Jeff Waldorff is a mild-mannered businessman you might say. He lives in Navarre with his wife Angelique and son Nathan. He has been here since 1982 and has an engineering degree from the University of Florida. He is the director of software engineering at Micro Systems, a DOD contractor.
But on weekends and evenings, he relentlessly pursues beauty and drama, and shoots them with his camera. He often comes home from the adventures covered in sandspurs and sand, or muddy and wet, sometimes with bugs, spiders, snakes or other reptiles that he will shoot indoors. He never considered himself very artistic, but the power of his photographs make his many fans disagree.
As a child he loved nature and all the outdoors. Born in Fort Walton, he spent his early childhood here on the Emerald Coast. But his stepfather’s military duty took the family all over the U. S. from Washington, D.C. to Oregon. During that time, young Jeff read National Geographic, looking at the nature photography and dreamed of someday having that job: travel the world taking spectacular photographs of landscapes and wildlife . That didn’t happen: instead he went to University of Florida and got a degree in engineering, and moved back to the Gulf Coast he loved. But about 10 years ago, he said, he needed something to pull him out of the doldrums, to add something interesting and uplifting to his life. So he bought a camera.
“That got me back outdoors,” Waldorff said. “I was chasing sunrises and sunsets, chasing critters, the night sky. It was very therapeutic. It brought back my childhood.”
Like most hobbies, each new achievement brought the need for more equipment, more experience, more study on technique and more exploration. Friends and family were all so enthusiastic about his pictures that, almost on a whim, he took a booth at Navarre Fun Fest six years ago just to see whether he could sell a few.
“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing [as far as selling merchandise],” Waldorff said. “But they sold really well.”
A friend pointed him toward a gallery in Destin that might carry his work; now many locals and tourists proudly display prints of his photographs in their homes.
“It has turned into a full time job for my wife,” Waldorff said, “running the photo business.”
The pursuit of the best shot makes his eyes light up. One of his favorite pictures he has taken in Navarre is of the Milky Way over the Gulf of Mexico.
“You have to learn your equipment, and that is challenging,” he said. “You have to be able to do it without thinking or you’ll miss the shot.” With a wide angle lens and the right settings, you can pick up light that your eyes can’t capture,” he said. “You can open the aperture all the way and crank the ISO to 3200 with the new digital cameras. You just can’t do that with film and the old cameras.” It is easy to tell that having an engineering background has helped with learning the equipment, but the artistry of capturing a three dimensional world in a two dimensional medium is a challenge he loves.
Another thing he loves about his particular type of photography is that he has to be a naturalist, an astronomer, a meteorologist, and sometimes even a biologist. It doesn’t hurt that he also knows the Emerald Coast “like the back of my hand.” To know where the sun will rise and set on a certain day, how to read the sky for coming weather, and where the animals and insects will be in relation to all of that is crucial to getting a shot like the one he took of a skimmer plucking a fish out of Santa Rosa Sound.
And he does it so well, he has won several awards in shows and competitions. But the businessman in him knows awards don’t sell photographs. The emotional reaction of the viewer to the shot is what makes someone want to take it home.
“Women like pretty shots and cute birds,” Waldorff said. “Men like the wildlife shots, the wilderness. Learning what people like is important in this business.”
He hopes to eventually take his hobby up to the next level. He is still too young to retire, but he can foresee a second career in photography.
“I would like to build a workshop, open a studio and gallery, teach as well as take commissions,” he said. “I would like to do this in Navarre because I think Navarre is primed to have a good studio and gallery. I hope to build a following and I often receive questions asking where my work is sold in galleries. Also, right now, the house is full of inventory, equipment, and printers. If I want to start doing all the printing myself, though, I will need more space.”
But until those dreams come to fruition, he will spend his days with computers and software and his evenings and weekends getting up at 3:30 a.m. to capture a sunrise or the full moon, or lying in mud to capture an insect on a blade of grass. All so he can show others what he sees: the beauty of the Gulf Coast.