Write your own success story: changing your definition of success

“I’ve often said that I wish people could realize all their dreams and wealth and fame so that they can see it’s not where you are going to find your sense of completion. I can tell you from experience the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is because everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart.” – Jim Carrey

I used to get so caught up in numbers. My success was defined in social media status. My self worth was how many followers I had. My talent was how many comments a photo received. If a photo didn’t do well, I wasn’t good enough. My work wasn’t good enough. From talking with the generations under me, this is the shifting psychology caused by social media. A whole life’s worth defined by how many Instagram followers a person has. Value and importance placed upon numbers and not kindness, connection, and love. It was a life of always chasing never resting. I never had time to realize and reflect on the real triumphs I was achieving every day because I was too concerned with one-upping my last accomplishment knowing that each success might be the highest point in which my career will ever get. And in that feeling the shame and anxiety in that thought. I was never satisfied and nothing was enough. Until I changed my definition of what success is. Success is not always big clients, big jobs, and big paychecks and if you define yourself by that alone you’ll always be disappointed chasing the next big thing. Success is not the number of internet strangers you have collected. It is not the amount of money you make. It is not defined by the successes of other people.

Photo by Vanessa Paxton

Photo by Vanessa Paxton

I’ve been learning to shift my success into moments and in that, embracing the idea of gratefulness. This year I was bit by a tick I never saw and got really sick. As a chronic sufferer of migraines, I didn’t recognize the significance of a headache that refused to let up for a month. I didn’t recognize the flu-like symptoms, the fevers, the fatigue. The moment I knew there was something seriously wrong was when my fingertips started hurting, as fingertips shouldn’t hurt. If you’ve never seen Lyme disease, it feels a bit like you happened to catch the flu on the same week you’ve broken every bone in your body. And of course as most things go, the timing was impeccably awful sitting on the cusp of needing to sell all my possessions, give up my jobs and my home to dedicate myself to a four month road trip and workshop tour. I have never felt exhausted like that. I remember my mom and step dad graciously driving the three hours from Maine to New Hampshire to paint my apartment for the showing that weekend because I could not psychically remove myself from the couch. I remember my sister running my errands and picking me up from doctors appointments and 1am ER visits and nursing me back to health. This is where I learned gratefulness. This is where I learned success is having the energy to sit up. This is where I learned success was being able to answer all of my emails or go to work or edit a photo. My Lyme was caught early enough that I’ve made a full recovery with no lingering side effects that I can see. Now months passed those four months of struggle I have a better understanding on what is important to me and how I want my life defined.

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I define my success in the present. Success is every email I get from someone I never met saying how they felt themselves in my photos. Success is someone saying my photo got them through the day. Success is meeting someone who started photography because they saw my photos and said to themselves, “You know, I can do that too.” Success is in the connection. It is the time spent with my mother and sister. It is somehow ending up in a cafe in a town I’ve never thought to be at an ungodly hour speaking with people I will never see again. It is 6am sunrises after camping on top of a mountain. It is being able to spend four months in the positive light of my best friends. It is the wonder of feeling so small in the Redwoods of California. It is watching the northern lights by a cabin near a lake in British Columbia. It is every hug. It is every kind word. It is every day I got out of bed and faced the world. And for every day I get of bed, I am grateful.



Don’t let anyone assign your worth. Don’t define your worth based on the success of other people. You are as valuable and important as anyone else and you have your own journey. To quote the Dalai Lama, “Today think as you wake up, I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” I recently got this tattooed on myself as a reminder. You are worthy because you exist and as such, every day is a success.

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Your dreams don’t work unless you do.

“There are so many people that use ‘following your dreams’ as an excuse to not work,” he said. “When in reality, following your dreams, successfully, is nothing but work.” – Brandon Stanton

How to stay motivated and on the right track to living your dreams.

