People who see Donald Sewell’s photographic calendars and notecards occasionally inquire whether he also shoots weddings.
“I can do weddings if they’re outdoors,” Sewell says, “but that’s not my niche. I’m a landscape photographer.
“And if animals happens to wander into my landscapes, then I’m a wildlife photographer,” he adds with a laugh.
Sewell took up photography at age 19 when his father gave him a Zeiss-Ikon camera purchased at a pawn shop.
It wasn’t until years – and many rolls of film – later that Sewell felt confident enough to enter his photos in competitions and offer them for sale.
Today, you’re likely to see one of his Sewell Scenics calendars in checkout lines at Rosauers or Yoke’s.
During a recent interview, Sewell discussed the challenges of turning a hobby into a business, and offered advice for taking better photographs.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Sewell: Here in Spokane. I attended Shadle Park High School.
S-R: What were your interests back then?
Sewell: Outdoor sciences – botany, forestry, oceanography. I was also an Eagle Scout, and very active in my church youth group – choir-type stuff.
S-R: Did you envision a career for yourself?
Sewell: I thought I might go into something like the national parks, so I attended Spokane Falls Community College and studied outdoor science.
S-R: Then what?
Sewell: While I was in college, I got a summer job as an electrician’s apprentice with a company that manufactured maternity beds. At the end of the summer, I had an opportunity to stay with the company in the assembly department, and later became a factory rep, flying all over the country repairing equipment.
S-R: What other careers have you had?
Sewell: I had four primary jobs over a span of 30 years – all customer-service, inside-sales positions. I worked for a North Side recycling-equipment manufacturer, a check-collection company, an industrial plastics supplier, and a copier-printer supplier. Every company I worked for was successful, and I lost my job when the company either got bought or outsourced.
S-R: When did you start taking photos?
Sewell: In 1979, I photographed wave scenes out on the Olympic Peninsula near La Push.
S-R: Do you remember your first sale?
Sewell: That was in 1994. My wife – my fiancée at the time – thought my product was good enough that I should do something with it, so she applied for the Sewell Scenics business license. My first sale was a photo of Comet Falls (in Mount Rainier National Park).
S-R: How long before the business gained traction?
Sewell: In February 1996, I photographed fog in Riverfront Park while standing in the willows across from the carousel. Later that year, those willows were destroyed during the ice storm. But the photo won grand champion at the Spokane Fair, and 20 years later it still sells.
S-R: Any other moments or events that changed the direction of your life?
Sewell: The most recent one was seven years ago, when I was still at my last full-time job and had five supervisors in six years. Basically, it got to the point where my wife said, “You need to quit, or I’ll quit for you.”
S-R: You’ve sold photographs for 22 years. Has it ever been more than a hobby?
Sewell: No, just a passion. The most I’ve ever earned in a year is $12,000.
S-R: How much do you charge for prints?
Sewell: They start at $15, and go up to $189 for a framed, 24-by-36-inch print. Notecards, which are popular at craft shows, sell for $5.
S-R: How many 2017 calendars do you expect to sell?
Sewell: Around 2,000.
S-R: Where are they available?
Sewell: I have about 60 retail outlets, including all of the Rosauers stores, many of the Yoke’s, Manito and Colville Super Ones, and Auntie’s. The calendars retail for $11.99.
S-R: How has your business evolved since 1994?
Sewell: The quality is much better. The early pictures weren’t very good.
S-R: How has equipment evolved?
Sewell: My wife bought me my first digital camera, because she knew I wouldn’t do it on my own. I’m still an old-school film guy at heart. In terms of portability and price, digital is better. The quality matches what I could do on film. But I still set everything manually, not automatically. And I don’t Photoshop anything.
S-R: Did skills you learned at your other jobs transfer to this one?
Sewell: Probably the organizational skills. My nickname is “filemaster.”
S-R: Your other jobs also involved customer-service roles. How about this one?
Sewell: I have to do the local craft fair circuit, because that’s part of marketing. But it can be very slow. I’ve put in as much as 40 hours on a weekend and paid $450 for a booth, and sold as little as $41 in art.
S-R: Anything you wish you’d done differently?
Sewell: Once I put landscape images on the front of spiral-bound notebooks—sort of diaries – thinking they would sell great, and ended up with a lot of those. Then I thought canvas prints might transform my business. But after four years of hauling them to shows, I’ve acknowledged that people prefer prints that look like you could step right into them, so I’m getting rid of my canvas stock.
S-R: Does the economy affect your sales?
Sewell: Yes. When the economy is down, people don’t buy art. Yet they’ll buy the candy apples right next to my booth. They have no problem plunking money down for food.
S-R: What’s a rule of thumb when shooting landscapes?
Sewell: People say don’t shoot during midday or in bright light. Some guys will wait days for the perfect shot, but I don’t have the patience. If I’m there and I like what I see, I shoot it. Landscapes are very forgiving.
S-R: What has photography taught you about yourself?
Sewell: That I have an eye for composition, which is hard to teach. If a good buddy of mine and I stand on the Oregon coast at sunset and take pictures, our stuff couldn’t be more different.
S-R: What’s your artistic philosophy?
Sewell: I strive for something different. If I shoot the clock tower in Riverfront Park, I don’t want the standard, iconic view. I look for what other people are missing.
S-R: Any favorite customer reactions?
Sewell: I took a picture of Mount Rainier, and captured its reflection in water. The reflection is so crisp, you can flip the picture upside down and it reads almost exactly the same. When people see it in my booth, sometimes they insist I hung it upside down. That’s fun.
S-R: Are there misperceptions about professional photography?
Sewell: Yes. Everyone considers themselves a photographer because they have a smart phone and can post things on Instagram. But they’re picture-takers, not photographers. They may capture interesting moments, but they’re diluting the market for professional photographers, who create art that evokes emotion.
S-R: What are typical mistakes people make when taking pictures?
Sewell: Too wide a perspective – tiny people and large backgrounds. I use my zoom function more than anything else. If I photograph a sunset, I’m framing the part I want, not the 90 percent of the sky that’s empty.
S-R: What other advice would you offer?
Sewell: Always look up and look down. A sunset might be gone, but there may be clouds behind you lit with dusk color. And get different perspectives. At the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, you’ll see guys bring their own stepladders so they can get more of a bird’s-eye view.
S-R: What’s atop of your bucket list?
Sewell: Photographing Australia.
This interview has been condensed. Correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org