Interview with travel photographer – Anne McKinnell

In 2011 Anne McKinnell resigned from her day job, sold her belongings and traded the comforts of the American Dream lifestyle to become a nomad photographer. Having ventured all over the North American territory, McKinnell has shared some of her story along with her favorite photography destinations, tips on photographing wild orcas, and which Topaz plug-ins she couldn’t live without.

Driftwood Beach, nomad, anne mckinnell, topaz labs, Jekyll Island, georgiaDriftwood Beach, Jekyll Island, GA

What does being a nomadic photographer imply?

Being a nomadic photographer means that I travel all the time, constantly moving from one place to the next. I made a decision to change my life in the spring of 2011 as I wanted a happier, more fulfilling life that is full of adventure. Now I live in an RV and drive around North America, photographing beautiful places. I spent the first year on a trip traveling clockwise around the perimeter of the USA, along with the Atlantic provinces in Canada.  After that I spent a few months back in BC and since then I’ve been a snowbird spending six months exploring BC and six months in the USA.  Since I am Canadian, I am only allowed in the USA for six months of each year (the first year I had to get a special visa to stay longer).

Do you tend to map out the places you venture to in advance or is it more of a sporadic process?

When I travel, my plans include only a general direction or area based on the weather. When you’re towing an RV you have to consider the road conditions and freezing water pipes, so I try to stay where it is warm and sunny. Since it’s winter, I’ll be spending the next couple of months in southern California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and maybe Texas.  I like to visit the national parks, so I try to see as many of them as I can plus any other interesting places in between. There is so much to see!

Devil's Golf Course, Death Valley National Park, California, nomad, topaz labs, anne mckinnellDevil’s Golf Course, Death Valley National Park, CA

What are some favorite destinations you’ve been to and where are some must-see locations that you advise photographers to visit?

You would think that after seeing so many places it would be hard to pick a favorite, but it isn’t. It’s Yosemite National Park, in California. I have never seen a more beautiful and inspiring place.

Gates of the Valley, yosemite national park, nomad, topaz labs, outdoor, photography, anne mckinnellGates of the Valley, Yosemite National Park, CA

All of the national parks are must-see locations. It’s true, they have been photographed to death and it can be hard to come up with unique images, but that is our challenge as photographers. When it comes to seeing and experiencing beautiful places, the national parks are it. Another favorite is Big Bend National Park in Texas–it’s rugged and more isolated as compared to other national parks. Despite the high volume of tourists, I am also quite fond of the circle route in Utah which contains five national parks and numerous state parks in between.

Contrabando, Big Bend State Park, texas, anne mckinnell, topaz labs, nomadContrabando, Big Bend State Park, TX
Thor’s Hammer, supermoon, Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, utah, nomad, topaz labs, anne mckinnellThor’s Hammer and Supermoon at Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

You recently photographed orcas off Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands. How attentive do you have to be when looking to capture these mammals on film? 

Photographing whales, and all wildlife, requires a tremendous deal of patience and persistence. I love the ocean and in BC I have a little boat that I spend a lot of time on in the summers. I have acquired knowledge as to where the whales travel and I have favorite locations to go where I frequently see them. Even still, I only see them once in a while. I only started taking my good camera out on the boat with me in the past few years. Since it is a little boat and I’m also driving, I keep my camera in a pelican case to protect it from salt damage and getting banged around.

killer whale, blackfish, orca, anne mckinnell, spyhopping, San Juan Island, topaz labs, nomad, pacificOrca spyhopping, San Juan Island, WA

The photo I made this summer of the Orca with Mount Baker, Washington, in the background took me ten years worth of boating to get. It was made in my favourite location for seeing ocean wildlife, a place I return to almost every time I go out in my boat. I always go to this location, see what’s happening, and if nothing is happening I will then go exploring around other areas. But I always check here first.

orca, killer whale, mountain, ocean, nomad, photographer, topaz labs, canada, vancouverOrca and Mt. Baker, Sidney, BC

Most of the time Mount Baker is covered in a layer of cloud and sometimes haze from Vancouver when viewed from this location so making this image required many aspects to fall into place. First, I had to be out on the water on a clear day and at the right time of day for proper lighting. Second, Mount Baker needed to be clear of cloud cover along with no other boats in the background (there are often a bunch of whale watching boats).

I had to get my boat in a position so I could leave the helm while taking pictures and the Orca had to surface in the perfect location. My finger had to be on the shutter when it did. When people tell me I was lucky to be there at the right time, I have to say it was not luck, it was persistence. Eventually all the factors will come together. The question is only whether you will still be there to record it.