After seven years of working in an operating room and one year in a call center of a hospital, this past June I jumped into the wonderful world of being my own boss. I am now running my own business and a successful nonprofit traveling workshop tour. I have never felt a freedom like this before and I hope for it to continue. To say I’ve been busy the last four years of my photography career is an understatement. I started photography in June of 2010 and I haven’t had much free time since. But it’s never felt like work. Sure, I would feel tired, burnt out, and run down. But I was also working forty to sixty hours in the operating room and coming home and working another forty hours a week on my photography business. I was juggling clients, deadlines, and getting enough sleep to function during my ten hour shifts in the operating room. The last two years especially I had two jobs, my own business, and a nonprofit workshop tour to plan and run. Eighty hour work weeks were a common experience. I very rarely went out. My social life was abysmal. When I wasn’t working I was sleeping. But that was okay. Your dreams don’t work unless you do. And I knew what I wanted my life to be like and I knew it would take a lot of hard work and sacrifice to make it happen.


If you are not living your dream, you will end up living the 9 – 5 of someone else’s.

There is a common misconception that a lot of success is lucky breaks and stumbling upon opportunity. You don’t wake up and suddenly you have a career. I wish it was that easy. It is not easy. If anyone tells you it is that easy they are lying. Living your dream is long hours. It is no vacations. It is learning how to run a business with no experience. It is laying the ground work for success. It is marketing until you are tired of hearing your own name. It is learning more about yourself and your work ethic than you could ever imagine. It is staying passionate and inspired among self doubt. It is trying to find balance. It is sacrifice. It is constant worry. I would go to work miserable. All I wanted to do was go home and work on my own business. I would wake up so bitter that I had to go to my 9 – 5 and work on someone else’s dream when all I wanted to do is work on my own. I was dejected and depressed trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I wanted what I wanted now. I had no patience to build the foundation to earn a living at what I love. I was burnt out trying to manage it all. But we all have to do what we have to do to pay the bills and for me that meant putting my business and photography aside.


It doesn’t happen over night. But if you keep at it and keep working I promise you it will. You CAN live your dreams. The last two years have been wonderful regardless of it’s struggles and the fruits of my labor have been starting to pay off. I’ve traveled over 28,000 miles. I’ve been on book covers and magazines internationally. I’ve cohosted twenty two workshops. I’ve made wonderful friends and helped build an incredible community. Now that I am a full time photographer I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the past and what kept me sane and motivated to keep trudging up that hill on those long sixteen hour work days when all I wanted to do was give up.  

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Learn how to say yes. Take risks. Take chances. Take jobs you might not have ever thought you would. Shoot large charity events. Shoot marketing campaigns. Second shoot for another photographer. Intern for a local studio. Step outside of your comfort zone and absorb as much knowledge as you can. Every yes said is an opportunity to market yourself, your business, and learn. When you are starting out and trying to build your name, this is crucial. Run contests. Do giveaways. Submit to magazines. Upload your work to stock agencies. Write to local modeling agencies asking to test shoot. Do what you need to do to build your brand.

Learn how to say no. To unpaid work that is not fulfilling, does not further your career, or aid in marketing. Time is precious but not every trade for trade is going to be worth it. Learn to say no to work being used for “credit”.  Learn to say no to unpaid client shoots. You deserve to be paid for your work and time and “credit” doesn’t pay the bills. Learn what you are worth and stick to it. Don’t undersell your ability and time. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.

Find a support system. Join a photography club. Go to a photography meet up. Join local photography groups on Facebook. I cannot begin to tell you how useful and comforting it is to talk with people in the exact same spot as you who understand the struggles and triumphs.


Eliminate distraction. Deactivate your Facebook. Put a block on it. Turn the TV off. Get off of Reddit and Tumblr.  Eliminate anything that will cause you to procrastinate.

Create a schedule. And stick to it. When I’m not on the road having a schedule is such an important part of staying motivated. To function I need my days planned out and routine. Wake up. Have breakfast. Thirty minutes for emails. An hour for editing. An hour for backing up files. Lunch. Time for TV and goofing off on the internet. Blogs posts and creative writing. When you keep a schedule and stick to it, you are never guessing on what needs to be done.

Stay organized. I create lists. I get a lot more work done when I have lists because I find it utterly satisfying to be able to cross things off of it. Even on the road I create a daily list of all the things that need to be accomplished that day. If it’s not accomplished that day I move it to the next day until it is done. It eliminates the inevitable forgetfulness and holds me accountable to myself if I do not do what I need to get done.

