14 Jan

A Passion-Driven Life: Inspiration for Would-Be Photographers

You cannot change what you are, only what you do.

– Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

In a commencement address to the graduating students of Stanford University, Steve Jobs recalled a quote he first read when he was 17.

“If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”

He went on to say that the quote stuck with him though most of his adult life and that he would look himself in the mirror each morning and ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?”

If the answer was “no” for too many consecutive days, he knew it was time for a change.

“Llama Land” Machu Picchu, Peru. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105 f/4 @ 28mm, 1/125 second @ f/11, ISO 100

“Llama Land” Machu Picchu, Peru. Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105 f/4 @ 28mm, 1/125 second @ f/11, ISO 100

So after waking up too many mornings with a resounding “no” reverberating through my own groggy and tired head, I drove down to the office and promptly terminated a successful corporate career. My own. It was January 14, 2003–eleven years ago to this very day–which also happened to be my birthday.

Photography was a serious hobby with occasional financial rewards, but not nearly rewarding enough to pay for my lifestyle at the time-not even close. Photography and travel were excellent ways to spend money, not make it. (That’s still almost entirely true, by the way). Still, I was determined to give it a go, even if I really had no idea how to get there. The only thing I knew for certain was that my talent and energy were being atrophied as I counted down the days to each bi-monthly paycheck.

This was new to me. I was a rationally-thinking organism with an economics degree who always made decisions with cold, hard logic and yet there was nothing rational about this line of thought. In return for a six-figure salary, benefits, and financial security, I was getting what exactly? No salary, no plan for getting any income in the near future, no benefits, no financial security? On its face, it was a no-brainer, yet my intuition and heart told me otherwise.

Wilderness and wild places were my passions in life. Capturing and sharing my experiences in these places were what inspired me to get up each morning, not my 9-to-5. It was the first thing I thought about each morning and the last thing each night before drifting off to sleep. If I were going to preach that you had to do what you love to truly be successful in life–as was my mantra to my employees–I would have to buy into it myself and not look back. I was only willing to accept excellence in myself and I could only achieve excellence by doing what I loved and was truly passionate about.

“Wall Street” Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17-40mm f/4 @ 21mm, 2.5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 400

“Wall Street” Virgin River Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah. Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 17-40mm f/4 @ 21mm, 2.5 seconds @ f/16, ISO 400

Throughout the transition, I received a tremendous amount of emotional support from family and close friends. I’ll always be grateful for that. Some were genuinely concerned and that was certainly understandable. Others thought it was only a phase I was going through – a mid-life crisis, perhaps – that I would eventually outgrow before crawling back to the real world again. At least no one told me to grow up, get a haircut, and buy a weed wacker.

“But taking pictures isn’t real work,” some would say,“You’re just running off to pretty places and having fun.”

“Right,” I would answer. “So what exactly is your point?”

You see, I never considered being nature photographer as an occupation. The word occupation is derived from the same Latin word that spawned the word occupy, essentially meaning, “to take up space.” That little phrase should paint a vivid enough word picture to illustrate precisely what I’m trying to convey here.

Vocation, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, vocare or “a calling.” If throwing away a “successful” career and financial security – not to mention rationality – in order to chase down one’s dream and passion in life isn’t a calling, then I’m not sure what is. Being a nature photographer is my vocation. It’s not what I do; it’s what I am. There aren’t very many people who can say the same about their occupation.

So after eleven years of traveling the world, chasing down magical light, and capturing as many unrepeatable moments in the wild on film and digital media as possible, I’d like to think that I’ve achieved a modest amount of success as a professional photographer. But what is a “success” anyway? By one yardstick, I already was a success ten years ago.

But if living an inspired, passion-driven life doing exactly what I feel I was meant to do–while managing to live financially comfortable as well–is another yardstick with which to measure success, well then I guess I’ve achieved something after all. It’s also the greatest birthday gift I could have ever given myself.

About Richard Bernabe (5 Posts)

Richard Bernabe is a an internationally renowned landscape, wildlife, and travel photographer and author from the United States. His passion for adventure has been the driving force behind his life’s quest to capture the moods and character of the world’s most amazing places, from Africa to the Amazon to the Arctic and countless places in between. His editorial clients include The National Geographic Society, Audobon, The Sierra Club, National Parks, Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, and many others. Corporate clients include Canon, Patagonia, Orvis, REI, Apple, Microsoft, American Express, and more.


