PPD Master Series: The Wild World of Nature Photographer Daniel J. Cox

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday December 2, 2015

In a sense, Daniel J. Cox  owes his career to whitetail deer.

Cox began selling images to outdoor magazines at age 21, after discovering his first bread-and-butter subject—the deer that populated the woods around his home in northern Minnesota. “The sporting magazines such as Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life bought lots and lots of whitetail deer images,” he says. “I would spend three months in the fall photographing large whitetail bucks then head to New York in January or February and sell enough images to work the rest of the year. It was intimidating to put on a suit, grab my portfolio and head to the big city, but it’s what gave me the ability to make a living.”

Over the past 34 years, Cox has traveled to seven continents in search of wildlife subjects, ranging from pumas and porcupines to polar bears. In 2013, he was named Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association; he’s also won awards in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature’s Best competitions. His images have appeared in countless nature magazines, more than 20 books (including his most recent children’s title, Portia Polar Bear’s Birthday Wish). He also has two National Geographic cover stories to his credit. And today, with his wife Tanya, he teaches workshops and guides shooting trips around the planet. On top of all that, he works with Panasonic as a LUMIX Luminary team member.

Cox’s love of wilderness and wildlife began at a very early age, when he began hunting and fishing in the Minnesota woods with his father. “I came to love the outdoors and became more interested in the animals my father wanted to put on the table,” he says. “It sounds strange to be a hunter and have a love for animals, but some of the most sincere supporters of wildlife and nature are sportsman,” he says. “They really can go hand and hand. I no longer hunt myself, but I harbor no ill will to those that support wildlife with their hunting dollars.”

His interest in photography also came from his father. “He enjoyed photography and shot with a 35mm Mamiya Sekor with lenses that you had to screw on,” says Cox. “His interest drove my interest and he let me use his camera at home, but he restricted me from bringing it to school in my high school years.” When Cox and his sister sold a car they owned together, he used his half of the proceeds to buy a camera through a friend in Japan.  

Cox recently took time between shooting trips to speak with writer and photographer Jeff Wignall about his photography, his travels and his work with various environmental organizations.

: Your photos are marked by an extraordinary sense of both physical and emotional intimacy. How do you create this rapport with wildlife?

DC: First and foremost, when working with wildlife it’s important to understand that it’s all about patience. Wild animals have their own clocks, and if you’re doing your job correctly you don’t interfere with that schedule. You adapt to it, which often means waiting and waiting and waiting. But that’s the way it works. When you adapt to the rhythm of the animals and their environment, special things eventually take place that provide exception imagery — things most people don’t see because they aren’t willing to wait. Most animals sleep for hours on end, and you have to sometimes just hang out when they’re sleeping.

PPD: How did you learn to find animals so readily?

DC: Finding the animals you want to work with is all about research. Talking to the right people, biologists and scientists, can be very helpful with knowing the right times and places to be. I’ve made a commitment to always treat the biologists I work with in a respectful way. A good example that is a very good friend of mine, Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute  in Charlo, Montana. Denver and I have worked together for over 20 years. Much of our joint success is due to giving each other credit and having mutual respect for the other’s work. Another scientist I’ve worked with extensively is Dr. Steven Amsturp of Polar Bears International. Working with these people, offering them free access to all the images I shoot, making them part of my stories and supporting them in any way possible, has allowed me to build tremendous trust with them, which in turn gives me access to amazing stories.

Finally, it’s important to do your own research to find the areas that have the most subjects you’re interested in photographing. For example, the most accessible place in the world to see dozens of polar bears at one time is Churchill, Manitoba, on the shores of Hudson Bay. Nowhere else in all the Arctic can you get as close and see as many polar bears as you can in Churchill. There are lots of other places in the far north you could see a polar bear but if you are doing this as a business you have to cut down on the chances of missing your subjects. Doing your homework via the Internet is a tremendous way to give yourself a fighting chance to see the animals you want to photograph.

PPD: One of your photos shows an Alaskan brown bear mother with cubs and a salmon in her mouth. How are you able to get so close to subjects like that?