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Reward yourself. Every one loves a nice present. Even if you give it to yourself. Everyone loves having something to work for. So along with my daily goals and lists, I give myself little treats. If I answer all my emails, I’ll take myself on a nice walk. If I edit all of my client photos, I’ll allow myself time to take a bath. It’s the little life joys that keep you going and motivated. Treat yourself.

Create your own opportunities. My very first photography dream was to be on a book cover. I spent most of my teenage years reading. When I had to donate my book hoard I had collected the last decade of my life, it was nearly four hundred books I had somehow managed to cram into my apartment. It was my dream but I wasn’t quite sure where to start so I wrote to just about every publishing company on the planet with links to my portfolio and the question of, “How? How do I get my photo on a book cover?” Most publishers never replied. But the ones that did, all said the same thing. Join a stock agency. So I did. I found one that was right for me and gave it a go. I’ve now been on over thirty covers internationally. And now that my social media has grown, opportunities have been finding me. If opportunities are not coming to you. Create them. Write to companies asking to shoot intern on their next campaign. Write to local business asking if they need any photo work done. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst anyone can say is no, and then you still won’t be out anything.

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Do the hard work first. If you get the tedious time consuming parts of running your business out of the way early, it’s all upkeep. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is legally create The Wild Ones Workshop Tour into a nonprofit organization. I had never run a nonprofit. I had no experience or connections with anyone who had. I went in blindly trying to grasp at a way to make it work. The paperwork alone took me four months. I spent months researching and planning. I had weekly conference calls with lawyers, sponsors, and accountants. Anyone at all who could help me push the nonprofit forward I would get in contact with. But once it was done, it was done. Register your business. Keep your Cv’s and resumes up to date. Create the ground work for expense reports and excel spreadsheets so all you have to do is keep adding receipts to your reports for tax purposes. If you do the ground work, it’s only upkeep.

Learn how to ask for help. And in that, learn how to accept help. If someone has offered to share the burden, let them. I remember last year I was at a point in my life where I was so exhausted and busy I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Something came up at work and I hadn’t had a day off in three months. My business was suffering. I was suffering. And my darling wonderful twin sister stepped in and asked what she could do to help. She offered to keep track of my receipts from the last year and organize them so all I needed to do was upkeep. If someone wants to help, let them. 

Change your definition of success. Success is not always big clients, big jobs, and big paychecks and if you define your success by that alone you’ll always be disappointed chasing after the next high. Success is not the number of followers you have. It is not the number of likes on a post. Success is getting out of bed every day and having the freedom to do what you love. Success is answering all your emails in one day. Success is being able to go outside and shoot a new concept. Success is being able to travel and love and laugh with friends. Success is how YOU define it. You are as successful as you imagine yourself to be.

Don’t compare your achievements to the success of others. Your journey is your journey and theirs is theirs. There is enough success out there for everyone, including yourself. Have patience, work hard, and good things will happen to you. If you are always comparing yourself to others, you will always feel inadequate. Don’t sell yourself short. Be excited for your own achievements.

You will have to make sacrifices. When my friends were going out to parties, I was at home editing photos. When my coworkers were asleep getting rest for their 5am wakeup call, I was answering my emails after a long day at work. I’ve spent days outside in the cold in knee deep snow trying to get the perfect shot. I’ve gone out alone at midnight to test out new concepts. I’ve sacrificed sleep. I’ve sacrificed money to set up locations and styles for shoots. I’ve put my life on hold for six months to travel North America hosting workshops. I’ve given up my apartment, sold all of my possessions, and the comfort of my full time job and steady income all to live my dreams. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. It has all gotten me to where I am today and I’m proud to say I love my life and what it has become. I love living minimally. I love living out of a van and traveling with my best friends. I love hosting workshops and meeting new people. You have to take risks.

Have patience. It is not going to happen overnight. It might not happen this year or the next or the next. It takes time to build up your name, brand, and reputation. The more work you put into it, over time, the more opportunities will come your way. Keep plugging away at it. Keep building your portfolio. Keep challenging yourself. Keep going. I even got myself tattooed as a reminder.

