Stephen Bobb never dreamed of shooting a Pulitzer Prize-winning war-zone photo, an artsy portrait or a majestic landscape. The most influential photographer in his life was his grandfather, who on family vacations would haul out the tripod, set the timer and run to be in the picture.

Instead, after college at the University of Richmond, Bobb did a very Washington thing: He went to work at the Advocacy Institute, which trains social-justice advocates around the world. On a tobacco-control project, he researched issues, wrote a daily news summary and sent action alerts. Later he did outreach to find nominees for the group’s leadership awards. “I loved the organization,” he says, “but I had an itch for something more creative.”

“Just for kicks,” Bobb says, in 2003, he visited the Washington School of Photography in Bethesda and enrolled in its certificate program. “It was great to explore that creative side” through film — digital wasn’t as mainstream then — and in the darkroom. “The teachers bring diverse experiences and a variety of styles.”

The nonprofit school (301-654-1998) offers everything from basic “How do I use this camera?” workshops to specialized classes to the yearlong, $7,500 certificate in professional photography. Required certificate classes cover composition; color management and theory; lighting; Photoshop; digital workflow; portraiture; business basics and portfolio production. Electives include wedding work, outdoor portraiture and darkroom work.

“All you need is time, interest, and a single-lens-reflex digital camera,” says communications director Ben Anderson. Graduates have gone into — or stayed in — photojournalism; teaching; and portrait, pet or wedding photography. Income varies widely depending on effort, aptitude, business skills and type of work, but Anderson says someone photographing weekend weddings can make up to $60,000 a year just doing that. The school’s next open house is Aug. 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Still playing policy wonk, the budding photographer started helping friends shoot weddings on the weekends. With new confidence, he e-mailed about 20 professionals who used a photojournalistic style, looking for a mentor; Jennifer Domenick of Love Life Images in Savage, Md., responded early in 2005. Bobb became her part-time assistant not long before taking a new day job doing real-estate marketing.

At the end of 2006, everything switched: Picture a negative morphing into a photo. The housing market tanked. Bobb lost his position. Domenick offered him a job processing all her studio’s digital images. Suddenly, Bobb was in photography six days a week.

“It was hard to balance,” admits Bobb, who was also adjusting to marriage and homeownership in Takoma Park. “But it was gratifying to capture milestones in life that are fleeting.”

Three to four days a week now, he retouches photos, fixing poor colors and exposures or converting color to black and white. On the weekends, he’s one of Love Life Images’ main wedding shooters — these days, he’s the one with assistants. And during his own time, he runs Stephen Bobb Photography (corporate portraits and events) and Fidojournalism (pet photography). Besides capturing pets and their people at home, he volunteers his camera at rescue organizations and pet-events. “I have a very understanding wife,” he says.

It’s a challenge to move from office work to three part-time jobs, having to drive all over and lug equipment. “Taking pictures is a small part of what I do,” Bobb notes; there’s also marketing, accounting, lab work and more. “The business part of this isn’t what people with a creative streak generally have in mind.”

But it’s rewarding. The 34-year-old works with happy people and creating cherished keepsakes, and generally calls the shots, so to speak. There’ve been no bridezillas, dog bites or cat scratches. And he tells fulfilling stories like this: Two years ago, a woman asked Bobb to photograph her brother’s dog as a gift while he was away. The brother loved the shots. One year ago, the brother — who Bobb had never met — got engaged and asked Bobb to shoot his wedding. Again, he loved the shots. A few weeks ago, the brother called again: He and his wife had a newborn and wanted Bobb to do a family-and-dog portrait.

“That’s my ultimate goal,” Bobb says. “For people to see me as their personal photographer.”

Written by Express contributor Ellen Ryan
Photos by Eric Kemp for Express