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Wilderness Warrior

Joseph Rossbach breaks from the crowded overlooks and usual vantage points to capture original and compelling landscapes

Joseph Rossbach pushes himself to extremes in order to capture amazing images that often can be hidden in plain sight. OPENING SPREAD: Rossbach uses a unique color scheme with sandstone layers in lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

For nature photographer Joe Rossbach, photographing the familiar in a familiar way is never good enough. It has to be different for him. Consider a 2009 photo trek to capture autumn colors in West Virginia. While most photographers, including myself, were content shooting the well-known Elakala Falls at Blackwater Falls State Park at a safe, comfortable overlook across the canyon from the falls, Rossbach took a more challenging approach. Hiking and sliding down the steep, slippery slopes of the canyon to reach the tumbling cascades where it joins the Blackwater River, Rossbach worked his way into position. Massive boulders strewn along the way required him to either climb over or shimmy around. He got the image that no one from across the canyon ever saw. And unlike the comfortable, yet crowded overlook, Rossbach, surrounded by a forest of gold-drenched sugar maples, had the place all to himself for the entire day.

A prolonged exposure of a star trail over a rock hoodoo formation in Blue Canyon, located in the Hopi Indian Reservation of Colorado Plateau, Arizona. The image is titled “Kieje Hatal,” which means “night chant” in Navajo.

The Self-Taught, Self-Motivated Photographer
As one of the emerging talents in nature photography, Rossbach exhibits a heartfelt determination to capture unique compositions and images that go far beyond the familiar. His passion for nature photography results in images that would take many in this profession years to achieve.

Self-taught as a photographer, Rossbach relied on photography books and magazines to further develop his skills. “Photographers such as David Muench, Art Wolfe and Freeman Patterson were my inspirations,” says Rossbach. “From the first roll of film I processed, photography became my passion—or as my wife describes it, an obsession— and a logical step for my future career in nature photography.”

A fascination with nature preceded Rossbach’s love for photography. “I learned from my experiences,” he says. “Growing up in rural Maryland afforded me lots of opportunities to play in the woods and roam the beaches. Going on camping trips in the mountains with my grandparents also set in motion my interest in the outdoors. After taking a photography course in high school, I decided I would merge my photography with my interest in nature.”

But it didn’t happen overnight. After graduating from high school, Rossbach worked as a sports photographer, doing commercial work on the side during his free time. When the situation allowed, he went straight into the field to photograph the natural world.

“When I had some time off—and that would sometimes be huge blocks of time—I headed off to photograph nature as much as I could,” Rossbach recalls. “I traveled throughout the country photographing wherever I could to build up my portfolio. That was more than 15 years ago. Nature inspired me, so as I learned more about photography and became more skilled, I kept coming back with images that truly expressed the joy I felt and the beauty I witnessed out there.”

Rossbach is often in the field from before dawn until after dusk. Here, he waited for the perfect ambience to capture a striking sunset at Mushroom Rocks on Trail Ridge, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

The Business Side
In a span of just five years, Rossbach has developed a devoted following and a reputation for photography that speaks from the heart. And he has learned that being a professional and making a living is about more than taking photographs. There’s the business aspect to manage, and Rossbach came to rely on the expertise of his wife Amber for much of that financial side.

“My wife has been the biggest influence on me and my career as a photographer,” says Rossbach. “She convinced me years ago that my work was good enough to share with others. Everything I know about business management and marketing, I learned from her. Without her, I doubt very much that I would have a career as a professional nature photographer.”

Many photographers are content to shoot from above, but Rossbach took the long way down Shay’s Run in Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia, to shoot deep in the well-known gorge.

Rossbach strives to be in the field at least 10 days each month, more during the spring and summer months.

“When in the field, I tend to shoot from before dawn until after sunset,” he says. “I scout locations well in advance, often spending time just sitting and observing the landscape. This really helps me get into the rhythm of the place. I try to take advantage of every moment of sweet light that I can.”

The early risings and late evenings don’t always result in favorable outcomes, of course. Says Rossbach, “Many times I go with an idea of the image I want, but only a fraction of the time—due to the conditions of the light, environment or weather—do I return with what I had anticipated.”

The most important lesson from this, he adds, “Keep an open mind while out shooting and continue following the light. You may not get what you had originally planned, but it can often lead to more interesting and dramatic images.”

When shooting, Rossbach is unwavering about not capturing images that others have photographed time and time again. “There’s no challenge in that for me,” he says. “I want to create original images, something that incorporates a new creative design or even an abstraction of the scene before me. When photographing, I’m thinking in the literal, but I’m also trying to arrange shape, pattern, line repetition and color inside the viewfinder in a way that results in a visually stunning image and not just a record of what I saw.”

Cholla cactus and the spires of the Superstition Mountains captured during magic hour in Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona.

Going Digital And Getting Creative
As digital technology emerged, Rossbach was quick to embrace it. “When digital capture was just beginning to be developed for professional photographers, I made the switch immediately for my work in sports and photojournalism,” he says. “It wasn’t until about four years later that I started shooting digital for all my nature photography. The most important thing I had to learn was how to handle exposure and develop RAW files. It was such a departure from working with slide film. Now, the newer camera models capture images at exceedingly high ISOs. This has opened up a brand-new world of low-light photography opportunities, and I love it.”

Rossbach’s cameras of choice these days include the Nikon D300 and D700. “I love the ability to do multiple exposures, which is one special effect I use when light painting,” he adds. For most of his work, Rossbach relies on Nikkor lenses such as the 17-35mm, 12-24mm and 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 VR, and for wildlife, he uses the versatile Nikkor 200-400mm VR lens.

In the field, before deciding upon whether to use a straight-on approach or to make a more abstract image, Rossbach first considers the scene in front of him and the quality and direction of the light.

“A great composition bathed in beautiful light is a powerful enough tool on its own,” says Rossbach. “For my abstract images, I often use multiple exposures and camera movement to create images bordering on the edge of surreal. That’s a lot of fun and often has led to some of my most popular images.”

Still, Rossbach learned quickly that the photographer often comes home empty-handed. “If I can’t produce a dramatic image with great light, rich colors and a well-defined composition, there’s no need for me to photograph,” he says. “It’s best, at least for me, to return at another time to get an image that stands above the rest.”

To stay fresh and competitive, Rossbach attempts to shoot in new places as often as possible, and he works to be his own harshest critic. “I try to analyze my images of places I’ve shot before or iconic locations others have photographed and then come up with my own way to create unique and fresh photographs,” he shares. “This requires doing a few things, including working long hours in the field, shooting on the edge of bad weather and light, and using creative and abstract techniques for creating an impression of a place and not just a record of what I saw.” (See Rossbach’s article “High Dynamic Range Done Naturally,” Outdoor Photographer, December 2009.)

Video, Social Networking And The Future
Rossbach has recently added digital video to his photographic toolbox. “I’ve teamed up with fellow photographers Ian Plant and Richard Bernabe to develop podcasts and videos about our techniques for nature photography,” he says. “This is a really exciting way of bringing photography adventures to a larger audience. We include video and still images from the shoots. It’s really cool when you can put those elements together.”

Being a professional nature photographer is a challenging way of life, and Rossbach is the first to admit how competitive it can be. “It’s important for you to create a unique photographic style that allows a person to automatically recognize you as the photographer,” he advises. “Be the best that you can be and strive to constantly create fresh and inspiring images.”

Rossbach encourages anyone looking to break into the business to be diligent in marketing. “You also need to get the word out about your photography. No one else is going to do it for you. So you need to be at least as good, if not better, at promoting your work than you are as a photographer.”

Rossbach is also active in many social-networking avenues, such as Twitter and Facebook. “If you’re not using these new forms of social networking, you’ll fall behind,” warns Rossbach. “My Facebook page grows an average of 30 to 50 friends each month. It has been a great way to stay in touch with my clients who buy my prints and books, and attend my workshops. These web tools have also increased my visibility, which has resulted in new clients.”

As Rossbach has discovered, success in nature photography today isn’t measured as much by print or image sales as much as it is by education. “It’s nearly impossible to make a living off of stock photo sales,” says Rossbach. “With the influx of thousands of amateur photographers with a desire to learn, I’ve discovered the most lucrative aspect of this business is through education. I make a decent living these days leading workshops, writing instructional books and articles, as well as teaching online classes.”

Rossbach’s workshop clients often include repeat customers, which demonstrates his ability to inspire and teach others. “If you do a great job of teaching and pay attention to your clients, they will repay you with loyalty and come back for more workshops and classes,” concludes Rossbach.

And I bet his students will never photograph a familiar location in a familiar way.

Rossbach’s Gear
Nikon D300 and D700 DSLRs
AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm ƒ/2.8D IF-ED
AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm ƒ/4G IF-ED
AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED
AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 200-400mm ƒ/4G IF-ED
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S VR Micro-NIKKOR 105mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED
Feisol Carbon-Fiber CT-3371 tripod
Feisol CB-50DC ballhead
Really Right Stuff focusing rail
Singh-Ray LB Polarizer and Vari-ND
Tamrac Expedition 8 photo backpack

You can see more of Joseph Rossbach’s images, as well as get links to his blog and Twitter and Facebook pages, at