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Don’t give up. Running a business is a hard often seemingly impossible uphill climb. Some days you just can’t seem to be able to muster up the energy. But you got this. Keep pushing forward. Every day is a new opportunity to give it the best you got. Your big break might be just around the corner and if you quit now, you’ll never make it happen. I believe you can do it. I know you can. Just keep going.


If you don’t want your photos stolen don’t post them on the internet.

“If you don’t want your photos stolen don’t post them on the internet.”

This is an argument I have heard over and over again, mostly from people who have never had their work borrowed. Which of course is like saying, “I know you were home, but if you didn’t want your belongings stolen, you shouldn’t have left your door unlocked.” I have never been partial to that argument as there is a whole world of opportunity the internet has to offer. For every negative word or stolen photo due to posting my photos to social media, I have gotten five fantastic opportunities to further my career or reach people I never would have had the chance to reach. My career and income is built primarily on the opportunities I have received because I’ve taken to marketing myself on social media. But I can say with the most unfortunate yet utmost certainty and confidence that if you post your photos to the internet, they are most likely going to be borrowed. And I prefer the term borrowed. I try to think of the good in people and that in most cases, the offender simply didn’t know they were doing wrong. We are in a lack of attention span, everything is up for grabs, internet generation where most people believe that if it is on the internet, it is free to distribute and use. We are upon a generation that believes that any and all information and media posted is without owner and copyright laws. Which of course, isn’t the case. At least not legally. As such I believe awareness and understanding is the best way to combat and reduce the instances of copyright infringement. I believe in the saying of, “giving credit where credit is due.”

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I will always remember my first stolen image. A friend of mine happened to stumble upon someone who had found one of my images, photoshopped my model out, and photoshopped themselves into the photo. I remember feeling so hurt and so angry. I couldn’t believe someone had taken something I had worked so hard on and done something so awful to it. I played with the idea of never posting my work again. I wanted to quit photography. I was fuming and wanted to find this person and ask them why they thought doing that was okay. I took a few days to think about the situation and cool down enough to find the right words. I tried to look at it from their perspective. It was just some kid who thought my photo was cool and wanted to be a part of it. They didn’t know they were doing wrong. So instead of sending a message berating this kid and telling them to remove the image immediately or face legal consequences, I sent them a calm message letting them know that it wasn’t the right thing to do and if they could remove my image it would be preferable. Over time I’ve gotten used to it and become more accepting of it.

Face blurred for protection

Face blurred for protection

I’ve had my photos borrowed for book covers without payment. My self portrait has been used in an art gallery in the Netherlands under another artist’s name. I have been photoshopped out of my own photos and replaced with another person. My photos have been used to advertise upcoming parties at clubs, church websites, and other artist’s editing skills. They’ve been used to sell posters, prints, and albums. And even more recently, my photo has been borrowed to advertise a very popular app in the Itunes store. People have slapped quotes on them and they’ve gone viral on Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest with no credit.

Used in an Art Gallery

Used in an Art Gallery

Viral on social media

Viral on social media

Book cover that has since been paid for.

Book cover that has since been paid for.

In our Wild Ones Workshops we teach a segment on how to protect yourself from image theft. We encourage our students to google reverse search their images and there is always at least one student who finds some of their work reedited or used without their permission. It seems regardless of reach, following, or subject, people are going to take and they are going to use. Regardless of watermarks, disabling downloading, and uploading low resolution, your photos will be borrowed.

Unfortunately in most cases without having your lawyer on hand, the best possible outcome you can hope for is the image to be removed or your credit added. When confronted, especially if you are sending over an invoice for usage, most emails either go ignored or the “borrower” fights tooth and nail over the fact that they didn’t know the image was yours and that there are copyright laws in place.

Reedited to add a new background

Reedited to add a new background



I’ve been mulling around about this for a few years now and I’ve picked up a few tips on dealing with the issue of copyright infringement. First, know when to pick your battles. At this point, my images have been borrowed so many times if I spent all of my time sending out cease and desist I would no longer have a photography career. I would work full time policing my work and dealing with copyright infringement cases. I have over five hundred images that have been borrowed and edited sitting on a folder on my desktop and those are only the ones that I’ve found. I know this is only the tip of the iceberg and there is a whole world of my borrowed images waiting to make their way back home to me. So I’ve learned to choose my battles very carefully. When I come across an image being used without payment or permission, I ask myself these questions:

  • Is the person making money off of your image? Have they slapped it on a t-shirt, book cover, or are selling prints?
  • Are they using your image to promote hate or slander?
  • Are they slandering your business?
  • Do they have a big social media following?
  • Are they using your image to market or promote their business?
  • Could going after this person bring a negative outcome to your livelihood?
  • Is the infringement located in a country with similar copyright laws?
  • Is the monetary value worth the energy of the inevitable battle?

