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Michael and Monica Sweet have done something the rest of us often dream about. They have taken a mutual love for photography and travel and turned it into a profitable business, both through stock photography and gallery work at Gallery Sweet. Unlike my recent traveling photographer interviewee, Gary Arndt, the Sweets focus mainly on their home state of Hawaii and some of the Pacific Islands. With their specialization in the Islands and variety of work, I wanted to get to know how they work their magic, as well as get some tips for those planning to visit the Islands.
1. How did you get your start in photography?
We met in San Francisco and married about a month after we met. We were sitting in a cafe thinking about how we can get one of the first digital cameras that came out while we were flat broke and decided to open a store credit card to get a 640×480 digital camera. Not even one megapixel! ;)It was an almost random idea. We started doing a lot of little art shows in coffee shops and photo contests until one day Monica decides to try them in a gallery after we moved to Maui.
I was actually thinking it would not work at all and I was 100% against trying it, thinking it was to soon for us to put our work out. (hint: don’t wait in life;)) So of course Monica wins and gets her way;), taking our photos to a small local art gallery where they did very very well right away. It was one of those things. We just kind of happened upon a niche exactly right and we soon became very successful at selling photographs through art galleries and gift shops and just kept building on that. We are very lucky and we tried a lot of things from making cloths to hosting parties before we happened upon island/wildlife photography.
2. You have two sites containing both your stock photos (listed at Pacific Stock) and more of the traditional ‘gallery’ type shots (at Gallery Sweet). Do you typically decide “We’re going to shoot only stock today” when heading out the door, or do you attempt to combine most trips?
We started selling matted and framed photos in little galleries long before we got interested in stock photography but along the way we were contacted by several publishers about doing greeting cards, calendars, postcards, etc… They were very helpful and supportive in getting our work out. Our idea all along was “what is the most fun thing for us to shoot and how can we make money from that” First we shoot what what we like; turtles, whales, islands, beaches. Then we market the pictures.
So to answer the question, we now go out, say for a week, to the north shore of Kauai or a week to the South Pacific Islands and think about shooting for stock, calendars, galleries, all in the same trip. Which is quite a bit more fun, as we can shoot each other kayaking, diving, swimming, surfing, as well as rays , sharks, and than the scenics. We can shoot just about anything we like that has to do with islands at this point. That’s kind of the beauty of stock photography for us, we don’t shoot for stock, we do the things we like and use it for stock photography.
3. You’re out in the sun and sand and surf a lot. What advice would you have for those traveling to tropical locations with regard to keeping their equipment clean and functioning properly?
Be careful. 😉 Salt water and sand are really bad for electronics and wind mixed in doesn’t help. We find the salt in the water and air eventually gets a lot of equipment. I think at some point you have to decide what’s more important, the shot or the equipment, and than be as careful as you can which can mean good quality underwater housings or jackets for the cameras in the rain or around ocean spray. We go on small boats for example, in sometimes very rough seas, whale watching and it can be very, very salty and wet. Like whole waves coming over the boat as you see in movies.
We try and buy cameras that are weather resistant and sealed and we do sometimes use jackets made to protect the cameras against salt spray or rain but we also have had a lot of cameras get wet and eventually stop working. If you really want to keep your camera safe its not that hard but you might miss some shots by being safe. That’s your choice. We always bring a back up camera and underwater housing on top of what we need. We very often are glad we did.
4. Apart from the standard waves, beach, palm tree scenes, what are some of the hidden gems people should be on the look out for when traveling to the Pacific Islands and Hawaii specifically?
Hawaii is probably one of the most diverse places on earth with 11 of the 13 climate zones. We really have tropical rain forest, lava, jungle, bamboo, desert, sea-life, rocky coast, people, naked girls on the beach, sports, hula …..its really never ending, the changing diverse beauty Hawaii offers. We still keep finding ourselves in places and situations where your jaw just hits the floor (or sea) from the stunning unexpected beauty.
5. Is the photography community on the Islands fairly tight knit or highly competitive?
That’s really one of the special things about Hawaii is how friendly people are and how helpful. We got a lot of help and encouragement from many, many people starting out and we still do.
I think the community here is one of the coolest on Earth maybe because you can’t help feeling pretty dang lucky to be here. As far as being competitive, its really more like how much energy and effort are you going to put in. It has to be a lot. There has to be some passion to be crazy enough to try this;) and work hard enough to make it happen. There are easier things to do. It is different in Hawaii. Publishers are nice, really like family in a lot of ways, galleries are nice, Stock Agencies are nice, like good friends, but each part of each island has its unique community and feel for sure.
6. Can much be done with the hash midday sun in the Tropics? Or do you just head to the bar and get some lunch like the rest of us?
Smiles 😉 I LOVE that look just past noon, shooting people where they are in the shadow side of harsh midday light with a slightly blown out background from the harsh bright light and smoothly shaded skin (this is like how you see a lot of stock and magazine shots)(almost overexposed blown out backgrounds). Its also a good time for under/over underwater shots, you know, with a fish eye lens half above water and half below.
Tropical water and beaches look really, really good at certain angles around midday. I think really how you feel and how you think/see is as important as what light you have. I always think “there is a perfect shot here somewhere.” But we are all for lots of breaks! We are firm believers in breaks and vacations, that’s part of the island lifestyle, part of its allure. If you’re gonna work… ..you’re gonna have to relax some. 😉
7. Your underwater whale shots are amazing. How were you able to get so close to the whales and besides an underwater housing, did you use any special equipment?
In Hawaii we have 100 yard approach limits with whales to let them chill out and rest here. But when you go a lot like we do (almost every day) sooner or later a whale will do what we call in Hawaii a “mugging” and come curiously to a boat sometimes inches away for quite awhile. If this happens and we get “mugged” we almost always have an underwater housing or two to lean over and shoot, mostly with a fisheye as the whale is 40 feet long and so very close. This is pretty rare but most of the whales you see in Hawaii are young and spent there entire lives around boats in Hawaii or Alaska.
The Humpback whale population was almost wiped out in the late 70’s so most of the whales here are younger than 30 and have seen the same boats year after year although they are here to mate and give birth, not people watch. 😉 We do end up having a small number of very curious whales, but they are truly amazing to watch no matter what, especially against the back drop of the Hawaiian islands. One of our all time favorite things is just being out on the ocean looking back at Maui as the sun rises while you’re waking up and seeing a little spinner dolphin or a whale gently dive or even just the peaceful ripples across the open ocean as the light flickers across the sea …….the sweet life. 😉
I’d like to thank both Michael and Monica for taking the time to come in from the beach and share a bit of what has worked for them in developing their niche in photography. You can see more of their wonderful photos at Gallery Sweet and Pacific Stock.