One of my favorite things about blogging is when I actually get to meet someone in person who I met through the blogging and social media world. Last month, I finally got to meet Dan Bailey, a professional adventure and outdoor photographer who I’ve been following online for years. Dan was traveling through Minneapolis and we were able to get together for lunch. It was fantastic to meet him in person and to learn more about his inspiring career and life in Alaska. His work is absolutely breathtaking and while we were talking I finally learned how he captured some of his most stunning masterpieces from the open window of a tiny yellow 1947 Cessna 120 flying over the mountains of Alaska. Dan also runs a photography website at www.danbaileyphoto.com filled with amazing tips and resources on how to learn and improve your photography.
Here is my exclusive interview with Dan. Hope you enjoy it!
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? What did you study in school and when did you first learn photography?
I was born in Colorado and lived there until I was five. Then I moved around quite bit, east coast, Kansas City, Cincinnati, boarding school in Maine, high school in Lawrence, Kansas, then Boston for college, and then back to Colorado for a few years before moving to Alaska.
I was a pretty rambunctious kid who was always running around, riding my bike and playing outside. I got into guitar when I was 15, and then I bought my first camera in 1990 when I was 22. I studied recording engineer and music production at Berklee College of Music, but by the time I graduated, the photography seed had already matured into a true love for cameras and photography.
You got a degree in music in college but ended up pursuing photography as a career. What was the defining moment that made you follow your dreams and go on an your epic trip to Nepal?
After I was done with college, photography kept growing on me and I begun to realize that I might be better suited to career that has me running around outside than sitting in windowless recording studios. Guess I didn’t quite think that one through… 😉 I had started taking some photography trips and became aware of Galen Rowell, who was preeminent outdoor adventure photographer of our time. He’s without a doubt my biggest influence.
At the time, I was still living in Boston while trying to figure out 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 in the back of Outdoor Photographer Magazine. 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 figured what better way to get track to becoming a pro adventure travel photographer than taking a workshop with the guy who invented the profession. It really was the beginning for me, and certainly the biggest thing I’d ever done. I consider my 1993 Nepal trip, and my 1994 trip to Pakistan to be the defining events in my profession journey.
What did you learn about photography and yourself during your trips to Nepal and Pakistan?
More than anything else, those two experiences reaffirmed my love for wilderness, exploration and travel. I knew that I wanted more. With photography, it was simply an opportunity to shoot in some of the most amazing locations on the planet and coming away with powerful imagery. And, of course, refining my technique and my creative eye, that process never ends. Looking back, I’m still very proud of the photos I shot on those two trips.
When did you decide to become a professional photographer? How did you move from photography as a hobby to a career?
I didn’t so much as decide the date I turned pro as I had it handed to me. After my two Asia trips, I knew that I was on track to go pro, I just wasn’t sure when I would make that happen. After Boston, I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado and got a job at digital photo lab. Then, on that fateful day of October 4, 1996, my boss came back from lunch with liquor on his breath, as he often did, and fired me on the spot.
I rode my bike home and panicked for about an hour before realizing that this was my big chance. My last job in Boston before moving to Colorado was working as an assistant editor at a stock photo agency, so in addition to the shooting experience I was gaining, I had already learned a ton about the photo industry. I basically knew everyone I needed to know in order to get started selling my photos.
I helped my landlord re-roof the house I was renting, then when that job was done, I started contacting the outdoor magazine and companies like Patagonia and sending them photos. The rest is history. Or rather, the rest has been 21 years of hard work and perseverance.
Why did you decide to focus in adventure and mountain sports photography including rock and ice climbing, mountain biking, kayaking and mountaineering?
Those were the sports and activities I liked to do. Except kayaking, I’m way too scared to try whitewater kayaking! I loved climbing and biking and being in the mountains, and I loved capturing photos of people engaged in adventure and pushing themselves in the outdoors. Remember, I consider myself student of the Galen Rowell style of “First person participatory adventure photograpy,” so that style of photography has always resonated very strongly with me. Also, the whole adventure thing was growing fast. Climbing and extreme sports were becoming very popular at the time, so it seemed like a smart career path to follow.
Why did you decide to move to Alaska? (Also when)?
Why does anyone move to Alaska? For the promise of adventure! I had visited Alaska a few times in my 20s and 30s and the place had always fascinated me. I came up for a climbing trip in 2006 and a photo assignment in 2008, and then decided to move up a few months later. Originally, we told all our friends we were only coming up for a year. That was 9 years ago.
How has your work as a photographer progressed over the years? (i.e. subject matter, where your work has been published, the launch of your blog and teaching classes, etc).
