Zach Doleac is a Seattle based outdoor photographer living the life that many of us dream of. He just finished a photo project on the powder slopes above Lake Tahoe and will be headed to Hawaii for a surf shoot later this month. After learning the ins and outs of marketing working for K2 Skis as a Marketing Coordinator and Global Team Manager, he was selected for the amazing position of Columbia Sportswear’s Director of Toughness, “probably the only director title of my life” he recalled with a laugh. Since then, he has been working full time as a freelance photographer. Zach kindly agreed to answer a few questions about how he got into photography, and how he then transitioned that passion into a career.
1. How did you get interested in the outdoors?
Growing up in the PNW, I found myself in the outdoors a lot. “Outdoors” means something different to everyone, but for me it was spending time at my family cabin in the Central Cascades and going on trips with the Boy Scouts. When I was 13, I did my first 50-mile hike with the Scouts. We spent a week on the PCT through the Three Sisters Wilderness in Oregon. I remember bringing my mom’s digital camera and being more fascinated with making photographs than anything else.
2. So you mentioned to me that you had been doing casual photography from a young age, but that going to college is really when your interest took off. Can you tell us about that shift? What were you shooting, and how did you learn photography?
When I graduated from high school I bought my first DSLR camera, a Nikon D60. So upon entering college I had my own camera to play around with. I started shooting everything and anything. Parties, my friends, college sports, basically everything my friends and I were doing. I would spend late nights on the internet learning cool camera tricks and then go out and practice. My education was largely trial and error. But the more I practiced, the better I got, and that made me want to practice more.
3. It sounds like your work at the New Mexico Photographic Workshop was a huge learning experience for you, what was that experience like?
That summer was life changing. I had a pretty grasp on how to work my camera at that point, but there is so much more than just spinning the dials. I was a course coordinator at the workshops, so I was getting paid to learn from some legendary photographers: Arthur Meyerson, Carlan Tapp, Syl Arena, Tyrone Turner, Norm Clasen, Tony Bannano, etc. They taught me about light, color, composition, gesture, people. All the intangibles that make a powerful image. They helped me learn to tell a story. I think about their lessons all the time while I am shooting.
4. How did you get your photography internship? How did that affect your work and your progression as a photographer?
While I was suspended for a semester my sophomore year in college I interned for Mike Tittel, a freelance photographer in Salt Lake City. Basically, I picked up a Powder Magazine and started calling every photographer that had a bi-line begging for an internship. Mike said “Do you ski?” (I didn’t) but replied of course I do. Then he said come on down, I’ll use you. I learned a lot from him about production, working with models, and Lightroom. I also got a job at Snowbird taking photos, the more practice the better. That semester was more beneficial for my future than anything I would have learned in class. But I didn’t even know it at the time.
5. Did you go into marketing with the intention of learning the photography business from the buyers side, or did you become more interested in photography through your marketing work?
I went into marketing because it was a cool job for a company that I loved. I got to ski a lot, traveled all over the US, and had the opportunity to photograph world class athletes. I knew I wasn’t ready to go out on my own as a freelancer, so I picked a job that I thought I would enjoy and where I would be able to work with my camera at least a little bit. All of the things I learned about the business side of photography while I was at K2 Skis was unexpected. By the time I left there I was also shooting a lot more for them. Studio and action. I learned a lot from their staff photographer Alex O’brien. I learned about working with athletes who had huge egos and got to practice shooting a lot of different types of imagery. I never knew going into it how beneficial it would be for me. The network that I started to establish within the outdoor industry while at K2 was also paramount to moving forward as a photographer.
6. How did working in Marketing make you a better photographer?
Working in marketing taught me a lot about the kinds of imagery brands are looking for: a little bit of radness with a lot a logo placement and lifestyle. You have to think about negative space, where copy is going to go, who your audience is, how is it going to make them feel? But most of the things I learned in marketing helped me become a better businessman. I was dealing with freelancers all the time on the client side. How you interact, how to craft emails, responsiveness, availability, communication, budgeting, pricing, production, etc. The list is endless.
7. How did you hear about Columbia’s Director of Toughness position? What was the interview like?
One of my best friends and co-worker at K2 Skis, MJ Carroll, emailed me the position. She said, “This could be your future.” Funny how things work out sometimes. The interview was pretty static and straightforward. Met in a conference room at Columbia’s HQ in Beaverton, OR. I ended up saying a few right things and getting lucky!
8. How was it being the Director of Toughness?
Being a DOT (Director of Toughness) was an unforgettable experience. I was paired with Lauren Steele, an ambitious freelance journalist living in NYC. She was awesome and made the whole experience a breeze. We still do work together and will be friends forever. The job was a lot of marketing shenanigans, but the travel was as real as it comes. Uganda, Colombia, Patagonia, Costa Rica, Alaska, Japan, etc. It was a fantastic opportunity to build an international adventure portfolio on someone else’s dime. Not to mention Columbia Sportswear is a great brand with a lot of really smart people working there. I learned a great deal from them and continued to broaden my outdoor network.
9. I think a lot of young people, myself included, fantasize about leading an outdoor, adventure filled life out of a trailer as you do, what are the best and worst aspects of the nomadic lifestyle?
There are a few best parts: I don’t pay rent which is great for all the traveling around I’m doing. I have a mobile office, my toys, and all the comforts of home with me wherever I am. I don’t have to commit to a place which I have a difficult time doing. The worst part is finding parking. Even through my house is only twenty two feet long, it can be a pain in the ass to find spots outside of RV parks.
10. Is there anything that you think is really important that most young photographers don’t know?
It’s not all travel, glamour, and glory. I spend more time in front of the computer editing and sending emails than in the field with my camera.
11. Were there resources or clubs that you utilized in college that helped prepare you for your current profession and lifestyle?
In college I studied architecture and environmental science so there wasn’t a lot of academic options. But I took all the photo and video courses that were offered when my schedule allowed. I spent a significant amount of time in the school’s dark room, so take advantage of that kind of free resource while you can. I also shot for the school newspaper for a bit, but then I decided I didn’t like being told what and where to shoot, so I stopped that. The greatest thing about exploring a creative field while college is all the free talent you have around you. Collaborate with dancers, athletes, models, actors, other artists. Everyone has ample time and wants to make cool shit, but once you get into the “real world” you will have to or at least should pay those people for their time. So build a portfolio while you can!
12. If you could tell your freshman self any piece of advice, what would it be?
Haha. As a freshman I wanted to double major in Math and Econ with an Arabic minor and be captain of the baseball and football teams. I would kick 2008 Zach in the balls. I think I ended up making timely mistakes and a few right decisions along the way to get to where I am now. I know I am going to continue to evolve and future me will be laughing at myself now. But I would say when you find a passion, whatever it is, pursue it endlessly. Don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Don’t succumb to other people’s’ expectations, even your parents. Be decisive but don’t be afraid to change your mind. Doors are going to open and close, you just have to make up your mind about which ones to walk through.
All images are Zach Doleac’s. For more of his incredible photography, go to http://www.zachdoleac.com.