American Forests Autumn Issue features Sparky Stensaas’ wildlife and landscape photography in an article about the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest and in a new feature, “Last Look.” In this American Forests web-exclusive interview, Sparky discusses his love of nature, his quest for the elusive Canada lynx and how a photo of a snowy owl led to an encounter with the county sheriff and a police K9 unit.

Sparky Stensaas at White Sands National Monument. Credit: ©Sparky Stensaas/sparkyphotos.com

When and why did you become a nature photographer?

I think I took my first wildlife photo when I was 16 in 1979. It is of a pair of flying mallards with a blue sky background taken with a Vivitar 35mm film camera and a cheapo 200mm lens. It was taken at the General Mills headquarters in Minneapolis. They had a pond they kept heated in winter, and the ducks loved it. To this day, it is my best shot of flying mallards! At the time, I was heavy into birds and so I tried to “collect” images of as many species as possible. I guess I still do that today.

Eventually, I became a naturalist and worked for many different organizations across northern Minnesota. The camera and resulting slide shows were simply extensions of my job — educating folks about the amazing natural history of the North Woods. To this day, education is a big part of my photography and writing; I love sharing the fascinating facts about our northern critters. My blog is even called The Photo Naturalist because I meld photography with natural history.

Are you drawn to a specific type of nature photography?

I truly am a generalist. I guess as the self-proclaimed “Photo Naturalist” I have to be!

Birds are my first love. I’ve been birding since I was 14 and have seen most of North America’s breeding birds. But who doesn’t love shooting wildlife? My buddies and I often go out to Yellowstone in the fall, and the chance to shoot grizzlies, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain elk, coyote, river otter or even the tiny Pika is a great thrill.

As a publisher of field guides, I also get very interested in photographing whatever book we’re working on now. Over the last few years, I’ve become obsessed with dragonflies, butterflies, fungi, insects, spiders and moths — all subjects of field guides that we’ve published.

Birch trees in Jay Cooke State Park, Carlton County, Minnesota. Credit: ©Sparky Stensaas/sparkyphotos.com

But, how can one live in the wilds of northern Minnesota on the rugged shores of Lake Superior and not be a landscape shooter too?

What was the most difficult image you ever tried to capture?

The most difficult image I’ve tried to capture is that of a Canada lynx — no luck yet!

But one of the most difficult shots is of flying birds. My favorite challenge is that of getting sharp images of flying/hunting great gray owls. Northern Minnesota is invaded in some winters by large numbers of these mostly Canadian owls — some do nest in Minnesota. They come south in search of voles. The Sax-Zim Bog north and west of Duluth seems to be a favorite place for the owls — lots of voles, bogs and meadows.

It takes great patience and fortitude to wait for a great gray to take flight on a minus-20 morning. And then it may just slip back into the woods and you get nothing. But great fun, nonetheless.

Do you have a favorite story that revolves around your quest for photographs?

One winter morning, I found a nearly pure-white male snowy owl perched on a fence. I strapped on my snowshoes, threw my tripod over my shoulder and plodded through the deep snow. Only once I got close enough to get some good shots, did I hear the loudspeaker, “PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR VEHICLE!” I turned around to find a police car and three official security vehicles. Soon a police K9 unit showed up and the county sheriff. Unfortunately, it was the day before the first post-invasion Baghdad elections and security warnings were high. You see, the fence the snowy owl was perched on was the perimeter fence of the Duluth International Airport, and it was right across from the federal prison! Not a great place to photograph. Thank goodness for digital photography, as I was able to show them that I was only shooting a lonely owl and not planes or buildings.

Where is your favorite shooting location?

Okay, I have to give a few answers to this.

  • Favorite international location: Iceland — stark, bizarre, puffins, waterfalls
  • Favorite U.S. location away from Minnesota: Yellowstone — non-stop shooting, grizzlies, wildlife galore, geysers
  • Favorite Minnesota location: North shore of Lake Superior — cliffs, waves, ice, lighthouses
  • Most visited location: My own five acres — With a three year old and a 17-month old, I often don’t get to travel far afield these days. It’s amazing what one can fine to shoot on five acres.

Do you have a favorite photo?

My favorite photos are often animal-in-the-landscape photos — ones where the bird or mammal is shown in its habitat. But my northern owl photos(great gray owls, northern hawk owls, boreal owls) are my favorite single subject.

Taking off from an unsuccessful hunting foray, this great gray owl reveals its fully feathered legs in Wrenshall Township, Carlton County, Minnesota. Credit: ©Sparky Stensaas/sparkyphotos.com

Which other photographers do you admire?

Jim Brandenburg has an unbelievable eye. His images are true art; [he has] a very Japanese esthetic. He puts far more emphasis on the image than on equipment, often handholding shots to be more fluid rather than being weighted down by a tripod. He was a well-known National Geographic photographer for years. I also admire his quest to give back to nature; he has founded a nonprofit to preserve prairie tracts near his boyhood home in southwest Minnesota.

I’m also a big fan of British photographer Andy Rouse, Canadian Tim Fitzharris, German-American Rolf Nussbaumer and the fantastic Finnish wildlife photographers Jari Peltomaki, Markus Varesvuo, Tomi Muukkonen and Hannu Hautala.

Digital vs. film?

DIGITAL! My fun-factor went up 200 percent when I switched to digital with the Canon 10D in 2004.

At first, I missed the Christmas-like excitement of opening up your slide box from the developer and the glow of the Velvia from the light table. But now I can experiment and play and shoot a thousand images in a thousand different ways for free and not worry about “wasting” film and money. One thing film does do, though, is make the photographer sloooow down and really plan a shot. This is especially true in landscape photography, where I tend to not be as careful when shooting digital.

Sparky Stensaas is a naturalist, photographer, publisher, writer, filmmaker (i.e. “no full-time, real job”) based in Minnesota’s Nemadji Valley by Jay Cooke State Park. He is the author of five books about the natural history of the North Woods including the bestselling Rock Picker’s Guide to Lake Superior’s North Shore. Sparky’s latest venture is Friends of Sax-Zim Bog, a nonprofit aimed at educating the public about the natural history of bogs and dedicated to creating a Sax-Zim Birder/Photographer Welcome Center. When not chasing after his two young sons, he may be out taking photos, blogging or watching “All My Children” (not in that order!). You can see more of Sparky’s images at www.ThePhotoNaturalist.com