Taking a Shot

Three years ago, Jeff Spackman was on track to become a dentist. Then he bought his first camera and learned how to use it from YouTube videos. Today, @namkcaps has more than 150-thousand followers on Instagram. Bidding dental school farewell, the Canadian now goes on photography trips all over the world. Photo by Jeff Spackman

A M   You were on a completely different path when you boldly jumped into photography on a professional level . . .

J S   Photography crept up on me. I had never considered it as a career. I had never even known any photographers. My family barely took pictures of birthdays growing up. I’d never taken photography classes. I’d never owned a decent camera. I never saw it coming. I had a terribly difficult time trying to decide what to do professionally. I had wanted to be everything from a plumber to an architect. At some point, though, I decided I was going to be a dentist. Working in peoples’ mouths didn’t seem terrible to me, and it looked rewarding enough. University was difficult, but with the sacrifice of my social life, relationships, and hobbies, I did well academically. Eventually, I graduated in chemistry near the top of my class and began applying to dental schools. In the summers, I had been washing windows to pay for school, so I kept that up after graduation. It was only a matter of time before I got accepted into dental school.

A M   And then, what happened? J S   While I was in my last year of school, I did something that would turn out to be my first step to becoming a photographer. I bought a used iPhone 4. A couple of months later, a friend told me about an app called “Instagram.” It didn’t seem that interesting to me, but whatever. I downloaded it and followed a few friends.

"I did something that would turn out to be my first step to becoming a photographer. I bought a used iPhone 4."

Turned out, Instagram was the other big step. I have always loved expressing myself artistically. I noticed that having a creative outlet makes me feel like myself. It calms me, helps me think, makes me happy. I downloaded all the free photo editing apps I could get my hands on to my iPhone. I posted all kinds of weird things on Instagram. All those old photos are still up on my account.

My iPhone started to present limitations to what I wanted to capture. I loved shooting in the Rockies here in Alberta, but I wanted wider angles. I wanted sharper images. I wanted to shoot in low light. I wanted more editing ability. In January 2013, I got my first real camera. I learned how to use it from YouTube clips. I became fiercely passionate about my hobby. I took my camera with me everywhere. I played with it at home, while I was hiking up mountains, and when I walked to the corner store.

All this time, my Instagram following had been growing slowly, mostly among locals who love the mountains like I do. Working for myself washing windows also gave me time to do what I loved—climbing mountains, swimming in freezing lakes, and taking pictures along the way. I entered my photos in small contests on Instagram. I also followed professional photographers and adventurers to see what they created. In the summer of 2013, Instagram came across my account and endorsed me as a “suggested user” to follow, twice. I gained around ten thousand new followers a week at that time.

I’ve never before found a passion I connected with like this. Still though, I was going to be a dentist, just now a dentist who really liked taking pictures.

Photo by Jeff Spackman

A M   You bought your first camera just over three years ago. How did you learn to be so good so quickly?

J S   I went on YouTube to learn about all the buttons on my camera. I was thirsty to learn and I spent long hours reading online about lenses and cameras. I studied the pictures of the photographers I followed on Instagram, trying to understand how they did it. I’ve always loved nature, so it felt natural to try to capture in photos the way being outdoors made me feel. It was like I remembered who I had always been.

A M   When and how did you know you no longer wanted to become a dentist and, instead, be a professional photographer?

J S   I don’t know when the transition from dentistry to photography really happened. Perhaps the biggest jump was when I decided to stop washing windows and put everything into taking pictures. That was two years ago. I knew I couldn’t properly give photography a chance without jumping in with both feet. That was scary. I really had no idea if I’d just run myself into debt in the first couple of years, but I needed to satisfy something I couldn’t describe.

A M   Share your emotions when you made this big leap—the fear, the thrill, and everything in between.

J S   It has been an emotional rollercoaster and often still is. Making money with photography is not easy. And washing windows was good, steady work. Dentistry ain’t half bad either. My photography career started out incredibly slow. I had never had any training in it. Camera equipment costs a fortune. The whole business side of photography was completely new to me. I had a million reasons to not do it, and people close to me urged me to stick to dentistry. At least, with dentistry I knew exactly what steps to take. I knew timelines, the grades I needed, how much debt it would put me in. With photography, I no longer knew what to do. I would try new things that didn’t work out. Big plans with clients, forged over months, suddenly fell apart. At times, I was terribly discouraged. For a long time, my goal was just to pay off my camera equipment.

At the same time, I was exhilarated. People admired my work and were impressed that I’ve learned so much in only one short year. Those professional photographers I admired on Instagram? They began following my account and praising my work. I even got to go on photography trips with a few of them and ask them how they started, what equipment they use, how they edit, how they find business. And they encouraged me.

A M   Any words of wisdom for others considering a bold, career- and life-changing move?

J S   I don’t think being bold means making quick or uneducated decisions. Success comes not only from passion, but also from hard work. In the end, no one can answer those questions for us. Hopeful- ly, we are listening intently enough to hear the answer from within, even if it’s a no. And we need to know and trust ourselves when it’s a yes.

A M   How has your life changed since taking a shot at photography?

J S   I have learned an enormous amount. I’m naturally drawn to learning about photography. Learning about marketing, software, networking, negotiations, and how to write proposals is much more difficult, but just as important. It’s incredibly rewarding to make your weaknesses your strengths.

"It’s incredibly rewarding to make your weaknesses your strengths."

A M   What has been your favorite assignment so far?

J S   Ever since I downloaded Instagram, I had a favorite photographer, Chris Burkard. I loved his work so much. When he responded to my comment on one of his photos, I took a screenshot of it. As my photography improved, Chris eventually started following me back and we exchanged comments from time to time. He really was an inspiration to me.

One day, the Alberta Tourism Board asked me if I wanted to plan and guide a visit to Alberta for Chris Burkard. My heart skipped a beat. It was so much fun to explore my own province with him. Chris pushed me not only physically but in my ability and goals. We became good friends through the experience.

A M   What do you love most about being a photographer?

J S   That I get to be creative and spend time in nature. I love both of these things more than I could ever get across in an image. Maybe someday, everything I have done will give a glimpse of how I feel about it. I feel a reverence for natural spaces, and my photography is how I try to let others feel that, too. △

"I feel a reverence for natural spaces, and my photography is how I try to let others feel that, too."

Jeff Spackman / Photo by Kyle Hooper

Personal brief

BORN: Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1985

EDUCATION: I was never officially accepted into dental school. I have a very high GPA and did very well on my DAT tests both in Canada and in the United States. It was just a matter of time . . .

NOW LIVES: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

FAVORITE PLACE ON EARTH: Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada. It’s where I’ve come my whole life. It’s where I first started to take pictures of nature. I plan to go there regularly until the day I die.

WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY? I love to be active in nature. I love to be with my family. I love to take pictures.

MOST IMPORTANT IN LIFE: Family. Family has the potential to be our greatest source of happiness. It grounds us, teaches us, and reminds us what’s important.

MOTTO: Life is ten percent what happens to me and ninety percent how I react to it.

Photo by Jeff Spackman