I am more likely to send a cease and desist to someone using my images to make a profit than I am some teenager that found my work on Tumblr, happened to like it, and doesn’t have a good understanding of copyright law. It is not worth the energy to me to get into a battle if the outcome will not benefit me monetarily or further market my business.


Advertising a festival

Photoshopped me out added themselves in

Photoshopped me out added themselves in 

I have yet to find a good way to protect my images from theft. I’ve learned if someone wants your images, they will do what it takes to get it. If you use a watermark, they will crop it out. If you disable downloading of your image, they will take a screen shot. If they want it, they will take it. However, there are a few good ways to protect yourself IN CASE they are stolen. Of which I can almost guarantee they will be.

Learn how to Google Reverse Search your images. This tool is my new best friend. There are quite a few other reverse search engines in place but I’ve found Google to be the best at locating my images.

Know your rights. Read up on copyright law. Here are a few good links I’ve found in passing:




Watermark your images. If they crop out or remove your watermark it goes to intent, thus later they can not say they “didn’t know” the image was yours. Slap it across the image so it makes it really difficult to remove. Make them work. Or you can make it so small that only you know it’s there and upon asking to prove if the image is yours, you can zoom right in and see your name. Self portraiture and tattoos I’ve found are also really fantastic organic ways of easily proving you are connected to the images because they are undeniable.

Register your images with the Library of Congress or any similar resource in your country. I know in the United States the moment you click the shutter button, the image is yours. You own it. You own the copyright. It is not necessary to register. However, if you register your copyright with the Library of Congress you have a fantastic paper trail, it’s a lot easier to prove the images are yours, and it allows you to sue for a higher rate. It’s a relatively easy process, though tedious and time-consuming. You can upload your photos online for $35 or send in a disk and the paperwork for $65. I register my photos yearly by collection. I send in disks with low resolution JPGs under the names, “Sarah Ann Loreth Collection of Images 2010” and so forth. A year or so later you will receive a certificate verifying the copyright for those images. You can find some great reading on registering here:



Only upload low resolution images to the internet. That way, when they are borrowed, they are not able to blow them up to larger sizes or it will look horrible and pixellated. Photoshop has a quick and easy “save for web” feature that allows for ease of saving.

Add your copyright information into the metadata of your photos. On most DSLRs if you go into your menu it allows you to insert your name and copyright information digitally to each photo.

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You can find 400 or so more borrowed images on my Facebook.

The Traveling Photographer: My Photo Survival Kit!

The whole setup

The whole setup

It is important to note the gear does not make the photographer, the photographer makes the gear. You are only as good as the ability in which you are able to use the tools given to you. With the practice of lighting techniques, creativity, and the functionality of your camera I believe you can create an incredible quality of work with just about anything.

Life on the road is fun but a challenge. You can’t bring much with you when traveling in a van for four months with a couple other people. The gear that I have choosen is based on what will work well with my style of photography, with the limited space of the van living situation. I recommend going out and trying different brands to see what will work best for you. I started on a Canon Rebel XTI four years ago to learn basic camera functions and have stuck with the brand ever since. I have loved every Canon I’ve used from the Rebel XTI, Rebel T3I, EOS 7D, and most recently the 5D Mark II. I have also tried out Sony and Nikon full frame bodies. While all brands have their pros and cons, Canon has made me pretty happy all around during my photography career.

Canon 5D Mark II

Canon 5D Mark II

MacBook Pro Retina Display – Besides my camera, my MacBook Pro is my most important tool. The retina display makes my photos pop and it’s light and portable so it makes editing on the road easy. It has saved my sanity numerous times this tour by giving me something to do on those 9 – 12 hour drive days and made keeping up with my business and the nonprofit so easy. This computer was a Christmas gift to me from 20+ of my friends and I cherish it every day.