DC: Once again, it’s all about knowing your subject and where to go for the best access to it. Virtually all of my images of grizzly bears — which is what an Alaskan brown bear is — come from Alaska. In fact, all of the closeup images of grizzlies are from Alaska. I do have some grizzly photographs of bears in Yellowstone, but they are mostly all shot from a distance with very long lenses. For those shots, I stayed close to the safety of the road, where I was close to my vehicle. Grizzly bears in the lower forty-eight states, as well as the interior of Alaska and the Canadian interior, are what I call grumpy bears. They have very limited food sources, unlike the fat and happy brown bears along the coast lines of Canada or Alaska. They are two very different animals from a personality perspective—though DNA-wise they are technically identical. I’ve worked with brown bears in Alaska for over thirty years and I have several places I’m able to go where I can work in close proximity to them. The key is going there during the salmon run when the bears congregate along the rivers.

PPD: You also have an amazingly close-up photo of a humpback whale’s eye. How did you get that shot?

DC: I was diving with humpbacks along the Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic. This particular female was very curious and came very close. Not moving fast, holding relatively still and waiting for an animal to approach you are some of the ways you can get shots like this.

PPD: You have some memorable photos of penguins on South Georgia Island. Were the penguins somewhat oblivious to you?

DC: Penguins are not somewhat oblivious — they are completely oblivious. South Georgia is truly one of the most amazing animal spectacles left anywhere on the planet. Salisbury Plains, where that image was taken, has an estimated 500,000 thousand King penguins. The noise is deafening and the smell of guano is everywhere. But these magnificent birds are there for a good reason, to mate and rear their chicks for the next season.

PPD: Your photos all seem to have a tremendous drama in terms of lighting, time of day and weather. Do you make a conscious effort to shoot at dramatic times of day?

DC: Yes! All good photographers know that the finest light for shooting happens an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset — the so-called golden hours. The most beautiful light is when the sun is close to the horizon. When the sun is on or just above the horizon, the atmosphere cuts back on the sun’s blue light and intensifies the warm colors that the human eye craves.

PPD: You were an early adopter of mirrorless cameras. Are there specific qualities that mirrorless cameras have that you consider an advantage, particularly in nature and wildlife shooting?

DC: Absolutely. However, the advantages are not for mirrorless overall, but rather specifically Micro Four Thirds (MFT) mirrorless cameras, which are what I shoot in the Panasonic LUMIX line. The advantages include size, weight, price and the most advanced technology in the world of photography and video. For decades, I carried lenses that weighed as much as twelve pounds for single lens. I also had camera bodies that weighed several pounds as well. Carrying all of this heavy equipment can slow you down dramatically as you search for your subjects. The LUMIX cameras I’m now shooting with are fractions of that weight and less than half the size of the traditional DSLRs I used to shoot.

Price is also important in our current economy, where budgets are small and everyone is expected to do more with less. You can actually do that in the world of photography with MFT LUMIX cameras.

Most important is the advanced technology these cameras contain — features like 4K Photo mode, Post Focus [the ability to focus exactly where you want after the photo was captured], touchscreen LCD, in-camera wireless, dual-image stabilization and superior ergonomics.

PPD: Which particular cameras are you using to shoot wildlife?

DC: I’m currently using the LUMIX GH4 as my main camera for wildlife and nature, but I’ve also added the new LUMIX GX8. The GX8 is a rangefinder-styled camera, so it's really great for street photography and travel photography. I personally prefer the traditional DSLR style of the Lumix GH4 for many reasons, but the GX8 has newer autofocus capabilities that I depend on, a larger sensor and improved low-light capabilities. They’re both great, but for nature I prefer the ergonomics of the GH4.

PPD: The touch-screen feature of cameras like the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GX8 is a relatively new thing in dedicated cameras. Are there advantages to having touch-screen capability?

DC: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. In fact, it is the touch-screen LCDs are among the main reasons I shoot LUMIX cameras. All the current touch-screen cameras have a tool called Touch Screen AF.  This gives you the ability to touch anywhere on the screen, even with the screen up to your eye, and move the AF sensor with the swipe of your thumb. I use this option constantly. For instance, I’m able to move the AF sensor across the viewfinder as a group of birds are flying by. With the camera to your eye, the back LCD goes black. However, it is still live. As you look through the EVF, right eye to the camera, you can move your thumb across the blacked-out LCD, and in the viewfinder the AF sensor moves in the direction your swiping. It is without a doubt the fastest way to change AF sensor position of any camera being made. No other manufacturers come close.

