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Interview With Dan Bailey

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Alaska-based photographer Dan Bailey talks about being an official Fujifilm photographer, his big breaks and what advice he’d given to people starting their journey

What was it that inspired you to become a photographer?
I bought my first real camera on February 2, 1990 when I was 22 years old. I had played around with my parents’ Kodak Instamatics during family vacations and hiking trips when I was a kid and I used to skip study hall to hang out in the darkroom with my friend, John, during high school, but it wasn’t until college when the photography bug hit me for real.

I was studying guitar and music production at Berklee College of Music in Boston at the time. I had a work-study job, so I had some extra money and one day, I got the notion to buy myself a nice camera. I spent the next few weeks doing research and shopping around all the camera stores in Boston, before settling on a Nikon FM-2.

I quickly fell in love with photography, especially the act of walking around with the camera. During the two summers before I graduated, I took a forty-day photography road trip around the American west and a three-week trip to Alaska. By the time I graduated, the photography seed had already matured into a true love for cameras and photography.

How long were you photographing before you decided to become a pro? What did that process look like?
It was an easy realization to see that I might be better suited to a career that has me running around outside, rather than sitting in windowless recording studios and smoky bars. I already had those two big photography trips under my belt and I had become aware of Galen Rowell, who was the preeminent outdoor adventure photographer of our time. He is, without a doubt, my biggest influence.

After college, I spent the next few years living and working in Boston, while trying to decipher the puzzle of how to make a living by traveling and taking pictures. Then, one day, I saw an ad for a photo workshop trip to Mustang, Nepal with Galen Rowell. This was 1993, and the region of Mustang had only just been opened up to outsiders the year before. To me, this was a dream trip, so I called right away, reserved my spot, maxed out all my credit cards and it was a done deal.

I thought to myself, what better way to get on track to becoming a pro-adventure travel photographer than taking a workshop with the guy who invented the profession? It really was the biggest stepping-stone in my entire photography journey and certainly the biggest thing I had ever done in my life at that time. The following year I did another big trip, this time trekking in the Himalayas of Pakistan.

After those two trips I felt I had a solid foundation with my photography, but I still struggled with the ‘how do I put this all together’ part. As it worked out, I got a job as an assistant photo editor at a small stock photo agency in Boston, which taught me a great deal about how the photography business works and how to sell photos to clients. I did that job for a year, then moved to Colorado and concentrated on shooting more outdoor photos and building up my portfolio.

My big break came when I was let go from my day job at a photo CD scanning lab. I freaked out for a few hours, then quickly recognized the opportunity. I turned pro on October 4, 1996 and never looked back.

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Describe a difficulty you faced when you first started out that you had to overcome as a new professional.
When I first started out, the biggest hurdle was finding clients. I had a few months’ worth of unemployment checks, so that got me through while I reached out to magazines and companies that specialized in adventure sports. I also went to trade shows, sent out promo cards, shipped out pages of slides for review and made a lot of cold calls.

Within a few months I started selling images as stock for catalogs and magazine articles and getting assignments. As the number of publications started accumulating, I began to make a name for myself.

I learned to be pretty frugal. I lived in a basement apartment and survived on pasta, rice and beans, so I was able to stretch my very-small income pretty far. I never turned down a job, and I worked really hard to establish relationships with my clients; after a couple of years, I started to see a decent income. It was pretty low by most standards, but it was earned solely from my photography efforts, so I took that as success and kept going.

When did you start using the Fujifilm system and why did you initially choose it to be such a huge part of your process?
Fujifilm has been an integral part of my photography during my entire career. By the time I turned pro I was already shooting Fujifilm slide film almost exclusively. I have always been in love with the Fujifilm colors and I feel that those distinctive color palettes have been intertwined with my creative development as a photographer ever since I loaded my first roll of Velvia in May of 1993.

When I first went digital, there was no more film, but I scanned many of my best Velvia images and continued to use them in my professional life. There was a five-year stretch when I wasn’t actively using Fujifilm products, but I came rushing back in the fall of 2011.

That was the first year of the X Series. The tiny little X-T10 caught my eye at PhotoPlus trade show in October of that year – the X-T10 was the little brother to the iconic X100F. When I held it in my hand and discovered that Fujifilm included film simulations of those classic films like Velvia and Provia, I was instantly hooked.

