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Women in Photography: An interview with Shannon Kalahan

In this series, we’re highlighting and celebrating women in photography. I spoke to Shannon Kalahan, aged 36 from Connecticut in the US. Shannon is primarily a landscape photographer but occasionally photographs weddings, events and portraits, and also freelances for a newspaper.

Shannon Kalahan
Photograph by: Shannon Kalahan

Marie Gardiner: How did you decide photography was for you?

Shannon Kalahan: I’ve always been a visual person and loved playing with cameras when I was young, but the first time I ever tried my hand at what could be considered landscape was on a trip to Spain in 1999.  I was pretty terrible, but it was notable in that it was the first time I spent a significant amount of time (and film) on capturing the beauty of a place.

A few years later, I started volunteering for an equine rescue and they didn’t have any photos of their horses.  That encouraged me to really invest time and energy into learning and practicing, which eventually lead me to where I am now.

I enjoy photography because it’s a chance to create something beautiful, and if I’ve done it right, to give a gift to the viewer.  I also appreciate that it encourages me to travel and experience other cultures, to explore places I might not have otherwise looked at, to be independent and to build relationships with other people.  Finally, I love that it can be a way to communicate important ideas and values.

Shannon Kalahan
Photograph by: Shannon Kalahan

MG: Where’s your favourite place to photograph and do you revisit locations?

SK: This is such a difficult thing to answer, because every place I’ve been has its own unique beauty and character.  Generally speaking, though, I love desert-scapes and mountains the best.  The top three places I’ve enjoyed so far have been: Iceland, the Alvord Desert/Steens Wilderness in Oregon and Death Valley National Park.

That being said, I’m probably most practiced at shooting waterfalls since we have so many in our little corner of the world. I’ve taken multiple visits to upstate New York, Ricketts Glen in Pennsylvania and to the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire for the mountains and waterfalls.

Shannon Kalahan
Photograph by: Shannon Kalahan

MG: What are your kitbag essentials when photographing landscapes?

SK: I currently shoot with a Nikon D810 and my favourite lens is the 14-24mm, which I use probably 80% of the time.

I also keep a Lee Filters kit with me, which includes a 10 stop ND filter, a circular polariser, and three graduated ND filters.  Also an intervalometer, since I have a new-found love of star trails.

Photography by: Shannon Kalahan
Photograph by: Shannon Kalahan

MG: How do you prepare for a photography trip?

SK: The first thing I do before any trip is research the heck out of it.  I try to find locations, preferably ones that seem like they have potential, but haven’t been photographed to death. That typically involves spending a lot of time on Google Earth and social media, searching by location.

I always look for information about weather and temperatures, as well as local practices and customs that will impact my trip.  Once I have a good sense of what the weather will be, and what will be needed to reach my intended locations, I pack accordingly.

This usually involves a good pair of hikers (loving my new Keens at the moment!), hiking poles if it’s a strenuous trip, all of the wicking and warm layers associated with working outside (shout out to Northface for keeping me warm, Columbia for making hiking pants that actually fit, and Smartwool for keeping my feet happy).

If there is even a slight chance of rain, I also include waterproof gear for myself and my camera kit.  In fact, Iceland just recently put that to the test. I ended up having to dry out a lens that got soaked in a hail storm with sideways wind, despite having a raincoat on it.  You really can never have enough waterproofing for your gear, and for yourself! Finally, I always pack an emergency blanket, a flashlight, emergency whistle, snack, and water because you never know.

Photography by: Shannon Kalahan
Photograph by: Shannon Kalahan

MG: Has anything ever gone wrong on a trip?

SK: Things go wrong all of the time, that’s part of the landscape photography experience.  I’d say that the most common challenge in the field is the weather, followed closely by forgetting to charge my batteries.

Landscape photography is inherently risky but I’d say the absolute biggest challenge I ever faced was in Peru in 2013.  I saved and planned for years to go hike the Inka Trail so that I could photograph Machu Picchu.  It was a 10 day trip of a lifetime.  The first few days were spent acclimating to the altitude in Cusco and around the Sacred Valley.  The history, culture and landscape were all fascinating and I grew more excited for the actual hike with each passing day.

The big day finally rolls around, and we start our hike off with a hearty breakfast provided by our guide company, along with cut up bananas throughout the day to keep our potassium and energy levels up.  Well, one of those things (I blame the banana slices) tried to kill me.  Before the day was out, I had what they were calling food poisoning, though I’ve since learned it was likely giardia.  I spent 5 days with a fever, hallucinating and throwing up, eventually landing myself in an emergency clinic there where they dosed me with things they can’t give here in the US.

I never completed the hike, and only saw Machu Picchu from the first viewpoint near the main visitor entrance for a total of about 5 minutes before I passed out.  But, I survived, and I have plans to make it back there at some point to hopefully see Machu Picchu again, preferably not through a fever haze!

Photography by: Shannon Kalahan
Photograph by: Shannon Kalahan

MG: What would be your advice to anyone wanting to start out in landscape photography? 

SK: First, and foremost, respect your office.  We only have one planet, and it’s up to all of us to be good stewards to preserve our special places for as long as possible, both from a conservation standpoint, and from an access standpoint.  One bad photographer can completely ruin a location for the rest of us.   

Second, be brave.  Most landscape photography inherently has risks, and even if you’re not in a risky situation, almost all of it involves discomfort.  But those amazing shots only happen if you put in the effort to show up.  Do be smart about your risks though – wear bear bells, hire guides, don’t stand on the edge of a slippery cliff, don’t thumb your nose at local culture and expect there to be no consequences, etc.

Learn to accept qualified feedback to enable you to grow as a photographer.  Everyone has an opinion.  Some of those come from a good place in people’s hearts, and some don’t.  Some of those opinions are well informed, and some aren’t.  You will learn the difference.

Third, don’t lose your creativity.  In the end, this is art.  Art is messy, and doesn’t need to stay inside the lines.  I encourage all of my students and peers to follow their hearts, to try new things, to be creative, to try new techniques, to fail as often as they succeed because that is how we learn what works for us.

Put in the time and effort to improve.  Practice makes progress.  And finally, enjoy the journey.  Photography, in my opinion, will always be evolving thanks to rapidly progressing technology and to new techniques that pop up.  I think accepting that this is a journey, with a set of ladder goals instead of a finish line helps you to accept a lot of the challenges and speed bumps you are sure to face.

To see more of Shannon’s latest work check out her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

About Women in Photography series writer, Marie Gardiner

Marie Gardiner is a photographer and published author (Sunderland, Industrial Giant: Recollections of Working Life). You can see more about Marie at her Website, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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