Here you’ll find answers to some of the questions that I get asked most often. If you can’t find the answer to your questions or are interested in something more specific, there is a quick way to ask Dan your photography-related question.
- At what age did you first get interested in photography?
- What was your first camera?
- What equipment do you use most frequently?
- Where were you born and raised and what influenced you to be a nature photographer?
- What photographers do you most admire and have they influenced your style?
- Did you have a goal in mind when you first got started?
- How did you learn your craft?
- How did you get started as a professional nature photographer?
- Where does your photography most often appear?
- How do you plan for a shoot?
- How much camera gear do you take?
- What other items do you take with you?
- How many months of the year are you in the field shooting pictures?
- What challenges do you find with making a living as a photographer, aside from getting the images that sell?
- Are all of your animal photos truly wild subjects?
- Do you create any of your images in the computer by combining things that never truly happened?
- What do you consider your specialty?
- What was your first book?
- How do you manage to market your work when you spend nearly ten months in the field?
- Do you offer internships?
- Do you have a favorite image?
- What’s your favorite place and subject to photograph?
- What’s the best time of the day to shoot photography?
- Do you lead workshops?
- What do you like to do when not taking pictures?
- Do you have any suggestions for someone who wants to do what you do?
- What do you consider your greatest achievements in your career to date?
At what age did you first get interested in photography?
I vividly remember 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.Top
What was your first camera?
The first camera I ever shot was an old Mamiya 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 named Takashi Koyama came 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, and I took my $500 and gave it to my new friend. He purchased an Olympus OM2 for me in Japan.Top
What equipment do you use most frequently?
I shoot all digital equipment, and I’ve been doing so exclusively since 2002. My current equipment list consists of two Panasonic LUMIX GH5’s and the new LUMIX G9. My tripod is a Gitzo carbon fiber with a 504HD video head. Lenses include the Olympus 300mm F/4 along with Panasonic lenses 100-400mm zoom, 12-60mm, 35-100mm, 8-18mm, and 12mm F/1.4. All of this equipment is packed in one of many different Lowepro camera bags or packs depending on the location I’m shooting at. As far as computers are concerned, I use exclusively Apple.Top
Where were you born and raised and what influenced you to be a nature photographer?
I was born in the city of Spokane, Washington, though I grew up in the country. My family bought five 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, and other excursions. We later moved to northern Minnesota and once again settled in the country. Our first night in the old farmhouse was January 1st, 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. She’s an artist who works 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.Top
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 and he was an equally great person. Four additional photographers that I admire most are Tom Walker, Eric Meola, Pete Turner, and Joel Sartore. 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, and even more importantly are quality people.Top
Did you have a goal in mind when you first got started?
I wanted to save the natural world. 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 led 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 experiencing with the rest of the world, via magazine publishing. The early years demanded that I find consistent ongoing work. It’s rewarding that now in the middle of my career I’ve been able to return to my original goal of helping bring awareness to our dwindling wilderness areas, ecosystems, and its creatures. My work with several different conservation organizations, and in particular Polar Bears International, has been rewarding beyond words. You can visit Polar Bears International to learn more about my work with them.Top
How did you learn your craft?
Virtually my entire education in photography has been gained through means other than officially sanctioned learning programs—what many people would call the school of hard knocks. 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.
I applied to work for the college newspaper, The Statesman, which 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 full-time professional photographers.
Along with my work for the paper, I worked for a local commercial studio in Duluth, Grandmaison Studios. Dan Grandmaison is still a good friend, and my colleague and dear friend Tim Slattery passed away several years ago while pursuing his passion for photography shooting 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 losing 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.Top
How did you get started as a professional nature photographer?
There was no one big thing. My desire to save the planet was tampered 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 when 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 visit the editors of the magazines I wanted to work with.
Early in my career I shot a great deal of what my father enjoyed: hunting and fishing. I knew the big three hunting magazines used a lot of this kind 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. I’ve since moved away from the hunting market for many reasons, though I don’t 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. I would never trade that part of my life for anything, since it was camaraderie and time spent with family, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the great outdoors that gave me the appreciation for the wilds I photograph today.Top
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.Top
How do you plan for a shoot?
