I’m very excited to share this exclusive interview with professional landscape & adventure photographer Paul Zizka. Paul is especially known for his extreme self portraits and his images have become easy to recognise.
First of all, thank you for taking the time for doing this. Can you tell us who you are and how you got started with photography?
I’m originally from Quebec City and made my way to the mountains of Western Canada back in 2008. I decided to jump full-time into professional photography about six years ago. My focus is, of course, landscape photography, and I live in Banff, Alberta with my wife and daughter.
I didn’t take up photography until I moved to the mountains. I picked up a camera as a way to document the incredible beauty I was surrounded with and the experiences I was having in this environment. It was simply to show friends and family back home what I was up to, and eventually, the camera became an increasingly important tool in my life. When I discovered that photography could have an incredible effect on how people feel, I was hooked. I then made it my work!
Some of your most famous shots are your mesmerizing self-portraits. What made you begin to add a human element in your landscape photos?
The first instance I added myself to the shot was to solve an issue with composition. I had one element in the frame that I liked, but I couldn’t find a foreground that could compete with the background and lead to a balanced image. So I went on the other side of the camera and positioned myself in a way that I would draw enough interest to the observer overall.
You define yourself as a “professional mountain landscape and adventure photographer” however; you also have a collection of tropical images. Are there any differences photographing mountains and tropical beaches, and do you prefer one over the other?
There are a lot of differences. The general approach is the same whether you are shooting seascapes or mountain scenes, but the technical challenges can be different. Each environment requires different expertise and techniques to get the most out of the scene.
For example, there’s a lot going on in a mountain scene – it can be quite cluttered. You have to work with a rugged skyline, snow patches and glaciers, and rocks, trees, and stumps. So you have to be more intentional about what you’re going to include in the frame. Whereas when shooting ocean scenes, you have fewer elements to work with.
I love the variety in landscape photography – there is beauty in the mountains, on the beach, in the desert, in the arctic. I am thrilled that I get to document a lot of this variety. I am particularly fond of mountains, but I enjoy shooting what’s at the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
How has your passion for the backcountry and hiking impacted your photography?
One thing I like about putting in the physical work to capture certain scenes is that I’ve had to learn to do it “right” in the field. I don’t have the luxury drive up again anytime and shoot the exact same thing – you can be a four-day hike from the road.
This has made me a lot more careful about how I go about capturing my images in the backcountry. Hiking and climbing into these spots have afforded me a different perspective on familiar locations and has allowed me to provide a fresh take on the Rockies as a whole.
What, if anything, has surprised you after taking the step from ‘hobby’ photographer to fulltime photographer?
It was not what I expected it to be. For one, the line between work and play becomes blurry – you love your work, but it does feel like you’re always working. There’s that part of your brain that you don’t turn off – it’s almost like a second brain that’s dedicated to photography that follows you everywhere.
Also, the primary challenge that I underestimated was the need to balance work life and personal life on a daily basis. You can switch them on and off within minutes if the conditions turn nice – you just pick up the camera and head out. The need to find this balance between the two, even years after starting is still one of my greatest challenges.
You get to travel and see many beautiful places. Do you have any favourite locations to photograph, besides the Rockies?
I have a love story with cold places. I love the north – I’ve had some of my most memorable photographic experiences in Greenland and Baffin Island.
I also love wild, remote and obscure places – they don’t even have to be cold. Niue, a tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific, French Polynesia and even the tiny lost islands in the middle of nowhere have always appealed to me.
What’s next for Paul Zizka?
I’m most excited about a new venture that I’m a part of called Offbeat. I find that people could use more of two things: more time in the wilderness and being more creative. The goal of Offbeat is to tackle both of these at the same time – put people in touch with their creativity in wild environments.
I’m also looking forward to heading back to Labrador in August, Greenland this fall, Antarctic in January and the Faroe Islands next April.
What are your best tips for those who are just getting started with photography?
Put creativity ahead of everything else. It’s the only thing that will keep you excited in a sustainable way.
Have fun and shoot what you like. Don’t worry too much what other people think. Don’t become too attached to the reactions that you get, keep creating.
And take the time to get out and shoot with other photographers. Be open to what they have to teach you because we’re always learning. It’s an ongoing journey; there’s so much more to know!