The diversity of subject matter has expanded over the years. Where I used to be primarily a landscape and action shooter, I’ve become more comfortable shooting portraits, and since moving to Alaska, I’ve started shooting wildlife and aviation and I’ve gotten heavily into aerial photography. The truth is that I find fascination in shooting just any kind of subject, especially when it comes to outdoor photography, so as the years have progressed, I’ve just had more time to experiment.
Also, blogging has become a huge thing for me. It’s really become the number one aspect of my business. It’s grown tremendously since I put up my first post in 2007. I had no idea where it would lead, but in the past two years, I’ve received three “Top 100 Photography Blog” awards and it’s turned into an incredible vehicle for marketing, getting my images out there, selling my ebooks and keeping in touch with other photographers around the world. I would say that nearly all the successes and notable projects and collaborations I’ve experienced in the past few years have originated from my blog.
You have some pretty amazing aerial epic shots of Alaska’s peaks. How did you capture them?
Thanks! I’m really excited about my aerial photography, I think it’s some of my favorite and best mountain photography I’ve ever done. I have to confess, though, I have a secret weapon: A little yellow 1947 Cessna 120 that I’ve owned for almost 7 years. It gives me incredible vantage points I’d never be able to get otherwise, and it’s way more fun that a drone. It’s essentially like owning a Subaru with wings, which is really useful up here, since we have more gravel bars than roads in Alaska.
Where did you learn to fly?
I learned to fly here in Anchorage. When we moved here in 2008, our first apartment was right under the flight pattern for Merrill Field. The constant buzz of bush planes overhead drove me mad, I couldn’t stop looking up at them all the time. I started my lessons within two months of moving here and by spring of 2009, I had my license.
Your blog has a lot of content and tips on photography. What are you hoping to accomplish with your blog?
I try to provide a good mix of education, information and entertainment. My goal is to inspire my readers and help them become better, more enthusiastic, more proficient photographers. I seem to have found a voice that resonates with a lot of people, which is explaining things in an honest, down-to-earth way, but from the perspective of someone who has over two decades of experience and expertise, and someone who has found great joy with photography.
I want to share that joy with as many people as possible. I believe that if we all find more happiness, fulfillment and success with our photograph and other creative endeavors, then we’ll all be better citizens of the planet and the world as a whole will be a better place for everyone.
What is your advice to people wanting to improve and learn photography?
They should all follow my blog! As with any craft, becoming a better photographer just takes practice. Shooting on a regular basis and immersing yourself in the process of photography as often as you can will lead to you becoming more comfortable with your gear, more proficient with your technique and more confident with your creativity. With time and practice, lots of experimentation and learning a few tips from some photographer who you admire, you’ll begin to develop a style and become more efficient with shooting great imagery.
Any tips on gear?
Anyone who’s looking to buy a new camera or get into photography these days should go mirrorless. DSLRs are great, but they’re bigger and heavier, and besides, mirrorless is the way of the future when it comes to cameras and technology. I’m a huge fan of the Fujifilm X Series, they produce excellent image quality and wonderful colors, and they have such user-friendly creative features. And they’re just really fun to use. In over 20 years as a photographer, I’ve never been so inspired by my cameras as I am right now.
This really has to be the number one thing. Every camera makes great pictures these days, so the most important factor is that you love your camera. Find the one that feels great in your hands, that has intuitive controls and that MAKES YOU WANT TO USE IT. It should be like a favorite musical instrument. If it doesn’t inspire you to pick it up as often as you can, then you won’t feel compelled to take it out and shoot with it all the time. My advice is to go to the store and try out a few different models. See which one you like. Don’t pay any attention to megapixels or whether it’s full-frame or not, those things aren’t they key to making great photos. Your own inspiration and creativity is what makes great photographs. That and compelling subjects, special moments and magical light.
Dan Bailey is a full time adventure and outdoor photographer and Top 100 Photography Blogger. He has written seven eBooks and two print books, Outdoor Action and Adventure Photography, published by Focal Press, and Adventure Photography, a Falcon Guides title co-published by Backpacker Magazine.
An official FUJIFILM X Photographer, Dan’s client list includes Alaska Airlines, Outoor Photographer Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Patagonia, Backpacker Magazine and Salsa Cycles. Dan currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he teaches photography workshops and spends his free time hiking and skiing in the mountains and flying his little yellow Cessna bush plane.
Ready to learn more?
Check out and subscribe to Dan’s website: www.danbaileyphoto.com
Follow Dan on Instagram! You are bound to be constantly inspired!
Dan also offers on location photography workshops and tours. To learn more about his future events click here.