I started by shooting the X Series cameras as second cameras alongside my Nikon D700m, but it wasn’t long before I began taking trips with only the Fujifilm and leaving the Nikon at home. I fell in love with the creative liberation the Fujifilm cameras offered and I loved the way my images looked straight out of the camera. Although they were not yet up to speed with regards to pro-level features, weather-sealed bodies and fast autofocus, I saw the potential, so I dug in and waited patiently.

When they introduced the X-T1 in early 2013, the time had finally come and I went all in. Compared to my old Nikons, which were getting bigger and heavier, the X Series cameras were so much smaller and they allowed me to go light and fast through the world and still have professional capabilities at my fingertips. With the X-T2 the performance envelope has been pushed even further. It is by far the best camera I have ever owned.

Did you experience a noticeable difference in your workflow when you changed systems to Fujifilm?
Definitely. In the old days I was a huge advocate of always shooting everything in RAW and then processing them all later. However, in my six years with the Fujifilm cameras, my priorities and workflow have shifted in a big way.

These days I like to make creative decisions on location and use the film simulations and other on-board exposure tools to get the look I want. My goal is to walk away with images I love instead of walking away with a bunch of files I need to go home and process. In that way I have returned to shooting with a ‘film’ mentality and it feels very liberating.

That’s not to say that I never shoot RAW or never process my images, but the Fujifilm JPEGs are so good that I rarely feel I need to do much processing. A large part of that is because the real-time LCD screen lets me see exactly what the image will look like, right before I press the shutter. This removes a lot of the guesswork from the equation and gives me confidence to try out any number of creative ideas, because I can see how they will look in the moment.

Even when I process I am usually just fine-tuning the JPEGs (Luminar is my software of choice these days) and getting excellent results. These files have plenty of information, as long as you are not making big moves. Since they come out of the camera already looking awesome, I seldom need to do any heavy pixel wrangling.

If I am faced with really tricky or high contrast light, I shoot RAW or RAW+JPEG, but even then I don’t typically spent a lot of time processing. The Fujifilm RAW files contain a huge amount of tonal information, so you can rescue a huge amount of detail from the shadows and you have the latitude to make wide moves, if that’s what you want to do.

Many say that the Fujifilm lenses are unbelievable. Were you surprised by that when you got your hands on it? What’s your favorite lens for landscape work and why?
Yes, the Fujifilm lenses are incredible and they keep getting better. It is remarkable to see how much the X Series collection has grown in just six years. Of course, Fujifilm has been building pro-quality glass for a very long time and they have supplied lenses to a wide range of top companies, even NASA, for many years, so they know what they are doing.

Every one of their lenses is awesome. They don’t have any throwaways. Even the kit lenses are very good. I am particularly in love with the small prime lenses, though. They are tack-sharp, fast and ultra-compact; they hardly weigh anything! Easily the best lenses I have ever used.

My favorite kit for shooting landscapes are the XF14mm f/2.8 R, XF35mm f/2 R WR and the XF50mm f/2 R WR. I rarely go anywhere without at least two of these lenses. Then there is the XF90mm f/2 R LM WR – what a dream lens, razor sharp, very fast autofocus and a brilliant trade-off that lets you get that shallow focus, compressed telephoto look without having to carry a really big lens.

The only zooms I use on a regular basis are the XF50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR and the XF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR. Both are solid workhorse lenses. I actually love using the XF100-400mm for landscapes; it’s fun to zoom in really tight and show a very small abbreviation of the scene.

When you look back at your growth as a photographer, can you identify places or benchmarks where something you learned or experienced made a significant difference in your process or art?
I would have to say the first was reading Galen Rowell’s book ‘Mountain Light.’ In my mind, this is the essential book for any adventure or landscape photographer. I read it within a year of first starting out with photography and it made a tremendous impact on me.

Of course, I love his photographs, but his intelligent writing really resonates with me. I have always been fascinated by his thoughts on human memory and how we are naturally wired to be extremely susceptible to the visual power of still images. Videos can carry a lot of impact, but they don’t evoke the same level of emotional response as a compelling photograph can. Also, what he said on page twenty-nine pretty much defined the rest of my life and it has stuck with me ever since: “One of the shocking realizations of adult life is that most of us are not fulfilling the most closely held dreams of our youth. Instead, we end up in some way or another fulfilling some else’s ideas of who or what we should be... at the expense of our creative urges.”

