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Talking Lenses and Travel Photography with Kansas-based Photographer Michael C. Snell

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Light-painted night view of Mushroom Rock near Carneiro, Kansas

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Fish market in Busan, South Korea

Veteran Michael C. Snell says he is a travel photographer, but is keen to point out the simple description is hardly sufficient. Shooting professionally for almost two decades, Snell has discovered the job requires him to be constantly flexible, always on his toes and full of never-ending curiosity for everything around him. He is based in Kansas but has achieved a worldwide audience and impressive client list including National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, USA Today and Forbes.com. Originally working as an art director and photo buyer for a state travel and tourism department, Snell felt the creative call to become a freelance photographer and has never looked back. Aside from his extensive travel experience both across the country and around the world, he and his wife began the creative agency Shade of the Cottonwood as a way to meet clients needs in an intimate, one-on-one basis.

Whether shooting hot air balloons over Egypt or discovering hidden treasures on the back roads in the sprawling state of Kansas, Michael Snell is a man who finds the wonder in what’s before him. He’s also got an impressive photography kit to go along with him on all his adventures. We asked him about Kansas, branching out on your own and why a Tamron lens is perfect for just about any shooting situation he comes across.

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Sunrise balloon ascension near Luxor, Egypt

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Controlled burning of the Flint Hills in Chase County, Kansas

What it’s like to be a photographer in Kansas?
“It’s like being a photographer anywhere, I suppose. There are the same kinds of clients as in larger markets, but not as many of them. There are fewer photographers than in larger markets as well, so perhaps it’s a wash in terms of competition for jobs. As a life-long Kansan, it’s a very comfortable place for me to work. I find the people to be friendly, open and willing to help with the odd request — like needing access to a rooftop for a different perspective, etc. For my travel work, I like being centrally located and near a fairly large airport like we have in Kansas City. I can get anywhere pretty efficiently. Kansas was my first stock subject and I developed very complete coverage of its attractions, landscapes, events and museums. Later, I expanded into covering the surrounding states and eventually moved into international destinations as well. That central location has served me well throughout.”

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Alpaca ranch in Douglas County, Kansas

Does most of your work come from the local area/businesses or do you get a lot of work from people who happen to have shoots in Kansas?
“Some of both. I have some regional clients that I shoot local projects for. I also have some commercial clients from outside the area — architects, builders and manufacturers — that assign me to shoot projects that they have done in my area. My stock travel work is done on spec, so I don’t know who the buyer will be at the time I’m shooting. In that case, I’m trying to predict the market and shoot images that will be desirable in the future to a variety of buyers, wherever they may be.”

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Castle Rock at sunrise, Gove County, Kansas

You do a lot of traveling but you also have a nice portfolio dedicated to your hometown. What in Kansas inspires you?
“Kansas has a subtle beauty. On the coasts or in the mountains, it’s fairly easy to make a beautiful shot almost anywhere you turn, but in the Great Plains you learn to work a little harder. It’s a good exercise in learning to see because things are not obviously presented to you. It takes skill to successfully capture in a small image the beauty of the vast, open prairie. You need to learn about light and to take weather and clouds into consideration as part of your composition. You also need to look closely at the diversity of the prairie and all the tiny plants that thrive there. And the state is not all one, unbroken plain — there are plenty of surprises if you take the time to look. I worked my way through college doing fieldwork for the Department of Transportation and the State Historical Society so I became good at finding the little hidden gems that are scattered about Kansas.”

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One-room, limestone schoolhouse in the Kansas Flint Hills

Before you were a freelance photographer you were art director/photo buyer for a state travel and tourism department. What made you decide to make the leap from steady job to freelance photographer?

“I was an art director for the ad agency that, for many years, had the State travel and tourism account. I was responsible for designing everything from the State travel guide and tourism magazine to the highway map and welcome signs that you see along the roadside when you cross the border from Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska or Oklahoma. I worked with a lot of photographers during that time and, when it looked like I’d be becoming more of an administrator at the agency than a designer, I decided I wanted to stay on the creative side and went into freelance design and photography. Working with travel and tourism stuck with me, though, so I continued to use that as a specialty.”

