Dawn Wilson: Bears, Eagles, Foxes…and More
By Arthur H. Bleich—
Always interested in the outdoors, it was probably preordained that Dawn Wilson, 49, would eventually settle in Colorado and become a renowned wildlife photographer. Growing up in New Jersey, her active and creative life in high school continued through her college and post-graduate years. From an early age she developed a love for the outdoors and wildlife, seriously considering becoming a veterinarian before realizing there might be other ways to express her love for animals.
AB: How did that epiphany occur?
DW: For as long as I can remember, I enjoyed writing, reading and photography. I poured over natural history books and nature magazines. In high school, I joined the yearbook staff as a way to hone my photography skills by taking candid shots of students. In college, I was the photo-historian for my sorority, documenting all the chapter’s activities. But living in New Jersey meant my photography focused on people, events or architecture, all subjects I didn’t feel passionate about. When I moved to Colorado my eyes opened to the opportunities of photographing wildlife and the natural world, which continues to be my love today.
AB: What are your favorite animal subjects?
DW: I have five: red fox, brown bears, bighorn sheep, moose and bald eagles. I go through phases on how frequently I photograph these animals and there are also challenges to find them, especially at certain times of the year.
AB: Where do you find them?
Every summer I head to Alaska to photograph brown bears as part of my annual brown bear workshop. Bighorn sheep are prominent in Colorado but the best time of year to photograph them is in late May to early June, when their lambs are born, and late October to early December during their rut, or mating, season. Moose are similar—late spring for moose calves and their rut season in September. Fox used to be more common in Colorado but real estate development and disease have diminished their numbers; however, I’ve heard that’s changing so I’m optimistic.
AB: And the eagles…and others?
DW: Bald eagles are pretty common in Colorado now thanks to the Endangered Species Act. I hope to spend a year in the near future traveling around the U.S. just to photograph this national symbol in various U.S. locations. But nothing is as challenging as photographing in the cold, windy environments of the arctic and high alpine tundra, but I love those landscapes and am amazed at the animals, like polar bears, arctic fox and mountain goats, that can survive in such climates.
AB: What elements are required for a wildlife image to be a “keeper?”
There are the general rules—rule of thirds, eyes looking forward, eyes being tack sharp, great light, great behavior—that make a wildlife image impressive. For me, the best images have the best behaviors—brown bear cubs running with fish, a cow elk “kissing” her newborn calf in fresh snow, or an impressive bull elk on a cold morning with backlight illuminating his breath as he bugles. Atmospheric conditions, like fog, rising mist, hoar frost, also add a unique element to a photo. These rare conditions create a sense of place and show the elements that create challenges for animals to survive.
AB: What equipment do you use?
DW: My camera equipment includes Nikon bodies and lenses: a D800 and D850 for landscapes and two D4s bodies for wildlife and environmental portraits. My Nikon lenses include a 500mm f4, an 80-400mm, 16-85mm, 105mm macro, and 60mm macro. I also have two Nikon teleconverters: a 1.4 and a 2.0.
AB: And your computer and software?
DW: I use an Apple 15” MacBook Pro. I also recently purchased the latest Apple 27” iMac. Although a desktop system is great for my home office, I travel a lot, including some full-time travel in an RV, so the laptop option works better for smaller spaces. I also have a MacBook Air for my accounting and backup editing. My primary programs are Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I also have a few plugins for Photoshop, including Neat Image, Topaz Labs, Nik Effects and ON1.
AB: Do you do a lot of post-production?
DW: Because my work is primarily wildlife and my training is based in journalism, I try to keep my images as true as possible to what I remember seeing at the moment I captured them. All of my images get some form of the following adjustments. In Lightroom: clarity, white balance, whites, blacks, highlights, shadows, lens correction and vibrance. If needed, I also might make adjustments to luminance and Image saturation for specific colors. In Photoshop, I remove any spots and do the final noise reduction and sharpening. For my landscapes, I also try to keep the images as true to what I remember experiencing when I took the photo, but my vision seems to be a bit more colorful with scenery.
AB: What do you try to emphasize to your workshop attendees?
DW: Enjoy the moment! Every workshop is different. For example, I go to Lake Clark National Park to photograph brown bears every year, yet come home with very different photos. One year we had a chance to photograph not only a family of bears with their three cubs, but one of the cubs liked—and was successful at—fishing for salmon. Another year we had beautiful sunrises with great chances for silhouette photos of bears on the beach.
AB: Anything more?
DW: Yes. I strive to show workshop attendees that we shouldn’t fear wildlife but rather respect them and their environment. By giving animals the respect they deserve and allowing them to go about their normal routine, we can get better photos while not causing them stress. Animal behavior is such an important part of getting good photos of wildlife, and understanding it also helps us know when we may be stressing animals— and to give them their space.
AB: Your wildlife cards are gorgeous. What card stock do you use?
DW: I use only Red River Paper—60lb. Polar matte size 5″ x 7″— for all of my cards. By volume, this is my most successful commercial product. I love how bright the colors print on this stock and, obviously, so do the customers, since the cards sell super well in shops and galleries.
AB: What do you see as the future of nature photography?
DW: I think the biggest challenge for nature photographers is the abundance of people out there photographing landscapes and wildlife. The crowds are getting bigger, and I hate to say it, but it feels like people are getting more stupid about how to behave around others and wildlife. I see national parks and other public areas putting more restrictions in place for access in an attempt to reduce the destruction we are wreaking on these natural places. I hope to be a part of how to help people respectfully enjoy these areas without leaving a permanent imprint.
AB: Have you ever found yourself awed by what you were shooting?
DW: Yes. I was photographing a herd of elk during the rut. The herd split. I thought one half of the cows went up into a meadow so I went to find a spot behind a large boulder to photograph the other half. What I didn’t know was that the other half of the herd circled back around. I wound up in the middle of the whole herd. The cows passed within inches of me on either side of the boulder. I couldn’t move. It also meant the big seven-point bull elk that had been following them would come up behind them.
I didn’t know if he would pass in front of me or behind. My heart was pounding out of my chest and I didn’t dare move. The camera was in my hands but facing down. My cell phone with video capability was in my pocket but I didn’t dare reach for it. And then he was there. First I saw the tips of his antlers pass the edge of the rock where I was sitting. Then the top of his head and then he was standing there.
He stopped for a moment and let out a loud bugle within inches of my ears. He never saw me. I was so still and he was so focused on the cows that he ignored my presence. I suspect the wind was also in my favor and drifted my scent away from his nose. I didn’t dare breathe.
With one slight turn of his head he could jab an antler point into my chest. But when he moved on, I let out my breath and smiled from ear to ear. Moments like these with the wildlife that we share this world with make everything I do that much more important.
As photographers, we often view the world through a viewfinder rather than actually watching the world. I wanted to experience that moment rather than photograph it, even though a video of that bull passing by and bugling would have been absolutely awe-inspiring. We live in their world and we need to remember that more often than we do.
AB: That’s quite a story! Now, as a wrap-up, what advice do you have for aspiring wildlife photographers other than to always be aware of danger?
DW: Be patient and persistent. If you want to photograph wildlife, be patient and persistent. If you want to build a successful photo business, be patient and persistent. If you want to make change a reality, be patient and persistent. Know what you want to accomplish and stick to it, find a niche, and realize that you will constantly need to learn.
Visit Dawn Wilson’s website and enjoy viewing hundreds of her images.
Dawn is the president of North American Nature Photography Association (nanpa.org)and if you’re into nature and wildlife photography you’ll want to give them a visit.
Check out Red River Paper’s 5″x7″ 60lb. Polar Matte card stock.
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