Stephen Wallace / Member Interview

Steve Wallace’s photography is currently a part of a Smithsonian Institute traveling exhibition. His photographs have also appeared in "Popular Photography, Digital Photo Pro Magazine, Photographic Magazine, Photoshop User Magazine and Photographic Masterpiece Magazine." His work appears regularly in ads for "Popular Photography’s Mentor Series" and on his photography blog found in the Huffington Post. He was named in "Digital Photo Pro Magazine, April, 2012" as a "Pro of the Future.” His images have appeared on book covers, in photographic instructional books, and in academic publications. Steve is also an anesthesiologist and attorney.


Oceanside, California, USA

What inspired you to become a photographer?

When I was a medical student my lab partner carried his camera around all the time. We had a few long conversations discussing his love of photography and all the various brands of cameras. After about three months I was buying a Pentax MX 35 mm film camera. I won a photography contest at a local bank and I was hooked.

I have been inspired by the original Life magazine photographers especially the photography of Carl Mydans. Today Steve McCurry and Joe McNally stimulate me to try harder to put myself into those places and situations where great photography can occur.

I also like the work of an NGO photographer Karl Grobl, a friend with a recent exhibition at Harvard.

Tell us about your first photo that really validated your interest as a photographer.

It was the photograph from the contest I mention above. It was a backlit silhouette of a praying mantis. I can remember taking the picture on the back porch of our apartment with my only lens, a 50mm fixed lens.
As for a couple of pictures that reinvigorated my interest in photography, in 1995 I entered a contest put on by Photographic magazine. At the time I had to make a print and send it in to enter, no emailing them in. I entered two images, a picture of my son and a photo of a digital composite of a clock on dry cracked ground. A few days later I got a call from Rob Shepard (Now an author of several photographic books but at the time working for Photographic Magazine. ) He asked for more images. Ultimately I had a 4 page spread in the magazine. That was validation that someone with extensive photographic knowledge liked my work.

Back when you were just starting out, what was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome that?

When taking a picture I would see the main subject and nothing else. I would not pay attention to background or other objects that might liter the frame. I would just bull’s eye the subject in the center of the frame and click.

What do you enjoy photographing the most?

I still love to hear the click of the shutter and feeling of accomplishment when I see a good photo come up on my computer screen for the first time. However, the travel and meeting people of different countries is what I enjoy the most. I especially enjoy going to a country the second or third time and visiting the same people I had photographed on previous visits.

What has been your proudest moment as a photographer?

When I return to a country and bring back 8 by 10 photographs from the previous visit and give them to people that have no photographs of themselves or their families. Joy spreads across their faces. I have been doing this in Myanmar for the last three years. On subsequent visits I often see the photograph I gave them previously, taped or thumbtacked on a bamboo wall in a prominent spot in their home. This makes me feel like my photography matters.

Tell us about time in your photographic journey where you failed at something and how did you pivot to overcome this?

I was taken pictures of boats on the Mekong River while in Phnom Penh. I was slowly moving down the river bank with the camera to my face. Someone yelled at me in Cambodian and seemed to be waving at me. I waved back and continued down the bank. Then I noticed I was sinking. Within a few seconds I was thigh deep in mud. That man that was yelling at me apparently was warning me to alter my course. The same man, his wife, and son jumped out of a boat they lived in to save me and my cameras, which at that point I was holding over my head. The family seemed to know the safe ground and while standing on it they handed over one end of an oar while the husband and wife pulled on the other end and I held one camera in the air and wrapped the strap of the other around my neck. My descent had slowed but I was up to my waist when I was finally able to slowly wiggle out of the mud as the man and wife pulled me out.
After I was pulled out I scraped as much mud off of me as possible. The husband and wife insisted I take my shoes off so they could clean them. Although they expected nothing, I gave them a U.S. $20 bill, money well spent. I watched the path they took going back to their boat.
The next morning I found that path and used it to get back down to the Mekong without being sucked under and got some good shots.

We all have weaknesses, what is yours relating to photography?

Sometimes I don’t have enough patience to wait for things to happen. I am ready to move on too rapidly.

Finding time to get out and shoot is another challenge for many. How do you find the time in your busy schedule to get out there behind your camera?

When I was practicing medicine full time I just didn’t take many pictures, only on the occasional trip abroad. Now I don’t practice medicine and my law practice is very limited so I now have no time restrictions. I have time to plan trips, get the right support, and take off. I am an example of a person that had the desire to become a full time photographer but had to wait until he was 59 and now I’m receiving some notoriety. I think I am an example for all the baby boomers who are turning to photography in their retirement. If you look at the proliferation of commercial photo tours and on-line photography education you can tell there are a lot of us.