  • Hear dat!

    …and Happy B-day!

  • As someone else who walked away from the corporate world for photography, I understand completely where you’re coming from. Congrats on all you’ve achieved so far.

    • Thanks Dave and good luck on your journey as well!

  • Happy Birthday!!! And thank you for sharing your story and inspiring others.

  • happy birthday and thanks for sharing your terrific story

    • Thank you, Diane, and it was truly my pleasure

  • Well, congrats. You’re not alone on changing from safety to happiness. It has some dire moments, but it is worth it all the way. Thanks for sharing this on this special date.

    • Hey Jose! nice seeing you. Thanks!

  • Wonderful story, beautifully told – as eloquent as your magnificent images. It is inspiring to follow your passion. Thank you and Happy Birthday!

  • Thank you for the most awesome journey and a very Happy Birthday.

  • Congratulations on having the intestinal fortitude to toss everything to follow your dreams! Happy Birthday!

  • Happy birthday Richard!!!
    Great photography and thank you for sharing your inspirational story.
    Have a fun filled like an when the six hours of photography goes by like 15 minutes you are definitely doing your passion. I am sure your there.

  • A very Happy Birthday Richard!

    Inspiring indeed. If only I had your nerve…. Still aspiring to great things in photography but just don’t see me taking that huge leap of faith…yet…

  • Happy birthday Richard!!!
    Great photography and thank you for sharing your inspirational story.
    Have a fun filled life and when the six hours of photography goes by like 15 minutes you are definitely doing your passion. I am sure your there.

  • Happy birthday! Great story and thanks for the afternoon inspiration!

  • Happy Birthday fellow Capricorn! Mine was 4 days ago. Great post about taking that leap of faith, a question I often struggle with when thinking About the future and what it may hold.

  • Hi Ian!

    Thank you for sharing that story. Pursuing photography professionally has provided a lifestyle I could not otherwise have. My clients are amazing and I love what I do!

    Colin Vincent

    • This is Richard, not Ian, but thanks anyway!

  • Interesting coincidence… Exactly one year ago on the very same date I took a steep paycut and relocated to a city with 2x higher real estate prices because of a job I considered much more exciting. Just like you I had the benefit of a spouse who, perhaps somewhat grumpily,supported the insanity. Not nearly the leap of faith you describe, but the motivation is similar. One consequence? I can no longer afford to go on a workshop with you :-(

    • January 14 – a day that will live in infamy

  • Fantastic article. Inspiration is just as important as technical advice, so thanks so much for sharing! Ive printed your words as a personal reminder – on your birthday, you’re the one giving the presents..I hope thats ok with you! Happy birthday!

    • Mike, glad you found this inspirational. Happy to help

  • Very true emotions, very well expressed in words and deeds.

  • Read this yesterday on your blog, Richard. Read it again today, and it still packs a punch!

    • Thanks for reading, Dave. Both places!

  • Happy Birthday!!! What a great birthday present you gave yourself 11 years ago…You gave yourself, YOU! The real you is who your are now, and you’re living your life the way it was meant for you to live. Keep up the great life! I love you shots and your blogs.

    • Thanks, Don. I really appreciate it!

  • Happy Birthday! And thanks for the Inspiration and reminder of why I am a photographer!

  • Nicely said, Richard. A courageous choice (and obviously the correct one) on your part. Enjoy seeing your images and reading your blog. Hoping to join one of your workshops in the future.

  • “In the long run, we’re all dead.” – Keynes

    You did the the right thing, Richard.

    • Thanks – and thanks to all who left very kind words and birthday wishes. I can’t respond to all (I tried and WordPress didn’t like it) but this is a big, huge thanks to everyone!

  • It’s a very inspirational story, Richard. Thanks for sharing this and Happy Birthday!

  • Add one more to the list of people who thank you for doing what you did and continue to do! I left a career this spring to dive into my passion and haven’t looked back. 2013 was the best year of my life! I hope everyone doesn’t start quitting their jobs though, someone’s gotta buy stuff! Thanks and keep adventuring! EE

  • Happy Birthday and thanks for your inspiring story.

    To do such a thing seems like a long way off but I will keep traveling on the path!!

  • Thank you so much for your inspiration and your photography! Keep showing us the light of nature, and Happy Birthday.