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Interview with Photographer Jeff Vanuga

Professional photographer Jeff Vanuga, based in Dubois, Wyoming, discusses his career and inspiration and all the years he's spent photographing Yellowstone

Jeff Vanuga is a professional photographer based in Dubois, Wyoming. He has been photographing the Yellowstone region since 1980. His photography has taken him around the world and his work has been published throughout the world in magazines and national advertising campaigns, including National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, Travel Holiday, Outside, BBC Wildlife, National Wildlife, Audobon, Sierra Club, Time, Natural History, Ford, Nissan, Frontier Airlines, Patagonia, and in thousands of other publications.

Shelli Johnson sat down with Vanuga to get tips on photography in Yellowstone… What led to your interest in photography?
Jeff Vanuga: I just loved it. From the first time I picked up a camera, I enjoyed the aspect of it, as an art form, communication tool and for recreation.

YP: Did you go to college for photography?
JV: No, I’m self-taught

YP: What magazines have your photos been published in?
JV: National Geographic, Audobon, Nature’s Best, National Wildlife, New York Times, L.A. Times, all of the major nature and outdoor magazines, Sports Afield, Outdoor life, Field & Stream, Backpacker, etc., and then various international magazines.

YP: What is your main interest when you take photos?
JV: It’s broad! I started out with wildlife and nature as a focus, and have since branched out to recreation – skiing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, fishing and anything that has to do with the outdoors. I have done some fashion and glamour shooting along with advertising and editorial photos

YP: How many images are in your library?
JV: 85,000 slides and, a few thousands digital images

YP: What are some tips you can give us when shooting photos in Yellowstone?
JV: You do not need the big lens. 200 mm and below are enough, unless you are shooting the dangerous animals. It’s best to photograph bears and any other dangerous wild animals from your car. For landscapes, I use anywhere from a 17mm to 200 mm lens. I like putting the subject in a landscape. Try to capture the image within its environment, to get a sense of place with the animal in its environment.

YP: What goes through your mind when you are shooting something, say a cow elk and baby elk, and you want to capture a sense of place?
JV: It depends on the setting. If it is a cow and calf in a timber situation, I might use the long lens. If they are just on the edge of an aspen grove, then I will try to capture the setting along w/ the animals. Use the 1/3 rule. Put the image in 1/3 of the photo and the remaining 2/3 should be the landscape or open space, with subjects in their habitat.

YP: Do you recommend putting the animal in the middle?
JV: I really think using the rule of thirds is the best way to go. For example if you have a bull elk in the foreground with the Grand Tetons behind, put the bull elk in the first 1/3 quadrant and the Grand Teton in the other 2/3. Have the animal facing into the photograph, not out.

YP: What are the best times during the day to shoot photos?
JV: Pre-dawn, mid-morning, and late evening until after dark, in any season.

YP: What does a day as a photographer look like when your goal is to spend extended time in the park?
JV: I wake up around the crack of dawn, at about 5:00 am, and start looking for animals in the meadows. It depends on the time factor. If I have to hike somewhere, I’ll leave even earlier, but I want to be in place when the light hits the ground.

YP: Do you choose morning because that is when you have the best light, or because of the habits of the wildlife?
JV: Both actually… the lighting tends to be the best early, and the animals tend to be more active in the morning, especially in the summer. However, there are things to shoot 24 hours a day.

YP: Do you have a target area you head toward to photograph each time?
JV: Sometimes, yes, but usually I just head out into a general area and see what is there. Sometimes I don’t see anything and will move onto a new area. However, I do wait to see what happens…

YP: What is the optimal weather when shooting photos in June and July?
JV: Some clouds with blue sky behind. When the light comes out, it creates the magenta sky with red and orange clouds. That’s what is great about Yellowstone. A cold morning in Yellowstone might have fog for a few hours, so you search around in fog for that unique photo.

YP: If someone has a plan to come to Yellowstone and concentrate on photography for two mornings… They pick the area they want to shoot and head out … What advice would you give them?
JV: Do not be too rigid in your goals. Take advantage of the opportunities that come up. You might go by the same place 50 times and one morning it looks different. Try not to be to goal-oriented. Look for what is there at the present. Be flexible! Be opportunistic.

YP: Do you have to be patient when shooting nature?
JV: Nature photography is very time-consuming. It’s a waiting game.

YP: Do you have a favorite animal that you like to shoot?
JV: I love to take pictures of the buffalo. It is historical. They are incredible animals and tough. They are survivors and majestic – and symbolic of the West. I like putting them in their landscape.

