How I became a professional Landscape and Nature Photographer
“How did you become a professional photographer?”
This is a question I have been asked many times over the years, so I thought I would share my answer here as a blog post. Let’s rewind the clock some 30 years ago; I was 25 years old and was working as a chef during the day and playing guitar in rock bands at night. When I wasn’t doing that, I loved to go hiking. Somewhere in there I made a backpacking trip all the way around the Tetons in Wyoming. I had my first true alpine experience as I went up over Paintbrush Divide at 10,500 feet and I was shocked at the view. I was hooked! I started hiking more and more. Over the next few years, I changed jobs a couple of times, one band ended, and another began, and I was hiking more and more, always packing a camera with me. I used a point and shoot camera on print film back in those days. I started of dreaming how I could get paid to hike.
Being a chef and restaurant manager was never my dream job, I just happened to be good at it. I always dreamed of doing something bigger. The band stuff ended, and I had lost my love for that anyway. Hiking and photography started taking over everything. In 1998 I started planning to hike and photograph the entire Pacific Crest Trail. Yes, hiking was now an absolute addiction, and I began to think that the camera might be my way to get paid to do it. People started telling me my photographs looked like post cards. I read every book on hiking the PCT and even started planning my drop locations and contacts. But as it loomed closer, I realized I had made one big oversight in my planning: there was just no way to pack the camera gear needed to take professional photographs. So, I came up with a backup plan. In the spring of 2000 I quit my job, put everything I owned in storage, and went to hike, backpack, and photograph 40 National Parks in the West while living out of my little Mitsubishi Mirage. What an epic adventure I had traveling around the West over the next eight months of my life! I hiked and photographed over 1800 trail miles and visited more parks and wilderness areas than I can even remember. Right away I realized that my print film images were not good enough quality for publication. So, I took my cousin’s advice and switched to slide film. That was a game changer, and somewhere along the way I became a real photographer. I finally learned how to take professional photographs!
I made it all the way into November that year, but eventually ran out of money and had to come home to get a job as a restaurant manager again to pay the bills. Back to normal life. But my dream was alive and well. Now, while working as a chef, I spent all my spare time working at my second job, Professional Photographer. I started getting my work published in books, magazines, and calendars. I got myself into a couple of consignment galleries and won a bunch of photo contests. I started writing articles about my adventures and I spent almost all of my days off hiking and backpacking. I planned big epic adventures for all my vacations and kept working towards my goal of someday becoming full time professional landscape photographer.
Then one very bad day at work, June 18th, 2002, I locked myself in the office at the restaurant and wrote a list of goals. At the bottom I wrote: “June 18, quit your job.” I had given myself one year to save money, pay off all my debt, invest in supplies, make a plan, and then quit my job. I look back on that and now and think what a crazy plan it was. Just a couple of months later, I was offered a great job as the Head Chef and Food Service Director for the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Seattle. Suddenly I was working the day shift with weekends and Holidays off plus good benefits. It truly was a dream job in the restaurant industry. But that June 18th date loomed in my mind. With family and friends asking me, “are you sure you want to quit this job?” … I was! I wanted to quit. On June 18, 2003, I quit my job. As I walked away from that job for the last time with my brief case in hand, I floated on a cloud, feeling dizzy. I was both excited beyond belief and scared to death.
By now I was in a dozen galleries and gift shops, getting published on a regular basis, winning contests, and selling some prints, but it was not yet enough to live on. I needed one more piece of the puzzle, so I jumped into the Northwest Art Show Circuit. I found myself doing 26 shows a year in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. I turned the top half of my house into a print studio and business office and turned my garage into storage and parking for my 1993 Chevy Asto Van that was packed to the gills with my traveling art show. I fell into a regular routine of heading out on a Thursday, driving to a new city or town, and setting and up the show. I worked my booth on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, then broke down the show and drove home late Sunday night. I was up early on Mondays with all the printers in the house running while I made gallery wrapped canvas prints, matted prints and framed prints to restock the van in just three days, then I was back on the road to the next art festival. I was officially a traveling artist and for a long time I loved the lifestyle. Meeting new friends and customers, and seeing new places, going out to dinner with the other artists. During that first year, I also added out in the field lessons and adventures and started teaching students my Old School Photography Techniques.
