At what age did you first get interested in photography?
I remember vividly watching a TV program that showed a detective in the darkroom developing a black and white print. I was 12 years old and it was like magic. I was hooked from that day on. I wanted to learn how to do that.
What was your first camera?
The first camera I ever shot was an old Mamyia Sekor 35mm system my father had. He’s always enjoyed photography and it was our many family outings to the wilds of Washington State that introduced me to the art. My father was kind enough to allow me to use his equipment around the house but I was restricted from taking it to school. He told me, “son, if you want a camera to work with away from home you’ll have to buy your own”. So I did. In 1976 we had a young Japanese boy come stay with us for a summer student exchange program. I thought this was the opportunity I was looking for; a chance to get a good deal on a camera direct from Japan. My sister and I sold our 1968 GTO, which wasn’t running so great. I took my $500.00 and gave it to my new friend. He purchased an Olympus OM2 for me in Japan. I received the camera and it was defective right out of the box. I went through about 3 OM2 bodies before I decided to trade my entire system in for 1 Nikon F2AS and a 50mm lens. I’ve never looked back.
What equipment do you use most frequently?
The current equipment I shoot is all digital. I’ve shot exclusively digital since 2002. My current equipment consists of 3-D2XS bodies, 1-D200 body. Lenses are 12-24, 17-55, 70-200 and the 200-400mm, 60mm and 200mm macro, 8-4gig Lexar cards and a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I also use both the 1.4 & 1.7 tele extenders. Strobes consist of 4- SB-800’s. I also shoot a 6x17 Panoramic camera called the Fotoman with large format Nikkor lenses. All of this equipment is packed in one of many different Lowepro camera bags or packs depending on the location I’m shooting in. Digital has reduced my necessary equipment by 40% and the savings in weight is a dream come true. As far as computers are concerned I use both Microsoft and Apple PC’s. Each has their strengths and I find it helpful to know both systems for teaching my workshops.
Where were you born and raised and what influenced you to be a nature photographer?
I was born in the city of Spokane, Washington. I grew up in the country, my family bought 5 acres outside the city and there were many more acres to roam and explore. My father, a consummate hunter and gatherer spent a great deal of time in the wilds of Washington and Idaho. I gained my appreciation for the outdoors through our many family outings, hunting & fishing trips and excursions to the field. We later moved to northern Minnesota and once again settled in the country. Our first night in the old farm house was January 1 and the thermometer registered -50 below zero ambient temperature. I learned about cold growing up in Minnesota. Today I reside in Montana. My mother was the other early influence in my life as a photographer. She’s an artist working mainly in the mediums of watercolor and oils. She graduated later in life from the University of Minnesota, Duluth with a degree in art history. It was this early introduction to the beauty of nature and art that set me on the path I follow today.
What photographers do you most admire and have they influenced your style.
Most all photographers I admire today are thankfully still alive and producing exceptional work. The one exception was my friend Michio Hoshino. His work was extremely inspirational to me and he was an equally great person. Four additional photographers that I admire most are Jim Brandenburg, Eric Meola, Pete Turner and Joel Satore. If you know these folks you also know that they are not all exclusively nature shooters. All of them have shot some nature but most importantly they all have great ideas, concepts and vision.
Did you have a goal in mind when you first got started?
I most certainly did. I wanted to save the world and all it’s beautiful places and creatures. I came to realize early on that the power of photography had the ability to inspire people to help protect and save certain species and ecosystems. I also came to realize that the pay for doing such noble work was dismal. That lead me to working with the sporting publications I’ll talk more about later but in general I wanted to share the incredibly beautiful animals and wild areas I was visiting with the rest of the world via magazine publishing. The early years demanded that I find consistent ongoing work. It’s been rewarding that now in the middle part of my career I’ve been able to return to my original goal of helping save our planet. My work with many different conservation organizations and in particular Polar Bears International has been rewarding beyond words. Visit www.polarbearsinternational.org
to learn more for yourself.
How did you learn your craft?
