Paul Burwell is a wildlife photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta. He’s also a renown instructor and teaches a number of wildlife photography workshops in the controlled environment of the The Triple D Game Farm in Montana. It’s a very interesting setup, as participants work with captive animals to really boost their shooting skills, composition techniques, and possibly build a portfolio in a short time frame.
Paul hit the mainstream last year with his snowflake imagery. It’s popularity soared after a spot on CTV’s Canada AM. When the show ended, his phone started ringing. It’s also one of his favorite image series because he managed to make something simple into a beautiful artistic collection.
He was enthusiastic about participating in this interview series and really belongs on the list along side the other Canadian-based outdoor photographers I have interviewed: Daryl Benson, Jordan Manley, and Darwin Wiggett. Here is what Paul had to say:
10 Questions with Wildlife Photographer Paul Burwell
1. I’d like to start out with that “ah” moment when you realized your life would be tied to a camera instead of a more tangible career. How did it happen?
I’ve been into cameras since I was five and my mom gave me her Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera. When I was a teen I purchased my first SLR (a Pentax K-1000) and started photographing for the high school newspaper. At the end of high school I had to decide whether to pursue a career in photography, or my other passion, computers. Computers won out because I thought I could make more money at it; I was right. By 2004 I was the President of an Internet Service Provider and we sold the company. As often happens when a company changes hands, the boss gets the boot and that’s what happened to me. I had to find something else to do with my life and started working on business plans to start a new Internet business. However, I soon found I was spending more and more time outside photographing and less and less time working on business plans. It occurred to me that it might be possible to make a living as a nature/wildlife/outdoor photographer so I contacted a bunch of pros who were very quick to assure me that it was impossible, the market was saturated and there was little chance to become a pro. They advised me that my best bet was to remain an amateur. Naturally I ignored their advice, jumped in with both feet and have never been happier. I guess my “ah” moment was one morning at Elk Island National Park and I was the only human being around. I suddenly noticed how I was enjoying the sound of silence and the wildlife all around. That’s when it clicked (no pun intended).
2. You began with a career in computers before moving onto photography. What skills were you able to bring with you that help your current business plan?
I’d built a business from the ground up into a business genrating over $4,000,000 in sales a year. All the skills that go into that sort of a venture along with my computer background have helped me execute my business plan. I run into students all the time who are struggling with digital photography because of the incredible learning curve for people who aren’t comfortable with computers. I strongly encourage anyone serious about their photography to get a good handle on the computer skills they’ll require to really enjoy their photography.
3. What is the most difficult part of being a nature photographer based in Edmonton, Alberta?
I wouldn’t say there is anything difficult about being a nature photographer in Edmonton. I used to think that winter was a problem, but if one sets their mind to it, it is all just opportunity. We’re situated between the Great Plains to the south and east, the Boreal Forest to the north and the Rocky Mountains to the west. What could be better?
It is very hard to buy that type of publicity. My phone and email were literally ringing off the hook. It helps in all sorts of aspects related to business and opportunity and it certainly gives a person some instant credibility.
5.Other than staring on national morning TV, what do you think is the best way for a new/young photographer to market their work to perspective wildlife photography buyers?
My advice to those starting out as a new aspiring pro is to realize that it is extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to make a living off of selling your photographs to magazines. You need to learn to write. You need to find a way to leverage your photography along with your other skills into some sort of marketable package. Long gone are the days of living off one’s stock photography library.
6. What other business advice can you give to new/young photographers that you wish you’d learned earlier in your own career?
Stay close to home. It’s cheaper and easier. Chasing all over the world after wildlife images seems glamourous but it is extremely difficult to make it pay for itself.
7. As an instructor, you run many workshops out of The Triple D Game Farm in Montana. Why do you use a game farm instead of shooting wildlife in non-controlled environments? What is the biggest benefit? The biggest drawback?
The workshops at the Triple “D” Game Farm offer a tremendous way for photographers to build a portfolio of wildlife images that are simply impossible to get in the wild. It is also an excellent envrironment to practice using the skills that one will require when they encounter wildlife “in the wild”. With captive wildlife you might have an opportunity for a “redo” if you miss a shot; that rarely happens with wild animals. I never hide the fact when an image was made of a captive animal and all such pictures on my site/blog are labelled as such with a “-CA” at the end of the caption to indicate the animals was a captive animal. I think that photographing and teaching at Triple “D” has definitely helped my “wild” animal photography.
The biggest advantage of shooting under controlled conditions is that you know the wildlife is going to be there and you’re going to get to photograph them. With wild animals being, well, wild, they are often a lot less predictable. My Spirit Bear photography tour in 2010 only saw one white bear for a grand total of five minutes. That’s the chance you take when you go to photograph in the wild.
8. Do you have a single image or collection that stands out as a career highlight? What makes it more special than your other work?
I’m quite happy with my image of a Kermode “Spirit” Bear walking down a moss covered log in the Great Bear Rainforest on the west coast of Canada. I’m also very happy with my collection of snowflake images. The Kermode Bear image is special to me because it was extremely difficult to get and it was a shot I’d envisioned ahead of time. I’m happy about my snowflake images because I’ve found a way to make them artful.
9. What three photographers provide your greatest source of inspiration?
Snowflake Bentley; early pioneer of snowflake photography
David Middleton; an excellent nature photographer and teacher and is someone I try to model myself after
Wayne Lynch; what more needs to be said about Canada’s king of wildlife photography?
10. It’s similar to the first question, but instead of the “ah moment”, can you tell me simply why? Why do you make photographs?
I find that photography is an excellent way for me to express my passion for the natural world and maybe try to influence a few people into having a bit more consideration for the wild and natural aspects of the world we live in.
As always, I owe a huge thanks to Paul Burwell for taking the time to answer this interview. I appreciate the honesty and openness shared by each interviewee this year and you are certainly no exception. I do apologize for how long it took me to post this on the site!
* All Images in this post are protected by Paul Burwell’s copyright *