Twenty years in Photography

This month marks the 20th year as a professional photographer. In 1991, at the age of 23, I graduated Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, receiving my Bachelor of Arts in Commercial Photography, eager to set the world on fire…at least I hoped to. A month later, after sending out 150 resumés around California with no job offers in return, I figured I might as well start my own business. I pounded the payment, I did self-assignments and got them published, and through it all my business slowly grew. There were many months where I wondered how I’d cover my expenses, pay my bills, yet somehow I was able to.

Many over glamorize professional photography, especially travel, assuming you trek the globe simply clicking away with ease while clients pay you….with ease. Far from the truth. You suffer, you sacrifice, you struggle, you have successes, disappointments, moments of amazement, moments of loneliness, all the while wondering where your next paycheck will come from….for twenty years.

Through all of this, I still can’t see myself doing anything else. My hopes was always to lead an extraordinary life – and this goal continues to drive me today. I can’t wait to capture the next image, yet I’m willing to take breaks between shooting to keep myself fresh and hungry. I’m extremely proud of the collection of images I have – to be able to look back at my career in a tangible way is pretty rare – yet I hope to build on this collection and create some of my best images in the years to come. To use my knowledge and experience to be more creative and to grow as an artist.

I wonder what the next twenty years will bring. I’m sure there’ll be some suffering, some sacrifice, some struggles, and some success…hopefully that success will come in the form of a lotto ticket.


A veteran I met in my travels

A few years ago while on assignment in Southwest Florida, I wandered around Sanibel Island and J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge one morning, in search of some images, and met an older gentlemen fishing. I thought he might make a nice subject fishing in the mangrove-lined refuge, and approached him.

Lee McMichen was in his early eighties, open to chat since he had been fishing for three days, casting his net without a catch. We talked a bit as I tried to figure out how I could capture a decent photograph in the harsh mid-day light. My first thoughts were all about creating an image, but as we spoke more, he shared a few stories of his life, and it became more about our personal interaction instead of producing an environmental portrait.

Sometimes, even when I’m on assignment, I stop, put down the camera, and listen. Although I might not create photos at those moments, and maybe miss memorable scenes, I believe this process brings me closer to the area I’m documenting, and in an indirect way helps me produce better overall images.

As we continued our conversation, he began to tell me about his experiences in war, and his time stationed in Pearl Harbor. You see he was on one of the four battleships bombed that morning, Lee deep in the hull when the explosions crippled the ships and the alarms to abandon ship sounded. He described his rush to escape from down below, only to have the main hatch be closed off in front of him and three others. Panic ensued as all four seamen realized the fate had been sealed, yet only seconds after the hatch closed, it reopened, and they were able to get out before the ship sunk.

After sharing this information, he didn’t talk of the joy he had at that moment, his life saved. He only spoke of all the others who weren’t able to get out. Yet because of the few seconds in his life where one sailor saved four others, he was given over sixty more years on this earth.

As we stood along Wildlife Drive, me fumbling through my camera bag, I heard him yell out – he had caught a large mullet, the first of his trip. “Looks like you are my good luck charm young man”, he said to me. I smiled, yet could only think of who his real good luck charm had been years before. You see, it’s not always the locations you dream of visiting, the adventures you hope to take, or even the images you produce as a travel photographer – it’s really about the people you meet.

Here’s to the men and women who served our country in all of our wars on Veteran’s Day. Although I prefer to follow the anti-war beliefs of many leaders such as the Daila Lama or Mahatma Gandhi, I will always honor and support our troops – those who do a job where so many lives are lost. To those who weren’t able to be saved, rest in peace, and thank you for your ultimate sacrifice.


Small World

Had something happen to me recently that reminding of a story I’ve told a few times in some lectures. It is about walking Don Moseman.

I photographed walking Don Moseman in the mid 90s while on assignment for City Sports magazine-


Books in the works….

The past few months I’ve been working on my second book – due out in the summer/fall of 2011, it will be based on nature photography- one of my first photographic loves. I thoroughly enjoy the process of writing a book because it brings out so much of what you do subconsciously, and reminds you of the many steps you take to capture a great photo.

