What is your favorite animal to photograph to date?
That’s a tough one. Although I’ve photographed a lot of different animals during the past twenty years, I didn’t really come up through the ranks as a “wildlife photographer.” However, we have so many impressive animals up here in Alaska, I've just found myself shooting much more wildlife during the past few years, and it’s been a really fulfilling activity.
As amazing and impressive as the big animals are to photograph, like bears and moose, I’ve become very intrigued by shooting birds lately. To me, there’s something magical about birds, and my attraction to trying and capture them with my camera probably has a lot to do with me learning more about them. And of course, there’s the whole flying thing! When you start watching them and noticing their activity patterns, you find that they’re such fascinating and complex animals. From a photography perspective, they offer a wide range of challenges and opportunities, from quiet, intimate nature photos to full-on action imagery.
Why did you switch to Fujifilm?
The short answer is that Fujifilm makes cameras that fit perfectly with my photography style. And having shot Fujifilm slide film for years back in the day, I’ve always been in love with the Fujifilm colors. Compared to my old Nikons, which were getting bigger and heavier, the X Series cameras are so much smaller, so they allow me to go light and fast through the world and still have professional capabilities at my fingertips.
In addition, the mirrorless technology built in the Fujifilm cameras offers some huge technical and creative advantages over DSLRs. One of the biggest is that you have full-time fast autofocus, even if you’re composing with the tilting LCD screen. Also, the ‘WYSIWYG’ (what you see is what you get) nature of the EVF/LCD allows you to shoot in tricky light with full confidence, because you can see exactly what the picture is going to look like before you shoot it, even if you’re just shooting JPEGs.
Is there a noticeable difference in your workflow (field and post) using the Fujifilm system?
Definitely. In the old days, I was a huge advocate of always shooting everything in RAW and then processing later. However, in my six years with the Fujifilm cameras, my priorities and workflow have shifted in a big way. My goal these days is to make my creative decisions right there on location, and then use Fujifilm’s film simulations and on-board exposure tools, so I can walk away with images I love, instead of walking away with a bunch of files I need to go home and process later.
That’s not to say that I never shoot RAW or that I never process my images, but the Fujifilm JPEGs are so good that I rarely find the need to do much processing these days. When I do have a scene with very tricky light, I’ll often shoot RAW+JPEG. The Fujifilm RAW files contain a huge amount of information, but when I am shooting RAW, and processing, it’s usually just a case of fine-tuning or rescuing extreme tones that were lost in the JPEG. Also, I spend enough time at my computer these days, (don’t we all?) so I try to keep my processing time to a minimum. I’d rather spend my time outside make more photographs.
What is your favorite wildlife image to date and why?
Oh man, don’t ask me that! I don’t think I have an all-time favorite, but there are certainly some standouts. My moose in the reeds photo always jumps out at me because it’s just so bright and clear. The light was just perfect that evening and she’s got the perfect position in the frame she’s approaching the pond.
I really like some of my bird images, like my 3 cranes flying, or my arctic tern photos. Like I said above, there’s something really intriguing about birds, and I just think it’s magical to capture them in flight. I know there’s a very serious photography genre geared around this whole concept, and I can see why people are so attracted to this style of photography. My background is action photography, so I really enjoy the challenge of capturing them in the perfect place in the frame and nailing that moment when they have the most impressive body position.
What is the furthest you’ve traveled to photograph wildlife?
Another tricky question. Like I said, shooting wildlife has been a relatively new part of my photography journey, so I’m sorry to say I don’t have a really exciting tale about how I traveled to the Himalayas to shoot snow leopards or something. That said, I do live in Alaska, which is considered a prominent wildlife photography destination, so I kind of have a built-in advantage there. I would have to say that flying out to Brooks Falls definitely ranks as one of my highlights.
What was your most challenging situation while photographing wildlife and how did you overcome it?
Photographing birds in low light is without a doubt one of the harder types of wildlife scenes to shoot. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to photograph things like arctic terns and eagles in the evening, and while they can be very active during these times, the light can be tough. Plus, they move very quickly. In these situations, you want to crank your ISO dial way up, because it’s better to get a grainy picture than a blurry one.
Also, that’s where my action photography background comes into play. Being able to anticipate and track the motion requires a good technical command of your autofocus system and a lot of practice.
How has the Fujifilm system enhanced your experience photographing wildlife?
As I said above, having a lightweight and highly capable camera system is key. This is especially true when it comes to lenses. We all know that big glass can be essential for shooting wildlife, and the longer lenses in the Fujifilm system get it done without being too cumbersome.
A good example is the XF100-400mm lens, which equates to a 150-600mm when compared to a full frame DSLR lens. Back when I shot Nikon, I never owned a lens longer than 200mm, because I didn’t want to carry huge glass. Fujifilm’sXF100-400mm is surprisingly compact. It fits in my small Lowepro Flipside photography pack, which is what I wear when I want to go really light. Imagine being able to trail run with a 400mm lens in your pack. Before I shot Fujifilm, this was unheard of. It’s also incredibly sharp and it has a very quick AF motor, so don’t have to sacrifice any performance. And, when paired with the compact XF1.4x or XF2x teleconverters, you can get even more reach with the XF100-400mm.
In addition, I love using different film simulations to impart different creative looks to my wildlife imagery. Sometimes I love the bold, saturated color palette of Velvia, while other times I find that a more muted look or even black and white helps enhance the unique nature of a subject. Again, it’s about making creative decisions right there on location and capturing imagery that matches my feelings in the moment.
What is an essential tip or piece of advice you feel fellow aspiring wildlife photographers need to know?
Number one tip: learn your autofocus system inside and out. Animals move - and most of them move pretty quickly, so you need to know how to make your camera focus and track this motion. Even if they’re not moving, you might need to adjust in-order to nail that eye in focus, or make sure the animal is sharp even if it’s hiding back in the brush. Shooting through a foreground can be a compelling technique, but if you don’t know how to manipulate your focus points, you just get a blurry animal.
In your opinion how do you establish a unique style when photographing wildlife?
Like anything else, it’s just practice. Shoot as much as you can, and you’ll start to get a feel for what you like and what you’re good at. The more you shoot, the better you’ll get, and as you refine your technique, you’ll break away those boundaries between your eyes, your visual mind and what comes out of the camera. Just do what you love and, in time, you will develop your own personal style that’s unique to your own method and creative ideas.
If you could go back to your early days as a pro and do something different, what would it be?
I try not to think too much about this, because I’ve learned something important and had vital experiences at every single stage in my twenty-one-year career. Everything I did was based on a decision that reflected a specific set of circumstances and events at the time. Change any one of those factors along the way and I might not have had the same experiences. It’s that whole butterfly effect thing. I’ve been really satisfied with my career, and although it’s certainly had its bumps, those bumps have all brought me to where I am right now. Maybe I could have spent more money on advertising, but would that have necessarily brought me more happiness? That’s ultimately what I strive for in my photography and my life.
The most consistent thing for me is that I keep doing what I love, and that’s what I’d recommend to anytime who’s doing photography, or any creative pursuit. If you’re smart enough to be the best photographer you can be, then you’ll be smart enough to figure out how to make your own success in life.