YP: Is there any one photo in the Yellowstone or Grand Teton region that is your favorite?
JV: It’s more about the experiences. For example, Yellowstone in winter. It is magical and unreal. The ice formations, ghost trees, ice plates coming out of the ground, snowfall, mist, etc., are incredible.

YP: Where do you angle the sun when shooting a photo? Do you keep the sun at your back?
JV: No. I try to avoid that at all cost. It makes the light flat on the subject. If you move the light any degree to the right or left, then you’ll get shadowing, texturing and depth, all of which make the photo more interesting. Most great photos are either side-lit or have the light coming from a different angle. The other thing to consider is camera angle. Change the level from where you shoot the photo. Get more to eye level. If you want an animal to look bigger, get down on the ground and shoot up at them.

YP: How do you shoot digital photos at night, outdoors?
JV: Have fun w/flashlights. Start around 30 min. after sundown and start taking your photos. Put your camera on a tripod with a 30-degree angle. With a 30-second exposure meter set on your camera, paint the photo with a flashlight, which gives the photo a kind of glow. You’ll need a cable release to get good photos when using a 30-second exposure. If you use a press-and-shoot you will have too much movement when shooting and the photo will not be sharp or turn out. Experimenting at nights with flashlights and long exposures is a lot of fun. Try it!

YP: I am familiar with a spectacular petroglyph image of yours. Describe the petroglyph photo you took.
JV: It’s called “crazy women” petroglyph. The area where it is located is not very interesting or photogenic during the day, so I decided to shoot it at night to add more detail. I used a gel warming filter to make it look warm, put it on a tripod, on the ground. I had a flash then I popped the flash and left the shutter open for about an hour and I got the rotating stars in the background. You need to know what exposure to use for the flash. As for shutter speed, I used a bulb and was able to leave it open for an hour. This was done on film. You cannot do this type of exposure on digital since you can’t leave the shutter open for an hour with a digital camera.

YP: What type of equipment do you use for shooting your photos?
JV: Canon is my brand of choice , a 1DS mark, which is a 17 megapixel camera. I have a 20D. I like to put the long lens on the 20D for wildlife photos. Then I have the basic lens kit: a 17-35mm wide angle, 24-105 zoom, 70-200 zoom, 300mm and 500mm fixed, and then extenders, filters, flash and cable release.

YP: Let’s talk about filters. Do you use them all the time?
JV: I used to use filters, but not much anymore, because you can do the same thing using Photoshop. I take two images and put them together in Photoshop. The more glass you put on the front of the lens, the more it affects the quality, so I don’t use filters as much anymore. Filters are great when you need them, though… like I might still use a warming filter, which enhances the color in a photo. For example, if you are shooting a brilliant morning sky with the reds and purples you might use the warming filter to enhance those colors, or if you are shooting fall color leaves you might want to use a warming filter.

YP: Let’s talk about digital versus film. What are the advantages of shooting digital compared to film?
JV: Digital means instant gratification! The convenience of digital is key. Living where we live, I use to have to Fed Ex my film to get it developed and wait a couple weeks. Now with digital, I can see my photos right away. I can send multiple copies to various people and still have the original myself. I can put them on a DVD and send them to a client. It is much easier. I don’t lose as many photos as before. I can touch up photos on my desktop computer compared to in the past. With film, you would have discarded some images.

YP: What can’t the digital camera do that the film camera can?
JV: Multiple exposures. 8-hour exposures. You get a lot of noise w/ digital and long exposures. I use John Shaw’s Photoshop Guide. It is a great book with a lot of tips for photography.

YP: Do you lead photography tours?
JV: Yes, I lead tours for Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, the largest photographic tour company in the world. I do around four to six tours a year, in places like Africa, South America, Canada, Banff, Alaska, Wyoming, Colorado, Florida and the Artic for polar bears.

YP: What are the tours like and who goes on them?
JV: Point-and-shoot folks as well as professional photographers. People who are compassionate about their hobby, go. It’s more about taking photos than about traveling.

YP: Is there any one person that you feel had a great influence on you when you were learning, or someone you would consider a mentor?
JV: Yes. Bill Radcliff and Perry Conway. However, as an artist, you must always continue to learn new things and expand your knowledge. If you stop learning, you stop being an artist. I would also say that John Shaw also had a big impact on me.

YP: Are there any tips about photography in general that we might have missed that you can think of?
JV: Make it a passion first before you make it a career. You have to shoot a lot of photos to really learn how to take great photos. It is an art form.