I’ve also had the chance to capture new images without the limitations of a specific assignment- something I haven’t done much of for years.

Another book is also in the works, completely different from anything I’ve done so far- I’ll share more as it develops.

So over the next month or so, I may be absent on the blogasphere, but check me out on my Facebook fan page, where I try to pop in a number of times a week: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Arbabi-Imagery-Sean-Arbabi-photography/122003760806

I’m a Flickr nut too: http://www.flickr.com/photos/arbabi/

During the summer I’ll run a few workshops in the Bay Area and a few online (in between assignments), while planning a very exciting one I hope to make happen during the fall. Then in 2011, I may have an international workshop is an amazing location- more info to come.

Even with all of this activity, I continue to push forth my tv show on photography with my partner – we passionately believe in the project and hope to find a champion for it. More promotion as well as another tv spot also in the works.

Last bit a news- I was stoked to see my first book, The BetterPhoto Guide to Exposure, hit #10 on Amazon’s Photo How-to section today- it continues to sell well, get great reviews, and I have signed copies available for anyone interested- check it out on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0817435549

Or on my site (with links to bookstores around the world): http://www.seanarbabi.com/book_exposure.html

Thanks for lettin’ me spread the news & promote- when you put your blood, sweat, and tears into projects, half of the excitement is sharing it with others.


BetterPhoto’s worldwide reach

I recently finished my 39th online photo workshop course on BetterPhoto, and currently teaching my 40th – I started teaching with them in late 2006, and mainly teach an exposure course entitled “Better Exposure- How to Meter Light“. BetterPhoto.com a great online photo community, free to the public, with 4-week and 8-week photo courses ranging from $198 to $348, as well as websites you are purchase for your own photography.

But I don’t want this to sound like an ad for the online workshop company or my classes there. I mainly wanted to mention how amazing it’s been teaching people around the world – the wide reach of this online company that started in 1996 in Redmond, Washington.

When I first started with BP, I first wondered if I’d be able to teach as well online compared to what I do in live field courses. If my personality could come through in the four weeks I spent with my students (four lessons, four assignments, four critiques, with a Q&A section in our Campus Square site). And luckily it has. People get that I’m an easy-going guy that likes to make others laugh, as well as pack them with tons of good info. And although we can’t all shoot together in the field, the course offers a chance for people to learn on their own time and schedule, while capturing the subject they’re most interested in.

To date, I’ve taught photo enthusiasts in 43 US States and 37 countries – wild – countries including America Samoa, Aruba, Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Bermuda, Canada, Cayman Islands, Ecuador, El Salvador, England, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Macedonia, Mexico, Namibia, New Zealand, the Netherlands (Holland), Oman, Panama, Puerto Rico, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Trinidad & Tobago, and the United Arab Emirates.

I recently had my first student from Paris France, as well as Vietnam, and this month have a gentleman from Istanbul Turkey. All walks of life, from at-home Moms to traveling businessmen, retired grandfathers to college-bound teenagers excited about a new hobby.

It’s wonderful to know so many appreciate the art of photography, and have such a passion and love for it. And I truly enjoy giving these great folks some of the tools to help improve their photographic skills. Of course I’ll always have the passion to produce my own images I found interesting, to capture assignments for publications or produce shoots for ad and corporate clients- but to know I’ve had the chance to connect with so many in this amazing online medium is truly a joy.

Check ’em out if you get a chance- all kinds of courses for beginners to advanced, exposure to photoshop:


Injuries & illness- the norm for a nature/travel photographer

As I type, I refrain from itching my right shin – what I thought was a small scrape from hiking through some bushes on a recent assignment in Monterey,might be a small case of poison oak. It reminded me of all the injuries and illnesses I’ve had while on the road, capturing images for my clients – nothing compares to what some photographers have experienced – cerebral malaria, acute mountain sickness, gun shot wounds, and even death – but here’s my small list of some of the memorable ones…

Attacked by wasps, Mendocino Coast: This, by far, was the worst experience in nature I’ve ever had. While on assignment for Sunset magazine, I was capturing a mountain biking guided ride. The guide and I went ahead of the group to scout for shots, and when I found a place, I laid my bike down – unfortunately on a wasp nest (burrowed under the leaf-covered forest floor). By the time I knew it, I was stung multiple times as the guide and I ran, dropping all my gear. We had to go back for our bikes and gear and was stung numerous times- in total, I was bit 25 times and the guide about 15. For the next 4-5 hours a weird rush of adrenaline flowed through my body every 10-15 minutes. All in all, I completed the day of shooting, but in some good pain, with scars lasting a few month.

Food poisoning, Acapulco: On a magazine shoot in ’03, I drove from Mexico City to Acapulco, on my way up the coast to Mazatlan stopping at many cruise ports. My Acapulco hotel was renovating their first floor, including their restaurant, so our room service was Hooters- that’s right, Hooters. I only had one dinner (delivered by a man may I say), but the next day I couldn’t eat without it coming back up. Another day later, the heat was sweltering as I went to photograph the famous cliff divers, forgetting my water in the car. And although I was carrying a lot of gear (a 35mm backpack, large tripod, and a very heavy medium format case), I assumed I wouldn’t need much water – sure I was walking down a few hundred steps to find the angle I wanted, but my car was right there at the top, in the parking lot. Unfortunately I was wrong. After a day of not eating, the heat, and the exertion, I was soaked in sweat and very tired. I shot images for a hour or two, but as I headed back up the stone steps, I was exhausted and baking hot- my body screaming out for water. I knew as was in the first stages of heat stroke. It took me 45 minutes to hike my heavy gear to my car and as I arrived at the top, I was pale and a wreck. I tried to eat some watermelon but that too decided it didn’t want to stay in my body. Although I rested with my head between my knees for 45 minutes, I knew I couldn’t rest much more- I had to check out of my hotel and drive 7 hours to Ixtapa for my next stop.

Montezuma’s revenge in Borneo: Traveling through Sarawak for three weeks was an amazing experience- and luckily I avoided any food-borne illnesses – that was until I arrived at the coastal town of Miri, on my way back home. A day away from my flight home, my stomach began to rumble as I walked the markets looking for a few trinkets. I won’t go into much detail, but the next day was spent very close to my hotel room and the bathroom- too much information? 🙂

Headaches atop Whitney: Backpacking to the top of Mount Whitney’s 14,500 foot peak was a wonderful experience with a few friends, a 300mm lens, and my tripod. But as the highest point in the lower 48 US States, I knew we would be tested with altitude sickness, especially coming from sea level the day before – nothing compared to what Everest climbers go through of course, but enough to become serious if not monitored. Although I made it up and back, the headache I had on the summit was excruciating and that night of sleep was a rough one.

Swollen leg in Sarawak: Wasp sting: While I hiked, 4-wheel drove, and helicoptered through the jungles of Borneo, I saw many large insects and bizarre wildlife. I had cut my knee the day before my trip (broken Snapple bottle), requiring stitches (along I never got ’em). My fear was the large gouge on my knee would get infected by jungle parasites, but luckily that never happened. One day however, while in the Penan village of Patik, I was stung on my calf by a wasp- hurt like hell. Over the next few days, my lower leg got larger, began to tighten up, and was covered by a rash- I had no idea why, nor did the doctor who traveled with our group of photographers and journalists. It took a week or so to go completely away, and although it was painful, it didn’t compare to the bizarre feeling a got from taking Larium (anti-malaria medication)- that’s a whole other story.

Air cast while covering the Eco-Challenge British Columbia: A few days before covering an adventure race assignment in Canada, I torn my ankle apart and had to wear an air cast. I still traveled to Whistler BC, covered the event for about a week even though my ankle was a mess. By the end of each day it would swell up and couldn’t fit in my boot. On the second night, the whole thing was turning blue and purple, from my toes to my upper ankle, but I toughed it out – not enjoyable but that’s part of the job.

Houseboat fall, Lake Shasta CA: If there’s one thing I’ve learned with photography is that the more you get into it, the stupider the things you do. On one Sunset magazine assignment while on the third deck of a houseboat, looking through my 24mm lens and walking at the same time (I know, not smart) I stepped into the hole that was the ladder down to the first floor. Luckily I caught myself albeit half way in the hole, smashed my back, and had a nice welt for a few weeks.

Face plant in Montana: I had a mix of magazine assignment’s once in Western Montana, spread out over a 10-day road trip. Of course dealing with weather and planning each shoot meant keeping up with a tight well-organized schedule. So on this particular day near Seeley Lake, I was due to capture sunrise, meet a few people to canoe down a stretch of river, mountain bike up to a waterfall (to save time), and connect with a group for some horseback riding shots before rounding out the day at sunset. The first part of day went off without a hitch. I rented a mountain bike and rode up a narrow technical single-track trail to the waterfall, got the images I needed, and as I headed back I silently was patting myself on the back- not only for being able to make each shoot happen in that day, but also how I was handling the tough trail with my photo backpack. Spoke (or thought) too soon. A 1/2 mile from my car I hit a tree root in the trail and took a nice face plant- broke my watch and sunglasses, and although I wore a helmet, scratched up my forehead nicely, not to mention my arm as well. The bike was in worse shape forcing me to carry it back to the car. That was the end of my day.

Back spasms in St Croix: I learned in my early 20s I was born with a small case of Spina bifida – my first lumbar never forming completely leaving a large gap. In high school I injured my back and ever since then I would have my back go out from time to time. With workouts and proper posture, I’ve been able to fend off back spasms over the year, but once in the US Virgin Islands, upon arriving for a two week photo shoot, my back gave out- most likely due to carrying so many heavy bags of gear. Models were on the way as well as my client, and luckily after a day of rest, Daypro and Soma, I was able to release the spasm and get back to my job.

Homesickness in Buenos Aires: I know, not really a legitimate injury, but it does come with the territory. Three weeks after being married, I was on the road, traveling to Argentina to capture an adventure race in Northern Patagonia. Once I arrived in Buenos Aires, I felt the overwhelming feeling of being homesick. “What am I doing here” I asked myself as I tried to communicate with the little Spanish I knew. Nevertheless I was aware that I had no other choice but to find a hotel, catch my Andes-bound flight the next day and to tough it out- I needed to be responsible and knew I’d regret it if I turned back. When I was younger I thought homesickness would go away with age and wisdom, but it doesn’t – Steinbeck proved that in Travels with Charley.

Although I still get homeisck when on assignment, it’s a little easier to deal with since with age comes the awareness of simply putting one foot in front of the other- just as long as it’s not into a hole I might fall through.


My Via magazine cover

A few months ago I headed down to Monterey on assignment, to capture a cover for Via magazine (AAA’s travel publication). Millions will see the image on the cover of their January/February 2010 issue (their circulation being one of the largest of any travel magazine in the US), and most won’t bat an eye at how I came to capture the image.

Which is fine. That’s my job as a photographer. And just as we past hundreds of buildings everyday, most don’t think about all that went into erecting that structure. I know, I said erecting. I digress….into an 11-year old boy.

But seriously, if you’re curious how I came to capture the shot, here are some of the details. I was first hired in September to go down to the Monterey area, to come back with a mix of images for an article on Moss Landing and the Elkhorn Slough– from antique shops in the small town, to a famous seafood dish at Phil’s Fish Market, to a mix of wildlife and scenes in the largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California outside of San Francisco Bay. I went down a bit early on a Friday (set to shoot Saturday and Sunday) and found beautiful sunset light with a group of 250 sea lions who had taken over a local pier- captured some fantastic shots. But with the weekend came the fog and overcast that didn’t let up. So I photographed as well as I could (although my editors were hoping for blue skies) and came back with a variety of images, albeit in soft white light.

I wasn’t sure I’d be given a second chance with the weather, but a month later my editors asked me to return searching for clear skies and a clear cover choice. On a beautiful blue sky Sunday morning, the day after Halloween, a warm-streak came through Northern California, normally reserved for the indian summers of early October – yet this one was spilling over into November- a rare occurrence only Al Gore could explain. As I drove back to the Elkhorn Slough, I prepped the day in my mind – half of it spent hiking the eastern side of the slough capturing birds and wildlife, the other half in a small boat on the water. I clicked off a mix of scenes creating natural blinds to hide and document bird life in the area.

Around 2pm, I headed to meet a very nice gentleman who agreed to take me into the slough on a 1950s russian rescue boat – a local kayak company owner. I only had a couple of hours left of light (due to the early late fall days) and hoped to find a sunset scene with a person and the surrounding worthy for the cover. It was a wonderful few hours photographing sea otters resting in kelp beds, the Elkhorn Slough Safari taking visitors through the area, Pelicans silhouetted by the sunset, as well as the full moon rising as kayakers headed out for a nighttime paddle. But I wasn’t sure if I had the cover.

About 45 minutes before the sun set, we headed up a small inlet hoping to find still waters and a nice scene to frame. We came to an old pier and a bend in the waterway, and I knew we had something. I stepped off the boat and had my new friend navigate the small vessel up and down the way as I fired shot after shot. It was a peaceful serene scene that felt right.

Hopefully many will like the shot, maybe it will inspire some, and thankfully my editors were pleased with the image choices from the shoot – which is always my first goal when I’m on assignment. You rarely have a scene you feel should be the cover, actually become the cover – but this time the weather, my boat captain, my eye and my editors all came in line.


46 seconds about my book, The BetterPhoto Guide to Exposure

Just a quick video message from about me and my exposure book – if you’re looking for a book to improve your photography, check it out!

To buy the book or get more info, go to: http://www.seanarbabi.com/book_exposure.html

Happy Holidays everyone!


Building my own career

I had a professional issue a few months back that took me back some. Sure it was upsetting but didn’t shake me – I know who I am and what my intentions are as a person and as a pro photographer. I don’t live in the past, as although you remind yourself not to take things personally, how can you not- especially when you have a passion in what you do, and work tirelessly to make it happen.

I use Facebook, enjoy connecting with friends, sharing images, posting various happenings. One day last year I posted a Sierra workshop in the events section. As a big fan of Galen Rowell’s work (great outdoor shooter and mountaineer who past away with his wife in a plane crash in ’02 – a young 62), I had joined a fan site of his on Facebook and decided to let others know of the workshop through a small message and link – Galen was big on the Sierras, spent many days and nights capturing images and climbing mountains there as I have – in fact John Muir’s book “The Yosemite” was re-printed using Galen’s images back in 2001. The fan site was not run by Galen’s company, yet by a fan, so I figured like-minded Sierra-lovin’ folk might be interested in a photo class.

I discovered Galen’s work when I was 17. We lived in the same Bay Area town and although I came to know him over the years, I couldn’t call him a friend. To me he was truly a kindred spirit (as he signed to me in one of his books). He was much like a mentor without the actual mentoring. I admired his work, attending a few of his lectures, but never inquired about how to run a photo business or get started in the industry. Out of respect, I felt that was my homework to do- my dues to pay.

My Facebook post went unnoticed – no one ever contacted me about our Sierra workshop through the site, until I received an email from someone who worked at Galen’s offices (who no longer works there). This person basically accused me of using Galen’s name, riding on his coattails to benefit my own career- truly laughable since nothing could be farther from the truth. Coming to know Galen’s staff over the years, I never once asked him for advice or for industry info, nor did I ever receive Galen’s help to get published, create a workshop, sell a gallery print, or make a stock sale. I know Galen admired me for this since so many did try to use his connections to benefit themselves. The ironic thing is when he passed, I was contacted by his office for advice on how to deal with a mutual client, which I gladly assisted with.

And of course to date I’ve been published around the world, shot hundreds of assignments, taught workshops for over 10 years, made thousands of stock sales, and sold numerous gallery prints. Although I’ve been lucky to have many wonderful people (clients, workshop students, editors) help make my dream of being a photographer come true, I didn’t get to the place I’m at by using others- I built my career through tons of hard work, late nights, sacrifice and perseverance. No one dragged my butt out of my tent to capture dawn, no one wrote my letters or emails to land jobs, no one did my research and planned my shoots but me.

So to get a message like this was not only insulting, but ridiculous. Nevertheless I followed up with a reply explaining my intentions, which were never to attach myself to Galen in any way. But what can you do. It doesn’t matter how you run your life or what your true intentions are, when someone opens their mouth without any forethought or research, you simply have to disregard their comments and move forward.

Although Galen’s presence was a source of great inspiration as I built a career in the industry, I rarely thought of him as I traveled the world on assignment. But when he past, he came to mind often. I remember in ’04 while on a job in St. Croix, overlooking the Caribbean sea while photographing at sunrise, I remember thinking “Aw Galen, you should be here to see this”. I wish he was.


Photographs aren’t free

I recently received an email from someone claiming to be a writer for a how-to website. This person stated they wrote articles for the search site and wanted to use one of my images for their article (originally used from one of my Via magazine assignments).

This is normal in the photography industry, and a big reason why I own all of my images (and do not do “Work for Hire” jobs which transfer all image rights to your clients). I grant first-time publishing rights, and once my photos are used by my client, they are part of my image collection, available to license through my company or my stock agency. Some clients think licensing our images is ‘extra money’ but it’s not- it’s simply part of our income as freelance photographers – photographers with no guaranteed source of income, no benefits, no 401K or pension plans.

Getting back to the request, after doing a little research on my own, I come to find out this person was not a writer for the website, nor employee as a writer anywhere else. Instead the site relies on people for their content – it’s like saying you’re a writer for Wikipedia. And not to bash this person since most people aren’t aware of copyright laws, or the licensing fees for a photograph, or the proper way to go about obtaining images – shoot, I’ve had some editors and clients in the past who didn’t necessarily follow the proper way being in the business of licensing images – but pleading ignorance doesn’t necessarily get you off scot-free either.

Then as I researched the how-to site a bit more I learned that my image was ALREADY on the site – with the credit listed as the magazine I originally shot it for! They basically took the image from Via’s website and pasted it into their article.

At this point I had a few options – I could:

1) Contact my copyright lawyer and sue (which is the last thing I would do since mistakes do occur, and I’m not one to stick it to people that way)

2) Send them a bill for licensing, charging them a penalty for illegally using my image (this is more in line with the norm, and completely appropriate since the image was up for at least a week or two).

3) Notify the “writer” and the website were infringing on my copyright with the unauthorized use of my image and to remove it immediately or face a possible lawsuit and licensing fees (which is what I did).

The site removed the image that day, and at first the “writer” was a bit rude but after explaining the law, she relented and apologized. If they made me an offer to pay for the use, I would have looked up the licensing fee in my price guides, and charged them appropriately including the time they had already used it for. If she didn’t apologize, she would have been dealing with my lawyer. The site also tried to claim that they didn’t have control of what members uploaded- wrong- if it’s their site, they SHOULD have control – or they might get sued.

Moral of the story- your photos are exactly that- yours. If you are a professional photographer with your own business, they are not just sitting in your files or computer, they are part of your inventory. I can’t just go and take something off of the shelf at Target, walk out with it, and claim “it was just sitting on your shelf”. A lot of money, time, effort, experience, knowledge, and equipment goes into all of the images I produce- as with any business that has a product to sell. Control your photos – do your homework – purchase pricing guides and/or software like
Fotoquote or Jim Pickerell’s stock guide, and prepare yourself for the day when a client wants to buy one of your images- or one uses an image without asking for permission. And if someone tried to abuse your copyright, find a lawyer.

Irregardless of royalty free photos, royalty free art, royalty free graphics, and all the accessible work on the internet, my photos aren’t free.