At the end of the first year, I was out of savings and my business account was down to its final $200. I had only brought in $18,000 in sales, not near enough to replace my salary in the restaurant, or to pay my mortgage. It looked like I had failed, and I was going to have to get a job. I felt defeated. While frustratedly looking through the want ads and circling jobs, I decide to take a break and check the mail. Nothing but bills and a show application that just happened to cost $200 to apply. I could not do it; I could not spend my last $200. I went to bed feeling devastated.
But when I woke up the next morning, I felt completely different; there was no way I was going to give up on my dream. I applied to the show with my last $200 and dropped the application in the mailbox. Later that day I checked the mail and I had received a publication payment of $1000. The next day two of my galleries had sent nice checks, and they kept coming! It was like the universe had giving me the big test. “Do you really want to be a Professional Photographer?” I am so grateful to myself that I said “Yes, yes I do,” and invested that last $200 into my dream. The next year I got better at everything, and I doubled my sales, and the next year I doubled that again, and I have never looked back.
By now I was in 23 different gift shops and galleries, I was getting published a lot, and my lessons were starting to sell out. At that time digital cameras and photoshop were taking over photography, but I was still shooting slide film. I was stubborn and did not want to switch. I believe I heard myself telling people “I will never switch to digital.” I was already known as the “Not Digitally Altered Guy.” Soon my students were all digital and I was the only one still shooting film. And then in one year 80% of the over 400 publishers I worked with worldwide quit accepting film! I felt forced to give up my beloved slide film and switch to digital. My first digital camera was the Cannon 5D Mark 2. I must admit I was excited to never buy film again, as at this point I was spending $14,000 a year on film and processing. But my first shots on that camera sucked! They had no color in them. What am I going to do! Now, I thought, I’m going to have to do photoshop and post processing. My images just did not have the same color pop as my Kodak Elite Chrome Slide Film. Once again, I was totally dismayed. I actually thought it might be the end of my business.
But I didn’t give up. I took my Cannon 5D Mark 2 out in the field and started playing with the “In Camera” color palettes. After a couple of weeks of shooting the same test bush, I had finally done it; I had matched all of my favorite films right in the camera. I felt I had mastered Kodak Elite Chrome, Ecta Chrome, Kodachrome, and high contrast Black and White Films right in my digital camera. I was back in business, baby! Still not digitally altered, and my new style was born. I became and “All-In-Camera, Old-School Style” photographer. This was a real turning point for my business. As other photographers mastered their post-processing skills, I mastered my All-In Camera technique. I could still have my “Not Digitally Altered, No Color filters” signs up, and my lessons really took off. As other photographers taught their students how to shoot and finish their images in post-processing, I was teaching my students to nail it right in the camera. Soon all of my lessons were selling out and publishers loved working with my un-altered images. Now I was writing articles and speaking at camera clubs and conventions about my All-In-Camera, Old-School-Approach. It became my niche and set me apart from other photographers.
My art shows sales also increased as I built up my following and I continued doing 26 shows a year. I was putting in so many hours, but I didn’t care. I was living my dream, and it was so much better than what I used to do. I was a full-time professional photographer. As the years past, I started to get burned out on the art show circuit, particularly when the weather was really bad. At one show I watched my neighbors tent blow away and they lost everything. I said to myself, “I need to open a Gallery.” And a new dream was born!
Then some magic came into my life when I met my wife, Danielle. She was the missing piece to my puzzle. And how refreshing to meet someone who liked what I did and supported my dreams wholeheartedly! I had not had that in my past relationships. She told me she had hit the jackpot meeting me, an artist, musician and chef. And I could not believe I met someone who not only supported what I did, but encouraged it, so I was the one that hit the jackpot!
