Focus on Photographers - Nevada Wier

One of the greatest feats in the photographic world is finding photographer Nevada Wier somewhere in the world and then finding her with a few minutes to answer questions about her travels, her philosophy, and her equipment.  Nevada is one of the preeminent travel photographers in the world and has pointed her lens in places some of us haven't even heard of.  She balances life on the road with teaching photography workshops and managing her print business, on top of her assignment work.  I was delighted that she would take a minute and talk to us at Pictureline.

Pictureline: Everyone is always interested in how you got started with a camera.  What kind of equipment did you start with and how has that changed over the years?

Nevada Wier: I started with a 5x7 Deardorf wooden camera with a big, heavy wooden tripod. I fell in love with the idea of perching on the edge of the Grand Canyon with a black cloth draped over my head. What a beautiful camera! It was a challenging and satisfying way to begin learning about the craft of photography and how to work in a black and white darkroom. However, since I was an Outward Bound instructor, I quickly realized that it was a terrible backpacking camera. My brother sent me a Pentax Spotmatic, and from there I went on to use various brands. I now use primarily Canon equipment.

Pictureline: You’ve mentioned before that the travel photographer has to work smart and efficiently.  I’m guessing that’s because the travel costs can be enormous and the clients are not usually offering as much pay as you’d like.  What do you do to stay efficient with costs and planning?

Nevada Wier:  I work alone and use local assistants when I need them. I have been traveling a long time, so I have lots of contacts all over the world. I’m born to roam. I have a strong stomach, can sleep anywhere, eat and drink anything, and I have a limited sense of smell. I laugh a lot, and I rarely project about what will or might happen. I believe in serendipity and magic. I am not fond of the human species, but I love people!

Pictureline:  What percentage of your trips are purely self-funded? How do you decide where you want to go?

Nevada Wier: I am doing fewer assignments than I used to do. I am primarily working on a number of books and exhibitions, as well as giving lectures and teaching. I am back where I started with self-funded projects. I am glad I worked for newspapers and magazines, though. It was important to learn how to photograph rapidly, accurately, and creatively under pressure.

Pictureline:  How has the editorial work changed over the last 10 years?  You’ve obviously shot a lot for the large names in travel photography…How have you seen your work with them change as a result of changes they’ve had to make, such as online issues and fewer print magazines?

Nevada Wier:  It is an awkward time for print media. Obviously, there will be a transition to more online publishing, but that will take awhile. Digital photography is more expensive than working with film (cameras, computers, hard drives, software, peripherals and the list goes on and on). I sometimes feel like I’m hemorrhaging money. However, the day rate hasn’t gone up in editorial work in over twenty years. That is the major reason that I am taking fewer magazine assignments, along with the reality that there are fewer assignments. I am grateful that I was able to work for the magazines when I was an emerging photographer.

Pictureline:  On a purely philosophical note, how do you feel about the progression of travel?  That is, the world is getting smaller and the extent of travelers in general is getting wider.  Are you worried about the decreasing amount of wild places?  Do you find yourself searching for more and more places that the traveler hasn’t been?

Nevada Wier:  I could ramble on about this for a long time. Since I am interested in photographing people in their cultural locations, I will never run out of places to visit! I do photograph a lot of tribal cultures but I am not trying to mythologize them. It is possible to photograph elders who are still wearing traditional clothing and have distinctive scarifications. I certainly seek out more remote locations where I can still witness tribal traditions. However, I am also interested in the younger generations and how they are coping with the modern world colliding with their traditional culture.

Pictureline:  This is another philosophical question.  Photographers (as any other creative person and for any professional, really) go through transitions in their careers.  How did you first know that you were becoming a "good" photographer?  When were you able to sit back and say, "I think I could do this as a profession"?

Nevada Wier:  Yow, another question that is hard to answer in a paragraph! I am self-taught, which meant that the teacher didn’t know anything. I was a slow learner; however, this also helped me discover what I was interested in photographing. I was an international outdoor guide so it was a slow, natural transition to professional photography. I wrote a blog piece about what it takes to be a professional photographer a few years ago at I ended the article by saying:

"There is no pathway in the field of photography with sign posts, hints, or Get Out of Jail Free cards. It is like being dropped blindfolded in the middle of Alaska and being told to find your way to Seattle. Someone who wants to be a photographer will find a way to make a living in this convoluted, underpaid field. And, that is what it takes to be one. No one can tell you how. Each photographer finds a different route to becoming established and solvent. You have to figure it out on your own. All the photographers I know did this. And, you will have to also. It feels rather mean to say it this way, but it is true."

I can’t point to when I began making more money as a photographer than an expedition guide, but it was about twenty-five years ago. I still think I am growing as a photographer, so it continues to be a long, fulfilling personal journey.

Pictureline:  Tell us about your prints.  How do you select which ones to include for sale?  How do you decide on a limited edition (or not)?  Where do you sign the prints and with what material (we’re getting a lot of different feedback about this)?  Are they offered only online or where can people buy them in person?

Nevada Wier:  Creating a fine-art print is like sculpting. There has to be a feeling of multi-dimension and depth, as well as having an interesting subject. I do my own printing and labor over each print. I personally would rather not limit my editions, but there are collectors who will not buy a print unless it is a limited edition. Each series is different in price and edition sizes. Yes, my prints are available on my website. However, it is my experience that people first see the print and then might order it online.

Pictureline:  I agree with you on clients seeing what the prints look like in person.   In terms of equipment, what does your kit look like now?  How do you make the tough choices about which lens/bodies to carry to certain locations?  Do you carry a tripod?

Nevada Wier:  What I carry varies depending on the location or assignment. Since I have to carry everything on my shoulder and often walk for a full day, it is inevitable that whatever I don’t have with me is the lens I want! Travel photography requires a lot of compromise, in so many ways. I hand hold 99% of my images, so I am grateful for Image Stabilization when I use a long lens like a 100-400mm f/4.5, and I like having a "fast" 24mm f/1.4 lens for low light situations. However, there are times that a tripod is invaluable, so I bring a light-weight Gitzo tripod. You can find a list of my equipment on my website

Pictureline:  Do you have a lens that is your favorite?

Nevada Wier:  I primarily use short lenses. I usually always have a 16-35mm f/2.8 and a 24-70mm f/2.8. They are sharp, close focusing, and relatively fast lenses.

Pictureline:  Those are great lenses.  Tell us about your relationship with Santa Fe Workshops and any other workshops you are involved in.  How has the partnership been?  Are there certain places you teach workshops where you feel the participants really excel?   What are some of the methods that you use that are unique to you?

Nevada Wier:  I am based in Santa Fe, so I feel very fortunate to have the Santa Fe Workshops conveniently close. I have taught for them for over fifteen years, as well as for Julia Dean Workshops, National Geographic Expedition Workshops, Mountain Light, and others [Editor's Note:  Nevada has a full schedule for 2012]. Since I know Santa Fe so well, it is an obvious place to teach, and the students can visit my house to see how I edit, print, and work in what I call "The Grayroom" (the walls are 18% gray). I teach primarily travel photography and what it takes to make great images in difficult light, fast-paced situations, simple but creative use of one flash, and photographing people in foreign situations. Equipment is only half of what photography is about (a lesser half I might add). Learning how to create an interesting image from an interesting subject is harder than learning how to use a camera. I want my students to begin becoming "virtuosos of seeing." I am also teaching a digital infrared workshop this fall in Santa Fe.

Pictureline:  You definitely have taught in a variety of places and with top notch groups.  Your home editing sessions/tutorials sound great! Tell us about any upcoming books, workshops, and places you are going.

Nevada Wier:  I am writing a book, A Nomadic Vision, which discusses my evolution as a traveler and photographer. I am almost finished writing the copy, but I don’t have a publication date yet. I am also working on photography books on Myanmar, tentatively titled Lost in Time, and a book about tribal India called Outer India.

Pictureline:  Fantastic.  Nevada, thank you so much for sharing some of your insights with us.  Best of luck in your work, books, and workshops.  Safe travels! Check out her website, prints, and her list of workshops for 2012.
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A nomadic visionCanonCanon 16-35 mmCanon 24-70 mm lensFebruary 2012Gitzo tripodsInterviewJoel addamsMountain light workshopsNational geographic expedition workshopsNevada wierPentax spotmaticPicturelineSanta fe workshopsTravel photography