Photographer Amanda VanVels has a knack for capturing life on film. After taking some Chaco sandals and boots for a jaunt through California, we caught up with her to talk shop.
So Amanda, where do you call home? What brought you out there?
Right now I’m living in Los Angeles. I moved to L.A. in October from Michigan. I really hated the winter, so I got out of there. I’m spending a lot of time shooting weddings out here now. But I split time between the two. I do really love Michigan in the summer.
How did you get into photography?
Well, because of MySpace, I guess [laughter]. My parents had this nice camera and I was taking pictures of myself for social media, which led to me getting deeper into it as a hobby. I even ended up taking my own senior pictures in high school. My friends had also started to ask me to take their portraits and from there it just kind of evolved.
Are weddings your bread and butter?
Yeah, that’s how I pay my bills. Of course I love travel photography and traveling when the opportunities come up.
What’s your philosophy around photography? What kinds of moments do you try to capture?
At least for me, that stuff is really important. I view photography as a way to celebrate life and how great it is – and also how bad it can be at times. It’s all part of it. And with photography, I can show a group of people and say, “hey, there are really good things out there.” I do it to show people that there are things worth celebrating.
That’s interesting, especially because you shoot so many weddings, which one would argue is one of the more celebratory moments in most people’s lives.
Yeah, that’s why I love weddings so much.
What makes for an authentic and engaging moment on film?
Especially if you have someone in front of you, I think it takes both the person being photographed and the photographer together being honest and vulnerable. It helps connect both people to the photograph. When I’m just messing around with my camera, I’ve half-assed my share of photographs, but when you compare those to the images where you really put yourself into it, the difference is very noticeable.
Do you have a favorite setting or experience that you prefer to capture on film?
I try to capture everyday life. I really don’t do much posed photography. When I want to take a photo, I just head out and travel or meet up with my friends and generally something always happens. I know that those are the photos that I would want to look back on and hopefully that’s also what resonates with people.
Any secrets or techniques you’d share for getting a great shot?
Light is a big part of my work. It’s usually what I’m seeking out – good lighting areas and shadows, little pops of light. I love to shoot people in those situations. So yeah, light and color is what most of my work is about. Otherwise it’s about waiting for those authentic moments.
Do you mind sharing what equipment you use? What do you like about it?
I use a Canon 5D Mark 3. I’m usually shooting on a 35mm lens, but lately I’ve been using the 24mm, which is what I shot this most recent California trip on. It’s a little wider – and since I’ve been using the 35mm for most of my career, it’s been blowing my mind to switch it up. It’s added a little motivation and inspiration to the work I’ve been doing lately.
You just wrapped a pretty cool travel shoot in California. What was that like and how did it come about?
I went to Big Sur and then north to the Redwoods a little ways. At the beginning of the trip it was just me camping in Big Sur. I’d been wanting to take a solo camping trip and just decided to do it. I actually slept out of my car, which was a first for me. Kind of crazy, but it was totally fun. It was definitely the rainy season, too, so everything was pretty wet. But that also made everything really beautiful. During the second part, I went up to a cabin in the Redwoods with two of my friends. We had no plans except to relax and enjoy nature. We drove up the coast a bit and found these great secret spots that were really beautiful.
You’re pretty prolific on Instagram. As a photographer, how do you feel about the democratization of photography through social media?
I know a lot of people who do get upset about that, but for me I’m just so glad people use it and take up photography to capture their life. I encourage everyone to take photos and make art, so I think it’s great that we all have an outlet to do that now. It definitely evens out the playing field, but I think that’s okay.
Any Instagram crushes we should follow?
I have a few favorites. Denise Bovee is just really great. The Imaginative, who is my friend Amanda Howard, is another. Team Woodnote – they’re based in L.A. and they’re great. And my sister is super talented – her name is Aubrey Vanvels.
What makes for a good Instagram account?
I like people who capture their lives in an interesting way, which all of those people do. They’re really living and I love seeing how people live. They all use color really well, which is just so bright and makes everything feel so happy.
What is it that made you gravitate towards Chaco?
I love the sandals and boots. So easy to wear and super comfortable. They’re my go-to hiking and camping footwear. I also find them to be pretty stylish – I actually wear them in most everyday situations, dressed up and down, that sort of thing. And in my experience, the brand is just really caring –they truly care about their customers. Aw, thanks. You’re welcome.
Where can we find your work and keep track of your updates?
Any parting wisdom, advise, or thoughts?
Following your dreams is very important. I know it’s super cheesy to say that, but I’m in the process of doing it myself with moving out to California. It’s been a scary process, but also so relieving to know I’m doing what I want to do. I tend to believe that everything will work out if you just take the plunge.