Profile: Travel Photographer Dan Wheeler
By Tim Cotroneo
Dan Wheeler was bitten by the photography bug while hiking and climbing the majestic mountains of his native Colorado. As Dan began traveling the world, he expanded his skill set to include video and drone photography. Travel Dreams Magazine asked Dan to share his amazing photography story with our readers.
Before we get started, what is the story behind our Cook Islands feature photograph?
Drone photography opened up a whole new world of photographic possibilities to me! I captured this shot from One Foot Island after flying the drone out to the famous Heaven Sandbar …. What an incredible day out on the water and still pinching myself ? Aitutaki is pure magic…
Where are you based?
I’m based near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just outside of Boulder, Colorado.
How did you get started in photography?
I always enjoyed taking photos growing up, but film was expensive and time consuming …. so my photography “addiction” didn’t really get going until I met my then girlfriend (and now wife) in 2002 when she bought me my first digital camera …. a whopping 4.0 megapixel Canon Powershot G2! Digital cameras changed the game for me. The camera provided real time feedback on my shots, and gave me the courage to start experimenting with camera modes other than Auto. At that point in my life, I was hiking and climbing lots of mountains around Colorado …. and the scenery was just spectacular, so naturally I wanted to capture some of those moments. From that point onwards, I began taking my camera on every new adventure and have never looked back!
I once saw a photo similar to this on a screensaver, and thought “Wow, that would be a cool place to visit someday!”. Well that day happened on my 40th birthday. My 40th wasn’t a big wild party, but instead a little hike with my family up to a bench in the small village of Santa Magdalena in the Italian Dolomites. Together with my wife and boys …. and armed with my camera, tripod and a cold bottle of Prosecco, we sat for 2 hours to watch the sunset on a bench that had quite possibly the best view on the planet. A perfect birthday party and a day I’ll never forget…
What is your favorite camera or “go to” camera?
That’s a tough question, because I use a lot of different cameras for different situations. But as of right now, my go-to would have to be my Nikon Z6 mirrorless camera. It’s a fantastic camera that provides great still photos, and even better video. I could ramble on for days about all the features and capabilities of this amazing little camera …. but pretty sure we didn’t want to deep dive camera specs in this interview! Let me just say this…it’s a well built, lightweight camera, that can photograph or video any situation (fast action, low light, etc) remarkably well at a very reasonable price point.
In many people’s minds, Long Island is the most beautiful of all the islands in the Bahamas. After visiting this past Summer, I can completely see why. There’s beauty to be found everywhere …. including Dean’s Blue Hole, which is one of the deepest natural blue holes in the world.
How do you educate yourself to take better pictures?
Hello YouTube! Kinda joking, but actually not really. YouTube is such a treasure trove of great information, and there’s no shortage of wonderful how-to/tutorial type videos out there for photographers and filmmakers. But even with all the how-to videos, books, blogs, etc….nothing beats just getting out there and experimenting. I’m always trying out new things to see what sort of new compositions and techniques can be had. It’s a never-ending learning experience, which is what keeps it interesting and exciting for me (and sometimes frustrating :))
This is a shot of Moraine Lake at sunrise. The site is actually one of the Canadian Rockies most famous views….it’s even featured on the back of the Canadian $20 bill. I had to wake up at 3:30am and make the drive from our hotel in Banff to catch the sunrise (around 5:15am). Crazy how long the days are when you’re that far North!
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started taking photos?
I fell into the trap early on of thinking I wasn’t getting good pictures because of my camera. In reality, my picture quality had nothing to do with the camera and had everything to do with how I was photographing. Over time, I realized that photography is much less about the gear, and much more about you. Don’t sweat the gear when you’re first starting. Instead, focus on some of the most important photography fundamentals such as: a well composed shot, a captivating moment or subject, and amazing lighting. Even with a very basic/entry level camera …. if you can nail those things, you will be rewarded with some amazing shots!
This is a photograph of a charming fishing village on the island of Santorini called Amoudi Bay. I’ll never forget our day here…time slowed down and we just lazed away an entire afternoon staring out at the water, drinking wine and talking about our dreams and memories already made on our trip to Greece.
What is your photographic niche and what is it about this niche that appeals, inspires, or satisfies you?
