We recently connected with Peter Kunasz and have shared our conversation below.
Alright, Peter thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. It’s easy to look at a business or industry as an outsider and assume it’s super profitable – but we’ve seen over and over again in our conversation with folks that most industries have factors that make profitability a challenge. What’s biggest challenge to profitability in your industry?
As a scenic landscape photographer, in my opinion the biggest challenge to profitability is the quantity of images now available on commercial sites like Shutterstock. This has severely reduced the price of stock images and because there are so many artists posting to these sites, it is hard to stand out from the crowd.
Some years ago, I received a message from a stock agency that an image was purchased for a magazine cover. I was thrilled–my first cover shot! But then I learned my pay was the royal sum of 25 cents. Welcome to the world of online stock photography.
Awesome – so before we get into the rest of our questions, can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers.
I was 13 when I sold my first photograph. My Dad bought a Polaroid camera to record a 3 month summer vacation and I still remember being captivated by that camera . I would take it to the beach where I snapped Polaroid pictures of tourists and tried to sell them. As I recall, I was only slightly successful, but my fascination with photography was born.
In 1969, I was in grad school as a psychology major and also worked for the Navy as a research psychologist dealing with anti submarine warfare training. There I met several Navy pilots — one flight was all it took to become jealous of their “jobs”. So much so that a year later I joined the Air Force and started officer and jet pilot training–the most intense and rewarding 16 months of my life.
Skip ahead 5 years– my military obligation is now complete and after 6 months I am hired by a major airline based in San Diego. There were thousands of pilot applicants so this was a dream come true. For the next 28 years commercial aviation was my profession . Photography was limited but I maintained a keen interest in cameras and lenses.
In 2000, digital photography was becoming mainstream and it was fascinating. My pent up desire to be creative with a camera came roaring back just as I was retiring from my airline job. My wife and I decided to travel by motorhome exploring the western US, while looking for a place to retire. We spent two years traveling through beautiful national parks and other scenic locales while experimenting with different digital cameras. No film, no developing necessary–digital was a game changer. From this adventure my company, Western Light Photography, LLC, was born.
I am essentially self taught but was mentored by two landscape photographers, one being the noted David Halpern. Photography is a combination of a knowledge of physics and mechanics, as well as the ability to “see” the important elements of a scene. My goal is to convey the essence of that reality made at that particular moment in time. It is said that you can “take” a picture or you can “make” a picture utilizing skill, knowledge and artistic interpretation. The importance given to certain elements of an image can, over time, create a “style”. My style is to find a combination of interpretive elements that are both beautiful and relatable and then place the viewer in the middle of that picture.
In addition to photography, we also offer large format digital printing and I am now using drones to obtain unique perspectives in many new areas as well as those previously photographed. We are very careful to follow all FAA rules, which can be limiting to say the least.
If one measures success by the number of images purchased, then with over 15,000 digital images and prints sold in the past 12 years, I consider my efforts to be successful, My satisfaction comes from knowing my work has been accepted in a competitive industry.
Is there a mission driving your creative journey?
At age 58, after a 28 year career as an airline pilot, I started my photographic and printing business, Western Light Photography, LLC. A hobby became a business. It is now 20 years later and my goal has changed from just producing new work and income to also including how best to preserve my portfolio for viewing after I am gone. The best way to do that is to make copies of selected images in a common format, like JPEG, and upload them to a gallery that would be discoverable. The physical world we live in is changing fast, and that change will accelerate. It is important that we record and make available today’s images so hopefully they will motivate the desire to protect what remains worth protecting.
In my view, one of the most successful self made photographers is Thomas Mangelsen. He is known as a premier landscape and wildlife photographer, and to me his work has been like a textbook on how to photograph nature and bring the public to his work while making a living at his trade. (https://www.mangelsen.com) Besides being a very talented photographer, he is also a highly intelligent businessman and environmentalist, successfully managing his company in a highly competitive world.
How about pivoting – can you share the story of a time you’ve had to pivot?
In 1969 I was a grad student studying behavioral and clinical psychology, and also working for the Navy helping develop training for submarine and aircraft crews involved with anti submarine warfare. I lived in San Diego and was very happy with my life path trajectory. But then I met some Navy pilots, became friends, even flew with some (in civilian aircraft) and suddenly I was very interested in becoming a pilot.
At that time airports were wide open and I recall just walking into a parked and empty United B-707. I made my way to the empty cockpit and spent a few hours sitting in the captain’s seat looking at all the gauges and controls while putting my meager pilot knowledge to work trying to understand how everything functioned. I was totally fascinated.
The Vietnam war was raging but because of my job and security clearance I had a draft deferral. It was risky to join the military but they offered the best pilot training you can get–and it was free. So I took the tests to be an Air Force officer and pilot, said goodby to my Navy job and within two years I had earned my Air Force pilot wings. After 33 years as a military and commercial airline pilot, that pivot was the smartest thing I ever did.
The second pivot came after airline retirement, when I became serious about learning and applying my photographic skills as a commercial venture. That has remained an important part of my life, and continues with the advent of drone photography, which opens up even more possibilities and somewhat combines flying with photography.
- Website: www.pbkimages com
All images © P. Kunasz. All Rights Reserved