Part Two in our series of Q&As with new Backcountry Journeys Photography Guides introduces us to Chris Gheen.
Hi Chris, thank you for taking the time! Why don’t we just get to it? Tell us about yourself… Where did you grow up? What did you study in school, and why did you go in that direction?
I grew up in North Carolina, about an hour from mountains in the suburbs of the medium sized city of Winston-Salem. My family owned a camper trailer and we would take it out pretty frequently, which was my first real introduction to time in the outdoors. Around the age of 15 I decided I needed something else to do with my time besides sit around and play video games, so I took up rock climbing and began to teach myself anchors and systems for climbing. By 19 I was set on spending as much time in the outdoors as I could, knowing that was where I was my best self. I ended up in the Recreation Management program at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC focusing in outdoor experiential education. Two weeks after graduation, I drove to California to begin working for a small non-profit leadership organization outside of Yosemite, and just kept going from there!
That is a varied and outstanding background! You’ve been at this whole “Outdoors” thing basically all your life, it sounds like.. What are some specific hobbies? Do any of them stand out as either your favorite, or what you are best at?
I love anything outside. Mostly backcountry skiing in winter and mountain biking in summer. I still enjoy rock climbing and will go whenever the girlfriend drags me along. I took up ice climbing this winter and also really love that. I’ll go fly fishing as well from time to time. I think backcountry skiing and mountain biking are my main two activities. Photography is definitely at the top of the list too, but I figured that goes without saying, given the nature of the job.
Ha Ha! Yes, assumed photography might be at the top of that list.
Where have you guided professionally?
My guide resume is pretty varied and I take a lot of pride in the fact that I have every professional guide day of my career logged. I’m currently at 509 professional field days. I have worked for a summer camp in NC guiding hiking, climbing and mountain biking trips, been a logistic support guide for a small company in the Sierra Nevada range of California, worked for a wilderness therapy program for about 15 months, 8 days on 6 days off (that one was intense), and worked for a non-profit youth development program in Colorado before ultimately doing the commercial hiking tour thing. I’ve guided in NC, AZ, UT, CO, WY, MT, and CA, in Zion, Bryce, Escalante, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, so I’ve got a pretty wide variety of locales.
Wow! You’ve been all over the place! Clearly this profession is for you.. What is it about guiding that stokes your passion for it?
I was often that kid that would see a photo of a far away place and think, “Man, I’m never gonna get to go there… but it looks so cool!” So to now be able to take people to the same places I once only dreamed of going is a real treat. Seeing people’s faces light up when they see alpenglow or snowy peaks for (some of them) the first time, is really inspirational and makes me want to take more people out and show them the beauties of this world.
So then when did you get into photography?
Oh man, this feels like asking when I got into being outside, or when I started liking to eat good food. I’ve taken photos as long as I can remember. On family vacations I always wanted to get to hold the camera, and my mom has about 500 pictures of the Washington Monument from when we went to DC when I was 13. I would say that I really “got into photography” the summer before my senior year of college when a buddy handed me a DSLR for the summer and told me to “just give it back when I was done.” I really didn’t want to give it back. I shot all summer in the mountains of NC playing with light and exposure times and learning to adjust settings quickly to be able to capture various moments in various ways. I specifically remember shooting car tail light trails on the Blue Ridge Parkway as being one of the defining moments in my photographic career; a photo coming back after a long exposure and still being crisp, clean and engaging. I have been shooting pretty intentionally for the last three years, mostly with my phone and a small point and shoot. I really jumped full on into the photography game when I got my own DLSR right about a year ago. That’s when I decided to really take a run at the professional photographer thing and haven’t looked back. Something I pride myself on is how quickly I can learn and be self taught when a passion really feels right. Photography definitely feels right, and I’m really excited to see how much I’ve been able to grow in such a short time.
What specifically about photography do you love the most?
I’ve always had a difficult time expressing myself artistically. Music, drawing or poetry never came naturally and I’m a terrible artist. I have a very detailed imagination and can often very vividly remember experiences, places and events, but when I try to describe them or recreate them, I’m always falling short. Photography is an artistic way of depicting an experience in the most accurate form. To me, when someone says that a picture doesn’t do a place justice, it just means they haven’t taken a good enough photo yet. I take that comment as a challenge to make a photo that can live up to the beauty of actually being there. My family has no idea of the places I go and where I spend my time, so being able to share photos is my way of helping them to see why I am so willing to spend so much of my time on the road, sleeping in the dirt, and sweating for the opportunity to see the places in my photographs.
Do you have a favorite image that you’ve made?
This is like asking which of your children you love the most! I’ve got so many that I love, for so many different reasons. There was a time when I was shooting a lot of skiing footage in the Wasatch mountains of Utah when I captured a photo of a friend skiing off a drop at Alta Ski Area. When I saw that shot come back up on my screen, I knew I could make something of myself as a photographer. I’ve been very proud of this shot for a long time, and it’s definitely one of the defining photos of my portfolio.
One of my all time favorites was taken on approach to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I had pulled over to shoot a condor in a tree when the sun started setting and I decided to shoot the silhouetted burn area against the sunset. Right in that moment, the condor took off and flew right through my frame and landed in a tree perfectly positioned against the setting sun. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and damn if that wasn’t lucky.
