My Journey Into Sportraits & Adventure Photography: Are You Ready to Dive Into the Shark Tank? with Cathy Anderson
She once stood in a church at her first wedding as the hired photographer, sheepishly standing in front of a crowd of people with no clue what to do. Gripped with fear, she realized that the girl in charge knew nothing about being a wedding photographer. She was shy and knew a lot about the technical side of photography, but had zero experience with the people stuff.
Who is she? That’s me. It was in that moment that my worst nightmare became the catalyst for the wildest ride of my life. I screwed up but never gave up, and became a fiercely confident and successful woman. I hope that what you’re about to read will inspire you to quit being scared and to take some chances. We’ve all been there, but sometimes we need a kick in the pants to start chasing our wildest dreams.
I remember the first time I dove into my shark tank. I nervously walked into my first wedding, ironically set in a dark church, film camera in hand and no auxiliary lighting. I knew I had no business being there, and kept wondering to myself, “How in the world did I get myself into this?”
Fumbling around nervously, I reflected back to simpler days when I sat on my kitchen counter looking through negatives with my dad. He lit my photographic fire and took the first footsteps on my journey with me. Fast forward several years: I was alone at my first paid gig and I had the exposure triangle in my head, but I had no knowledge of how to command a crowd at a wedding. Why did I use film, knowing it was the hardest course of action?
Everything was fine until I reached frame 24. I was on autopilot and my mind shifted to my Pentax K1000 that manually rewound film, and my limbs naturally followed the familiar formula . . . except this camera rewound film automatically. I don’t know why, but I prematurely opened the back, not paying attention to the whirring sound. Oh, crap—I had exposed the film to light! I ran into the bathroom and shut off the lights, frantically trying to wind the film in the dark. It worked, and I steadied myself. Everything was going to be alright . . . until I did it again. What the heck? I know you guys are cringing right about now, but don’t worry: I salvaged plenty of film and she got her images.
My personal shark tank was stepping in front of a crowd of people I barely knew, trying to be charismatic and convince them that I knew what I was doing, even when I had no clue. That moment taught me that the sharks I envisioned really weren’t scary at all; they were the greatest teachers I’ve ever met—the unnamed souls who trusted me at that wedding and unknowingly gave me the courage to leap outside my comfort zone. I was insecure and had no business doing that wedding, but I am so glad I did.
I saw that it was okay to be authentic. I found that it was possible to communicate with people I had never met; they trusted me and wanted to listen to what I had to say, a foreign feeling. I lacked confidence because my teenage years had conditioned me to believe I wasn’t worth much. Little did I know, that leap into the shark tank was the best decision I ever made. I found that when I felt most alone, I was actually blazing a trail.
My wedding career spanned many years. I stuck with it because I made good money. I found myself stuck in a creative rut, searching for who I was as an artist. I did not know where to start, but I knew I was ready for another adventure that would shake things up. That’s when I found “sportraits” and adventure photography—the inspiration and creative outlet that reinvented me as a portrait artist.
Wikipedia calls art the process of “creating visual . . . artworks [that] express the author’s imaginative . . . ideas intended to be appreciated for their . . . emotional power.” Isn’t every mother searching for a way to translate their precious child’s personality into a piece of art that evokes feeling. Every time I see a tear roll out of a proud mother’s eyes, I know I have achieved that. I create art because it’s what I’ve vowed to give to my clients. I create art for parents and teenagers who are looking for something different than what other photographers have deemed the status quo. If you want to create powerful works of art that make your clients feel emotion, call yourself a portrait artist.
Seniors crave an authentic experience that tells their story in a different way—one that captures their soul, personality, passions—but seniors have trouble finding an environment where they can fully express themselves. I make sure that my portrait sessions give them exactly that. I begin every session by looking directly at the senior and asking them: “What do you want?” Mom might be paying, but deep down, she craves a portrait that illustrates the soul of her child. I want to start their portrait experience knowing they can freely express who they are and that their session with me is a collaboration between us. Of course I’ll get the portraits that Mom wants (looking straight at the camera, smiling), but the wall portraits that go home are always the ones my seniors love.
“Sportraits” fuse the world of sports and portraits, giving seniors a dynamic and exciting athletic portrait ready to grace the cover of any sports magazine. The standard sports photographers in my community made athletes stand on a field and hold a ball, creating static portraits with no movement. These boring portraits were supposed to represent events full of excitement and movement. It was an oxymoronic status quo, and it needed to change. I wanted to redefine athletic portraiture, so I started mixing off-camera flash with interactive posing, and did it all straight out of camera. We collaborated with our athletes, developing exactly what they wanted, and sportraits became unique and action-packed portraits that spearheaded a new movement in photography in my community.
Most importantly, creating the magic in camera led to a new personal standard—it kept me honest and creative, pushing me to innovate and present the best version of myself to my clients. My two goals for each session became breaking barriers in order to translate a senior’s soul into a portrait, as well as creating raw artwork in camera using only the tools I had at the portrait session. There are composites, but they are not my goal. Suddenly, my seniors had the images that everyone wanted to copy (avoiding the dreaded words “I found an idea on Pinterest!”). I was frequently asked: “How did you Photoshop that?” My formula created a discussion about art. People were talking about art again and not asking, “How much does this cost?” Clients became more focused on quality than on saving a few bucks.
As my journey continued, sportraits morphed into stylized portraits of fashionistas, mad scientists and band nerds, and my clients loved seeing their inner selves defined in a portrait. As my confidence grew, I started photographing adventure portraits and extreme sports like highlining, whitewater kayaking, rock climbing and boxing, all with off-camera flash. I even joined a boxing gym and became a boxer myself. The sheepish, shy girl of the past transformed into a totally new woman who now lived in a world far beyond the boundary of where her comfort zone previously lay.
My life has been a crash course of jumping into the shark tank headfirst. With one giant leap, I’ve grown to become a fiercely adventurous woman and a confident portrait artist. I hang off of cliffs with hundreds of pounds of lighting gear, photograph and connect with amazing young athletes and am supported by a wonderful tribe of friends. If you find yourself uninspired, scared, insecure—define your sharks and leap headfirst into the tank, sailing past your comfortable boundaries. Be ready to conquer them even if you’re afraid, and remember that if you follow the crowd, you risk going no farther than the crowd.
You’ve got this. I know it’s scary, but your hard work will lead you to your wildest dreams. I hope that my story will inspire you to push past what you think you can achieve and give you the inspiration to go out and do it.