Jeff Vanuga’s first major magazine assignment was to shoot images of people building trails in South Africa. Only he wasn’t a portrait photographer, he said, he photographed nature.
The editor of Audubon Magazine had this piece of advice: “If you’re going to make it in this business, you better learn how to shoot everything.”
So he did.
Since then, Vanuga has had tens of thousands of images published in magazines, books and newspapers across the globe. His pictures have graced thousands of covers and he’s won awards including first place in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the National Wildlife Photographic Competition and showcase top ten winner in the North American Nature Photography Competition. He’s also hosted TV shows on nature photography for the Outdoor Life Channel and Nature’s Best Magazine.
Between 80 and 90 percent of the time he still shoots nature – landscapes, wildlife, natural disasters – but learning how to take pictures of everything else has only improved his outdoor images.
“The more you shoot, the more you learn about light and the physics of the operation of the camera,” he said.
Vanuga’s professional career started when he went to cover the opening of Disney World with a newspaper reporter from his hometown paper in Clifton, New Jersey. There he floated the Weeki Wachee River and took a picture of a family of raccoons in clear water that eventually won the National Wildlife Photography Contest. He got $500, and it launched his professional career.
For the last nearly 40 years he’s been based out of Dubois, where he moved to work as a district conservation officer for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and later became the national photographer for the USDA.
As a full-time photographer, he’s led photo tours across the globe for companies like Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, National Geographic Expeditions and Nature’s Best Magazine.
The Star-Tribune caught up with Vanuga recently as he packed for a three-week photo session in Yellowstone National Park. The interview has been edited for clarity and space.
CST: What mistakes do you see most often with photographers who are beginning?
A big one is the idea that you need to be really close to something. You don’t have to have the longest telephoto lens to do wildlife photography, you can have a medium lens like a 70 mm to 200 mm or 80 mm to 400 mm to get animals in their environment whether with the Tetons in the background or steaming geysers. People don’t give enough space around the subject to let it breathe in the photograph.
I also see it’s all about the picture and not the animal. I see this with seasoned photographers. Pushing animals and pushing wildlife and pushing grizzly bears.
Lastly, learning the camera. I have people who come on trips that have the highest level gear you can imagine, and they don’t know how to operate the camera. That’s 101. No matter what your skill level, read the instruction manual and see what it does, especially on the new cameras.
What are some mistakes you see in people who have been shooting for a while?
Buying inadequate equipment. One big one is a tripod. People buy cheap tripods and cheap ball heads. I see it on every trip I go on. Instead of spending $600 to $1,100 on a top tier tripod, they buy a cheap one, and then they’re buying four or five before they buy the really, really good one. I’ve done it myself and see it with every photographer who comes along.
Why is a tripod so important?
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If you’re doing landscapes, it’s 90 percent tripod work. You’re generally using small apertures, which require longer shutter speeds, and maybe you have filters on which necessitates being on a tripod. If you don’t have a steady tripod, it’s shaky and your pictures won’t come out sharp. One I recommend is where the three legs and apex come up to your neck so when you put the camera on it, it’s eye level. One company I work with is Really Right Stuff. They’re not cheap, but they’re the best in the industry.
How else could people improve?
Buy a camera that has manual functions on it so you can actually fine-tune the camera, you can overexpose or underexpose, those types of custom functions. If you are really seriously getting into photography, it’s essential. Buy a book on photography and learn the basics. Also learn how to use the histogram on your camera to check your exposures.
Tips for starting professionally?
I entered a lot of photo contests. It’s the best way to gauge your work. But I would never enter a contest that retains rights. A reputable contest will not take your image and will return rights to your image.
If you were going to invest in something you just shouldn’t scrimp on — what would it be?
Number one is tripods; number two is lenses; and third is cameras. If you have a good lens, you can always update your camera. But if you have a junky lens, you’re updating your lens and camera. Buy the best your money can buy with lenses and buy an average camera and still get exceptional images.
How do you know where to spend your money on gear?
Do a lot of reading and research. If you’re doing night photography, you don’t need long lenses for that. You need a fast lens that costs more and a camera that handles higher ISO performance that has more sensitivity to light and doesn’t have a lot of noise.
There are 10,000 cameras on the market today. I would stick with name brands, one, whether Nikon, Sony, Canon, Fuji, Olympus, those are the camera systems I would focus on. They’ve been in the business a long time, and in my experience some of the name brands are more durable.
Ultimately is it better to have a mediocre camera you understand than an expensive one you don’t?
How often do you go back to the same place to try and get the right image?
There are places I’ve been back to 100 times. There’s Great Foundation Geyser in Yellowstone where I wanted the sun on the horizon going down and this particular geyser goes off every 18 hours to several days. There’s no way of saying it will go off at sunset. Literally 100 times I’ve been to that geyser. It probably took me 30 years to get it.
Every shot I take is planned. If I do landscapes, it’s tied to the season, to where the sun is, maybe weather. A lot of factors come into play. I think if you see great landscape photography, it’s not a point-and-shoot deal. It’s a planned event. You have all the right equipment. You’re there at the right time. When it comes to pre-dawn, there’s a sweet spot that lasts 5 minutes and it’s gone.
Any additional advice for readers?
If photography is your interest, follow your passion and if you do it enough and become good enough, you will find a niche to make money in it.
Lastly, be fresh and different than what has been done before. You need a new look, different angle, different perspective. You need to make your images pop. We’ve all seen the Teton shot from Oxbow Bend. What can you do that’s a little bit different? Trying to have new and fresh vision is a true artist in my opinion.