An extraordinary case of wanderlust – a chat with Shanna Baker
New robertharding signing, Shanna Baker describes herself as: ‘an ordinary gal with an extraordinary case of wanderlust’. She seeks bold, colourful images that celebrate places and people far and wide. When not exploring the world with a camera, she works as a magazine writer and editor in Victoria, Canada. We caught up with her to get the lowdown on her photographic career.
Where are you from and where do you live?
I grew up in the interior of British Columbia, Canada, in a place called the Okanagan Valley—land of stone fruit, pine forests, glorious lakes for swimming in, and world-class ski runs. But I now live in Victoria, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, where I’m more likely to photograph hikes in rainforests and landscapes featuring crashing Pacific waves.
How long have you been a professional photographer?
That’s a surprisingly hard question to answer, but the first time photography was part of my job description was when I worked as a reporter for a small community newspaper. Photography has been part of my working life ever since, and increasingly so.
How did you first get into photography?
I remember being on a trip to Cancun with my family when I was 16. By then my photography obsession had already ignited—exactly when, I can’t quite recall—but I was shutter happy and hadn’t yet learned to be discerning. When I snapped a photo of a black cat darting between our feet at a restaurant, my dad gently reminded me not to waste film (yes, film). My mom responded with something along the lines of: ‘let her, she’s a photographer’. They were both right—that photo of the cat was bad. Really bad. A noisy underexposed blob with glowing eyes. But every bad photo eventually builds to a better photo, if you pause and learn from the mistakes.
After high school, I bought my first ‘serious’ camera—a Minolta XTsi—for an overseas trip and started to get excited about travel photography. I loved that camera so much that I slept with it in the foot of my sleeping bag every night. But the greatest turning point was meeting travel photographer Grant Faint when I was in my early 20s. I was studying journalism at university and interviewed him for a ‘dream job’ assignment. He became my mentor and travel buddy, and helped me learn how to pursue travel photography with intent.
Where are you now and what are you shooting (or what is your next big trip)?
I have some small shoots planned for around British Columbia this summer but the next big trip will be to Spain in a few months. It’s always an interesting challenge going somewhere that has been heavily photographed and trying to find new ways to capture it.
I’m on staff at a fabulous online publication called Hakai Magazine, which focusses on coastal science and societies, so sometimes I also get to go on interesting photojournalism assignments. I just got back from following archeologists around for a few days on a very remote stretch of Vancouver Island coastline.
What are your favourite destinations/subjects to photograph and why?
I love bucolic landscapes and gritty urban streets, natural wonders and cool architecture, people and animals, still life and action, macro and expansive vistas all in equal amounts. Put a camera in my hand and set me loose in a new place and I’m blissful. Some photographers set out each morning with a specific objective—and sometimes I will try that, too—but part of the thrill of travel photography for me is responding to whatever I stumble across. There are always surprises, and everyday feels like a big treasure hunt.
How would you describe your style?
Bold, colorful, upbeat. There’s a lot that’s wrong in the world—but also a lot that’s exciting and inspiring. I like to celebrate the moments of beauty.
Can you recall a favourite experience on your travels?
I’ve been lusting after the thought of an African safari since I was a kid and finally had the opportunity to go to Kenya last year. I tried to talk myself down, so sure that I’d built the Maasai Mara up in my mind to mythical and unrealistic expectations over so many years—but, oh my goodness, it was even more incredible than I could have dreamed. Getting to see wild elephants on the savannah particularly overwhelmed me. Plus lions and leopards and all kinds of antelope and warthogs and bison—it all felt surreal.
Can you recall a particularly challenging experience while taking photos/travelling?
I traveled to western India for a writing and photography assignment last fall and, as soon as I landed after 36 hours of travel, came down with strep throat, complete with fever and nausea and a throat full of glass shards. A lot of people had gone to significant trouble and planning for my trip, and there was no time to spare, so I pushed on, shooting photos while dizzy from the fever, 40 degree heat, and dehydration (I ran out of water). My lowest point came that first night in the field—I lay awake under mosquito netting alternating spitting into a bottle because it hurt too much to swallow and plunging my hands down my pants to pull out some of the giant ants teeming around me. Plus I had cut a four-inch gash in my foot while wading along the seashore to get into position for a photo, so every time I wiggled my toes blood gushed down my sole. Travel isn’t always glamorous, but it is always interesting!
What camera and equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite piece of equipment?
I bought a Nikon D850 last year and feel like the angels sing every time I pick it up. It’s such a beautiful tool. I haven’t ventured very far into mirrorless technology yet, though I do think about it every time I pick up my immensely heavy backpack full of Nikkor lenses.
What are your tips for taking a good photo?
Only travel with people who tolerate the fact that you might stop 20 times on a single block, that you care a lot more about catching good light than eating meals at reasonable hours, and that when you say ‘just one more’ you have good intentions but you are lying.
What advice would you give for young photographers starting out?
Two things pop to mind first: If something makes you laugh or takes your breath away or elicits some other kind of strong and immediate reaction from you, it probably has potential for a good photograph. And, pick up some business acumen: the most successful photographers are not just exceedingly talented, they are excellent entrepreneurs (I am not).
What are your future plans?
Morocco, Namibia, and Montana are a few of the destinations high on my list. Antarctica is my fantasy. I also have a couple of personal projects I’d like to start working on to keep me shooting more between trips. And I’m attempting to master drone photography.