Q&A and photo feature with Midland photographer and philanthropist Robert Spears

Longtime Midland resident and photographer, Robert Spears, was born and raised in Montana and now splits his time between Midland and Seattle, Washington. His awe-inspiring images range from brilliant landscapes, to capturing wildlife, to shooting sporting events. You’ll see his work on display inside many local businesses with his latest images recently featured at the Chippewa Nature Center’s Bird Exhibit.

Not only is his work impressive, but a conversation with Spears reveals a passion for photography that is truly inspiring. Possibly most apparent is his spirit for charity. With a list of over twenty local charities that he’s donated photography to, Spears is able to use his talent to help raise money and awareness for a long list of charitable organizations.

We caught up with Robert to learn more about his life and work.

A panoramic of an evening game at Dow Diamond.

Q: Your career as a photographer developed later in life. Can you explain a little bit about your background?

A: I got my undergrad in business and finance. I started working with Dow and very quickly in my career, I realized that finance was not where I wanted to be. About three or four years into my career, I had an opportunity to merge into communications and public affairs and decided that I wanted to try to pursue something there.

I eventually wound up working for one of the corporate vice presidents, supported about $8 billion dollars in business, and was involved in budgets upwards of $67 million dollars. In 25 years, I had 13 different jobs within Dow, moving across functional disciplines and various different roles.

A panoramic of Black Star Farms in Traverse City.

Q: So that’s a big stretch from what you do now! How did you evolve from the business world to photography?

A: When I got into the communications area, we had a significant number of ad agencies and PR agencies on contract for projects that required a very sophisticated use of media. In the mid-80s, that was the first foray into digital media, and I learned those technologies and capabilities then and became more interested in photography.

When I left Dow and my son’s triplets were born, (who are now 18 and just starting college) the interest in photography really took off from there.

The Midland Country Club from a birds eye view.

Q: What can you tell us about the type of photography you do?

A:  I see my camera as a way that gives me entree into a lot of different things, particularly, sports. I’ve worked on the Dow Tennis Classic for the past eight years as one of their principal photographers for the tournament. I’ve worked with the Great Robert Spears, local photographer and philanthropist.Lakes Loons for just as long. Recently, I worked for the LGPA Tour at the Midland Country Club, where I had an amazing opportunity to get up close to some of the best golfers in the world. So, my camera gives me access, that had I not had that skill and willingness to learn, I would not be able to have. 

I do some corporate and commercial work you’ll see in offices and around town. I helped in the decoration of Candlestone Assisted Living, Midland Cogeneration Venture, the MC plant’s administrative headquarters has 14 or 15 of my wildlife photos on display that were taken on their property. I do some corporate work for friends and I’ve done portrait settings occasionally for friends.

But one of the things that I am known for is the panoramic images that I shoot. Over the course of the LGPA tour, I did over 90 panoramic images capturing the event and the venue. The panoramic images capture what can’t be seen with the naked eye.

I documented every phase of the construction of the remodel of Midland Country Club from the day we broke ground until the day it was complete. I fed images to the construction companies so that they know everything that’s in the guts of that building. They now have images to refer to. Even the golf course, I documented every aspect.

So yes, I do a variety of types of photography.

Hot air balloons at night captured at the Midland Balloon Festival.

Q: What is the most challenging photo you've taken to date?

I do a lot of fireworks shoots. Initially I struggled with it, but in the last two or three years I’ve really learned how to do fireworks well. Photography is something that you capture in a split second. It’s an image that you really cannot see in real time. Things happen in such a way that you can't really see ALL of it, unless you stop it, print it, and study it. 

So, fireworks are one thing that is challenging but I have worked on capturing those moments. Another thing I do well is panoramic landscape pictures. I have a Mackinac Bridge picture I shot a few years ago that I think is one of the best images of the Mackinac Bridge that you can see. The view of the bridge in this image covers the space of about five miles.  My shot of the Seattle skyline covers over four miles of area. From a creative standpoint, the panoramic shots can be challenging, but something I’ve become good at with time.

A panorama of the Mackinac Bridge in the fall.

Q: What inspires you in life, and in your work?

A: I’ve taken tens of thousands of pictures of my grandkids. We have a tradition photo in our family termed the “birth order stack.” One Christmas, all of the grandkids were playing on the floor and they were piling on to one another. I saw this and arranged them with the oldest on the bottom of the pile and the youngest on top, with their heads staggered.  We’ve repeated this photo several times over the years as the kids grew up. Little things like that, the pictures and images, they are treasured.

Inside a ballon at the Midland Balloon Festival.

One of the things I’m passionate about is donating my photography to charitable causes. I’ve been involved with Eagle Village for 20 years, which is an organization that focuses on abused, neglected, disadvantaged kids. I have a huge heart for kids. My camera gives me the pleasure of shooting the images, the organization gets the needed money from the image, and the people that buy the image get to enjoy it. There are even people in town that collect my work and look for my stuff at charity events.

It’s things like that where the organizations benefit from it, and the people that buy it are buying it for a reason. Almost every person that buys the print of the Mackinac Bridge, for example, has their own personal story of what Mackinac Island or the Upper Peninsula means to them – stories like that inspire me.

Fireworks over the Tridge in Midland during the Riverdays Festival.

Q: Other photographers or artists that you admire?

A: Art Wolfe is one of the best photographers in the world. He shoots everything. His style is very eclectic. He does landscapes, he does indigenous tribes, he travels the world for nine months out of the year documenting his experiences. I’ve taken two creative composition classes with Art. They start with a social event at his house, and then two really intensive days with him. During this time, you can provide two images for critique and feedback from both Art and the others in the class. So, you really get an in-depth exposure to his perception of good photography.

I’m also a part of Midland Camera Club, and I admire a lot of the work within the camera club. We have a lot of very talented photographers that meet at least twice a month. Some meetings are more business oriented, and others might be competitive with local competitions or work submitted to the Photographers Society of America. We have a competition on an annual basis where we submit images in specific categories. It challenges you learn more from a technique standpoint.

The Tridge in Midland during a cold winter day.

Q: Do you have a favorite lens or piece of equipment?

A: I shoot with a Nikon Z6 Mirrorless. The Z6, a 24-megapixel camera, really fits my needs as a photographer. It has the fast shutter speed, high ISO capabilities, and 14 frames per second burst capability. It’s incredible how far technology has advanced in the past few years. People ask me all the time what kind of camera they should buy and it’s an impossible question to answer! There are many factors to consider!

I also just ordered a new Samsung Note 10. I currently have the Samsung Note 8 and I’m blown away with what you can do with this phone. The capability is incredible.
 

A group of pelicans landing in the water.

Q: Is there anything you would like to photograph that you have not yet been able to? Any 'bucket list' shots?

A: I’d like to go to Africa to shoot. From a wildlife standpoint, it’s just incredible. Antarctica is also a bucket list trip. The nature there is unreal, from the color of the sky to the animals that live there. I would like to travel and capture more from other places.

For more of Robert's work you can check out his Flickr site

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