Virtually my entire education in photography has been gained through means other than officially sanctioned learning programs. I originally began by studying magazines, books and any other medium that used great pictures. After high school I went to the University of Minnesota, Duluth and took one photography course. The instructor and I didn’t care for each other and I choose to work for the college newspaper. The Statesman was an amazing learning experience. I shot everything possible including the Harlem Globetrotters, the Duluth Orchestra, symphony director, car wrecks, fires and baseball games. Our paper was highly visual and won numerous national collegiant newspaper awards. There were four of us shooting and all of us are still working as fulltime professional photographers. Along with my work for the paper I also worked for a local commercial studio in Duluth called Grandmaison Studios. Dan Grandmaison is still a good friend and my dear friend Tim Slattery passed away several years ago while pursuing his passion for photographing the iron orr carriers of Lake Superior. Both of these guys taught me how make a master black and white print, how to shoot weddings without loosing your mind and the art of lighting a casket. We had lots of fun and the on the job training was invaluable. I never did finish my degree of Communications at UMD.
How did you get started as a professional nature photographer?
There was no one big thing. My desire to save the planet was tempered by my need to earn a living and there was one person who gave me advice that began my journey. His name was Pete Czura and he was a very successful sport hunting, magazine photographer. I was 20 years old at the time I met him at a Professional Photographers of America workshop in Sioux Falls, SD. He told me I needed to get to New York and go see the editors of the magazines I wanted to sell to. Early in my career I shot a great deal of what my father did, hunting and fishing. I knew the big three hunting magazines used a lot of this type of work so I set out to make my name and at 21 years old I made my first trip to see Field and Stream and the other sporting publications in New York city. I’ve since moved away from the hunting market for many reasons. Though I do not have anything against most forms of hunting I just don’t enjoy it myself anymore. The true sportsman my father taught me to be is no longer the rule but rather the exception. However, I would never trade that part of my life for anything since it was the camaraderie and time spent with family, aunts and uncles and cousins and doing it all in the outdoors that gave me the appreciation for the wilds I photograph today.
Where does your photography most often appear?
Editorial clients use 60% of my work. This includes magazines, book publishers and others. Additional markets include ad agencies, corporations, conservation groups, the calendar trade, poster companies and anyone needing natural history images to relay a message or inspire hope.
Do you sell prints of your work and if so where?
My fine art print sales are virtually all made from our web site. We produce all the prints in house using the latest printers and inks from Hewlett Packard. The ability to control the entire printing process is a huge benefit over the way I used to do prints. These prints have a archival life span of up to 200 years for the Limited Edition series and 80 plus years for the open edition series. I’ve broken my print sales into two different groups. One is open edition prints where there is no set number on how many we will produce. The second is my Fine Art Limited Edition Print Collection. My reason for developing these two separate groups was simple. As an artist there are some things I shoot with my artistic vision in mind. It’s my statement as to what I feel is art. That obviously could be different for anyone else looking at the same image but I want people to know, when viewing my Fine Art Limited Edition Prints, that this is a piece Dan created with his specific vision in mind. The other prints are also available giving each and every buyer the chance to select an image that might fit their description as art. You can use our online searchable database to view all images or go directly to the Gifts page for our Limited Edition Fine Art Print Collection.
How do you plan for a shoot?
You would me amazed at how many people will come up to me and ask, “how did you get that picture. Did you just go out and sit in the woods?” We’ll typically not. There is most often a great deal of planning necessary. The number one thing I begin doing when deciding to go after a subject is to find out where and when that subject is the most prevalent. To find the location and time of year that you will have the most subjects available is absolutely essential. Putting yourself in position to be surrounded by the animal you are after is the best way to give yourself many chances to get the pictures you’re searching for. An example would be polar bears. I found out over twenty years ago that Churchill, Manitoba was the best and most predictable place in the world to photograph polar bears. The entire high arctic is habitat for these animals but your chances of seeing one are rare compared to Churchill. I’ve photographed polar bears in other areas but for an absolute guarantee Churchill is the place to be.
Once I find the area I want to get to my dear wife Tanya puts it all together for me. She’s a virtual travel agent. She’s extremely good at it and actually enjoys doing it. It’s a lot of work however and she uses the web exclusively to track down airfares, transportation on the ground such as local guides or vehicles. It’s up to me to get the details on the spot I’m heading for such as what time to shoot, what the subject matter might be etc.
How much camera gear do you take?
It depends on the location but most of the time I take all that I mentioned earlier except the four strobes. I typically travel with at least two strobes saving the other two for special lighting projects.
