LAKE PLACID - About a decade ago, Lake Placid photographer Shaun Ondak received a gift from his mother that would have a profound impact on his life.
She gave him a point-and-shoot digital camera for his upcoming, year-long trip to Australia. Ondak, who was a hospitality student at SUNY Plattsburgh at the time, was planning to do an internship at a hotel and then a winery. Along the way, he planned to take plenty of photographs, a hobby he had just started to develop.
"It was definitely integral (with) getting me connected to the camera," the 34-year-old said in a recent interview. "I spent the whole year with basically me and the camera."
A grasshopper peaks at a fellow grasshopper through a small hole in a leaf on Fledging Crow farm in Keeseville.
Ondak said during that period he enjoyed taking these photos and received lots of positive feedback from family and friends. Because of that, he invested in a more expensive camera in January 2005, about halfway through his trip, and began to take the hobby even more seriously.
"I liked capturing moments that were just that, moments in time, (when) the people were unaware that the picture was being taken, and it was a completely original, unmanufactured moment," he said.
When he returned from Australia the following August, he planned to hike the Appalachian Trail with some friends. Those plans fell through, so he moved to Lake Placid, following his friends who moved to nearby Saranac Lake.
Eventually he got a job at the Naturescapes photo gallery in the Alpine Mall in Lake Placid, where he sold his first photographs. After the shop was bought by artists Stevie and Joe Copozio of Wilmington, he continued to work there and made his first big sale - a black-and-white photograph of a landscape, prominently featuring a old tree trunk in the foreground.
"When I realized I could sell a picture of a tree trunk for $500, it kind of gave me a little wake-up call," Ondak said.
Soon after, he invested in a Canon 5D, a professional camera that he took with him everywhere. After a couple of years of working at Adworkshop in Lake Placid in Web design, Ondak became the artist in residence at BluSeed Studios in Saranac Lake in 2010. He stayed there until 2012, developing his craft.
As Ondak was working on becoming a self-employed photographer, he realized he had to carve out his own niche. Just about anyone with a camera can take landscape photos during the day, but only those who have higher-end gear and know how to use it can take photos in the dark. In addition, images of stars, campfires in the dark forest and the Olympic ski jumps at night had kind of a magical quality to them.
"Nighttime photography to me (has) the most mystery in it," Ondak said. "There's the most possibilities of an unknown miracle."
Today, most of Ondak's photos on display in the Soul Roots, a studio located in the Alpine Mall that he shares with friends, were taken at night.
Although he still has to work odd jobs to pay the rent, Ondak now makes most of his money selling photos to magazines, the public or through paid assignments.
"Photography has somehow worked its way into my life. It's just something that I do, that gives me pleasure and apparently gives other people pleasure," he said. "For me, it's all about trying to do something that I haven't done before."