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Quit Your Job and Run For the Hills: Ron Coscorrosa Speaks Out

The open road, sweet mountain air, and being alone in nature. As photographers, don't we all dream about living the nomad's life? If you're like us, the thought probably pops up every now and then but most of us don't actually take the leap and do it. One of our long time friends and Digital Grin veterans, Ron Coscorrosa, has been a subject of extensive envy for the past 2 years. He traded his tech job and high-rise apartment to live a life of sunlight, pixels, and sleeping in his car. So we asked him to give us the skinny on what it's really like to put life aside and put photography first.

By Ron Coscorrosa

I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, but despite being near some of the most spectacular scenery in the American West didn’t pick up a dSLR until 2005, when I was tired of crappy image quality of my point and shoot digital camera (I don’t remember, but I’m pretty sure it had a floppy drive and a resolution of 6x4 pixels). It turned out that buying a better camera only made the bad photos larger, not better. Deterred by this sad realization, the camera and some expensive lenses sat unused in my closet until finally overwhelming guilt forced me to start using them more (this process took years). Eventually photography and traveling to beautiful places became a passion, to the point where I quit my software development job in the summer of 2011 in order to travel and photograph full time for approximately two years, without any distractions and without trying to generate an income. During my travels I met my girlfriend and gifted nature photographer  Sarah Marino and moved from Seattle to Denver to be with her, and since then we have spent the last eighteen months traveling and photographing together extensively.

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You've done something extraordinarily brave, something many of us wish we had the gumption to do: Quitting your day job to spend two years doing photography. Was that a hard decision to make? Did you agonize for a long time, or was it spontaneous and immediate?

It wasn’t a hard decision to make, nor particularly brave (at least to me). The hard part was in coming to the realization that there was actually a decision to make, that I didn’t have to live the normal life of working nearly fifty years straight until retirement when at last I would be liberated from the shackles of employment and free to enjoy life fully (assuming I was still alive and still healthy). After thinking about it for a few days, it no longer made any sense for me to continue the path I was on, and I was fortunate to have the financial flexibility to quit my job and be on the road within a few weeks of making the decision to leave.

By that point in my life I was heavily into photography yet not particularly good. I wanted to be able to dedicate myself to photography and pursue it absolutely free of distractions to see where I would end up. So having an alternative to work (in my case travel and photography) was definitely crucial to making the decision. I also didn’t want to be distracted by earning an income or trying to generate money via photography, I just wanted to do it for the sake of doing it itself.

What gear do you need to get the shots that you take? Do you pack differently if you're traveling domestically vs internationally?

My preferred subjects are natural landscapes, both large and small (including macro and abstract subjects). I used to photograph wildlife, cityscapes, and some other subjects as well but felt I needed to narrow my focus to try and be good at something rather than mediocre at everything.

Currently I’m using a Canon 6D as my primary camera, with a series of rotating lenses (all Canon) including a 14 prime, 17-40, 24-70, 70-200 f/4, 100 macro, and 100-400, all subject to change pending future insurance claims.

I don’t distinguish between foreign and domestic travel as much as traveling by car or traveling by plane. If by car (my preferred choice, though it doesn’t work so well over oceans or apparently on I-5 over the Skagit river in Washington state) then everything will come. If traveling by plane, I typically won’t bring things like backpacking packs, extra food (unless it’s Iceland, where $3 gas station hot dogs get old after a few weeks when nothing else is open in winter), extra boots, etc. For both types of travel I will bring backup camera bodies and tripods, as inevitably something will fail on a trip and securing a replacement is a hassle that has potential to interrupt photography.

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How has your gear held up to your adventure?  Is it true that you buy tripods in bulk?

My gear hasn’t held up at all, which is typical for landscape photographers who are in the elements (salt water, sand of various types, fresh water, waterfall spray, rain, and extreme temperature variances). I’ve had more experiences with Canon’s repair department than I care to recount. I’m on my third camera in two years. I have three tripods and none of them are fully functional (though I haven’t bought any in three years, it’s now getting to the point of ridiculousness and I may have to buy one soon). The only pieces of gear I can actually recommend are my RRS plates and ballheads.

Most of my gear failures are from gradual wear and tear in the elements rather than single dramatic incidents. One exception would be one of my aforementioned tripods which had a leg severed by an incoming iceberg on a beach in Iceland. Fortunately my own legs are of higher quality than my tripod’s legs and I remained unscathed.

If you consider your car gear, and I do, it’s held up fairly well despite 80,000 miles in two years and continual driving on roads that it is ill suited for, including numerous drives to the Racetrack in Death Valley, sliding down wet clay roads in the San Juan mountains in Colorado after a thunderstorm, going high speed over a rock disguised as sagebrush at Toroweap in the Grand Canyon and impaling the gas tank, driving twenty miles in slick mud near Escalante, Utah after an afternoon snow melt, navigating down steep rock shelves at Marlboro Point in the Canyonlands, and, the most expensive, getting stuck in deep mud on a remote desert playa two and a half hours from the nearest towing company.

You've spent the last two years doing crazy things like living out of your car so you can be in the right place for a sunrise shoot. What's the best thing to come of it? What's the worst aspect of it? Would you keep doing so if you could afford to, indefinitely?

For some reason, sleeping in a car brings much more scrutiny than sleeping in a tent (a more societally accepted form of cheap lodging), but to me, car sleeping is clearly superior in every way (save for backpacking, where sleeping in the car is not an option for obvious reasons).