We had been engaged about 5 years when a loved one in my family got sick and passed away. That really hit us hard, and I realized something. I knew then that I had to push forward and make all my dreams come true, as we never know how much time we actually have here on Earth. I told Danielle, that’s it, no more waiting around. We need to get married, sell our houses and buy a house together, and I am going to open a gallery. And so, we did. We got married, sold both of our houses and bought one together, and I opened the Randall J Hodges Photography Gallery in Edmond’s Washington. It was so exciting to take a month to build the gallery, stock it up, and then open it! We had a great grand opening celebration, and now I was able to just come in, turn the lights on, and I was open for business. No longer did I have to spend five hours putting up a tent. I put my print shop in the back and for the first time ever I could produce and sell my images at the same time. I hired my first employee and suddenly I had days off again.
I must admit, I was super nervous about sales and wondered if I would still attract enough students. Even though I was happy to be finished with the art show circuit, that circuit had been very good to me and put my work in front of tens of thousands of people each and every year. But soon the people came, and the students signed up. The Randall J Hodges Photography Gallery in Edmonds was working. And it still is, I love coming to work in the gallery! I love printing and creating my finished pieces in the back and talking with all my customers and students.
But this entire time I had another dream lurking in the back of my mind. Way back sometime in the late 90’s, I visited Cannon Beach for the first time. I was enamored with the beach, but also the town and all of its amazing shops and galleries. Back then, I thought, someday I am going to be a professional photographer, and I want to have a gallery in Cannon Beach. Since I like in Mukilteo, it just made sense to open my first gallery in Edmonds, Washington. But three years into owning the Randall J Hodges Photography Gallery, I started dreaming about opening a second location in Cannon Beach. My wife and I would go on vacation there and walk the beautiful coastal town and I would share my dream of owning a gallery while we looked at different locations. At the time it seemed like another impossible pipe dream.
Then in January 2018, while my wife and I walked the town together, we saw a dream location right on the main strip with a “For Lease” sign in the window. Even though it was late, I called the phone number on the sign. I talked the owner of the building and we arranged to see the space the next morning. It was perfect. I loved the space, and I could see my work there. Then I asked the price. Gulp…Oh my. That was way more than I had hoped for. The owner gave me one week to think about. Let’s just say I did not sleep much that entire week. I was too scared to make a decision; it was a lot of money, and a huge risk. Danielle was on board a 100% right away. She is always pushing me to follow all of my dreams. Finally, I did what I always do when I need to think, I took a long hike in the woods. When I arrived home, I told Danielle “Looks like we are going to have a gallery in Cannon Beach”. She gave me a big hug and kiss, and the Images of the West Gallery was opened in March of 2018.
Now I am in my 20th year as a full-time Professional Landscape and Nature Photographer. The Randall J Hodges Photography Gallery has been open for nine years and the Image of the West Gallery has been opened for five years, and currently we have 5 employees. The old 1993 Chevy Asto show van ended up with 265,000 miles on it and has been replaced with Gracie, a 2020 all-wheel drive adventure van. When I am not working in my Edmonds Gallery or visiting the Images of the West Gallery, I am probably out camping in Gracie and hiking with our dog Foxy. Or I might be backpacking deep into the wilderness. Maybe I am teaching one of my Out in the Field lessons or Adventures. No doubt wherever I am, I’m trying to capture a new Gallery Shot so I can yell out my catch phrase, “Pow! Nailed it! Thats in the Bank!”
I don’t know what the future holds, but I feel so blessed to be living out my dreams, doing what I love for a living. I actually do get paid to hike! I can’t say that it has always been easy; even now I struggle at times with keeping it all together and moving forward. But I would not change a thing. And for everyone out there with big dreams, I give you this little piece of advice: follow them, because life is short. It may be scary, but I am living proof that it can be done.
And there you have it, that is the story of how I came a Professional Hiking Landscape Photographer. I do not take that statement lightly, I feel both humbled and blessed to be on this journey, for as long as it lasts. With a little luck, maybe this dream will take me to my retirement. Cheers everyone! Back to Online Galleries