We had the good fortune of connecting with Dave Wilson and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Dave, why did you decide to pursue a creative path?
Strictly speaking, I’ve always had a creative career. In the late 1980s I went into Public Relations where I worked primarily on print publications. For a PR guy I was uncharacteristically introverted, but I was great at quietly producing all the copy and photography that went into media kits, corporate newsletters and the like. In fact, I enjoyed the creative side of PR enough that I continued doing it for 20 years.
After two decades in the corporate world, however, I completely plateaued. I still longed for creative work yet had become thoroughly bored with promotional writing and photography. I still wanted to move up in my career yet, unlike virtually all of my co-workers, I had absolutely no desire to climb even one more rung on the corporate ladder. The situation led to a profound question: What does “moving up” really mean, anyway?
While pondering that question, I reflected on the fact that my whole life I’ve done all sorts of outdoor activities. You know, weekend adventures, purely for the love of it. In the 1990s I even got a hiking book published, and since the early 2000s I had been doing more and more landscape photography. I found the latter particularly fulfilling, and ironically my outdoor photography was improving due to my corporate experience shooting everything from people and products to real estate and special events. I began realizing that natural lighting conditions that make commercial buildings look good also make mountains look beautiful. The compositional principles that make products appear fabulous also bring out the best in cactus and rock formations. And if one can master the most difficult subject of all – people – then photographing fully cooperative trees that never complain about anything is a walk in the national park. All the photography skills I had learned in the city were transferring to the wild, and it wasn’t long before I became as good at shooting the natural world as I was at taking pictures of all things urban.
Eventually I realized three inescapable truths: 1) I find landscape photography infinitely more fulfilling than PR work, 2) I was getting pretty good at the nature stuff, and ultimately, 3) A great way to “move up” in life would be to leave the corporate world for the wilderness. So, in 2011 I did just that. I founded Dave Wilson Images and ever since have devoted myself to producing and selling nature and landscape photography of the American southwest and beyond. It has not always been easy, and I’ve certainly had my share of ups and downs, but I have never looked back and cannot imagine ever doing so.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
I have a confession. While I consider myself quite good on the creative side of photography, the business side is a constant struggle. I do not like selling anything, even my own photos. Of course, money doesn’t grow on trees, or bushes or cactus for that matter, so if you want to make it as a professional nature photographer you must figure out some way to hawk your wares.
In the beginning I participated in street-festival type art shows. You know, those colorful events where hundreds of artists set up little tents and sell everything from paintings and sculpture to woodwork and photography. In fact, I participated in over 40 shows per year, hopping from city to city all across Arizona nearly every weekend. When I first began doing shows I had two expectations: 1) I was certain I would love participating in them, but 2) I was equally certain I wouldn’t actually sell much of anything. To my amazement, I was wrong on both accounts. I actually made a fair amount of money, but I came to hate the shows. Now, I don’t mean to be a photo snob, but I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed working with retail customers. “What kind of camera do you use?” people would ask over…and over…and over. “Do you Photoshop your pictures?” they would inquire ad nauseum. I found the general public’s conversations about photography so redundant and meaningless that after three years of street shows I could take no more, and I quit.
Fortunately, art shows were not the only way I had been selling. By the time I quit doing the shows I had also established relationships with a number of gallery owners and art dealers who were selling my photography for me. I found these people much easier to work with and of course they were infinitely better at selling than me. I also began offering my work on several popular online “art galleries”, and I actually enjoy maintaining and periodically adding to my photography displays on these websites. Finally, to my amazement, I even managed to get my landscape photos into Bed, Bath and Beyond stores, which sell my work as wall décor throughout the Phoenix-metro area. I had to learn the hard way, but eventually I figured out that while I’m not suited to selling directly to retail customers, I can actually do reasonably well allowing other arts professionals to sell my photography for me.
I cannot stress enough, however, that what works for one photographer does not necessarily work for another. Some artists absolutely love street shows but can’t seem to find professional representation anywhere. Others find ways to make money that I haven’t even addressed, or that maybe I don’t even know about. The road for creative types may be long and occasionally frustrating but if you stick with it you will eventually find a business model that works for you.
Before ending this section there’s one last thing I feel compelled to acknowledge. While things are definitely good, they’re not perfect. In full disclosure, there are still times when I must look to other gigs for a bit of extra income. In 2021 I supplemented my photography income with around $10,000 I made driving for Lyft. Did I mind doing that? Not at all. I’d much rather have the majority of my income come from landscape photography, with a little extra coming from driving, than work full-time at some mainstream “good job.” I’ve noticed that most successful entrepreneurs are willing to do this sort of thing, at least in the beginning. One of the great untalked-about aspects of “Doing whatever it takes to succeed” is the willingness to wait tables, deliver pizzas or perform similar work a few hours a week until your own business grows enough to be fully profitable, full time. So don’t be ashamed of the “menial” ways you may need to earn extra income while building your own business. After all, if you’re too big for the little jobs, you’re too little for the big jobs.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Hmmm, I’m not enthusiastic about this question because I really don’t care much for Phoenix. Plus, I’m an outdoor guy so to me the most exciting places are beyond the city. I will point out, however, that Phoenix is within easy driving distance of many natural wonders. To the east are the Superstition Mts., a world-class range covered in beautifully rugged Sonoran Desert. Just a couple hours north is the renowned red-rock country near Sedona, and not far beyond that is some awesome high country covered in pines, firs, aspens and – get this – even a tiny patch of arctic-type tundra atop the 12,000-foot-plus tall San Francisco Peaks. These, of course, are just a few popular examples, as there are many more wild places within easy driving distance of Phoenix for those who prefer exploring off the beaten path.
And where would I eat while showing a friend the diverse landscapes of Arizona? Well, I like QT convenience stores a lot because they have two-for-one deals on Gatorade and lots of snacks that will fit in a backpack. Sorry, foodie snobs, that’s all I got.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Different people learn in different ways. Some prefer to attend classes or workshops. Others like watching “how to” videos. Call me old school, but I learn best by reading books. Off-hand I cannot recall any individual authors that stand out more than the others. On the contrary, it was the sheer diversity of books that mattered. I read not only books on landscape photography but also books on how to photograph people, pets, products, architecture, special events and all things journalistic. Doing so enabled me to identify what are truly the most important principles and techniques – those that cross all photography genres. The sources of light in a photography studio may be different than in the wilderness, but all the fundamental principles of lighting used to create great indoor portraiture can be found outside as well. You just have to know where in the wild to look, and when. Compositional principles such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, symmetry, and balance are just as useful in the wilderness as they are in any form of commercial photography. You just have to switch out your Oxford shoes for hiking boots.
Of course, regardless how you choose to learn, there is no substitute for actual photography experience. Putting what you learn from books, classes or anyplace else to use by getting out and shooting in the real world will always be the most valuable way to grow as a photographer.
Susan Elaine Anderson