Q&A: Pastor goes all out for images—and for Africa

Nature photography is a passion for the Rev. Rodney Steele, senior pastor of First UMC of Mountain Home, Ark. Mr. Steele, 58, made a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and came away inspired to sell his images to raise money for clean water projects there. He shared about that effort, and his hobby, with managing editor Sam Hodges.

How long have you been a photographer, and what got you started?

As a preacher’s kid, I sometimes went with Dad to visit members. Some of them gave me their old

Pastor-photographer Rodney Steele.

copies of National Geographic magazine whose photographs were magical, transporting me to other places and introducing me to other people. They also captured beauty, in people and in nature, that so many other people were missing. I saw the images and thought, “Wow, look at what God created!” For the longest time I wanted to be an outdoor and wildlife photographer, but God had other plans for me.

I received my first Polaroid camera when I was in junior high school, followed by a Nikon film camera in seminary. Due to other demands upon my time and circumstances and the fact that setting up a darkroom in a parsonage was a stinky proposition, I was sporadic in my photography. Then, when digital cameras came along I found my photographic stride again. I could process the images with a computer, no bad smells or dark rooms.

What kind of equipment do you use?

I’ve had good luck with used and refurbished camera equipment. I use a Canon 7d and a Canon 40d. For lens, I primarily use an old Canon 70-200L f2.8 (stove pipe), a 300mmL f4, a 24-70mmL f2.8 and a 10-22mm EFS. My primary software is Adobe Lightroom with Nik software plug-ins. I have Photoshop but I use it for limited purposes. I have a couple of flashes, tripods and reflectors. It may sound like a lot but I’ve acquired it over several years.

Some people think it’s all about the equipment but I’ve seen outstanding photographs from folks who use point-and-shoot cameras. It’s all about light, composition, photographic passion and

This fall 2012 photo shows cattle grazing at sunset on an Ozark Mountain meadow. ALL PHOTOS BY THE REV. RODNEY STEELE

capturing the moment.

Your website is full of nature scenes, including flowers, waterfalls, sunsets. Do you connect nature photography to your spiritual life, and if so, how?

My great grandmother was a Native American, and her daughter, my grandmother, taught me that God is our Creator and nature is a gift from God. As a gift, we should be thankful for it and respectful of it; never wasteful nor abusive. This idea is so embedded in me that I’m baffled that others don’t see it, too. That’s a part of the passion that I have for photography, helping people see God’s loving creative presence through the gift of nature and life. I know that looking at nature and life and believing that both are evidence for a creating God is one of the oldest and most challenged arguments for the existence of God, yet it still convinces me. So, photographing both life and nature is a visual affirmation of faith about God.

The Rev. Rodney Steele found autumn beauty on a country road in the Ozarks.

Whenever I’m in nature, I realize that the calendar I try to keep is actually an artificial imposition to the real rhythm and seasons of life. In nature, I can actually feel the stress leaving my body. I feel a connection with God that calms my soul. I can more easily hear God’s voice. Not exclusively so, because God is loving us and guiding us in every aspect of life, but in nature I can hear God more clearly.

To what lengths—geographically and in amount of time and trouble—will you go to get a good photograph? Do you have a story to share to illustrate your passion for getting a great shot?

I carry my camera with me everywhere. It’s either in my backpack or in the back seat of my SUV. Because of my being a pastor with the demands of my local church and being more of an outdoor photographer, I have to be ready for any opportunity that might present itself: a shaft of light through a cloud, the colorful blossom of a plant or a changing leaf, a sunrise or a sunset. I also use my camera in my ministry at the church, taking pictures of children, youth and events. I then share them with the folks and/or post them on Facebook. It’s a way of sharing the fun and telling our church’s story.

Recently, I made a 10-mile hike to photograph a beautiful red leaf tree that I saw from the top of a bluff in the Buffalo Nation River area. It was on the river bank and after I trudged through fields, woods and bamboo I found it and got the photograph. That’s when I heard the rifle shots and realized that it was the opening day of deer season and I had no orange colored clothes, just browns and green! I made as much noise as I could back through the bamboo and raised my tripod high in the air so that no hunter would mistake me for a deer. I now carry an orange vest and hat in my car in case it is also hunting season.

While mainly photographing nature scenes in color, Mr. Steele sometimes shoots in black and white, and captured this Edward Hopper-like scene in Hope, Ark.

I’ve lost count of the number of days that I wake up before sunrise to get a photograph, return home to clean up and still spend a full day at the church. One time to get a different angle on a waterfall, I put my camera on a tripod, started the timer on my camera and then held the tripod over the bluff before the timer clicked the shutter. I’ve climbed up and down rocks, waded through water and leaned as far as I dare over the edge of cliffs and bluffs to find the shot. I’m amazed at how trees and bushes can grow on the edge of bluffs so I try to photograph them, which means I get near the edge, too. I’ve never been afraid of heights but I’m still cautious and careful as I approach the edge.

The Ozarks and Petit Jean State Park are two of your favorite places to take pictures, based on what you’ve posted to your website. Why those two, and what are some of your other favorite places?

Any outdoor photographer is also an opportunistic photographer because you can’t control the sunlight and the weather. You do what you can, when you can and where you can. I currently live in the Ozarks so I can get to pretty scenery rather quickly. I used to live near Petit Jean and it was similar circumstances. One of my other favorite places to photograph is out west in New Mexico and Colorado. New Mexico has this exceptional light and color that I find enchanting. Every time I go out West it’s like a dose of good medicine.

What got you to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and what was that trip like for you?

I serve on the Standing Committee for Central Conference Matters and we met in Kinshasa, back in 2011. It was a transformational experience for me. The incredible positive Christian spirit of

Sunrise at DeGray Lake, near Arkadelphia, Ark. Mr. Steele often rises before dawn to take photos, then heads to his church.

the people was in stark contrast to their abject poverty and conditions. I heard firsthand about the critical need for dependable, fresh drinking water. I learned how people’s whole lives and days centered on walking to get fresh water, often at great physical risk. God put it on my heart to do something and since our Conference already had Congo Wells Project it seemed like a natural connection between selling photographs to raise money for water wells. Then, I became aware of the Imagine No Malaria campaign and wanted to help there, too. If we can eradicate malaria then

more people will live longer, and if more people live longer then more people will need fresh water. I’m grateful to help both endeavors in some small way.

How did you arrive at the idea of selling your nature photographs to benefit clean water and anti-malaria efforts?

A lot of people encouraged me to publish a book or sell photographs but I was uncomfortable to personally benefit financially from something that I think is a gift from God. I’m very comfortable encouraging people to support missions, so this seems to be a natural solution.

If someone wants to purchase an image, how much will it cost, and what’s the easiest way to complete the transaction?

They can go to http://rodneysteele.zenfolio.com/. It’s pretty user-friendly and they can choose from a variety of prices on everything from photos to iPhone/iPad covers to file downloads to travel mugs. Just follow the steps and look often as I try to update the images on a regular basis.


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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Wow look at those stunning photographs, it must be amazing to be able to make such a trip surrounded by nature.

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