What other things do you take with you?
The proper clothing is always essential. That can range from short pants to a down parka. I also typically travel with a sleeping bag. It’s always nice to have a little piece of home with you when falling off to sleep in a strange location. I also bring a laptop, two external hard drives and a CF card storage unit in case the laptop gives up the ghost.
How many months of the year are you in the field shooting pictures?
Each year is different but most typically I’m away from my home and office for as many as 10 months of the year.
What challenges do you find with making a living as a photographer besides getting the images that sell?
Probably the biggest challenge is marketing your work. It’s not a job for those who are not self motivated. In short, you’re a self-employed businessperson. I was fortunate to have a father who was self employed. He taught me what it took to make a living depending on no one but yourself. It’s not easy and it’s the main reason most photographers give up their dreams. In building our business we searched all the different markets that used quality natural history photography and we went after them. We also joined numerous stock agencies over my twenty-five year career. However, stock agents aren’t what they used to be and we rely more on our own sales efforts to pay the bills than we do on all our agents combined.
The other challenge with being a wildlife photographer is the toll on your personal life. Most successful wildlife photographers find it difficult to keep personal relationships in tact due to long trips alone and weeks to months away from family. I’m one of the statistics and I’m not proud of it. I was once married to a great lady named Julie and she was hugely instrumental in helping our business prosper. I couldn’t have done it without her. However, as often is the case with two people who spend so much time away from each other, we grew apart. She wanted children and I found that I did not. It wasn’t intentional I just thought that someday I too would wake up and realize I can’t wait to have children. It was a major reason for us separating our lives. She’s still a dear friend who has had some tough years but is making a tremendous comeback and I’m very proud of her.
On the up side I found Tanya. She and I both came to the agreement that there were too many humans on this planet and that neither of us wanted to add to the looming ecological catastrophe. She’s an adventurer from the heart, loves to travel, can sleep just about anywhere, doesn’t complain when roughing it and can cook like there is no tomorrow. I’ve had two of the finest women in my life that anyone could ever dream of and I’m so profoundly fortunate. My mother and father have been happily married for 60 years and it’s something I would have liked to aspire to. However, my life as a traveling photographer brought me changes I would have never dreamed of; both good and bad.
Are all of your animal photos truly wild subjects?
No they are not. However, all of my fine art limited edition prints are of wild and free roaming animals. We label all of our images with the words “Captive Animal” within the caption information which appears on the larger preview image you can see by clicking on the image to enlarge it. I have written a long and detailed explanation as to the positive aspects of using some captive animals for natural history photography. Out of all the photographs within my files, nearly 500,000, only 3% represent animals photographed in captive situations. All of my work for National Geographic has been of wild and free roaming creatures. Please follow this link to the part of our web site detailing my thoughts on why this is necessary and beneficial.
Do you create any of your images in the computer by combining things that never truly happened?
No. I’m a firm believer that journalistic integrity is very important. My work as a natural history photographer falls into the category of journalism, or telling a story. I’m not interested in creating an illustration as an artist might do. I want people to know that the image they see is exactly as I saw it in the camera. I’m there to record the actual event and if it doesn’t take place than I have no interest in making one by creating it via computer technology. The only computer work I do to an image is minor color or exposure corrections. I’m not in the least proficient at Photoshop though my office staff uses it extensively to make basic preparations for images to be sent to publishers for publication.
What do you consider your specialty?
For me I enjoy long term projects that capture the true essence of the animal and how it lives. There are several very successful natural history photographers that have specialized in hop scotching around the globe, shooting a few days here and another few days there, creating mostly art. Never staying in any one spot for more than a week or two. For me that sort of system is not very satisfying but I have to say it is probably more financially rewarding. In this business the more subjects you have the better. More subjects mean more opportunities for having just the right photo when an editor calls. For me I’ve always been more interested in knowing as much about the animal as possible and spending long periods of time to try and capture behaviors that most people don’t wait around long enough to see. My style has been to have fewer subjects but the ones I have usually contain better overall in-depth natural history footage. You can see for yourself by checking out several of my books including Whitetail Country, Black Bear and Elk
What was your first book?
My first book project was Whitetail Country. I was 27 years old when that was first released and it was a major hit. Over the life of that book we sold more than 150,000 copies. It’s success was due to the great information written by John Ozaga not to mention that the photos were selected from nearly 10 years of work.
