Monday, May 30, 2016

An Interview with David Swindler of Action Photo Tours

 I met David Swindler at church. I’m music chairman for our congregation, and one of my tasks is to get special musical numbers for Sunday services. David sent me an email saying he was new to the area, and though he traveled a lot, he was willing to play the organ when he was in town.
     I signed him up to do a special number on one of the Sundays he wasn’t traveling.  I can’t remember the name or the composer, but the piece he played was variations on the nineteenth-century song “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.”
     While David played, I closed my eyes to shut out the visual, because I didn’t want to be distracted from the music. The arrangement was beautiful, but it was David’s interpretation that touched my heart. I saw then that he had an artistic soul.
     At that time, I didn’t know what he did when he was traveling. But when I opened this year's Kanab Arts Magazine, I found he was the featured artist because of his photography.
     I discovered that David has a photographer-touring company called Action Photo Tours. I’ll send you to his web site later in this posting, when you’ve discovered a little more about him. I’ll just say right now that his own pictures are jaw-droppingly beautiful.  I should have known that after hearing him play. But more than that, he's dedicated to ensuring that people who go on his tours get their own jaw-droppers.
     I asked David if I could interview him for Liz Sez, and he graciously consented. At the end of the interview, he’ll talk about some of the pictures on his web site.
     So here we go:

LIZ: I know you graduated college with a chemical engineering degree. That seems a stretch to photography. Is it?
DAVID: Photography is multi-faceted. There is definitely an artistic side to it, but in order to express your creative vision, you must also master the technical details. Having been an engineer, the technical side of photography came very easily to me. I had to be very detail-oriented in my previous career which is a necessity to be a good photographer. In the semiconductor industry, I specialized in photolithography and optics where we used state-of-the-art equipment to image the tiny circuits on silicon wafers. With many direct analogs to photography, it was really easy for me to understand photography and teach others. Even though I’m technically oriented, I still have an artistic side. I studied music for many years in my youth and I’ve always had an intuitive sense of what looks good and what doesn’t. Finding good compositions is key to creating compelling images.

LIZ: I’ve seen your gallery on your web site. Your photos are amazing! How did you manage to catch those shots of a shaft of sun coming into the red rock cavern?
DAVID: There’s a lot of planning that goes into most of these shots. You have to understand how the sun angles change throughout the year. You need to be in the right place at the right time and watch the weather and clouds carefully. There are many seasonal considerations to be aware of as well.  For night photography, you must understand how the night sky changes month-by-month and when particular features will line up with what you want to photograph.  Granted, sometimes you get lucky and get a shot you hadn’t planned on, but most of my best work has been thought out and planned in advance.

LIZ: I read on your blog that your favorite animal to shoot is the bear. Grizzlies and polar bears both have fierce reputations.  Isn’t that a bit terrifying?
DAVID: That’s just how Hollywood likes to portray them. When you spend time with bears in the wild, they aren’t nearly as ferocious as the media would lead you to believe. That being said, we take careful precautions when in close proximity to the bears. We go in groups of 5-6 people. By staying close together, we become the largest “bear” in the area and they just end up ignoring us or moving away. Bears are not known to attack groups of people of 3 or more. You never want to approach bears. Instead, you hold your ground and if they want to get closer, they will. Most will just move away. We also take special care not to surprise bears, especially moms with cubs as that can be particularly dangerous. If you take the appropriate precautions and have experience around bears, it’s rare that you will have any problems.

LIZ: I lived in the Matanuska valley in Alaska for five years and only recall a couple of times where the northern lights were as vivid as the ones in your gallery. How can you guarantee that a person on one of your photography tours will see northern lights? Ditto polar bears?
DAVID: Polar bears are a guarantee since they are always waiting on the northern Barrier Islands for the sea ice to freeze in the autumn so they can go out and hunt seals. Northern Lights are no guarantee. On our trip last year, it was cloudy every night, even though we could see the aurora going like gangbusters behind the clouds. As with all things photography, going to the right place at the right time of year will dramatically improve your odds of seeing the Northern Lights.

LIZ: What’s your favorite landscape to photograph?
DAVID: I can’t really say because I like them all! You can’t really compare the Southern Utah desert to a place like Mt Rainier with all the wildflowers. Any landscape is a joy to photograph with spectacular light.  I especially enjoy doing night photography and long exposures since it’s one of the rare times where images look better on the camera than they do to the naked eye.

LIZ: How did you happen to move to Kanab, Utah?
DAVID: I was getting lots of demand for photo tours in the vicinity, so it made sense to move down here. Kanab is central to Zion NP, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Escalante, and the Vermillion Cliffs.

LIZ: I know you take photography tours all over the world, and you have people all over the world come to do tours with you. How do you deal with the language barrier?
DAVID: Everyone I’ve worked with is at least semi-fluent in English. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be able to find or read my website very well. When I traveled to China, it was difficult to get around without knowing Mandarin. I remember the first bus station we went to.  There were like 30 long lines at ticket windows and each one had different Chinese characters above them. We had no idea which one to go to to catch a bus to our remote destination. Using Google Translate on our smart phones, we were eventually able to figure it out with the help of other people. It’s all part of the adventure!

 LIZ: What’s your favorite thing about taking someone out on a photography tour?
DAVID: I really enjoy it when someone has that “ah-ha” moment, when things suddenly begin to click and they really understand what we’ve been working on. I also love seeing people’s reactions to some of the incredible places I take them to.

LIZ: I’m inserting a video of panting owlets that you took. Can you tell us how you happened to get this video? 

DAVID: These little owlets were just up Johnson Canyon, close to Kanab. One of my friends told me about them so I grabbed the long lens and headed up there. The first couple times I went I didn’t get that great of shots. But the last time, all 3 were perched out in the light and were all awake and attentive. After I took a bunch of still shots, I thought a video would be best to really show what was going on.

LIZ: Here’s a link to your gallery. Is there any picture that has a story you’d like to share?
DAVID: Here are stories from the first 5 shots in the gallery:

#1: White Sands New Mexico. I got up at 1AM and it was a very cold night in the winter (single digits).  I went hiking out in the dunes and it took me hours until I found the perfect dune. I setup external lighting and took this shot during the blue hour with the nice accent light of Alamogordo in the distance.

#2: Reflection Canyon is a remote viewpoint of Lake Powell. I decided to go close to the winter solstice since the rising sun would be aligned with the canyon. However, it's not easy to get there in the winter. Most photographers hire a boat to get here, but that's not an option in the winter. First, I had to drive nearly 60 miles on a snowy/muddy Hole-In-The-Rock Road. From there, it was a 9-mile cross-country backpacking jaunt with a lot of washes to cross. Since I did most of the hike in the dark, I know I didn't go the most efficient route. The next morning it was cloudy and I got some great shots of the canyon. But since I didn't get the sunburst I had hoped for, I stayed one more night and was treated to clear skies the next morning.

#3: While in Zion NP, there were heavy clouds all afternoon and I seriously thought we weren't going to get anything for sunset. However, I looked at the SunsetWX website and it showed very good sunset potential, so my workshop group decided to hang out and wait. Sure enough, the sun popped through about 5 mins before sunset and transformed a dull, lifeless scene into one of the most vibrant displays I've ever witnessed.  A couple minutes later the river began to reflect all the wonderful cloud color.

#4: It was a stormy evening out at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Because the salt was so wet, I didn't dare drive my truck on the flats, so I used my mountain bike to get out a good distance out. I really didn't have much hope for sunset due to the heavy clouds on the horizon. However, a small break appeared and the sun poked through for just a couple minutes.  Good thing I was ready!  And yes, it was totally worth getting self and bike completely covered in wet salt.

#5: I wanted to get a high up shot of Fly Geyser, but there isn’t anywhere you can get this vantage point from the ground. Thus, we decided to build a very tall 20-foot tripod. Unfortunately, this tripod was difficult to use since we had no way to gauge the composition, leveling, exposure, or polarization state from the ground. For example, we found that we had to offset the polarization by a quarter turn in order for it to be correct higher up in the air. It took a lot of raising and lowering the tripod to get it right. However, I was pretty happy with some of the shots we got. For this shot, I used a neutral density filter to get a 5-sec exposure. It took a few attempts since the wind kept blowing in different directions!

#6: Most people go on polar bear trips in Churchill, Manitoba, where they see polar bears from the top of large rover vehicles. It’s not the same seeing them from 20-feet up in the air. In Alaska, we take boats out to see the bears and we photograph them at eye-level. This allows us to get eye-level shots such as this one of a sub-adult cub lounging on the ice.

LIZ: My thanks to David Swindler for taking the time to do this interview. If you didn’t already check out his web site, I hope you’ll go to and scroll through. There’s contact information on the web site if you’ve always dreamed about going on a photographic odyssey with someone who can coach you along to the best shot.


No comments: