Joshua Holko on business, blizzards and polar bears
June 10, 2019
Photographer Joshua Holko let go of a regular pay cheque in corporate marketing to become a a full-time landscape, nature and wildlife photographer. He spoke to SUNSTUDIOS about running a niche small business and tips for shooting in the extreme cold (gear and fashion), advising: “There is no such thing as cold weather. There is only bad and inappropriate clothing.”
What was your corporate job before starting life as a professional photographer?
I studied photography when I was growing up - both Fine Art photography and Photojournalism. I did not work full time as a photographer initially though and worked as a marketing director in the corporate world for more than a decade.
How does it contrast to your life today?
My life in the corporate world was very much a 9-5 Monday to Friday career. Although I travelled often for business it was nowhere near the extent to which I travel now and most of it was short domestic hops. Most of the year these days I am on the road and am typically out of Australia 7-8 months of the year (usually in a very remote part of the world). Most of my time is spent in the polar regions of the globe in places like the Arctic and Antarctic. I spend a lot of time in Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland and a little in New Zealand and other sub Antarctic areas.
I think I did over 50 plane segments last year and went around the world more than 10 times so that’s a stark contrast to my previous corporate life. Of course, these days I don't have to wear a suit and tie and I clock on and off office work as I feel like - one of the benefits of working for yourself. Of course, it goes both ways and working for yourself means you are not only the CEO, but also the cleaner, book keeper, janitor, and all the other roles required to run a successful business.
And of course as a business we are open 24/7 and as a result you never really switch off as the business owner. I guess by contrast it’s a chalk and cheese lifestyle. I would add, that you have to love the travel aspect and the process of what I do as the end result “moments” are really few and far between.
What was the turning point for you when you realised you needed to quit your day job and follow your passion for photography?
That’s a pretty tough question to answer. Honestly, I am not sure exactly. I think I had just become fed up with the corporate life, the humdrum of 9-5 and the stresses of meeting ever-increasing budgets and sales targets. Truth be told, I was probably mentally ready to exit the corporate world twelve months before I actually took the plunge. When you have that regular pay check it can be hard to let go.
Ultimately, I decided to follow my passion and pursue what I really love and I have never looked back. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I am doing what I love for a living. Looking back though I feel it was a transitional process I went through and that there wasn’t really a defining moment when I decided it was time to make the change. The transition into full-time photographer took some years to accomplish and it certainly wasn’t an overnight process. I’d say it took me the better part of five years from the time I decided I wanted to work as a full-time pro photographer until I actually achieved that goal.
How did you narrow down your interests in photography to this specialised area?
It actually took me a long time to narrow my focus (pardon the pun) and really specialise. When I was growing up I was really just learning the craft of landscape photography. My father was a passionate large format amateur photographer and he would drag me around the country on weekends to help with the tripod and equipment. That really sparked my passion in photography and got me hooked.
I then decided to study photography formally, during which time I was still shooting landscape and also some rock-climbing images (this is all pre-digital film days). It was really my love of the snow, ice and polar regions that ultimately captured me. There was something primordial about the landscape in these regions. The incredible glaciers, mountains, and hostile environment.
The quality of light at these extreme latitudes and the incredible wildlife were and remain irresistible draw cards for me. Ultimately, I decided to photograph what I love and this is advice I give to workshop participants on a daily basis. Always photograph what you love. If you love what you photograph you are going to produce your best work. I am quite honestly at my happiest and most at peace when I am in a remote location somewhere in the Arctic or Antarctic photographing incredible wildlife in a snowstorm or blizzard. It’s the process of being out in the field that I adore and love. Getting photographs is my vehicle to being out in the field.
What were the risks in forging an unconventional career in extreme landscapes?
The most obvious risk was of course the financial one. In the corporate world I had a solid regular pay check that I could depend on. Working for myself it is a different story and you have to both ride and negotiate the roller coaster of small business finance in order to run a successful business. This means you have to spend a lot more time on administration and marketing rather than actually pressing the shutter on a camera. Fully 98% of my time is spent on administration and business operation.
The remaining 2% is travel and shooting. It might look glamorous to some from the outside, but in reality, its anything but. Spare time is devoted to marketing and driving the business and not to personal photographic projects (which there is precious little time for). In this day and age making a living as a full-time pro is not easy. Income has to come from multiple revenue streams to even give it a hope of being viable.
How much of the year do you spend travelling?
I am generally on the road 7-8 months of the year. A huge part of that time is spent just getting to destinations. The Arctic and Antarctic regions in which I specialise require long and tedious journeys. It can easily be three or four plane flights plus time on a boat just to reach a destination. Some areas in Antarctica and the Arctic for example can take days of travel to reach. Of course, on arrival all that travel is absolutely worth the effort.
What are some common and unexpected challenges you have experienced when shooting in polar environments?
The biggest challenge is obviously the cold and dealing with the equipment in these sorts of environments. Extreme cold weather throws up all sorts of challenges for both people and equipment. Back up equipment is critical. It’s not a question of if equipment will fail, but when.
I am also particularly hard and demanding of my equipment. I leave it exposed in snow and ice for hours at a time. I am frequently lying on the ground with my gear in very difficult conditions. It’s not uncommon for me to leave gear just sitting exposed in the snow during blizzards for hours at a time while I am working with a subject. All of this means the gear has to be really tough; and thankfully it is!
Just finding wildlife in the Arctic regions can be a real challenge. There is the safety aspect of being out on the ice with animals like Polar Bears, but also the navigational issues of being perhaps hundreds of kilometres in the wilderness in white out conditions. There is never a dull moment in the polar regions and new challenges are always being thrown up. Whether it’s a broken snow mobile a hundred kilometres from help, extreme cold, an unexpected storm, lack of wildlife, or whatever; it’s never boring and you never really know what the next challenge might be.
Top five tips for combating these issues?
Be prepared. Almost any challenge can be overcome if you are properly prepared.
There is no such thing as cold weather. There is only bad and inappropriate clothing.
Two is one, one is none and three is more. Always carry a back up.
Work with experienced guides and locals. There is no substitute for local knowledge when it comes to finding wildlife and dealing with localised weather conditions
Plan every shoot; but be prepared to adapt to new and unexpected challenges.
What is in your kit and which specific features are most critical to you in your work?
Boy, I own a lot of equipment - LOL. Reality is though I use all of it; although not all of it all of the time. I do very much believe in the right tool for the job so depending on where I am travelling and what I am planning to photograph I will pack accordingly.
Again, not all of this will travel with me on a wildlife shoot. I will choose the appropriate lenses for my subject and environment. I always travel with two camera bodies though so that I can switch quickly in the field without having to actually change lenses. If I am dealing with a large dangerous subject like a polar bear then typically I am working with longer lenses like my 600mm F4. For something more docile and easily approachable like an arctic fox I will prefer my 400mm f/2.8.
Depending on what I am doing I may also take some ProFoto B10 Flash Equipment with me, tripods, reflectors, filters etc. It’s very much project and destination dependant.
In terms of features that are most important - I primarily shoot the Canon EOS 1DX Mark II cameras because they are so incredibly tough. I know I can rely on them to work in -30º Celsius and below for hours on end and not let me down. I have had these cameras so frozen that literally all the buttons except the shutter under my finger are frozen solid and the camera still keeps working. I’ve drowned the cameras multiple times in waterfalls and torrential downpours and again they just keep working. They are built like tanks and that’s a feature set I need for my photography. Blazing fast auto focus that is hyper accurate with the latest super telephoto lenses is critical to getting sharp images. Those telephoto lenses also have to be able to work reliably in very cold and inclement weather so weather sealing is paramount.
Most difficult project to date?
Most difficult is perhaps hard to assess … but I can certainly share the most frustrating and that was trying to photograph Wolverine last winter in northern Finland near the Russian border. I spent the better part of a week in a very remote part of northern Finland living in a small hide waiting for the opportunity to photograph Wolverine in temperatures as low as -30ºCelsius. It was mentally the toughest shoot I have ever done - and also the most frustrating.
Ultimately, I did get to the see the Wolverine and did get a few photographs, but not what I was hoping for. I actually did a short video about the experience on a daily basis you can see here: https://vimeo.com/317805455 I don’t like to give up though so I will be heading back both this Autumn and next winter to try again.
Most rewarding shot?
I really had to think about this one. But I think ultimately it has to be the back-lit Polar Bear on the fresh bearded seal kill that I photographed on a snow mobile expedition in Svalbard in winter a few years ago now. There is a just a magic to this photograph that really speaks to me. Its evocative, powerful and emotional. And that’s everything a successful photograph should be.
What are you working on now/next?
There are several projects on which I am currently working including a large fine art coffee table book on Antarctica. I have done over 50 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic and have a lot of content ready so I really need to get this book finished. I am hoping I can wrap it up by the end of 2020. Books take a really long time to produce well and this one is now overdue. It has been hard to find the time to pull this project together with all of my travel, but it will be done soon.
I am also working on a fine art photography book on Polar Bears and am about to start a new photographic project on a very rare, highly endangered and near extinct wild cat (Hint - it’s not the snow leopard) that lives in the high altitude regions of Mongolia. I can’t share what species as yet (but savvy readers will be able to work it out), but I will have more on this later this year when I return from Mongolia. My aim is to try and find (not going to be easy) and photograph this rare and incredibly elusive cat in winter when the landscape is covered in snow and ice. Infrastructure is basically non-existent in this part of Mongolia and at this altitude so it’s going to be tough - tents, no power or heating and temperatures as low as -50º Celsius for weeks at a time. I am really looking forward to the experience and hope with some luck I will find this cat and be able to photograph it in the wild in its winter environment.
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