How do you manage to market your work when you spend nearly 10 months in the field?
I’m very fortunate to have a tremendous office staff of four people, which includes my wife Tanya. Tanya travels with me 60-70% of the time so when she’s gone the others in the office hold down the fort.
Do you offer internships?
Yes we do. However, internships are for office duties only. Two of our current employees started with us as interns and internships are a big part of our system in the office. Interns do not accompany me to the field for photography.
Do you have a favorite image?
Actually I do. One of my favorite images is of a mother cheetah hunting in Africa. The photo was taken back in 1991 on my first trip to Kenya. I followed several families of cheetahs for over 30 days. I was fortunate to have the chance to photograph 4 or 5 hunting attempts but only this one did it turn out that I was in the right place at the right time to really capture the speed of this magnificent animal. She caught the Thompson’s gazelle on top of it all which doesn’t always happen.
What’s your favorite place and subject to photograph?
My heart belongs in cold country and the animals that live there. I’ve worked for years on polar bears and brown bears either in the Canadian arctic or Alaska. I’ve lived virtually my entire life in states that border Canada and it’s the north that I most often migrate to. That being said, one of the incredible up sides to being a natural history photographer is the variety of subjects and destinations that are available to you. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to all seven continents and shoot pictures of animals as small as ants to as large as humpback whales. I have an insatiable curiosity about the natural world and all it’s creatures. It makes it easy to get up in the morning.
What’s the best time of the day to shoot photography?
The golden hours for all photography are two hours after sunrise to two hours before sunset. The light is not only the best at this time but the animals are most active then as well. The exception is if it’s a cloudy day. Cloudy light is also very interesting. It’s as if the heavens have put large diffusers over the main light. It’s very similar to the light we would create in the studio. With clouds you can shoot all day long if you choose.
Do you lead workshops?
Yes I do. My wife Tanya and I have a separate business called Invitational Photographic Tours. We do not advertise and all people that go with us are invited guests. I find our potential workshop participants by meeting people in the field in places photographers go. This is the only way to make sure I’ve at least met most of our participants and ideally have come to know them. This virtually eliminates the problem of having one bad apple make it into the group and assures like-minded attitudes and adventuresome spirits. If we should ever meet somewhere along the trail don’t hesitate to say hello. I enjoy talking photography and meeting the many good people out there that participate in this exciting occupation and hobby. If we get a chance to meet each other we may also get a chance to travel together.
What do you like to do when not taking pictures?
I enjoy just hiking. It’s truly liberating to grab nothing but a pair of binoculars and go for a hike. I often wish I had my camera when something interesting presents itself but it’s a joy to not have to carry lots of gear. My other love is music. I try to play the guitar and one of my life goals is to become more proficient. Another hobby of mine is the gym. I truly enjoy a good workout and last but certainly not least I do whatever I can to see my family. I’m especially blessed to still have parents alive and well, 4 great sisters and lots of nieces and nephews.
Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to do what you do?
I get this question a lot and my standard answer is DO NOT get into still photography. I’m convinced in my lifetime we will be seeing magazine quality images being taken from footage shot with digital video cameras. I’m completely convinced that the two mediums will merge someday soon. It’s already happening, the quality just isn’t quite there yet but it’s not far away. There will always be a need for good videographers and if you know how to shoot moving as well as still images you will be creating serious job security. Finally, study business! It’s a good business mind combined with the talent to see beautiful and interesting images that create a successful image producer whether it be moving images or stills.
What do you consider your greatest achievements in your career to date?
I would have to say my greatest achievement has been my career longevity. I’ve been documenting nature professionally since 1981. That’s over 25 years in the business. I’m very fortunate to finally have the financial security to be able to start doing more for the conservation projects I’m closely involved with. I could not do that without all this time under my belt. It takes years and years and years to be able to make a comfortable living in this business and my desire to give back is being rewarded now as I make my way in to the middle to later part of my career. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to help spread the word that our planet needs our attention. Second to longevity would be the work I’ve done for National Geographic. They really are the only quality publication left that allows a photographer the chance to tell a story. My work with this organization was sincerely rewarding and I can only hope that more readers find the beauty and inspiration that is at the heart of this great publication.