G Dan Mitchell is a music professor by trade, but boy can he make a beautiful photograph. A fan of Induro tripods and the great outdoors, Mitchell has made the most of America’s west coast landscapes, and regularly returns to Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley to document nature. He’s also great at talking about his work. He was kind enough to answer my questions. Enjoy!
I love that you are so drawn to the beauty of your surroundings. Of course, you do live in one of the most naturally beautiful areas of the world. Where exactly did you grow up, and was it formative in the way you now work as a photographer?
Although I was born in Minnesota, I’m a “virtual native” of California, having lived here since I was four years old. My family spent a good amount of time in the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories include frequent trips to the redwoods and the seashore, along with visits to Yosemite and Tahoe. My father was a serious photographic hobbyist and introduced me and my siblings to photography at an early age, so we always considered photographing our adventures to be a natural thing.
I consider myself very lucky to live in an area with so many wonderful photographic subjects close by! I’m within driving distance of the coast redwood forests, the Pacific coastline between Point Reyes and Big Sur, the beautiful inland valleys and hills, and the “urban landscapes” of the San Francisco Bay Area. I can get to Yosemite and a good chunk of the Sierra in a few hours. (I’m somewhat notorious for occasional driving and photography marathons that may take me over the Sierra crest and back in a single day.) I’ve backpacked throughout the Sierra for decades – I know some areas so well that I recognize specific rocks and trees!
As well as I know many of the features of this state, I still discover new sights and learn new things every year. It was only a short time ago, relatively speaking, that I finally got to know Death Valley. Despite decades of visits to the Pacific Ocean coastline, it is only within the last few years that I came to know and become interested in photographing the marine wildlife, and I’ve recently developed a passion for photographing the redwoods.
I’m drawn to your Death Valley imagery- how often do you return to shoot there? What causes these rock tracks?
Thanks! Death Valley National Park presents an astonishing terrain filled with an immense variety of compelling photographic subjects – the vast space and distances, the intimate canyons, high ridges, sand dunes, tough plants and animals, and surprising signs of humans ranging from native artifacts to mines and ghost towns.
I visit Death Valley at least once per year, generally taking about a week each spring – right before the weather becomes unbearably hot.
The rocks you mention are the famous “moving rocks” at the Racetrack Playa. I’ve been there a number of times – I often plan visits to coincide with a full moon. I stay on the playa from late afternoon through the following morning since the most interesting photographic opportunities tend to come at the very early and late hours, and I try to do some night photography there as well. One of my favorite photographs is “Two Rocks, Morning – Racetrack Playa.”
After shooting the previous afternoon, evening, and into the night I got up before dawn and headed out onto the playa – I was the only person there! The winds were howling and it was cold and overcast. I wasn’t optimistic about photography, but soon the clouds began to break up in the gale, and their shadows raced across the playa – it was a “landscape in motion!” I set up a shot with the two rocks and just as the light came over the tall ridge to the east it illuminated the tracks of the nearest rock as the patterns of light and shadow sped across the landscape.
I’ve written a description of my experiences shooting at the playa that includes some information about the “moving rocks.” Read it here. Having visited and come to know that place, the theory that makes the most sense to me involves a flooded playa and very cold temperatures that freeze the rocks into floating surface ice that is then blown around by the strong winds that are often encountered out there.
Do you make a living as a photographer?
I have a “best of both worlds” career. I’ve been a music faculty member at a Bay Area College for decades – yes, I have extensive background in music! I love teaching and I love music… and I love the security of that job and the flexibility it gives me to pursue my own specific photographic interests without having to photograph anything but the subjects that I’m passionate about. (There is a long tradition of musician-photographers – or is it photographer-musicians? – including some guy named Ansel…)
It may seem odd in a time of digital cameras and web imagery – and coming from a photographer who frequently writes and post photographs on the web – but my primary interest is in making prints. My photographs have also appeared in various media including book covers, magazines and periodicals and web sites.
What’s your traditional gear set-up– when did you switch from film to digital, and was has your experience been with Induro tripods?
I shoot with a couple full-frame DSLR bodies and a mixture of zooms and primes, almost always from the tripod. The precise setup varies depending upon subjects and where/how I’m shooting. For urban landscape and street photography I might go out with only one body and a single prime, but when doing car-supported landscape photography I often carry “the kitchen sink.” Since I do a lot of backpacking and hiking photography I have figured out how to work with a 12-15 pound minimal setup that I can carry on long high country backpack trips.
I shot film for many years, dating all the way back to when my father taught me to print in our “bathroom darkroom” at home. I eventually moved to 35mm equipment and for many years shot with a couple lightweight bodies. Beginning around 2000 I started to experiment with digital, at first using an early 4MP jpg-only camera that was essentially a glorified point and shoot. I photographed a 3-week, 1100 mile bicycle trip through Alaska and the Yukon using this primitive gear. Since then I’ve been all digital.
A few years ago I was in the market for a new tripod that would do double-duty for hiking use and more heavy duty use. I was considering the “usual suspects” when I read Michael Reichmann‘s positive report on his use of an Induro tripod in Antartica. Intrigued, I found a local dealer who carries Induro and spent some time handling some of the larger models and comparing to other brands before settling on the Induro C313. I added a ballhead to create a reasonably light setup that supports my large lenses. As soon as I got the tripod I headed off on a Death Valley trip – including a Racetrack Playa visit and shooting in a sand storm – and its performance was excellent. My C313 has since held up to extensive and heavy use in all sorts of circumstances including being lashed to the outside of my backpack. (I now have my eyes on one of the newer and slightly smaller models for backpacking use.)
ed note: see the new and improved Induro CT313.
Are there any spots you return to again and again that are just incredibly special, or one shot that rises for you above all others?
Yes, indeed, there are quite a few! Although I don’t just shoot the same subjects over and over, there are some subjects that I revisit on a regular basis. I spend a few weeks on the trail in the Sierra every summer, and I have a standing appointment with the eastern Sierra aspens near the start of October. (Fall is my favorite time to shoot in the Sierra.) I love shooting the Pacific coast duding the late fall through early-spring months when Pacific storms create a wide range of dramatic conditions. And every spring I head back to Death Valley.
What will you be up to in 2010?
Besides the usual stuff, I have a few new plans – some more certain than others. I am going to continue some work I’ve done recently in the coastal redwoods, especially at Muir Woods, and right now I’m shooting Pacific coastline as winter begins. I have a project in mind to photograph brown pelicans this winter and spring and probably beyond. I’m also starting to have a serious desire to get back to Alaska for some extensive shooting – possibly this coming summer but certainly within the next few years.
See many, Many more beautiful images on Mitchell’s site.