My photographic niche is definitely travel photography. And I specialize in creating amazing digital content that brings out the very best of unique, high-end/luxury resorts and villas from around the world. Why do I love it? Well, it’s pretty simple…it’s a combination of all the things I’m passionate about: photography, travel, beautiful locations, amazing people, new cultures, and the flexibility to maintain a very healthy balance between my work and my family. It’s honestly the perfect job for me …. and I wouldn’t stop working even if I won the powerball jackpot
How did you start incorporating drone photography and video into your skill set?
Well, it’s actually the drone purchase that led me down the path of video/film-making. For quite some time, I was really torn on whether or not to buy a drone. I kept coming up with excuses (too loud, too much to carry, too easy to crash, will distract me from my other cameras, etc) on why a drone wasn’t the best idea for me. But, every time I saw those aerial shots, I was so captivated. After a couple years of serious internal struggle, I finally decided to give it a shot and honestly, it’s been one of the very best additions to my camera bag. The drone opened up a whole new world of photo and video possibilities, and to this day, I still get those excited stomach flutters before every flight. Once I started collecting all this aerial video footage from my drone flights, I realized that while aerial video is great, you can’t build great travel videos with drone footage alone. So to get some “ground level” views, I started shooting video on go-pro’s and my iPhone. Both of those were great for starters, but they also have some pretty severe limitations. That’s when I finally decided to upgrade my main camera and decided to go with one of the new Z series cameras by Nikon. Thankfully, now I have the full arsenal of cameras to capture aerial, landscape and even underwater footage. It’s funny to think that just 4 years ago, I was 100% a still photo camerman …. fast forward to now …. and I probably spend 75% of my time on video projects. It all happened pretty fast, but I’m so happy it did!
What are the typical preparations that go into your photographic shoots?
When I’m doing client work, I always try to have an up-front session before arriving to better understand what they’re hoping to get out of the photo shoot. That way, we can loosely plan out the schedule and get organized beforehand. That also helps me understand what equipment I need to bring …. because traveling with everything I own becomes near impossible thanks to flight luggage requirements these days! I also spend a lot of time better understanding when I’m most likely to have the best natural lighting conditions. Things like sunrise/sunset times, weather forecasts, and even reviewing google earth to see detailed maps of areas I plan to shoot. And of course, I always like to check out social media sites like Instagram and YouTube before visiting. There’s so much amazing content out there, and it can be a huge help in familiarizing with new locations. Those social media sites also help challenge me to think through how can I capture something different and unique from what’s currently out there.
Welcome to Prickly Pear Island, Antigua…where the beach is beautiful, the sand is soft, the water warm, and the drinks strong?? (not to mention a self serve bar.)
Do you have an all-time favorite photo destination and what is special about this place?
Oh wow, now that’s a tough one! I like to tell people that I love nearly every place we visit, because each place has their own unique qualities that make them great. But I realize that’s a pretty weak answer 🙂 If I had to pick one place from a pure photographic standpoint, I’d have to say the island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. The lagoon there is one of the most magnificent I’ve ever seen.
The lagoon is surrounded by picture perfect, palm lined motus (small islands) that are perfect for a picnic and a day of exploring. There is one motu in particular, One Foot Island, that is so photogenic I could literally spend a month camped out there and never get bored. It just has to be one of the most idyllic tropical locations on the planet.
What do you try to say in your photographs?
My photography has always been about sharing the world as seen through my lens. My photos and videos are really just me telling my story …. a collection of my experiences, feelings and beliefs as I go through life. Ultimately, I hope that they serve to inspire, encourage and guide others to get out there, seize life’s moments, and explore everything that this wonderful world has to offer.
Anything I haven’t asked that you’d like readers to know about you or your photography?
Well, I guess I’d just like to say thanks to you Tim for this opportunity to share a little about myself. It’s been fun and I hope your audience can relate to my story and maybe even learn a thing or two! I’d also like to say thank you to my family. They’ve put up with me on so many trips and adventures …. from waking them up in the hotel room at 4am so that I can gather up my gear to head out for the sunrise …. to delaying countless dinners so that I could be in just the right spot for sunset! They’ve been by my side the entire time, never a complaint, and always supporting me. Without their support, I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to chase my photographer dreams.
See more of Dan Wheeler’s photography at: