How I Became a Professional Nature Landscape Photographer

Peter James was inspired to become a professional photographer by his dad.
Peter's dad out photographing loons.

Photography is in my blood. My father is a dedicated hobby photographer, and I remember watching him going to extremes to take interesting photos, and then spending endless hours printing and framing them, and selling them at local craft fairs. Although he had a true passion for it, his job at General Motors is what paid all our bills. My grandmother on his side was also a photographer, and while her subject was her family, she was rarely ever seen without here faithful camera in her hand. Photography seemed like such an interesting thing to do, but I didn’t know if it was even possible to make a living being a photographer. I didn’t know any professional photographers personally, but had seen enough magazines and coffee table books to know they must exist.

The Landscape Photographer's First Camera
Peter's First Camera

When I was 14, my dad gave me a small manual film camera, and taught me the basics of exposure and how to develop black and white film. I ventured out to photograph the world with a new set of eyes that were hunting for the beautiful and extraordinary. Living in suburbs made beautiful and extraordinary a little hard to find, but I did my best. It was on my family’s camping trips to Northern Michigan and the great lakes that my passion for photographing pure nature was born.

It was on one such family trip that my parents stopped by to visit an old friend who was, in fact, a professional photographer. He looked through the portfolio of my first year’s work, dismissing everything except one beachscape photo that he praised for its composition. I took that as encouragement, and after seeing his photo studio and hearing about his big-name clients, I felt much more optimistic about my future as a photographer. But of course, it looks much easier from the outside than would prove to be the reality.

I studied photography throughout middle school and high school, and then did a three-year intensive photo program at a high-ranking vocational photography college in Lansing, MI. I had dreams of owning my own studio, working for myself, and having the freedom to do fine art photography in my spare time. The day I graduated college, I moved to Colorado and opened my first studio. I had no startup money, so I partnered with a friend who had an existing business, helping to manage their store in exchange for operating my studio out of the back room. It was exhilarating to be in such a beautiful part of the country, to be running my own business, and feeling an amazing sense of freedom being out in the world and working for myself. That feeling didn’t last long.

Peter started photographing landscapes and nature as a 14 year old and has been doing it ever since.

Helping my friend run that store taught me so much about how to operate a business, and how not to operate a business. Within 3 years, as the store was failing, I found myself putting more and more of my own time, resources, and even credit on the line to help it pull through. But ultimately, I had to pull out, leaving my only option to rebuild my life, my career, and my credit back in Michigan.

Peter James took a road trip out to Bellingham Washington and took photos along the way.

I stayed with family in the Detroit area as I got back on my feet and was very lucky to get a job at a high-tech 10,000 square foot photo studio that photographed cars, trucks, and SUVs. In my 2-year stint with Davo Photographic, I learned an amazing amount about how to be successful in the photography industry, and about the incredible new digital photo technology that was just emerging. I loved my boss and the work environment, but quickly found myself going into serious nature withdraws. Moving from Colorado to Detroit is not something I recommend to anyone, especially not if you are a die-hard nature lover and a photographer. I knew I needed to get out of there, but I didn’t know where to go.

My photography professors taught us that if you want to be a successful professional photographer, you have three options: Chicago, New York, or L.A.. So I had my mind set on New York, New York, the city that never sleeps, where artists can break into the big time.

always looking for adventure, Peter James loves to take photographs even from his kayak.

I saved my money and did lots of research about the city. But, one fact kept coming back to me. Aside from Central Park, the entire city was a concrete jungle, as far removed from my beloved nature as you could be. Living in Detroit was bad enough, but New York just wouldn’t work for this nature loving, freedom seeking photographer. So, I took the savings I had, bought a camper, a kayak, and a mountain bike, and set off on a 6 month journey to explore the country, looking for a place where a photographer could make a living without sacrificing his soul.

I revisited Colorado, but having virtually no lakes, it was simply too dry for me, Utah and Arizona were glorious, but even dryer. I took the highway west and hit the ocean in Los Angeles, the legendary city that boasts amazing photography jobs, but who’s air made me throat hurt and eyes sting just driving through it. As I drove up the California coast, I dreamed about the perfect place for me. Somewhere with mountains, lakes, and the ocean. Someplace where I could live tucked away in the foothills, but get to town with less than a 30 minute commute. Someplace that had enough people and businesses that could support my studio, but that wasn’t overly industrialized or developed.

Peter has a collection of gorgeous landscape photographs from his road trip out west.

It seemed that the word had got out about sunny California, and everyone and their mother had already moved there. All the places that fit my criteria were insanely out of my price range, and I would be a tiny fish in a huge pond. Oregon was impressive, and I seriously considered settling in Portland, but wanted to see Washington first, before coming back. At this point it was October and, having my camper, I needed a campground for the night, but they were all closed. Fortunately I befriended a retired couple in Ashland, Oregon that said I was welcome to camp on their property at the base of Galbraith Mountain in Bellingham, WA.

So after making quick stops in Olympia, Seattle, Everett, and Snohomish, I arrived in Bellingham in time for the sunset. I ended up down Chuckanut drive, and running across the train tracks to get to the beach at Teddybear Cove I tripped and, trying to protect my camera as I fell, I landed on my chest, cracking at least one rib, AND breaking my camera anyway. I was devastated. Why was this happening to me now??

The rugged natural wonder of Bellingham captured Peter's heart and lens.

But as it worked out, I had to stay in Bellingham for ten days while my camera was repaired and my ribs recovered. In that ten days, I utterly fell in love with Bellingham. Despite the pain in my chest, I rode up Galbraith Mountain, paddled on Lake Padden, hiked at Artist's Point, and my friends even took me sailing on Bellingham Bay. This place was my dream come true! Mountains, islands, lakes, the sea, and the ocean not too far away. Sorry Portland, but Bellingham has you beat.