It is more comfortable (especially with a twin foam mattress in the back), takes less time to set up and disassemble (in that it doesn’t take any time), can be used in noisy and windy environments, and comes with a full heating and cooling system. It is also more flexible, given there are always more roads than there are camping areas and none of them require a reservation in advance. It also allows me to be nearer to where I want to photograph for sunrise, letting me sleep longer.

There are some downsides, including questionable legality in certain places (though it rarely is an issue if you’re in after sunset and out before sunrise), occasional lack of public restrooms, and lack of showers. If the choice is between showers and photography, photography always wins. If it’s between showers and sleep, sleep usually wins. Apologies to any member of the general public that we may have came across while in the midst of a long photography trip…

If I had infinite resources I would still travel and sleep in the car because the main motivating factor is convenience and not to save money, though I’m sure the car would be a lot better!

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You don't sell your work. In fact, you don't take measures to protect it - it's out there for all to see, enjoy and use. What's your philosophy about that? What is your philosophy about taking photos in general and sharing them on the web?

Actually that’s not entirely true, all my work is copyrighted and can only be legally used with my permission. It is true that I do not watermark images and would never consider doing so. There are so many elements that go into making a compelling photograph that ruining it with an excessive or distracting watermark seems to undo the entire point of taking the photo to begin with. Measures such as right-click protecting images will only deter the lazy, as those with even limited technical savvy can download any image that is displayed in a web browser.

I do not sell my images or prints not because I’m against doing so in principle, but because I would currently rather spend my time on photography and travel. Sarah and I are writing a few location guide e-books that should be out by mid summer, but other than that I don’t have any immediate plans to sell my work or make money from my photography.

As for sharing images online, I do it all the time, mainly to tell stories of the places I’ve been and show people what I’m photographing. I’m not a big fan of the quid-pro-quo culture of many online photo-sharing or social media sites where the goal seems to be to solicit praise or get attention rather than engage in any meaningful dialog (some of which may be critical of the image being shared). I have met a lot of photographers online who have since become friends in real life, and that wouldn’t have been possible before, though I do wish there was less ego-stroking and more thoughtful discussion in general.

If you could sustain your lifestyle through photography sales and keep doing what you're doing, would that change your perspective on image protection/pricing?

I don’t actually believe I can sustain my lifestyle through photography sales, as my lifestyle currently doesn’t involve spending any time marketing or selling photos. There may come a time when I believe that spending a little time on marketing and selling, or conducting photo workshops, would be worth the larger payoff of being able to do photography full time (which would be a different but possibly acceptable lifestyle), but right now I’m enjoying the flexibility and freedom of being able to photograph whatever I want, whenever I want.

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After completely submerging yourself in photography, are you 'photo-ed out' or are you still passionate? Are you planning on going back to work?

I am definitely still passionate but my priorities have shifted since I began. I no longer feel any pressure to come away from an outing or a trip with something to show for it or feel like I’m missing out on photo or travel opportunities. I am more able to take risks and be comfortable if they don’t pan out because I still have a gigantic and overwhelming backlog of photos I’ve barely even looked at. I’m much more interested in coming away with a unique or personal take than nailing an icon shot at peak conditions (though I still photograph icons occasionally because they’re iconic for a reason – they’re inspiring beautiful places). While I am not where I want to be as a photographer (and probably never will be, and this is good!) I believe I am finally on the right path and have a vision about what I want to accomplish with my photography.

I will be going back to work before the end of the year, and plan to use that time away from extensive traveling to process more photos and possibly dust the cobwebs off of my blog or at the very least create some new cobwebs.

How far in advance do you plan your travels? Do you plan for major meteorological or astronomical events?

For domestic trips, we usually plan a few weeks in advance (though a trip to the Colorado Plateau can just as easily become a trip to Death Valley if the conditions aren’t good). For international trips usually a month or more in advance. The only trip we planned for meteorological events was a March trip to Iceland in order to see the aurora (which we were able to witness several times and it is an amazing spectacle that deserves to be seen in person) Once we are on a trip, we go wherever we feel like going. There are so many random variables that one cannot plan for (weather, clouds, foliage, general conditions) so I feel it is better to be flexible and react to what’s there rather than follow a strict itinerary.

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You've got a dedicated group of friends in your social circles, but what's your philosophy about shooting or traveling in groups?

I am lucky that I found a partner in Sarah who is equally passionate about photography and likes to photograph the same subject matter as I do. Photographing together enhances our individual experiences and there is almost zero conflict or friction (and though we are often at the same location our photos are always quite a bit different). Once you start photographing with more than three people I personally believe that you are compromising on photography in favor of being social (which is fine, if that’s what you are trying to do). Some areas and locations are just not conducive to small groups let alone large ones (and large photo workshops in these areas are annoying and in my opinion irresponsible). The idea of a “photo walk” is absurd to me. It’s a social outing; it has nothing to do with photography. So I prefer to photograph with Sarah and occasionally with one or two more people, but beyond that it’s too crowded. Photography to me is personal, not social.

What countries/areas are next on your hit list?

For foreign locations, Norway, Scotland, New Zealand, and Patagonia are near the top, but I’m just as happy in re-visiting old locations with a new eye or with different conditions or seasons. One could spend their entire lifetime in, say, Death Valley, and still only scratch the surface of what’s there. I’m not really in favor of hitting the landscape photography destination circuit like I was a few years ago. There’s plenty to photograph almost everywhere.