I also had the distinct privilege of shooting the solar eclipse of 2017 during totality. It was a truly incredible experience and I hope to never forget the feeling of how small I was and how big our world is. I think I nailed that shot too, which also made the experience that much more exciting.
Find more from Chris at his Instagram page, as well.
Do you prefer wildlife or landscape photography?
I definitely prefer wildlife, mostly because of the fleeting moments and the high pressure involved with nailing a shot. You’ve got to be on your game and it’s really easy to miss a shot. Constantly searching and sometimes driving or hiking around for hours just looking for wildlife, the adrenaline really gets pumping when you finally find what you’ve been looking for and the pressure’s on to not waste the moment. All this while also having a calm, peaceful interaction with an animal is really special. Getting to observe an animal and seeing it in its natural environment, there’s a connection that happens when the animal notices you and recognizes that you’re not a threat, giving you an opportunity to see it really get comfortable. Capturing that moment is absolutely one of the most incredible feelings in the world.
What do you feel are your greatest challenges with each type?
I feel like my biggest challenge with landscape is noticing the abstract. A million photographers can shoot the same shot a million different times if the landscape is the same and they all have a camera. I want to be able to walk away from a landscape with something that makes people want to go back and re-shoot. The obvious shots are great, and timing and light are really good things to be aware of, but unless you’re able to notice abstract or unusual perspectives, all your photos are going to look just like everyone else’s.
As far as wildlife challenges go, I touched on it a bit in the previous question. I want to be sure to have my settings perfect and be able to capture the moment as it happens the first time. I’ve blown a lot of potentially cool photos because I didn’t have my settings right. I really love shooting action sports as well because it helps me get way better at this. I think of it as shooting wildlife that you can talk to. You still may only get one shot at a skier slashing through fresh snow, but you can tell them where to go and how to turn, and then get your settings mostly adjusted before having them go through the motions. It forces me to be able to adjust quickly and understand my camera well enough that when shooting wildlife I have my process dialed and can be more confident that I’ll nail the shot.
Well, we’re certainly thrilled to have you on board with Backcountry Journeys. How exactly did being hired on as a BCJ guide come about? Did you know Russ prior, or did he seek you out?
I actually guided a trip with Crystal about a year ago and we talked a lot about BCJ and how the company was doing. I was sure to show her a lot of my photos and even took a few while on the trip that she seemed to really like. I told her that if Russ ever needed additional help that he could definitely count on me. About a year later, he reached out and the rest is history!
What are you most excited about looking forward to working with Backcountry Journeys guests?
I think I’m most excited about getting to collaborate on photos in some really beautiful places. It’s easy to get inspired by working with other photographers and seeing what they’re seeing. Everyone’s work should benefit from the group effort to make really great photos and I’m excited to help guests walk away with great additions to their portfolio.
What do you feel are traits, experience, skill or whatever that you bring to the table as a BCJ guide that folks on your upcoming tours can look forward to?
As a guide, I’ve spent a lot of time preparing meals in a variety of backcountry settings, and as such I’ve got a long list of good food that has always been well received. I also really like to teach, and with my background in outdoor education, I think I can really break down some educational points for each guest and personalize their experience on every trip. I want people to walk away from every trip as a better photographer as well as a better steward of the places we go to shoot. I’m also working with Russ to put together a Moab tour highlighting Arches, Canyonlands and the red rock terrain of southeastern Utah. I’ve spent a pretty significant chunk of time guiding and recreating in Moab, and am really excited about the itinerary options we might be offering.
What will be your focus (pun intended) when out guiding guests on BCJ tours?
I want to be able to offer each guest a personalized experience. If that means hunting close up wildlife shots, we’ll make it happen. If you want night photos, I’m always excited to do that too. If you just want to know more about what settings to use to capture the scenery, I’m here for you. If at the end of each trip, every guest has photos that they are proud to share, I’ll be happy. But if each guest walks away feeling like they had a private, custom photographic experience, that’s when I’ll really feel good.
What is your favorite location that you’ve spent time in photographing, and why?
Oh man, this one’s tough. I’ve been lucky to get to shoot in some really beautiful places. Being based in Bozeman, only an hour and a half from Yellowstone has really let me take my shooting up a notch and I feel like I’ve grown the most as a photographer by getting to spend a lot of time shooting there. I also spend a lot of time guiding in southern Utah, which always provides some fantastic scenery and the contrasting colors and overall beauty of that area is hard to beat. I’d say though that one of my all time favorite places that I’ve taken photos is the Wind River Range of Wyoming. There’s incredible scenery around every turn, and the sunsets provide some really fantastic alpenglow.
Nikon or Canon?
Canon. Hard to beat those lenses…
Mirrorless or DSLR?
DSLR. Once Sony can compete with the long range lens offerings from Canon or Nikon, I’ll be more interested in their bodies.
Anything you’d like to relay to readers, some of which may be booked on your 2018 tours?
I’m super excited to get out and shoot with everyone! Looking forward to learning and growing as a photographer and hopefully getting to check out some really rad new places!
Awesome! Thanks, again, Chris for taking the time. We’re all excited for the coming year and look to see you in the field soon.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.