Sarah Loreth on Photographing and Backpacking Across North America

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All images by Sarah Loreth. Used with permission.

Sarah Loreth is a photographer that positively embodies the sense of creativity and adventure. She used to work a typical 9-5 job but became very, very bored with it after a while. So her a couple of friends got together and planned treks across North America where they travelled together, lived out of a van, saw the continent, photographed and did workshops. While that may not sound like a lot to you, consider the fact that one trip took a year to plan.

Ms. Loreth has a fine art background and applied this to her travel photography. But she also faced the normal problems that every photographer running a business faces on top of the normal problems that troubadours of the camera often encounter.

We talked to Sarah about the logistics of a cross country photo journey and the best spots in North America to photograph, and her sense of composition.

Phoblographer: How did you first get into photography?

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Sarah: I started photography in June of 2010. I had received a DSLR for Christmas but had never had the chance to take it seriously. I was bored one day and decided to try it out and got hooked. Soon I was buying a tripod and remote to take shy self portraits on the bare white walls of my kitchen. I started posting my photography to social media and got such a good response I kind of just kept going. I’m completely self taught and my passion to learn increases every day.

Phoblographer: What motivated you to go across the continent and explore it as well as document it?

Sarah: We all just wanted build a community, more than anything. We were all at a time in our lifes, some twenty somethings unsure of what path we wanted to take but sure we are not cut out for the 9 to 5 life. The project started the summer of 2013. Joel Robison, Shane Black, and I all quit our jobs of six years and set out to travel 13,000 miles by car and host eight photography workshops throughout the time. This year we traveled 15,000 miles by car over four months hosting thirteen workshops. Along the way we wanted to see as much of North America as we possibly could. I love life on the road and I hope to one day be able to travel full time. My dream job would just be to live in a van, teach, travel, and document each day as it passes.

Phoblographer: Tell us about the gear that you used.

Sarah: I like to keep it simple. All I brought was my Canon 5D Mark II, 50mm f/1.2L, 35mm f/2, and some kit zoom I got with a camera years ago. Sometimes I borrowed my friend’s Sony A99 with 50mm f/1.8. If I needed a tripod I used my Vanguard Alta Pro 263GH.

All of us were great about sharing our equipment. We were never short of a tripod or lens if someone needed it. The good thing about traveling with a gang of photographers is, you are never short on equipment to try! Especially if you are traveling with a timelapser. But mostly I just stuck to my trusty 50mm and my Canon. Dream team.

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Phoblographer: Something like this can either take a lot of logistical planning or very little at all. How did you go about doing it and what troubles did you encounter along the way?

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Sarah: It took insane crazy amounts of planning, about a year. Each tour does. At the end of every tour we poll our social media and see where the interest would be in a new round of workshops. We take the most popular cities and shape our tour around that. Then it’s a matter of planning all the logistics, how much money we will need, planning the locations for every workshop, models, permits, acquiring sponsors for prizes for students, registering students, and in between finding breif periods to explore. Our goal is to build a community in each city we visit. Inviting local models to local studios to local students.

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Getting designers and makeup artists involved. Setting up these photography instructing and business training days as a way to give photographers the tools they need to make their passions a reality. We tried to give back to local communities as much as possible, at varying workshops in lieu of payment or for discounts, we asked students to bring donations for the local food bank. In a town in Canada our students raised over $300 for the food bank. In Atlanta our students donated over 90lbs of food. We wanted to show our students what a community has the power to do when work together. We choose to actually tour and live out of a van instead of flying from place to place to inspire that bit of passion for adventure with the hope that if people see us out there experiencing, that other people will say “hey, I can do that too!” We have received the sweetest messages from past students saying they were horribly anxious and afraid to go after their dreams but after coming to one of our workshops, they want to travel and experience. We have students meeting up and going shooting together. That was our goal. Community.

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Phoblographer: How did you go about getting started on something like this? Were there locations that you knew you wanted to hit?

Sarah: It just started with that standard 9 – 5 dream of grabbing your closest friends, giving up everything, living out of a van, and traveling. I had been working in an operating room for six years and picked up photography as a hobby. After a few years my passion for travel and photography grew until my friends and I agreed we wanted to set out into this photography dream we all had. So we did it. At the end of every tour we poll our social media and see where the interest would be in a new round of workshops. We take the most popular cities and shape our tour around that. In between we take to our social media channels and try to meet local photographers that have an interest in meeting up. I can’t tell you the amount of adventures we’ve had from taking to social media and someone has a friend of a friend of a friend that can give us a tour of a National Park or can give us a place to sleep for the night. From sleeping outside in a spot overlooking Half Dome in Yosemite and waking up to the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen to sleeping on a photographers back yard in Banff, Alberta with wild elk eating the front lawn and mountain views at every angle. We try to make this a yearly tour and have had great success from the last two years. I lifetime worth of adventure and experience crammed into the simplicity of putting real life on hold for a summer.

