Nature Lovers

Marrying his love for the outdoors with his gift for putting people at ease, Seattle-based wedding and adventure photographer Greg Balkin shoots couples in the wild. The self-proclaimed professional third-wheeler takes his subjects backcountry camping and wakes them at sunrise to capture “Adventure Love Stories,” set in alpenglow. Photo by Greg Balkin

What does a dollar still buy you today? Ask Greg Balkin and he might tell you, a future built on your passions. That’s what the soft-spoken outdoorsman bought himself when he purchased Brightwood Photography from a friend for this symbolic amount.

The happiest day — forever captured

Prior to launching his photography business, Balkin worked full time in the film industry for six months before realizing his career got off in the wrong direction. Fascinated by the fabric of relationships, he started shooting weddings in 2013, many of them outdoors. “The outdoors has been a huge part of my inspiration,” says the keen backpacker. “It’s where I find peace and love.” Nevertheless, the young man is anything but a lone wolf. His pursuit of happiness in the wilderness is fueled by a desire to mesh with fellow nature lovers. “It’s about connecting with people when they’re happy,” Balkin says. “That’s why I love shooting weddings. It’s their happiest day, and that’s awesome to experience.”

Yet he soon began to ponder how to combine his love of nature and comradeship with his passion for photography—all while making a living. “The whole idea just pieced together and made sense,” he says, looking back at how he created the photographic genre he now calls “Adventure Love Stories.” After shooting dozens of weddings over the past three years, Balkin knows the big day’s pressures and expectations can obscure a couple’s natural mien and candid moments. “Sometimes, I can get them to chill out and focus on each other,” he says. “Most times, they’re trying the best they can to hold on to the day.” So Balkin thought of a better way to help the couples be at ease with each other—and their photographer—and remember why they came together in the first place: He takes them into the wild. “When they’re outside, they get to goof off, and it pulls the stress away from them. It gives them a chance to not worry about what’s back home.”

I got you, babe

The shoots, Balkin says, sometimes feel like a relationship-building boot camp, testing a couple’s trust as he asks them to climb on top of a boulder or stand on the edge of a cliff. “I’ve definitely heard couples say, ‘I got you. I’m not letting go. We’re in this together. I’m standing right next to you, and we’re just going to hold on tight.’ ”

It doesn’t escape Balkin that there is plenty of potential for things to get awkward. “My job is watching people kiss and taking pictures,” he says, laughing. “I’m a professional third-wheeler.” From behind the lens, the photographer gets an intimate glimpse into a romantic relationship. For a short time, he joins two people on their very personal journey. Moreover, he shoots his Adventure Love Stories in remote locations, deep in the national forests or high among mountain peaks. To be there in time for the best light at dusk or alpenglow at sunrise, Balkin and his subjects typically camp together in the backcountry. Still, he knows when to retreat and give the couple space and time to be alone.

“My job is watching people kiss and taking pictures. I’m a professional third-wheeler.”

Adventure photographer and wilderness guide—Balkin set up camp for the couple / Photo by Greg Balkin

Veronica and Craig

One pictorial Adventure Love Story—set among the trails and peaks of Deer Park in Washington's Olympic National Park—tells of Veronica Vanderbeek and Craig Torgerson’s deep connection. Balkin met Vanderbeek through a mutual friend at the time she was planning her upcoming wedding. Although he wasn’t available to shoot the actual wedding, the bride-to-be was quickly enthusiastic about his idea for an engagement photo shoot in the wilderness.

When the time came to take Vanderbeek and Torgerson camping for the shoot, a flat tire set Balkin back on the eight-mile dirt road. They finally arrived at the peak just as the sun was setting. “We ran out to the big rock with the blanket and just had fun with it for twenty minutes while we still had light,” Balkin remembers. “Greg spent the whole weekend with us,” says Vanderbeek. “He set up our campsite, and he cooked us a gourmet dinner and breakfast. He was a friend hanging out with us, rather than a professional we hired.” The group sat around the campfire at night before Balkin retreated to his car for a few hours of sleep.

Photo by Greg Balkin

It rained the next morning. But Vanderbeek defied the drizzle with grace, wearing the white, flowy dress she had packed for the photo shoot. “The place was freaking gorgeous,” remembers Balkin. “For the next couple of hours, we just ran around, and I called out to them, ‘Turn around and look where we are, because it’s super pretty.’ ” With a deeper understanding of his subjects as a couple, the photographer captured something outside of visual representation. “Veronica and Craig are both quiet people, but you can tell they are willing to sacrifice a lot of themselves for the betterment of the other,” Balkin reveals. “Their love is so apparent.”

A love story set in nature

Disarming wilderness, breathtaking landscapes, and the couples’ unconcealed intimacy are protagonists in the Adventure Love Stories, too. Often, Balkin’s clients already know what place they want to explore together, and frequently choose a backdrop that perfectly reflects who they are as a couple. “I love watching people become awestruck by the places we shoot in or watching them play on rocks or run around the ocean,” he says.

The photographer wants to shoot more Adventure Love Stories, holding on to what he cherishes about wedding photography: spending a day with people and capturing their memories—minus the nuptial stress. “I love getting to celebrate them in a place that means a lot to both them and myself,” Balkin says. “I find it important to be outside. How cool is it that I get to connect with people and take their pictures and make memories in beautiful places, such as Big Sur, Joshua Tree, Deer Park? I love it.” His natural empathy and connection with others—a powerful part of humanness rendered in conscious awareness—is a landscape in itself. The camera is only a tool for the photographer’s outward expression of how he understands others.

"I love watching people become awestruck by the places we shoot in or watching them play on rocks or run around the ocean.”

The leads in Balkin’s Adventure Love Stories will forever have a special place to revisit, an adventure to relive. Looking at the framed photos in their Oregon home today, months after they tied the knot, the Torgersons revel in Balkin’s pictorial storytelling, hoping the scenes are indicative of the future they will share: a life filled with exploration—new ideas, new people, new adventures. Their favorite picture is one that shows them looking out over the mountain edge, because it reminds them about the terrain they’ve conquered to get to where they stand, while envisioning the expanse of their future lives together.

The Torgensons hope their favorite picture is indicative of their married future—looking out in the world, filled with wonder and adventure / Photo by Greg Balkin

“It’s a picture that shows us supporting each other,” says Torgerson. His wife also cherishes the photos of the two of them looking at each other: “Seeing the beauty in each other and the beauty around us is really special to capture,” she says. Hungry for perpetual change, the newlyweds, who fittingly met on a hiking trip to Colorado, are anchored only in knowing they want to be together. They are each other’s idea of home, security found in a person rather than a place. As she puts it simply, “You have your sense of home going with you when you travel with the one who you love.” △

“You have your sense of home going with you when you travel with the one who you love.”

Photo by Greg Balkin