced is magnificent. There might be two or three 4 out of 5 star lenses in Fujifilm’s lineup, but the rest are 5 star quality. I wasn’t terribly surprised as I had heard of Fujifilm’s lenses for many years, but quickly discovered they were actually better than I thought they would be. There is nothing like good glass.

I have two go-to lenses. One is the XF16-55mm f/2.8 and the other is the XF50-140mm f/2.8. Both are weather-sealed and tack-sharp. The XF50-140mm also accepts Fujifilm’s teleconverter, which comes in handy when you need that extra length. The XF14mm f/2.8 is my favorite aurora lens, with the XF23mm f/2 and XF35mm f/2 lenses (both weather sealed) being my go-to for travel and street shooting. I was able to shoot the new XF80mm f/2.8 macro last month, it is amazing, I have one on order. The XF90mm f/2 might be one of the sharpest lenses in the entire industry. I know you asked for one lens, but when I get going on Fujifilm lenses, it’s tough!

When you look back at your growth as a photographer, can you identify two places/bench marks where something you learned or experienced made a significant difference in your process or art?
The first thing I learned was that if I was going to be the kind of photographer I eventually wanted to be (I still don’t feel I’m there yet), it’s about the art itself: simplicity, not the highly technical stuff and all the overkill of software available today. All the tools are there, but often unnecessary. When I became a dedicated Fujifilm user, this way of thinking really took hold and became prevalent in my career. It is not the tools, it’s how you use them. I became aware of simplicity, slowing down and becoming an artist.

What have you learned about yourself through your photography? What has that taught you and how have you applied it?
Over the years I have discovered that photography is about style and vision. I have grown to learn that the only one I need to please is myself. I know that may sound arrogant and I don’t mean it that way, but I photograph for the photographer inside me. Lots of viewers want to see the same old type of images: ones that follow all the rules, ones like we have all seen before. For me, it is looking for new things, new styles and ways of handling things I have photographed before, or just plain new subject matter. I am pretty picky on image making these days. I think that’s a good way to be.

If you could sit down and share advice to yourself when you were first starting out, what would you say?
This is an easy question and maybe my favorite. Ask yourself “What do I want to do? What do I love?" Easy to ask, but harder to answer.

I went to a small photography workshop in California around 1988. I knew then that I wanted to be a workshop leader. It is important to have a goal that is realistic for your future, it is where you are at and knowing where you want to be as a photographer.

Then ask yourself “What do you love?”. What you love can direct you to areas that you may not even think about. I love discovering different ways of making images. I remember seeing an image made by Galen Rowell and saying to myself “I want to be able to take these kinds of images someday”.

I would really encourage everyone, especially folks starting out, to understand that photography demands a certain amount of individuality.

To someone starting out with photography and Fujifilm, what advice would you give them as they begin their journey?
Success comes from preparation, which can solve many of problems. You need to be ultra-familiar with your gear so your brain can think creatively, as well as allowing the technical aspects of making the images to become secondary. If you are comfortable with these two aspects, then your ability to see, visualize and create, will be much easier.

This is where Fujifilm comes in. Their cameras are very user friendly. The ergonomics of the camera itself is so conducive, allowing one to be creative without needing to be a technical master.

There are many things I do before a workshop, or even when I am heading out somewhere on my own. These rituals allow me to get my mind in the right place for creativity.

From your experience, what advice would you give to someone who is considering turning photography into a profession?
Firstly, I would encourage an upcoming photographer to understand that this is a process. It takes time and lot of effort. Photography, for me, has been an incredibly enriching experience. If you are a landscape photographer or workshop leader, expect to be on the road a lot. Also, having some kind of goal is always a good thing. I don’t really think too much about what I have done, or where I have been. I think about what the next chapter is going to be.

I always tell younger folks getting into this profession to be the best they can be. Leave your ego at the door and keep striving to get good. Photograph what you like and be yourself, be your own toughest critic.

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    I would like to give my brother a gift certificate towards one of your packaged seminars. How can I arrange this?
    Thank you
    Amy Karz

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