“It took insane crazy amounts of planning, about a year. Each tour does.”

Phoblographer: What parts of North America were your top four favorites to photograph and why?

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Sarah: Hawaii! The lanscape was incredibly diverse. I fell in love with the tropical forests, beaches, and volcanic lava fields. In my fine art work I often like to have a vast landscape so it was a perfect way to have such a wide variety of landscapes to create from. Besides, it’s just incredible to see and experience. We climed to the top of Mauna Kea to see the sun set above the clouds at 14,000. I will always remember that experience. How very biterly cold it was. How it looked like we landed on the surface of mars with the endless volcanic rocks and sateillite dishes. How the sky was so dark the stars lit the way on the way back down the volcano. Perfect life moments. But I’m the sentimental sort of person.

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White Sands, New Mexico. This was a spot we visited one August. The air conditioning had broken in our van and in the desert in 100+ degree temperatures that is not a fun experience. But the landscape left such an impression on me. We got there at noon but the expanse of the white sand acted as a natural reflector so every portrait we took was perfectly exposed. We couldn’t stay for more than a few hours so we didn’t risk heat stroke, but I’ve always been left with an impression of how unique it was. If you go far enough in, the dunes are pristine and only touched by the wind. Plus the area is rich in history. And I like history.

Glacier National Park, Montana. If you like mountains, clear lakes, epic scenic roads, and to hang out with a bunch of mountain goats, Glacier is the place. We spent our three or so days there in paradise going on long hikes through the landscapes to find hidden lakes. We watched sunsets over mountains surrounded by mountain goats. Then when our resident timelapser was out shooting the stars, we retreated to the van for napping and Home Alone watching.

I don’t even know where, Nevada. We were on way to Great Basin National Park and there was a storm rolling in. We had been seeing rainbows all day on our way through Nevada. We were supposed to drive through the day and find a place to camp at the park. But when we pulled on to a long stretch of empty highway and saw lightining over a wind farm, we couldn’t NOT go chase it. I have a passion for turbines. I’ve always loved the aesthetics of them. We had stood under some in the corn fields of Iowa and were fascinated by how massive they were. So after a bit of a debate we chased. We parked our car on a service road and walked the two miles or so into the turbine fields. The weather was some of the most beautiful and intesnse I’ve ever seen. As we were walking lighting was striking the mountains behind the wind farm and the storm clouds followed. But as the storm cleared making room for another one to roll in from the side, there formed the most majestic double rainbow any of us had ever seen spanning the entire field of turbines. We saw six rainbows that day, we were so close we could touch them. At sunset the storm rolled over us and the sky lit up bright pink with lightning in the distance. I’ll never forget that day.

Phoblographer: When photographers begin a journey or a project, they end up coming out with new self-discoveries. What did you discover?

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Sarah: I discovered a confidence in myself. When I started photography I was horribly agoraphobic, as I had been most of my life. I had terrible social anxiety and I had a hard time leaving the house. Through photography I learned the skills to have more confidence in myself to get out there and try to find happiness. The Wild Ones Workshop Tour and the experience, changed who I was into a more confident me. I never would have thought I would teach. I never thought I would teach workshops. I had a hard enough time ordering pizza let alone setting out on a extended tour and living out of a van. It taught me that if I work hard enough I can make something happen that seems so impossible to accomplish, and I can make it happen. In between tours I was working six hour work weeks in a hospital trying to make everything a reality. I learned I can rely on myself. I can go out there and meet people and learn people’s stories. I could live presently and enjoy the beauty of every place. I love being on the road. I live for those once in a lifetime moments where you slept on top of a mountain and you get to see the morning fog roll over the city lights. I love standing under remote waterfalls. I love living on the road because those moments are every day.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about your sense of composition. How did you develop it and what do you usually try to emphasize in your images?

Sarah: I specialize in fine art portraiture, so these photos of the trip are simple and mostly candids I took. In my fine art work I like to tell a story, so these were really just all the stories I was trying to remember from the trip. I wanted to be able to look back and remember the feeling of every place. I wanted to remember how it felt to hike up a volcano in Hawaii and watch the sun set above the clouds. I wanted to remember how we drove up a mountain late one night in Colorado and slept in the van and woke up to the most beautiful fresh snow on the peaks and aspen trees. I wanted to remember every little piece that makes life so beautiful.