Rach Ste­wart is New Zealand’s lat­est so­cial-me­dia suc­cess, with an In­sta­gram page that hosts a stag­ger­ing au­di­ence of 180,000 fol­low­ers and count­ing. Pretty im­pres­sive given that, just a few years ago, she was only shoot­ing on a smart­phone

Tute­lage and en­cour­age­ment from her friend, surf-pho­tog­ra­phy leg­end Craig Levers, com­pelled the bur­geon­ing artist to ex­plore long ex­po­sure, even­tu­ally com­bin­ing this aes­thetic with her life­long love of the land to cre­ate a style that has be­come the toast of In­sta­gram. To those who wor­ship at the al­tar of im­agery, so­cial me­dia can be a mixed bless­ing. On one hand, th­ese pop­u­lar dig­i­tal chan­nels en­sure that we see more pho­tog­ra­phy cre­ated and shared than ever be­fore; on the other, cre­at­ing im­ages has be­come so easy, ubiq­ui­tous, and flip­pant that, in the ma­jor­ity, any thought­ful­ness or craft has gone by the way­side. Find­ing your way on so­cial me­dia can seem like you are trudg­ing through a suck­ing bog of medi­ocrity, but pho­tog­ra­phers who man­age to cut a path gain ac­cess to a plat­form of in­com­pa­ra­ble reach. Pa­pamoa-based pho­tog­ra­pher Rach Ste­wart is per­haps the shini­est ex­am­ple of a lo­cal pho­tog­ra­pher to find global suc­cess via so­cial me­dia. In this case, the plat­form of choice is im­age-cen­tric In­sta­gram, through which she has man­aged to ac­crue, at the time of writ­ing, a stag­ger­ing au­di­ence of over 180,000 fol­low­ers. Ev­ery few days, the pho­tog­ra­pher posts a beau­ti­ful new land­scape to rap­tur­ous dig­i­tal ap­plause in the form of tens of thou­sands of likes, hun­dreds of com­ments, and a wave of shares wash­ing the im­ages clear across the in­ter­net. Not bad for some­one who, just a few years ago, had lit­tle photographic ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond snap­ping sun­sets on a smart­phone dur­ing evening walks.

“I first got into pho­tog­ra­phy af­ter my sec­ond baby was born,” ex­plains the now mother of three. “I was look­ing for a cre­ative out­let, with­out re­ally know­ing that was what I was look­ing for.” Once the pho­tog­ra­phy bug took hold, Rach soon up­graded to a Canon 650D (and has since graduated to a 5D Mark IV) and be­gan to learn the fun­da­men­tals un­der­pin­ning those sun­set im­ages she so en­joyed. Tute­lage and en­cour­age­ment from her friend, surf­pho­tog­ra­phy leg­end Craig Levers, com­pelled the bur­geon­ing artist to ex­plore long ex­po­sure, even­tu­ally com­bin­ing this aes­thetic with her life­long love of the land to cre­ate a style that has be­come the toast of In­sta­gram. “I’ve al­ways been in tune with na­ture; I’ve spent most of my life by the beach,” Rach says. “It’s hard be­ing a mum and work­ing, and try­ing to have a ca­reer. I think those times that you are with na­ture, when you’re lim­ited on time, you ab­so­lutely make the most of it — I give it full ded­i­ca­tion when I have the chance.” Rapid as it may have been, Rach’s In­sta­gram suc­cess didn’t hap­pen overnight. She first joined the on­line ser­vice af­ter Levers an­nounced in 2012 that he was go­ing to start show­cas­ing his work there — she didn’t even know what it was, and joined solely to fol­low the one pho­tog­ra­pher. But, as her self-taught jour­ney through long ex­po­sure pho­tog­ra­phy pro­gressed, so, too, did her on­line fol­low­ing. Things changed in 2015, when Rach de­cided to ven­ture be­yond her com­fort­able photographic stomp­ing ground and ex­plore the South Is­land on a road trip with her best friend. Not only was she blown away by the ma­jes­tic nat­u­ral of­fer­ings of the south, but the in­ter­net couldn’t get enough of the dreamy moun­tain­ous land­scapes she pro­duced. A few of her shots were picked up and shared by some of In­sta­gram’s larger ‘ fea­ture hubs’, and her au­di­ence sud­denly rock­eted past the 50,000 mark. “It wasn’t a big deal for me, but it was a big deal for the peo­ple around me, my fam­ily and friends,” she re­calls. “And that made me re­al­ize, wow, I’m do­ing some­thing peo­ple are lik­ing, and pos­si­bly I could start earn­ing some money from it.” The 50,000 mark was a real tip­ping point for Rach’s brand: she was now be­ing ap­proached with op­por­tu­ni­ties from tourism clients like Tourism New Zealand, Christchurch and Can­ter­bury Tourism, and the Queen­stown Win­ter Fes­ti­val, as well as gear spon­sors such as NiSi Fil­ters, Man­frotto tripods, and Lexar stor­age. With three chil­dren and a job at the West­ern Bay Coun­cil, Rach says she’s not re­ally in a po­si­tion to range across the globe to take ad­van­tage of ev­ery ad­ven­tur­ous op­por­tu­nity that comes her way (“Maybe if I was 10 years younger”). But she does hope that her pho­tog­ra­phy in­come will one day al­low her to at least ditch the day job. “Be­cause I have a fam­ily, I pre­fer to stay home, if I can, and sell my im­ages dig­i­tally. But when a tourism com­pany wants me to show up and post some­thing, I love it, and I’m re­ally hon­oured to be asked to do it,” she says. And she’s cer­tainly not sit­ting on her hands. When we spoke, Rach had just re­turned from a win­ter road trip criss-cross­ing the South Is­land at the be­hest of Maui Mo­torhome Rentals. Later this year, we will see the launch of her new se­ries of De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion–ap­proved guided work­shops, un­der the brand @purepho­toad­ven­, with fel­low land­scape shoot­ers Daniel Mur­ray and Lee Cook. The 2017 work­shop sold out quickly, but the team has just opened reg­is­tra­tion for two new events in au­tumn 2018. It’s a nat­u­ral en­ter­prise for a pho­tog­ra­pher who so loves com­pany, whether it be her as­ton­ish­ing on­line fol­low­ing or the friends and cre­ative fam­ily she hooks up with for photographic ad­ven­tures. “For me, it’s not fun to be shoot­ing on my own — I get in­spi­ra­tion from oth­ers. I do this be­cause I love it; it’s not a job where I get sent off to take pho­tos. I like to make an ex­pe­ri­ence out of it.” For Rach, the hu­man con­tact is just as big a part of her prac­tice as the gear or scenery.

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