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Even with technological advances, photographers keep nature in focus

The McGuffin family’s unique photography and wilderness adventure job allows Joanie, left, daughter Sila, Gary and even their pets to travel together often.

©Gary and Joanie McGuffin

For Joanie and Gary McGuffin to launch a business as wilderness experts with eight photography books to their credit, all it took was paddling across Canada for two years.

"We had just graduated from the outdoor recreation technician's course at Seneca College [in Toronto] in 1983," says Mr. McGuffin, who lives with his wife and daughter on a wilderness preserve overlooking Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

"We saw that wilderness landscapes were starting to disappear and we wanted to raise awareness. So we decided to do this canoe trip across Canada, from the Atlantic to the Arctic Ocean. I knew photography was going to be the medium that we would use to get the message out."

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After two years of camping, 9,600 kilometres of paddling, 750 photos and a killer business plan, the McGuffins had their first book published in 1988, Where Rivers Run. They have never looked back; early on the McGuffins learned that to be successful high-end photographers, it helps to become a brand.

Their books enjoy print runs as high as 10,000 copies – bestseller territory in Canada. In an age when accomplished commercial photographers must compete with everyone's selfies, the McGuffins are now working on their ninth book, due out in 2015.

They're documenting and photographing actual remote settings painted by the Group of Seven for a project that will accompany a documentary film and a touring art exhibition.

"We're able to GPS exactly where the paintings were done – the Group of Seven did thousands of paintings and we have found hundreds of settings," Ms. McGuffin says. The idea of photographing and pinpointing the actual sites is "to link the experience of viewers seeing the painting to the experience of the painters actually being there."

The McGuffins revel in their hands-on work – a combination of photography, mapping, travel writing, publishing and promoting environmental awareness. It has taken them across the country many times by canoe, kayak, bicycles, cars – usually accompanied by their daughter Sila, now 14, and their dog.

It's a business that requires them to be nimble. They augment their book business by speaking and doing presentations and selling stock photos of their breathtaking wilderness scenes.

From the start, the McGuffins have been adept at organizing sponsorship and promotional agreements with suppliers, as well as negotiating with publishers in Canada and the United States and constantly updating their own technology.

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For their first Arctic canoe trip, they got support from Labatt Breweries of Canada, which even supplied them with a public relations consultant. They augmented the promotion by arranging a call-in once a week to CBC Radio to recount their adventures.

"There were no satellite phones, not even cellphones. We had to keep looking for phone booths," Ms. McGuffin says.

For the cross-country cycling trip that followed, they asked Norco Bicycles if they would build bikes for them. "We told them we needed a bike that's a cross between a long-distance and a road bike, and that became their first hybrid," Mr. McGuffin says.

The biggest technology shift for them, and other photographers, was the shift from film to digital.

"Even in 1997, we would lug around a 100-pound [45-kilogram] waterproof box of camera equipment, along with a 32-pound satellite phone," Ms. McGuffin says.

But digital technology is both a blessing and a curse, says Cosmo Condina, another commercial photographer, whose book Niagara 1812 at War documents the historical battles through photos of modern-day re-enactments.

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"I was slow at changing over because I didn't think the quality was there. I only switched over in 2007," Mr. Condina says.

"On the positive side, I have more control over the final image, I can transfer images to clients electronically, and I don't have any damaged or lost slides. On the other side, I never know if people keep my files in their hard drives when they're supposed to have trashed them [after licensed use]. You have to trust them."

Ms. McGuffin agrees. "It hasn't become more cost-effective to shoot digital, with the cost of upgrading our equipment all the time."

The portability and the possibility for two people to travel and shoot pictures – and now video – is much wider. "Gary can now do these 360-degree photos that would have been impossible in the past," Ms. McGuffin says.

Like the McGuffins, Mr. Condina negotiated his own book deal by taking his idea along with samples of his work to publishers. It took about three months to secure an agreement, he says.

Sending high-resolution images requires a powerful, fast laptop and a lot of hard drive space, Mr. Condina adds. He doesn't store images in the cloud "because I'd be uploading and downloading all the time," he says.

Both the McGuffins and Mr. Condina agree that, on balance, online technology enables them to run their eclectic freelance businesses outside major cities. In addition to book work, Mr. Condina shoots commercial, stock and travel photos and works in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

The McGuffins are in the woods at the other end of the province when they're not on the road or the water.

They still market their books through live presentations and meetings across Canada, Ms. McGuffin says.

"Meeting with people can never replace technology," she explains. She takes her cue from the First Nations friends she meets: "They see technology as 'grandmother spider.' It can link people together who felt like they were alone in the past."

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