Canon 5D Mark II – With it’s full frame 21 megapixel sensor and high ISO capability the Mark II has proved to be my favorite camera I’ve ever owned. It works so well in low light shooting wedding receptions or conceptual work after sunset. On year two of using this camera I don’t have much to complain about other than focusing in low light. I wish Canon had the focusing light like a Nikon but if I’m having a problem I switch over to live view and focus manually. It’s sturdy and fast and the weatherproofing has come in handy so many times shooting in the rain. To me, it is what I know, love, and it feels like home. It has withstood a lot of bumps, drops, and other catastrophe’s of a conceptual photographer and has retained it’s quality. It has become an extension of myself in I spend less time worrying about the functions and more time worrying about getting the perfect shot. I’m hoping to upgrade to the Mark III or 6D within the next few years.

Canon 50mm 1.2L – This was my dream lens that I saved and saved every penny for and the lens I use primarily. I had upgraded from the 50mm 1.8 after I had broken it. It’s sharper, faster, and sturdier which is a huge help since clumsiness is one of my more charming qualities and I needed something to withstand a lot of bumping. It has retained it’s sharpness and quality through two years of use. I don’t often shoot wide open, but when I do the depth of field is beautiful.

Sharpness at 100% zoom

Sharpness at 100% zoom

50mm 1.2 RAW file

50mm 1.2 RAW file

Canon 35mm f/2 – I use this lens mostly for fashion and underwater work because it gives me a little bit extra room in the frame while keeping a really great depth of field.

Canon 35mm f/2

Canon 35mm f/2

Canon 35mm f/2

Canon 35mm f/2

Canon EF 28-135mm Zoom – Kit lens that came with my Canon 7D. It’s a lens that gets used maybe once or twice a year for charity events that I need to be farther back to capture the moment. Gets the job done with okay quality, for a kit lens. I also used this lens for a few landscape photos during the tour when I didn’t feel like using my 50mm and expanding.

Canon EF 28-135mm

Canon EF 28-135mm

Kingston 64GB CF card – Shooting in RAW you need a large card and I absolutely LOVE my 64GB from Kingston. It’s so speedy to capture and even with 700+ RAW files my camera is still at 999. Between the two 64GBs I was able to shoot four months of work and travel without clearing the cards (which of course, isn’t reccommended! Back up your files!)

SanDisk Extreme 16GB Compact Flash Cards – I used SanDisk 16s before I made the switch over to Kingston. They are speedy to capture but I found the 16GB to be lacking in the space I needed in shooting in RAW. If I was booked up with client shoots or conceptual work I found myself having to dump the cards far too often which isn’t optimal for life on the road where you might not have the oppurtinity to clear your cards as often as you would like.

Opteka Remote – I keep so many of these with me. You never know when you are going to be in an incredible location and need to take a conceptual self portrait. I tend to lose things so I keep a number of these handy just in case.

Remotes, lenses, and cards. Remotes, lenses, and cards.[/caption

Wacom Intous Pro Tablet – I LOVE my tablet. It makes getting those fine details when compositing or editing skin for fashion so easy and effortless. It allows you to be very precise in your editing. I’m thrilled with it’s wireless capabilities which makes editing on the go that much easier without having to worry about finding cords and staying connected.

Vanguard Alta Pro 263AGH Tripod with Pistol Grip – Vangaurd is incredible and has been such a support to myself and our students this tour. I love their tripods! The body is light but sturdy and the pistol grip head allows for maximum ease of movement so as to allow me to change compositions rapidly. It’s so easy to set up and has a lot of versitility for different angles that are effortless to set up!

Vanguard Personalized Wild Ones Sedona 45BL Bag – I love my bag. Vanguard was awesome and had my bag embroidered with my name and our Wild Ones logo! It’s outdoorsy enough for fantastic use while hiking, which we did a lot this tour. The top pocket allows for quick access for your camera but the back access keeps your lenses and personal belongs safe and secure which I often worry about in large cities. It also has a vent system in the back to keep you cool. It has plenty of pockets to maximum storage and I was even able to slip my laptop in there for portability.