Can you tell us a little about Shade of the Cottonwood. How did the company start and what’s it like being in business with your wife?
“My wife, Sally, and I worked at the same ad agency for several years. She left first, to become the contracted administrator for a State tourism program and I followed soon after so that we could work together as writer/photographer on a variety of projects. I kept doing design and layout work as well, so we labeled our company, named Shade of the Cottonwood, as a creative services company. More like a design studio than a full-service ad agency, but one where you could get writing, design, branding and photography all under one roof. We wanted to remain hands-on so we stayed small and decided to avoid the temptation to add employees over the years. We like the one-on-one aspect of working with entrepreneurial clients and enjoyed the freedom of being able to travel to work on stories and expand our stock photography library. We work well together and it’s a huge help to have her on board as a writer — so that I don’t have to try and do that as well as shoot stories. Sally also has an accounting background from our agency days. That’s an enormous help as well.

“The name ‘Shade of the Cottonwood’ references a Plains Indian concept that shadows were intelligent and the shade of a cottonwood tree was the most intelligent. Lying in the shade cast by a cottonwood was considered to be a way to gain insight to whatever troubled you.”

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Re-enactment of the Battle of Black Jack near Baldwin City, Kansas

Why do you create personal work? Do you feel it helps your career in some way or is it simply a creative outlet for you?
“It is a good creative outlet, but it’s generally a move toward becoming more of my own client. Shooting on assignment can sometimes be difficult because you’re trying to please someone else and capture what you think they have in mind, even when that might be far from what you find on the ground once you’re on location. By creating more of my own projects, I can shoot what I find. I prefer reacting to a destination and documenting it without preconceptions rather than trying to set up scenarios to create something unreal. Another advantage to personal work is that it gives you the opportunity to try new things and to push yourself in new directions without the pressure of needing to please a client. And sometimes those things you create on your own will catch a potential client’s eye and get you work afterward. That work is often more rewarding because it is based on something you wanted to do in the first place.”

Many photographers claim their lens is their “workhorse” item and the one thing in their camera bag they cannot live without. What is the difference, in your opinion, between a good lens and a great/indispensable lens?
“A lot of attention is paid to camera bodies and their various functions, but the lens can have just as much, if not more, impact on the quality of your images. It would be nice if there was such a thing as one lens that met every need, but they tend to be specialized — each with advantages and tradeoffs. I like fast primes for their image quality and shallow depth-of-field, but they can be large and heavy, and changing lenses in some situations can be difficult. Zooms are great for all-in-one walk-around lenses when you don’t want to carry a lot of gear. I strive to have a collection of a variety of types of lenses and choose what suits the day’s needs before setting out on a shoot. In the end, a great lens is the lens that gets you the shot that you wanted.”

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Altes Rathaus on the river Regnitz in Bamberg, Germany

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View of the Kansas State Capitol from the roof of the Jayhawk Tower in Topeka

How long have you been using Tamron lenses and what do you think sets them apart from others?
“I think I got my first Tamron back in college or maybe even in high school. At that time a Tamron zoom lens was an affordable way to cover all the necessary focal lengths without giving up image quality. I think my first Tamron was a 28-80 and I ended up re-buying that lens a few times.”

How many Tamron lenses do you own?
“I currently have three Tamrons. The 18-270mm — and now the newer 16-300mm — are great lenses for when you just want to be on the street all day without a big bag of gear. You can accomplish a lot with that range of focal lengths and pretty much be ready for anything. I also have the Tamron 150-600mm which is amazing. That’s a huge reach for a telephoto zoom and yet it’s not too heavy or unwieldy. The VC lets you shoot hand-held in many situations as well.

“No one lens does it all but, if I were starting out today, I’d begin with a good all-in-one zoom to get all the bases covered right out of the gate. Then, as finances allow, I’d fill in with fast lenses or lenses that have a quality I like and gradually build a system from there.”

You wrote that Kansas “is all about the backroads”. What can one expect to find on the backroads of Kansas?
“The backroads are where you find those ‘hidden gems’ I mentioned earlier. The main highways were built along the path of least resistance, meaning it was most efficient to build them along the river valleys where it is the flattest and typically least interesting from a landscape perspective. The backroads, however — the little two-lane highways and gravel roads — dive deeper into the landscape where you can find unspoiled tallgrass prairies, waterfalls, unusual rock formations, and forgotten architecture like old farmhouses, barns and ghost towns. There’s a lot of history in Kansas.”

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White Cloud Flea Market in White Cloud, Kansas

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Sunset at Clinton Reservoir, Lawrence, Kansas

All images © Michael C. Snell

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