We are extremely happy to host this amazing interview with adventure and outdoor photographer Dan Bailey. He has been into outdoor photography since 1996. Dan’s work is absolutely breathtaking and in this interview, you will get to know some incredible outdoor photography tips from this master.
“I love experimenting to find the right vantage point, gear, or creative solution to create my imagery, and given the chance, I’ll often hunker down in the dirt or snow, climb to a location above the scene, or run a few miles down the trail with a pack full of camera gear. In short, there is almost no limit to how far I’ll go to get “The Shot.” – Dan Bail
1. When did you get your first camera?
I had used a variety of Kodak Instamatics when I was a kid, but I bought my first real camera, an all manual Nikon FM2 on February 2, 1990, when I was in college. That was the start of my long road with photography.
2. You studied guitar and music production in college. What made you choose outdoor photography as a career over music?
There were a couple of factors that steered me in the direction of photography over music for my professional life. During my later years as a student at Berklee College of Music, I was becoming more intrigued by photography, and I fell in love with the way that nature and outdoor photography is often a very singular creative pursuit that depends solely on my own eyes, creative mind and actions with the camera.
Contrast that to the music world, at least at the time, where it usually takes a number of people playing different roles to produce a finished piece of music, that usually takes a much longer time to create. With photography, I could go outside, walk around with the camera, and create images immediately. I loved that instant feedback aspect of using the camera.
In addition, as I got closer to graduation, I began to realize that I’m much more suited to a life running around outside with the camera, rather than sitting inside windowless recording studios and smoky bars. While I’ve always loved music, even the studio and recording aspect, and still do, that epiphany rang pretty loudly in my mind. After graduation, I did a few live sound gigs but ultimately began thinking about how to start working towards a career in photography.
3. Could you tell us about your 1st Photo Workshop trip to Nepal? How did this trip change your life?
The Nepal trip was a huge building block in my foundation of doing photography as career. Sometime in 1992, while flipping through an issue of Outdoor Photographer Magazine, and I saw an ad for a Workshop Trek in Nepal with Galen Rowell, who was my biggest mentor and influence.
I jumped at the opportunity, and during the 23-day trip, which includes a two-week trek into the remote Mustang district, I got to travel with and learn from Galen, see a part of the world that had, up to that point, seen very few westerners, and shoot a huge batch of photos, that ultimately helped set the tone for my style to follow.
4. You have captured some breathtaking aerial photos of Alaska. Could you please share your experience with our readers?
I’ve always loved mountains and photographing high peaks, and so when I became a pilot and bought my little Cessna about 10 years ago, I saw that as a way to capture these breathtaking landscapes from an entirely different vantage point, right next to, or even above them.
The process is fairly straightforward. I usually take off about an hour before sunset, climb to altitude, and when the light starts getting good, I open the window and start shooting. I steer with my left hand and operate the camera with my right hand. Using the Fujifilm mirrorelss cameras has been a huge boon to this process, because I can take advantage of the real-time LCD screen to preview my scenes, and I don’t have to put the camera up to my eye, which isn’t the best practice while trying to fly the plane.
The whole aerial photography thing has added an incredible component to my outdoor photography, and I think that my mountain aerials are some of the best, most dramatic work I’ve ever shot. And it’s amazing to be up there, flying around and watch the magical light bathe these incredible, majestic landscapes.
5. What would be your #1 advice for people who want to explore adventure & outdoor photography as a career?
The first thing you need to do is to get yourself into places and situations that will allow you to shoot the kinds of images you feel will best highlight the kinds of subjects you’re passionate about. So, building up a body of work, and at the same time, building up and developing your skills and your style.
As you go on, evaluate how good your work really is, by comparing it to others who are doing similar styles. It doesn’t have to match exactly, in fact, better if it doesn’t, but it needs to be able to hold its own against other photos in similar genres.
Once you feel you can shoot competitive, but original work, start reaching out to clients and companies who you feel are the most likely to use your kind of work. You’ll probably get ignored at first, and even get some rejections, but this is where persistence pays off. Keep working at it, keep getting your name and your work out there, and people will begin to recognize that you’re here to stay, and that you have the goods.
Also, being a freelancer, especially in this day and age, means constantly thinking of original and effective ways to get your work out there and in front of the eyes of the right people. That’s always been a never-ending challenge, and one of the most important things you’ll need to do.
6. You prefer mirrorless camera's for shooting. Could you guide our readers on why you choose those over DSLRs
Aside from being lighter and smaller than DSLRs, which is a big plus to someone who likes to travel light and fast, mirrorless cameras have real-time LCD/EVF viewfinders that make it so much easier to expose for tricky scenes. Basically, you can see exactly what the picture will look like before you take it, and this is a game changer. This allows you to shoot with full confidence in any lighting system imaginable.
Most DSLRs have a Live-View mode, which functions the same way, but mirrorless autofocus is faster with the live view, because the AF pixles are right on the sensor.
Also, I particularly love the form factor and the colors that my Fujifilm cameras have. I switched to using the mirrorless X Series cameras full time in early 2013, and this move has rekindled my passion for photography in a huge way that’s still going strong over 8 years later.
7. Galen Rowell has always been your biggest influencer. Could you tell us how his influence impacted your career?
Galen Rowell singlehandedly paved the road for punks like me. He was the father of modern day adventure photography, and he pretty much invented the career of adventuring in the outdoors with a camera and being a first person participant in the activities you’re shooting, instead of an onlooker from afar.
I’ve loved Galen’s work from the day I first saw his imagery, and his photos, writings and ideas about photography continue to inspire me. In my own writing, with my blogs, books and eBooks, I’ve tried to carry on his legacy of exploring photography from a very cerebral standpoint
8. What was the biggest turning point of your life? Any incident that changed your career to what it is now.
The biggest turning point was when I got laid off from my day job in October of 1996. I have been working at a digital scanning lab in Fort Collins, Colorado when my jerk boss fired me one Friday afternoon. I kind of freaked out for a few hours but then realized this was my chance to try and make it as a pro photographer.
I had worked as an assistant editor at a stock photo agency in Boston before that so I kind of already knew what I needed to do and how the business worked. I started sending out slides to some of the outdoor clothing and gear companies, like Patagonia, as well as outdoor magazines, and I started contacting potential photo buyers. Eventually, people started using my work and things built from there.
9. The shift from a hobbyist to a professional photographer must not have been easy. What was the most challenging part of this shift?
The hardest part was not making very much money and this actually went on for a few were quite a few years. However I learn to live on very small levels of income and be very frugal with my expenses. I still carry that mentality to this day and it’s one of the things that has helped me remain successful and keep going.
The other big challenge has always been competing in this very tough field. That never comes easy and it’s a constant challenge to market yourself and promote your work when there are so many other great photographers trying to get the same clients. You just have to do the best photography you can do and carry yourself with confidence, knowing that you can get the job done if you get the assignment.
10. Your most favorite gear for outdoor photography and why?
These days I’d have to say that it’s my small lightweight Fuji cameras. After years of carrying heavy DSLR’s and big lenses into the backcountry, I just feel so liberated now with the lighter weight mirrorless bodies and lenses. They allow me to move more quickly and be less encumbered, and they give me a wide range of creativity with all the new technology and features that’s built into them. As I mentioned, the Fujifilm X Series cameras have propelled my passion for photography more than anything else in the past few years.