Michael Frye is a professional photographer who specializes in landscapes and nature and is the recipient of NANPA’s 2023 Fine Art in Nature Photography Award. He’s the author of five book and numerous articles. Frye also leads field workshops and teaches online courses. He will be one of the keynote speakers at NANPA’s 2023 Nature Photography Summit, May 4-7, in Tucson, Arizona.
The Fine Art in Nature Photography Award is given every other year to an exceptional photographer whose work “is of exceedingly high quality and demonstrates … mastery of the artistic and craftsmanship aspects of fine art nature photography.” In addition, the awardee’s “photographic imagery instills in others — inside and outside of the nature photography industry — an appreciation of fine art nature photography and/or inspires others to support the advancement of the fine art nature photography industry.” A high bar, but one easily met by Frye’s significant body of outstanding work. As NANPA Awards Committee chair, Dr. Paul Brooke, said “the committee was overwhelmed by his volume of work, his clear aesthetic and his connection to the masters (of photography) of the past.” Previous winners of this award have included Ron Rosenstock and Art Wolfe.
Most people know Frye for his landscape images but, he says, “I actually started my career photographing wildlife. In the late 80s, when I started doing photography seriously, my wife, Claudia, and I lived in Yosemite Valley, and I spent a lot of time looking for owls, or following coyotes. Sometimes I even stumbled upon a bobcat. We also traveled to other places specifically to photograph wildlife, like Yellowstone and Bosque del Apache.
“Of course I photographed landscapes and other nature subjects as well, but my main focus at that time was wildlife. It wasn’t until the mid 90s that I started concentrating mostly on landscape photography. I think chasing wildlife was just too frustrating! But I still photograph wildlife sometimes when an opportunity presents itself. Claudia and I also love going to California’s Central Valley in winter to photograph large flocks of wintering geese and cranes.”
Over the decades, much in the photography business has changed. The field has gone from film to digital, from print to online, some magazines have gone out of business and social media has exploded. This has all made photography more accessible and, Frye says, “one thing that stands out to me from our current perspective is how incredibly popular photography has become, and nature photography in particular. It used to be a rather esoteric pursuit. Now it seems like everyone is doing it.
“On one hand, it’s great to see so many people enjoying something that I love so much. And photography gets people out in nature, appreciating the beauty of nature, and, I hope, strengthening their desire to preserve the natural world.
“On the other hand, we now see popular photo destinations becoming overrun with photographers. And, unfortunately, sometimes the desire to “get the shot” results in people trampling fragile areas, with seemingly little regard for the very subjects they’ve come to photograph.
“I think if we can educate people, in a positive way, about the subjects they’re photographing, and why they need protection, there’s an opportunity to grow the constituency of people who care about nature and work to preserve it.”
If educating people through photography is the key to conserving and caring for the natural world and the beautiful species, landscapes and ecosystems it contains, what does that look like? How can nature photographers meet those challenges?
From the beginnings of photography, images have been used for conservation. Think of Carleton Watkins’ images of Yosemite were used to help convince Congress to preserve the valley in 1864. But we may need to rethink how we do that. “Traditionally,” Frye says, “photographs have been used to show the beauty of places that are threatened in one way or another, or perhaps the destruction of nature. I think those uses are extremely valuable, but there are also other ways photography can help.
“In our modern world, fewer and fewer people have a real connection with nature. Even those of us who love nature, and love nature photography, probably spend most of our time indoors. But despite that, nature photography is incredibly popular. I think that’s because there are many people living in urban and suburban areas who, consciously or unconsciously, long to connect with the natural world.
“I think we nature photographers can help play a role in connecting people more deeply with nature. And if we can do that, we can increase people’s appreciation for nature, and their desire to preserve it.
“When you post a nature photograph on online, try including a conservation message. It doesn’t have to be some strident environmental rant; in fact, that might make some people tune out. It could be as simple as explaining some of the animal behavior shown in the image, or describing something about the ecosystem that created the beautiful plant life in the photograph. Just small things that help further people’s understanding of, and appreciation for, what they’re seeing. If enough of us do that I think the cumulative effect can be large.”
Frye served on the committee that created NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices, which sets out an approach to nature photography that respects both the protecting of the species and landscapes being photographed and the creativity and passion of the photographer. See also NANPA’s Truth in Captioning Statement for guidance in making captions and descriptions accurate, ethical and helpful.
Beyond the potential to educate people and stimulate their appreciation of and desire to protect nature, are there other things that make the future of nature photography interesting? Frye says that “the technology keeps improving, which opens up new creative avenues. I think this is especially true with night photography, where the ability to capture images under incredibly low light levels has made things possible today that weren’t possible a short time ago. And I’m sure we’ll see continued improvements in this ability to capture microscopic light levels.
“But technology aside, people are endlessly creative, and I look forward to seeing how photographers push the boundaries and surprise us with fresh perspectives on nature.”
Like many professional nature photographers, Frye is perpetually busy. In addition to making beautiful images and exploring the great outdoors, “I’m always working on creating more online courses to add to the three Lightroom courses I already offer: Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide, Landscapes in Lightroom: Advanced Techniques, and Lightroom’s Masking Panel: In Depth.
“I’d like to add that I think nature is beautiful and amazing, and doesn’t need much enhancement. In processing my photos I strive to make them look their best, and bring out the qualities in the scene that originally inspired me to press the shutter, but do so in a natural way. And that’s the approach I teach in my courses.