PPD: You’ve done two cover stories for National Geographic, and that is pretty much every nature photographer’s dream. How did those features come about?

DC: All my work with National Geographic was self-produced. Quite simply, I thought about the two stories I wanted to shoot, I went out and shot them, then presented the finished story to the magazine, whereupon they bought each one. This is not the typical way they produce stories, but I’ve always been very independent and I never wanted anyone other than me owning my work. You lose all rights to the work National Geographic publishes if they pay you to do an assignment. I was never comfortable with that. Thankfully the magazine liked what I shot, and the rest is history.

PPD: Can you talk about the Arctic Documentary Project? How did that get started and what is its goal?

DC: The Arctic Documentary Project, or ADP, was born from necessity. For many years, my work as a stock photographer allowed me to visit the Arctic, which is an expensive place to get to. Unfortunately, stock photography is no longer viable as a business, so I had a find a new way to keep documenting the environmental changes we are seeing in that region and the effect those changes are having on polar bears and other wildlife there.

As it happens, for the last two decades I’ve been donating all the images I shot in the Arctic to my good friends at Polar Bears International. So I proposed the idea of the ADP to them. The ADP falls under the PBI umbrella — the group’s nonprofit status gives us the ability to go out and raise money to do the same kinds of shooting I used to pay for with my stock assignments. Without the ability to raise money, all that documentation would have stopped.

The ADP donates the images to other nonprofits, educational institutions, zoo, aquariums and anyone that’s interested in telling the story of the changing Arctic. None of these organizations would have access to quality photography or video without the ADP, so it’s a win/win situation for those who have a desire to get involved and for me as a photographer who wants desperately to show the changes we see taking place in the far north.

PPD: You and your wife guide photo tours around the planet. Do you have a favorite place?

DC: Probably my favorite of all our photo tour destinations is Africa, both Kenya and South Africa. Each is completely different from the other. Kenya has more wide-open savannas and South Africa is thick with brush, so you get lots of encounters with wildlife up close and personal. Our photography tours also visit Madagascar, Pantanal in Brazil, Japan, Italy, Romania, Croatia, Alaska, Yellowstone, Canadian Rockies, Ireland, Scotland, Namibia and Iceland. Generally Tanya and I are on the road traveling for as much as ten months a year.

PPD: What is your goal on tours—are they mainly to help participants get shots of these places and animals, or are you teaching the whole time as well?

DC: My teaching style is very laid back. Our primary goal is to provide great photo opportunities and the ability to interact and learn from me one-on-one. Equally important is our desire to give people a great vacation. We don’t do photography from 4:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. like some workshop leaders. Many photographers lead their groups like they were shooting for National Geographic. We don’t. We want to make sure everybody is learning as much as possible, but we’re equally adamant about people having a good time. That includes great food, wonderful accommodations when possible and great travel companions.

PPD: Are there any wild places that you haven’t been that you’re itching to get to?

DC: I’d like to spend more time in the far north of Canada and Alaska. I would also love to spend more time in Tanzania, Zambia and Zaire.

PPD: Do you have any advice for aspiring nature shooters who can’t yet afford to reach the far corners of the planet?

DC: Start in your backyard. I did my first in-depth natural history piece on the common loon, which was prevalent in my home state of Minnesota. My first book, Whitetail Country, focused on the life history of whitetail deer, another very plentiful subject in the heart of Minnesota and Wisconsin. So getting around the globe came much later for me, as it does for most others.

The other thing young photographers must understand is that the days of exclusively being a still photographer are gone—at least in the world of natural history. You must learn the craft of the moving image if you want to have any hope of earning a living. This is one of the reasons I so admire the Panasonic LUMIX cameras. They are as adept at shooting video as they are at shooting stills. Cameras that good at both stills and video are the cameras of the future, without a doubt.


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