Nailing a composite right can be a challenge. What do you think the trick is to mastering composition?

There are no absolute rules to composition. When I am out shooting I want the things most photographers want, an interesting foreground and background, and good light. I prefer the main subject to be the brightest part of the image so I look for dark backgrounds if possible. I like an image to be as simple and uncluttered as possible with good separation of the main subject. I do often obey the rule of thirds. I do not like dead space in an image. Probably the most important element is an interesting subject, something that people have never seen is the best.

There are many photographers starting out, who don't have the money to buy the camera gear they want. What advice can you give to them?

Use your phone. I am increasing impressed by the photographs taken on cellular phones. To place a good-looking image on the internet does not take a great deal of resolution. If you have a bit more money go to a reputable camera store and look at used equipment. Adorama and B&H have used equipment that has been extensively checked. If you are going on a major once in a lifetime trip and you need some good equipment for one use I suggest you rent.

How do you feel photography has impacted the way you see the world?

Most of my photography takes place in third world countries. If I can talk one on one, many times through a translator, I can relate to the hopes and fears of all the people I have meet. Xenophobia would be put aside if we all talked one on one. I spent a day in Vietnam with a man, now in his seventies, that fought as a Viet Cong against the United States. When we first met we shook hands; when I left we hugged. At the end of that day we understood each other, we were friends. This happens over and over when I travel. My last visit to Myanmar I was photographing a small village when I was suddenly invited into a wedding reception. I spoke with the family members. They were all farmers that used oxen to plow their fields. They worked from sun up to sun down to feed their families. Through my travels as a photographer I have gained much more respect for the hard working people in third world countries than I would ever have for a wealthy hedge fund manager in the United States that produces nothing.

What do you see photographers doing today, that if done differently tomorrow would improve their success?

I recommend all photographers know their camera better. You need to be able to make changes on the fly. I see amateur photographers fighting with their cameras, not knowing why what they see on their LCD, is not what they are seeing with their eyes. Often ISOs, exposure compensation, frame rates need to be changed rapidly to get a good shot.

To get your creative eye focused, where do you draw your inspiration from?

I look at my old work, criticize it, and try to do better.

What is your best photography related tip?

If you can afford it carry two cameras using a double camera strap. With today’s technology the cameras don’t have to be expensive. If you carry one camera you miss many opportunities to capture a great shot because you are changing a lens. Great photos happen fast. Another tip. Stop carrying a bag around while shooting. I never carry a bag while shooting. Everything I need is hanging from my camera straps or in a small pouch on my belt

What would you like for people take away from your work?

When someone looks at my work I want him or her to think, “Wow! That is a great photograph.” I want the image to be aesthetically pure. That is what will initially attract both photographers and non-photographers to an image. Then I would like the image to seep to a deeper level of their brain and make people wonder about the people or places I photograph. Then ultimately I would like people to look at my images and think, “Isn’t it a wonderful world.”

What are some ‘must have’ items in your camera bag?

Small head light for when you’re going out before sunrise. Giotto dust blower, lens wipes of some kind, Eclipse sensor cleaner and sensor swabs. If you are including computer gear I would have two small external hard drives, two card readers for each type of memory card your cameras use and appropriate cables. Since a near computer failure in India I have started to pack two laptops.

If you were stuck on a deserted island, what is the ONE photography book you would want to have with you?

I assume I can’t exchange the photography book for a survival guide. If not, there is a book by Brandon Stanton called, “Humans of New York” containing environmental portraits and short passages related to the people in the photograph.

Final question, and it’s a fun one: Life has been found on another planet and none-other than Sir Richard Branson is piloting Virgin Galactic and has put together a team of engineers, scientist, doctors and has asked you to come along to document the journey. The challenge is you can only bring two lenses and one camera body and two other items. What would you bring?

First I want to know how many suns the new planet has as this can affect the number of neutral density filters I bring. In addition I would like to know the nature of the atmosphere. Is it like the red spot of Jupiter, a perpetual storm? This greatly increases the need for lens and sensor cleaners.

I would take a Nikon D5 containing a large capacity memory card. The camera works in low light and has good frames per second. However, I like most the way it will focus in difficult lighting and it focuses fast.

The two lenses I would take 1) Nikkor 17-35 mm f/2.8 zoom 2) Nikkor 70-200mm F/2.8 zoom

The other two items 1) Asbestos jump suit 2) Extra Oxygen Tank

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