Another huge benchmark in my photography was learning to fly. A few months after moving to Alaska I earned my pilot’s license. A couple of years later I bought my own plane, a little yellow 1947 Cessna 120 and started my path with aerial mountain photography. This was right around the time when I first started shooting with the X Series. As I quickly discovered, mirrorless cameras work so much better for this kind of photography than DSLRs. In addition, they brought me back to Velvia!

The aerials have become a huge part of my photography and I feel that my mountain scenes aerials are some of my strongest and most favorite imagery of all time. They are the culmination of my twenty-five years plus fascination with mountains, adventure and photography and it is a journey that, for the most part, has largely been tied to my use of Fujifilm cameras and film.

What have you learned about yourself through your photography? What has that taught you and how have you applied it?
One of the biggest things I have learned is that I really enjoy spreading the love and helping people with their own photography. My own journey with the camera has brought me an extraordinary level of happiness and success over twenty years of fun and adventure and I want other people to find that kind of enjoyment as well.

We live in very challenging and often frustrating times right now, but I firmly believe that if more people spent more time and energy exploring their creativity and having fun with photography, the world would be a better place.

Obviously, taking pictures won’t solve all our problems, but the process of getting out there in the world, focusing on nature and actively engaging ourselves in the creative process, lowers stress and feeds our souls. When we are fulfilled, we are happy. In addition, the more we exercise our creativity, the more we become increasingly open to new ideas and are driven to see and communicate aspects about the world a little differently.

I seem to have a propensity for teaching and inspiring this kind of creative happiness in others. This comes naturally to me and so I have focused much of my energies during the past few years on helping other photographers. I really like teaching workshops, giving presentations and interacting with other shooters.

I have come to notice that when I sit down at my computer in the morning, I am much more driven to write articles about photography and share my imagery and insight in this context, rather than spend my time advertising my services to potential clients.

If you could sit down and share advice to yourself when you were first starting out what would you say?
I try not to think too much about this because I have learned something important and had vital experiences at every single stage in my twenty-one year career as a pro photographer. Every single thing I did was based on a decision that reflected a specific set of circumstances and events at the time. Heeding outside advice, no matter how well intended, might have prevented me from doing something that ultimately taught me an important lesson. Change any one of those factors along the way and I might not have had the same experiences.

One thing which might have helped is if ‘Future Dan’ told ‘Past Dan’ not to worry too much about comparing myself to other pro photographers and their success. Each person has their own path; you can’t compare someone else’s life, choices and circumstances to your own. Competition is a good thing and it can motivate you, but in the end, your energies are much better spent focusing on your own ideas, rather than worrying about what someone else is doing.

To someone just starting out with their journey with photography and Fujifilm, what advice would you give them as they begin their journey?
Start simple. You don’t need a lot of lenses if you are just beginning. One or two is fine.

Shoot on a regular basis and immerse yourself in the process of photography as often as you can. This will lead to you becoming more comfortable with your gear, more proficient with your technique and more confident with your own creativity. With time and practice, lots of experimentation, and learning a few tips from some photographers who you admire, you will begin to develop a style and become more efficient with shooting great imagery.

Finally, and this is the most important thing, don’t put too much pressure on yourself, just try to have fun with it. There are way too many ‘serious’ photographers out there who can easily convince beginners that they need to worry about stuff that is really not that important. It is photography, not rocket science. There is no right and wrong. Yes, there are certain fundamentals you should try to follow, but in the end, if you are out there having fun and you like your pictures, then you are doing it right. To everyone starting out with Fujifilm, follow my blog and download my free Fujifilm Tips and Tricks guide.

From your experience and what you have learned, what advice would you give to someone who is considering turning photography into a profession?
The best advice I can think of, and it is what I keep telling my students and followers, is to follow your heart and do what you love. I live by that mantra and I feel it is the best recipe for success, no matter what you do. That’s what I would tell anyone who is doing photography, or any creative pursuit.

Of course, you should do all the necessary things such as learn about business, organizational skills and marketing. Make realistic assessments about your skills, but ultimately, the most important thing you can do is to focus on relentlessly following your passion with unending perseverance. If you do that, then everything else will fall into place. It may take a while for you to feel like you have made it. However, the reality is that if you truly love what you do and you stay true to yourself, then you will gain the skill and make the necessary steps in order to create your own success in life.

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