Capture the Feeling of Adventure, with Dan Bailey

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Dan Bailey is an adventurer, who launches into the Alaskan skies in his Cessna, hunting for beautiful light and searching for the moment where it hits the snow-topped mountains perfectly. It’s a good thing he is also a professional photographer who can capture that moment flawlessly and present it to those of us not fortunate enough to be able to witness such sights on our own. I chatted with Bailey recently, to discuss his photography, get his advice for aspiring photographers, and, of course, find out about the gear he uses to capture these stunning photographs.

Shawn Steiner: How did you get your start?

Dan Bailey: I’ve been a photographer since 1990, and a professional since 1996. I fell into it. As a teenager my plan was to be a rock-and-roll guitar player. I even ended up going to Berklee College of Music, in Boston. When I was there I decided, on a whim, to get myself a nice camera and start taking some pictures. I walked around the city, looking in all these camera shops, and eventually settled on a Nikon FM2. That was February of 1990, and I fell in love with it very quickly.

During my second year experimenting with city and outdoor photography, someone sent me an article about Galen Rowell, and that influenced me in a huge way. He is the quintessential outdoor photographer and took his camera everywhere, on all his adventures, and I thought that would be awesome.

Fortunately, at the end of 1996, after living in Colorado for a year, my boss came in and fired me. I had worked as an assistant photo editor in Boston… and that gave me a good understanding of the industry at the time. So, I knew I just had to do the legwork, and figured I had to put the work in to have a career, or I could just get another job. And I never ended up getting another job. I’ve been a pro for 24 years.

Have you always been an outdoors person?

I’ve always loved being in the outdoors and hiking, or riding my bike, or rock climbing, or skiing... I’ve always loved the outdoors, and I’ve always loved shooting landscapes and action. These days I shoot a lot of cycling—mountain biking, racing, and cyclocross. I shoot a lot of landscapes and I just love shooting things that inspire the feeling of adventure. That is the one thing that drives my work. I’m always trying to impart the feeling of adventure to the viewers. That can take a very wide gamut of ideas and subject matter.

What gear do you use?

I am exclusively a FUJIFILM shooter. I am a FUJIFILM X-Photographer Ambassador, and right now I’m shooting an X-T3 with mostly primes. I have the 14mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm. I do also have the 50-140mm and 100-400mm.

What led you to pick FUJIFILM cameras?

The FUJIFILM X Series is the camera I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I spent years shooting heavy Nikons that kept getting bigger and heavier. I got tired of heavy gear. After trying the X Series in 2011, when the system was in its infancy, I just fell in love with it. The idea of being outside with a small camera that wasn’t so encumbering was appealing.

I also appreciated that FUJIFILM put Film Simulations such as Velvia, Provia, and Astia in the cameras. Since so much of my early years revolved around shooting those films, and those color palettes, I felt right at home again. One of the huge draws is that I am in love with the FUJIFILM colors. They are such an integral part of my style that it was a natural transition.

Also, the processing is so good that I don’t always have to go through and shoot everything in raw. I shoot JPEG for almost all my aerials, and even the fast-moving scenes I can shoot in JPEG because the screen gives me a preview of what my image will look like.

After many generations of X-Series cameras, they have an incredible feature set. They also hold up to any abuse I throw at them. I’m hard on my gear and it gets the job done without taking up too much space. It’s freedom and liberation.

Aerial photography is tough, and you’ve been doing it for a long time. How did you get involved with shooting from planes and what impact has it had on your photography?

I learned to fly when I moved to Alaska, about 11 years ago. I always thought about flying when I was a kid, and when I moved up here I saw that it could be a reality. I took lessons and then a couple of years later I bought a little Cessna. Now, I’m able to fly around to shoot aerials out the window, land on gravel bars, and generally expand the possibilities of my landscapes. I can more easily hike around glaciers and other landscapes. It has added a huge component to my shooting adventures.

Do you think of aerial photography as a different type of photography than grounded landscapes?

Aerial photography is landscape photography, and since I’ve trained my eye as an action shooter I’m able to quickly identify the scenes I want to shoot while I’m flying. I think this is a unique approach to landscapes compared to the methodical and slow shooting that many people associate with this type of photography. I’m able to quickly identify the shot and then get myself into a position to photograph that scene. That is why aerials are a perfect extension for me, because I’m moving and have to constantly look ahead to chase the pink light of sunset hitting the peaks. It’s perfect for my very energetic style of moving through life.

Is there a lot of planning involved in your shoots?

I tend not to be a planner in life. I tend to go where my whims take me. With the aerials, I’m usually shooting the mountains to the east of Anchorage. I’m familiar with a lot of these locations, and when I take off I’ll check out what the light is doing and then decide to check out a specific area of the range. A lot of times it’s scenes I’ve shot before, so I will try to shoot them with different perspectives and when the light is different.

I mostly do my aerial mountain photography in the wintertime, because the mountains are covered in snow and it reflects the pink light most dramatically. In the summer I’m usually doing more landing out on the gravel bars and hiking.

What is the technical process for safely photographing while flying?

Now that I’m well practiced, it’s actually quite easy. I have a straightforward system. For one thing, I usually use prime lenses, so I’m not having to zoom back and forth. So, I’ll take off, find a mountain that I like, and I’ll set myself up to do a pass by the peak. Then, I’ll slow myself down a bit, open a window, and while steering with my left hand I’ll shoot out the window with my right hand. I’ll use the LCD screen as a reference.

The most challenging things are that you need to keep the camera entirely inside the plane, and then that you are always moving. You don’t have much time to think about it while you are doing it. You have to anticipate what you’re going to shoot and then shoot a number of frames as you go through. I often shoot in continuous low just to make sure I’m getting a series of photos where I can pick out the best one. There’s so much to concentrate on that it helps to have a selection to find the ideal framing.

It’s a lot less challenging than it sounds, but there are definitely challenges. When I give people tips for shooting aerials, I always mention setting a very high shutter speed, keeping the camera inside the aircraft, and shooting a lot of frames.

What are your thoughts on drones? They have surged in popularity in recent years and led to a massive influx of aerial images on social media, such as Instagram.

I have not used one, but there are a lot of people telling me I should get one. At this point I like to point out that my Cessna has more than a 30-minute battery life and a two-mile range.

For me, a drone would never be able to get anywhere close to the things I am shooting. For someone who is not a pilot with their own airplane, drones certainly give you the ability to capture incredible vantage points and shoot bird’s-eye views and other scenes you would never be able to get on the ground. Part of being a photographer is finding unique vantage points.

On the flip side of that, with the explosion of drones, there are a lot of people shooting the same scenes. It’s like everything else, what seemed impressive five years ago is now commonplace. Now, just sending a drone up and shooting an aerial is not necessarily unique anymore.

Has drone photography influenced your style at all?

I don’t think it has influenced my photography at all, because I’m shooting in such different types of locations and different types of scenes. I do recognize that there are some scenes, such as shooting straight down, which can be challenging in a plane. I think that example, as well as other scenes, could be way easier if you had a drone.

There are so many drone photographers that the market has produced some quite powerful and expensive drones that are not much more than what I paid for my Cessna. Flying that is a lot more fun and you can do it for longer.

Looking at drones today, it’s been in the back of my mind because there are a lot of cool things you can do with them, especially the automated features. I could see opportunities to use them in my photography, and I need to consider how much money and energy I have to throw at this.

A couple of years ago, the idea of video terrified me. I thought that if I got into it I would like it, and video editing takes a ton of time, as well as more drive space, along with needing more batteries, cameras, etc. I did slowly get into it and I found all those things to be true. Most recently, I shot and edited a 7-minute video and composed an original song to go along with it. I got it done and I was really pleased with how it came out.

Do you think video is an important skill for photographers to learn?

I think it is. I’ve transitioned into it, and for instruction I’ve been offering video lessons, and I teach a video course called “Photography on the Brain.” For my YouTube channel, I’ve been doing instructional videos. I enjoy that, and I realize that’s how a lot of people like to learn. I definitely see doing less tutorial content and doing more work.

I’m still a still photographer at heart and I always will be because I think there is a certain magic to a still that engages your brain differently than video. I do see doing more video as a thing I have to do. It’s like anything else. You can and should do what drives you and what you are passionate to pursue. I’ve been doing a lot of writing and tutorials and it was a natural progression to want to do video lessons. I do talks and workshops, and it’s easy for me to stand in front of the camera and talk about photography.

Are there any tips you would like to share with aspiring outdoor and adventure photographers?

The number one tip is to get outside with the camera as often as possible and shoot whatever strikes your fancy. If there is a specific style or genre of photography that you want to explore and be good at, you need to find a way to practice that.

For example, if you want to shoot action, you could shoot a race or event or go skiing with your buddies. It doesn’t have to be for anything. Many times, when I shoot a bike race here in Alaska I’m just doing it for fun, as well as for practice. Any time you practice using the camera and figure out how scenes unfold, you’ll get better at anticipating scenes and how to manipulate the controls to get the shot you want. That’s going to make you better.

All photographers should shoot what they love. Those photos are going to be the best because you’re going to put the most heart and passion into it in the process. Photography can be a job, but it should be a passion.

That is what drives my teaching mentality, since I want everyone to be a great photographer. I know how awesome it feels when you get a great photo, and I know how much the power of creativity can bring to your life. It can enrich you as a person, and I think if more people are out being creative and exploring the world in different ways then we will all be better people and make a better world for all of us.

Dan Bailey is an adventure, travel, and location photographer with more than two decades of professional experience. Bailey currently resides in Anchorage, Alaska, and in addition to photography, he leads photography workshops and teaches online. He is also a published author of multiple photography books and is an official FUJIFILM X-Photographer. For more of Bailey’s work, please visit his website at www.danbaileyphoto.com or on Instagram @danbaileyphoto.

Winter Adventure Week is coming to a close for 2020, though there is still plenty of content to check out. Be sure to check back on B&H Explora for more of Adventure Week—and don't forget to follow B&H on Twitter @BHPhotoVideo for up-to-the-minute #adventureweek news.

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