CAN A MAN TURN a hobby into a professional career, make a comfortable living, support a wife and two children and live a dream of living in Canyonlands, exploring all of Utah while exclusively doing outdoor photography full time?
Tom Till, a landscape and nature photographer, has found a way. In 1985 his hobby and passion consumed him, and he left his job teaching school in Moab to devote his time and talents to this narrow niche in photography as a business.Till's story really started while he was attending college in Iowa. He saw Elliott Porter's work in nature photography and knew from that moment that he wanted to move to Utah and live in Canyonlands. To this day he doesn't know why, but, Till says, "there's a quote in some book that says that Canyonlands picks some people to go live there, and I guess I just got picked. I knew before I was 22 years old I was going there."
After leaving college, Till was driving between Moab and Monticello, doing some backpacking trips. "I said to myself, I'm just going to come back here and live, explore this whole area, and that's what I'm going to do for the rest of my life."
He moved to Moab permanently in 1975. A couple of years later a man from Iowa, using a 4-by-5 view camera, met Till. Seeing this, Till said, "I was so impressed with those 4-by-5 images, I said, `I've got to do this.' " After three years "of every mistake possible," Till mastered the techniques of the large-format camera.
By 1985 Till decided to pursue landscape photography full time. He still likes using the 35mm camera occasionally, but over 90 percent of his work is in the large format, as he constantly adds new images to a stock library, all catalogued in his computer. With as much time as Till spends in the field, the administrative and marketing burdens of the business are taken care of by his wife, Marcy.
The stock library includes over 13,000 4-by-5 transparencies and over 5,000 in other formats. Till has a long list of credits in magazines, books and calendars, with his images used by more than 25 corporate and advertising firms and a half-dozen stock photo agencies. He also put together "Utah, Magnificent Wilderness," a beautiful 111-page book with 92 of his full-color images. It's a fine documentation of Till's drive to explore every inch of his adoptive home state.
A trip into the field with Till would find him with his ever-present large backpack, weighing 35 to 40 pounds, containing everything needed for a day trip: a 4-by-5 view camera, 15 to 20 film holders, a half-dozen different length lenses and various accessories.
A wilderness journey taking several days requires more, including camping gear, food and water. And for these trips he's added a couple of llamas to help. He tried using the llamas for the first time last year and was so impressed by them he leases and keeps them at his home. "The kids love them," he adds.
Till shared his experience, know-how and philosophy at a recent weekend Fall Color Workshop in Brian Head, east of Cedar City. It was the last event of "Brian Head Summer '90," the resort town's first summer season tourism program, headed up by Ken Kraus. The workshop consisted of four field trips, two discussion workshops and a critique, all conducted by Till.
The field trips were all close to Brian Head, in Iron County. Two in the evening took the workshop first to the Spectra Rim Trail and then to the Twisted Forest, with an additional 20-minute hike taking the group to the North Rim of Cedar Breaks.
The North Rim provided spectacular opportunities stirring up the creative juices. Ten minutes before sunset a special quality of light painted the mountains, red cliffs, bristlecones, forests, clouds and sky. These few minutes found everyone with camera in hand or on a tripod, in near panic to get the most out of it.
Morning excursions took participants to Brian Head Peak and the Sidney Valley Peaks, and ended on side roads along U-143, east of Cedar Breaks.
The predawn morning on Brian Head Peak was cold but rewarding. From the top, at 11,300 feet, our group was ready as the sun came up and, with help from some dark, layered rain clouds, produced an exciting sunrise over the plateaus looking toward Bryce Canyon. The second stop took us high again to the Sidney Valley Peaks. The potential for great pictures was there, but the timing for the fall leaves and light was not. And finally the last field trip, along U-143, provided some nice opportunities for fall color from primarily the Aspen trees.
Back at Brian Head, where the informal group discussions were held, participants got the opportunity to draw from Till's experience, technique and philosophy. Till had a great rapport with all of them. A few had novice cameras and needed help with basic camera controls. Others, advanced in their photography skills, had medium and large format cameras. Most of the workshop students brought nice 35mm cameras, lenses and tripods. To Till's credit, he dealt with every member of the workshop in an equal and comfortable way. His easygoing and laid-back manner, working one on one with anyone who desired it and not letting any questions slide by, made it a quality three-day experience.
Till does a half-dozen workshops a year. He's pressured to do more but keeps them down because it cuts into time he likes to be in the field. Unlike some photographers, Till doesn't rely on workshops for his income. He enjoys this time with other photographers who possess the same passion that got him to this point, "because you do learn things from students. You see things fresh through other people's eyes; their skills are not what yours are and their experience is not what yours is, but everyone has a different way of photographing and looking at the world, and everyone's way is unique and valid. "It's interesting to look through student viewfinders and see how people are seeing things, and it affects my work in a positive way," Till says. "To see the many possibilities kicks me out of my rut to see people trying. When you're a professional you find a way it works, and there's a tendency to repeat it, and then one good custom starts to corrupt the world."
In discussions at the workshop, Till emphasized improvement in two areas, composition and recognizing the quality of light. "You must continuously improve your ideas of good composition. Study the work of other highly regarded photographers and artists. Eliminate objects in your viewfinder, keeping it a simple statement. Ask, `Why am I shooting this?' "
About the quality of light, Till says, "We take pictures of light. We don't take pictures of subjects." The direction of the light is important - side lighting is what you're looking for in landscape photography, he says. Till breaks down the quality of light into five categories: midday, hazy, overcast, sunrise/sunset, and predawn and after sunset, explaining the results you might expect.
Till's experience in all light conditions, and using the same film under all conditions, enables him to work without an exposure meter much of the time.
Other elements important in saving time and effort and in successful wilderness photography include research and planning, knowing your locations, knowing how to read maps, keeping good notes and knowing how to use a good compass.
"I use a compass a lot," Till adds. Making a habit of good notes is also necessary. Knowing the time of day or the time of the year when the illumination is just right on certain landscapes is important in saving time and effort. For example, Till has found that photographing Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is best done in December because of the sun's location at that time of the year.
Till has a few favorite tricks that makes his approach graphically interesting. He tracks the weather closely. He will hurry off to a location in anticipation that a storm will move in and provide him an atmosphere of dramatic light and color. He especially likes shooting in storms with the sun coming and going.
Working under these conditions, he has learned to set up quickly. "I shoot everything to please myself, and in some cases myself and editors."
Till now spends about 240 days a year in the field photographing nothing but landscapes. He's set up his camera in all of the lower 48 states and Hawaii. He tries to hit every state sometime in a two-year period. Still, he does most of his shooting on the Colorado Plateau.
"I'd like to make a living just off Utah, but it's really not possible. I have to travel all over the country," Till says.
His dream project may be realized next year when he goes to the deserts of Australia for a two-month field trip.
"I know the desert areas of the world can't compare to what we have here, but I still want to go and see them."