You would be 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?” Well, typically not. There is most often a great deal of planning involved. The number one thing I must do 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 they are at their highest numbers is absolutely essential. Putting yourself in a position to be surrounded by the animal is the best way to give yourself as many chances to photograph as possible. A good example would be polar bears. I found out over 20 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 in most places are rare compared to Churchill. I’ve photographed polar bears in other areas but for an absolute guarantee, Churchill is the place to go.Top
How much camera gear do you take?
It depends on the location, but most of the time I take all that I mentioned earlier. I typically travel with at least two strobes too.Top
What other items 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 nodding off to sleep in a strange location. I also bring a laptop and two external hard drives.Top
How many months of the year are you in the field shooting pictures?
Each year is different, but typically I’m away from home for as many as ten months a year.Top
What challenges do you find with making a living as a photographer, aside from 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 business person. 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 of the different markets that used quality natural history photography and we went after them. We also joined numerous stock agencies over my 25-year career. However, stock agents aren’t what they used to be and we rely more on our own sales to pay the bills these days than we do from 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 our lives separating. 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 upside I found Tanya. She and I both came to the agreement that our life would revolve around travel. 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 a professional chef. 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 changes I would have never dreamed of, both good and bad.Top
Are all of your animal photos truly wild subjects?
No they are not, however, all of my fine art limited edition prints are wild and free roaming animals. We label all captive animal images with the words “Captive Animal” within the caption information which appears on the larger preview image. Out of all the photographs within my files of over one million pictures, only about 1.5% represent animals photographed in captive situations. All of my work for National Geographic has been of wild and free roaming creatures.
There are actually many reasons why photographing truly wild animals can be harmful to the animals you might want work with. Wolves, for example, are very shy and easily disturbed. Like all canids they will move their young from a den they sense has been compromised in any way. This is the reason all denning areas within Yellowstone National Park are closed off during spring denning season. With the ever increasing number of photographers hoping to get “The Shot,” the welfare of the animals is often the last thing being considered.Top
Do you create any of your images in the computer by combining things that never truly happened?
No. I’m a firm believer in journalistic integrity. My work as a natural history photographer falls into the category of journalism, or telling a truthful 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 then I have no interest in making one 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 sent to publishers.Top
What do you consider your specialty?
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 a few days there, never staying in any one spot for more than a few days at a time. For me, that sort of system is not very satisfying, but I have to say it’s probably more financially rewarding. In this business the more subjects you have, the better. More subjects mean more opportunities for having at least something of what their looking for when an editor calls. 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 concentrate on fewer subjects, but doing so usually gives me better in-depth natural history footage than my competitors. This is the style I chose for many of my books including Whitetail Country, Black Bear, and Elk.Top
What was your first book?
My first book project was Whitetail Country. I was 27 years old when it 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 in part due to the great information written by John Ozaga, not to mention that the photos were selected from nearly ten years of work.Top
How do you manage to market your work when you spend nearly ten 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 others in the office hold down the fort.Top
Do you offer internships?
Yes, however, internships are for office duties only. Two of our current employees started with us as interns. Internships are a big part of our office system. Interns do not accompany me in the field for photography.Top
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 four or five hunting attempts, but this was the only one that it turned out that I was in the right place at the right time to really capture the speed of this magnificent animal. Another equallly favorite image is of my dog Brandy on the banks of the Missouri River in South Dakota. It’s titled Empty Skies based on a day of waterfowl hunting with my father that was a complete bust. Eddie Bauer used that image for one of their catalog covers in 1987. The image was offered as a limited edition print that sold out in four days.Top
What’s your favorite place and subject to photograph?
My heart belongs in the cold country and to 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 upsides 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 its creatures. It makes it easy to get up in the morning.Top
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 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 source. It’s very similar to the light we would create in the studio. With clouds you can shoot all day long if you choose.Top
Do you lead workshops?
Yes. My wife Tanya and I have a separate business called Natural Exposures Invitational Photography Tours. We don’t advertise other than our website. 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.Top
What do you like to do when not taking pictures?
I enjoy 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, four great sisters and lots of nieces and nephews.Top
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’ll 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 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.Top
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 35 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 into the middle to later part of my career. I’m looking forward to more opportunities to help spread the word that the 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.Top