On your blog you mention that having a quality lens is of more importance than the actual camera body itself.  For an amateur who wants to get into outdoor photography, what lens (or lenses) would you recommend for somebody on a budget? What about a lens to splurge on?

In addition to the kit lens that comes with your camera, I would recommend getting lenses that increase your focal range such as a wide angle and a telephoto. The Sigma 10-20mm is a good wide angle lens and the Canon 70-300 IS USM is a great lens, especially for its price. I only carry three lenses, the two I mentioned plus the Canon 24-105L which is worth the splurge because it is so versatile.

Burrowing owl, cape coral, topaz labs, anne mckinnell, bird, nomadBurrowing owl at Cape Coral, FL

You strayed away from a journalistic style of photography to your current life as a nomad outdoor photographer. What aspects about this style of photography helped to dispose of the darkness you encountered with photojournalism? 

Photography is the tool I use to be a happier person. When I first became involved with photography twenty years ago, I frequently photographed the darker side of life such as poverty and injustices because that is where I was in my life. I was in university, studying politics, writing for the student newspaper, and fighting to raise awareness about everything that is wrong with the world. I gave up photography for a long time while I built my career in software development and when I took it up again it was to help me become happier by focusing on the good things in the world.

By nature I see the negative things all the time, and I wanted to change that. I had no idea that photography would change my life so much. Because of it, I am always looking for the good and beautiful things in the world, instead of focusing on the bad things. Photography constantly helps me change this negative part of myself so I can be the person I want to be and live the life I want to live. Now when I go to a place I am looking for beauty and because I am looking, I find it.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, montana, nomad, anne mckinnell, topaz labsLake McDonald, Glacier National Park, MT

At one point you had a career in software development. Did the career offer any set of skills that have helped you become the photographer you are today?

I worked for myself as a consultant on software development projects. As a business analyst I wrote requirements for software products, created the interface designs, and was essentially the translator between the client and the developers.  Most of my projects were large scale government web applications such as applications that allow people to incorporate companies online, or applications that allow companies to file forms. While this couldn’t be farther away from photography, all of the skills I developed that allowed me to run a business apply.

I do all of my own web design and development work, as well as business planning, bookkeeping, communications, and marketing. These are essential skills for anyone who wants to run any type of business. Whenever anyone asks me what they need to know to be a professional photographer, I always tell them to learn business skills. You can be an awesome photographer, but you will only be successful if you know how to create and carry out a business plan.

Joshua Tree National Park, California, topaz labs, nomad, anne mckinnellJoshua Tree National Park, CA

What are some essential post-processing techniques that you commonly use? Any particular workflow?

I use Lightroom to organize and keyword my images. I also use it for all my basic processing like white balance, contrast, tonal adjustments, spot removal and cropping. If I want to do anything more than that with an image I take it into Photoshop Elements where I can add further adjustments, such as using the Topaz plugins, and do layers and masking.

folly beach, south carolina, topaz labs, nomadFolly Beach, SC

Out of the 14 Topaz plug-ins, which couldn’t you live without?

If you asked me that six months ago I would have said Topaz Adjust without hesitation. I still love Adjust, but I find myself using Topaz Clarity more often since it came out. I love the subtle adjustments and natural look you get with Clarity.

Roseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, Florida, nomad, anne mckinnell, topaz labsRoseate Spoonbill, Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge, FL

What advice do you give to those that dream of living a nomadic photography lifestyle? 

Two things: first, avoid debt. When you have debt, you are obligated to earn a certain amount of money to pay it which is why most people are in a 9-5 job. No debt gives you more freedom to choose the type of lifestyle you want. You may earn very little money when you first start a career in photography, but you would be surprised how little you can get by on when you don’t have a house or live in a city.

That leads me to the second thing: learn to need less stuff. Start getting rid of your stuff. It owns you, not the other way around. First you have to buy the stuff, then you have store the stuff and maintain the stuff. The fewer things you own, the more freedom you have. If you want to be a nomadic photographer, you will have to consider how you plan to travel and how much stuff you will be able to take with you. Of course, there will always be some things you cannot give up. For me, it’s my boat. It costs a fair bit to store it in the winter and moor it in the summer, but it’s worth it to me. You have to make sure that everything you keep is worth it.

anne mckinnell, topaz labs, nomad, interview, topaz monthlyAlong with her career as a photographer, Anne McKinnell is a writer and instructor. You can read more about her adventures on her blog as well as learn about photography and post-procesing with her free photography eBooks and editorial contributions to The Digital Photography School

Follow Anne on: Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | YouTube

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