Dexter families who have come to appreciate the work of local photographer Robert Bowden may assume that he picked up an inexpensive camera at a young age, fell in love with capturing the world around him in still images, and then went off to college to hone his craft to a professional level.
It’s a common origin-story for many young talented photographers, but it’s not exactly how Bowden came to start Robert Bowden Photography in 2009.
“I dreamed of becoming an airline pilot,” Bowden said with a look of amusement during a recent interview, as if others had been surprised by the difference between what he initially set out to do towards the end of his adolescent years and what he ended up actually doing as a young man.
After graduating from Western Michigan University as a trained and licensed airline pilot, he went to work for Delta region airlines as a literal high-flying professional living his dream in the clouds, where his head once was as a kid freshly minted as a Civil Air Patrol cadet.
“I was just 14 years old when I joined as a cadet,” Bowden said. “Once I saw the other cadets marching around at the local police department in their military uniforms, I thought that might appeal to me. I joined the flight academy down in Illinois for $500 and that was the end of my free time — flying is kind of a bug that gets you and doesn’t let go.”
Unfortunately a corporate airline business is not very bug-like in its tenacity in hanging onto its employees. Bowden was laid off almost as soon as he was hired on, which was a characteristic move of most American airline companies during the time, due to economic pressure on the industry as a whole. It quickly became clear that flying as a means of providing a livelihood was not the best way to go for Robert.
“I’m glad that I kept flying outside of my professional life as a photographer,” Bowden said. He recently took over management of the flight academy where he first delved into the aviation world as a starry-eyed 14-year-old with a head full of dreams. Now his has a bird’s eye view of those following in his footsteps.
Welcomed professional detour leads to Dexter
At one point Bowden said to himself, “If I’m going to fly all over the world, I may as well get pictures of the places I’ve been.” So he got himself a serviceable DSLR camera and familiarized himself with it enough to take some pretty good shots for his travel photo album.
“Just like flying, it was just a bug that got a hold of me and didn’t let go,” he said. “While getting my master’s degree in information assurance, I apprenticed in photography. I always enjoyed it, but as I did it more and more it took hold of me.”
Shooting family photos turned into shooting at soccer games, which led to shooting senior portraits. After starting his company in Farmington Hills in 2009, he was called out to Dexter to shoot a volleyball game by the coach, who was also a friend of his.
In 2011 Bowden picked up and moved his shop over to Dexter, where the bulk of his business was and has been ever since.
“Everybody liked the action shots and the uniqueness of the team portraits and posters that I made, so that got the ball rolling here and it just kept going and going,” Bowden said. “Now I’m doing about 75 percent of the actual team posters that you see around town.”
Bowden isn’t hard to spot at most Dexter sporting and school events. He also does a great deal of freelance work for local media outlets and many area businesses.
Each year his company gives the Dexter Community Schools $5,000 to $6,000 worth of photo rights for use in the yearbook, which he is more than happy to do since he appreciates working in a community like Dexter so much.
“I grew up in Farmington, which is very densely populated,” he explained. “It wouldn’t be uncommon to have three or four photographers at a single sporting event, whereas here in Dexter you don’t really have that. It really gives me the opportunity to interact with the teams and give them a superior product, because you have the chance for that one-on-one time with the coaches.”
The level of community support for local athletics outside the school district is something that Bowden says he still marvels at every time he’s driving down the street and sees a poster in a shop’s window or he’s in a local restaurant and sees the walls lined with action shots from all of the Dexter school district’s athletic programs.
“It’s a great experience seeing those posters,” Bowden said. “The community really comes together here.”
Keeping ahead of unlikely competition
Bowden says that the hardest part of being a professional photographer isn’t staying ahead of competing professional shooters, but keeping ahead of basic consumer-level photographic capabilities inherent in low-level photography gear and also many of the mobile devices we carry, which are becoming more capable of taking and manipulating still images every product cycle.
“Anyone can buy a camera now and with the availability and price of digital being so cheap these days, every day I’m seeing people on Facebook posting about getting a camera as a present or buying one themselves online,” Bowden said. “Next thing you know that person is throwing up Joe Smith’s Photography Company within two days of getting the camera and now they’re out there presenting themselves as a professional photographer.”
This necessitates that Bowden maintain his professional edge on an almost constant basis as the technology curve continues to get pushed further by the capabilities of consumer-grade equipment and devices.
“What I have to do is always upgrade and update my equipment,” he said. “I shoot with the latest and greatest for sports and portrait photography. If you don’t stay on the cutting edge, while you may still be able to get a good shot, every parent is going to be closer to getting that same shot.
“You have to give people something that they can’t get themselves.”
A good example of this is Bowden’s recent purchase of GoPro Hero cameras, which are designed to take a beating and be water resistant while mounted to helmets, affixed to operator-propelled vehicles like bikes and kayaks, and submerged completely in a pool.
“Now I can get pictures of the girls water-polo season from the deck and I can also have a camera mounted in the pool to get those different angles that someone can’t necessarily get,” he said. “It’s about getting that unique product.”
In addition to the photos themselves, Bowden also bucks the traditional practice of scheduling appointments for clients to come into his office to go over physical printed proofs of his work. “I’ll still do that, if people want me to … but I default to completely online proofing,” said Bowden. Those who don’t mind this method of going over proofs are emailed a secure link and password where the proofs can be accessed from their home or office. They can even be shared with family, friends and colleagues so additional feedback can be garnered on which shots should make the cut.
“A lot of people really like being able to get that feedback from people that they know, which wouldn’t be practical during an in-person appointment.”
Online proofing is also an opportunity to provide even more proofs to review, which exemplifies the sheer number of shots taken by a professional photographer, which Bowden hopes demonstrates the level of effort and skill involved in his craft.
“When you’re paying for that one 8 x 10 print, you’re not just paying for that one picture … you’re paying for all of the effort that went into taking probably 500 images at one event, the vehicle that gets me to the job, my equipment and all of the time that goes into pulling the 20 to 30 really great shots from the hundreds taken,” Bowden said.
“Those 20 to 30 images are crystal clear, they’re sharp and they invoke an emotion,” which is the goal that all photographers aim for when keeping their skills sharp and their equipment ahead of the curve, Bowden says.
(Below are a sampling of Bowden’s professional portfolio of work, which includes some of his notable commercial work both inside and outside of Dexter)