Kathleen Carney is quick to point out that her path to becoming an outdoor photographer wasn’t as glamorous as people might think, particularly when all they see is her Instagram. That said, though, the Kansas-raised, San Diego-based 30-year-old spends most of her time on the road, climbing, surfing, backpacking, and canyoneering “for work.” After paying her way through journalism school with projects that married her needs—money to continue her education—with her passion—being outdoors, she started shooting for brands like Outdoor Research, Therm-A-Rest, and REI (among many others). Most important, though, she found a way to make adventure her day job.

“I think my parents would tell you that I have always been somewhat fearless when it comes to the outdoors. I have always loved beautiful landscapes, sunsets and sunrises, and the physical exertion it takes to climb a mountain,” Carney says. “I think wild places have such a pull on me because they are beautiful and spiritual, but I also learn a lot about myself and my perceived limitations in them. For instance, I’m a Kansas girl who saw the ocean for the first time at 19. Waves were essentially a foreign concept to me, and when I started surfing I was scared a lot of the time. I’m still scared some of the time surfing, but I’ve learned how to read the waves and how to stay calm in chaos to some extent, and that’s really freeing. I can take those lessons back to career and everyday life.”

When I talked to her, Carney was posted up in a library in Kingman, Arizona, after a canyoneering trip. Next, she’s headed to Nevada, then Tahoe, then Oregon and Washington. “I want to let people know that this life is possible to create with no money,” she says. “I get asked the question, “how do I do what you do?” a lot, and I think people idealize and glamorize this too much. My answer is always, start working now and see how far you’ve come several years from now. It’s no different than any other career in that way, except that maybe you need to be willing to deal with sub-par living conditions, terrible pay, and people constantly asking you to do work for free. That being said, I often find myself somewhere spectacular in the middle of a Tuesday and think that everything I just described is worth it.”

We asked her to tell us how some of her most stunning shots came together.

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My grandma just passed away last month. I was at home in Kansas for her funeral when I posted this image of a canyoneering and backpacking trip I took with my friend, Kristen the month before. This image was just a reminder, along with all the memories of my grandma flooding back to me, that we are a small part of the story of the world. We don’t have much time to make an impact, but we might as well live how we want and be nice to people while we do it.

Last year I was traveling with my fiancé, and we went down all kinds of 4×4 back roads, over some really sketchy terrain that I would not want to go down alone. He started his job across the country in January this year, and for the first time in seven months I was on the road alone. I mostly stuck to two-wheel-drive backroads, but I really wanted to see this waterfall and camp on BLM land near it in Utah. So I drove there myself, it was my first foray into 4×4 terrain by myself, and it was awesome. The temperature was perfect so I spent the night walking back and forth across the waterfall, shooting the night sky and then falling asleep in the middle of nowhere completely alone.

One of my clients is REI so I often shoot things with them in mind. A few friends and I had spent all day trad climbing and I had a headache, and I was wearing glasses because I was preparing my eyes to have lasik eye surgery the following week. Not exactly a recipe for creating great images. We had nowhere to camp in Joshua Tree because the campsites fill up in no time, and despite our best efforts we did not get one. I was not stoked to shoot, but we gathered all of our camping gear, filled out a permit to backcountry camp off the Boy Scout Trail and headed into the backcountry. The night sky is incredible in Joshua Tree, and it’s hard not to be inspired, but I really just wanted to go to sleep. My friends totally made this image happen. One of them in standing with a headlamp lighting us from behind. Me and another friend, Jess, are in the tent. And yet another friend is adjusting the tent and checking the focus of the image since my eyesight was awful and my prescription for glasses was 10 years outdated at the time.

I had just spent the weekend with some friends skiing in the Tahoe area, and I was on my way to snowboard at Heavenly alone because I had the Epic Pass and I wanted to experience all the places I could in a season. The lake is so gorgeous it’s hard not to stop, and it happened to be 55 degrees this winter day, so I pulled over at a rest stop and shot this image of two strangers paddling on the lake.

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My fiancé and I were surfing in Baja and the waves were small and I was getting bored so I paddled into shore to get my camera and take a few images of Craig surfing. I found this starfish on the way in and by the time I grabbed my camera Craig was heading in, freaking out because he saw a dorsal fin. We later found out it was a dolphin, but anyway I made him take this image of me because I loved how gorgeous and clear the water was.

I was shooting a project for Travel Wisconsin this winter and my first activity while there was to ride a fatbike across a frozen Lake Superior to Madeline Island. I was with a local fatbike enthusiast, John Murphy, a retired SWAT team member and all around badass and nice guy. I loved the giant blue chunks of ice near the edge of the lake so I asked John to take a few of me with those in the foreground as I rode by.

This image was also part of the Travel Wisconsin shoot. I had never been ice fishing and I was basically trying to get all the locals to hang out with me and take me to do things they would normally do. I met Charly (right) through his wife, Julie, with whom I had gone hiking the day before. Blaise (left) set up this tent, and I commented how cool the light looked coming up through the ice, and he then closed up the whole tent and it glowed like nothing I had ever seen before!

I was on a weekend canyoneering trip to Death Valley with a large group of friends, and our days were filled with laughing and hiking and descending canyons. I had always wanted to see Zabriskie Point, but there was no time because we were canyoneering all day. So I woke up before sunrise and drove out here by myself to watch it unfold. These people walked through the frame and I intentionally caught them right at the moment they walked through one of the light stripes in the background.

My fiancé and I really wanted to learn to surf. So we toured Baja for a month doing nothing but surfing. This was my favorite break, and I probably took this image lying in bed in my truck. Andre, a Brazilian friend we made down in Baja, was always the last out of the water if the waves were good, and always the first in the water the next morning. Here he is at my favorite break of our whole trip, the one [where] I had my first really long ride, and felt what surfing is supposed to feel like.

This is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. I had been here once before and didn’t get an image that did it justice, so I was determined to do so this time. I’m still not sure I did, but I sure tried. This is in one of my favorite canyons outside of Zion. It’s a long day, and at this point we had been hiking, rappelling, and swimming through cold water for several hours. There were five of us, and although all of us are fit and capable it can be slow getting everyone down ropes sometimes. The water in the canyon above this section is freezing cold, dark, and murky. Then you get to this section where a 75 degree spring flows in. The water is much warmer and becomes crystal clear and greenish. At the same time this happens there are two natural bridges in this deep cavern. There is not much light getting down here at all, making it really hard to photograph. So I had two of my friends to the left of me hold a total of four headlamps on the water to light it up.

Photos by Kat Carney. Follow her @katcarney.

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