Interviews

Grant Ordelheide

Colorado based adventure photographer Grant Ordelheide spends his time in exotic locations and wild places to fuel his love of the wilderness.  He would rather visit a jagged peak way off the map than struggle with crowds in a city any day, and his spectacular mountain vistas from around the world are second to none.


Welcome to intrepid.photos Grant! You have described your photography as a by-product of spending so much time in nature.   Growing up in the Colorado Rockies obviously gave you a great head start as an adventure photographer from that perspective.    Do you see your desire for wilderness as intimately linked to your upbringing, and do you think you would have found your way to photography even if you were raised in a large city?

I definitely think my love of nature is strongly linked to my upbringing. Growing up in an “outdoorsy” family really led me to appreciate nature. Hiking, skiing and backpacking were regular parts of my childhood and eventually, I just starting bringing a camera along to document these trips. From there my photography became more and more serious until I ultimately decided I wanted to try to make a career out of it. I think my personality would have led me to the mountains no matter where I grew up. I don’t know that if I had grown up in a different scenario if I would have pursued photography. My passion for photography was really shaped by my passion for the outdoors, not the other way around.

What does a typical photo expedition involve and how may expeditions would you go on a year?

They are all end up being a little different depending on who is with me or what I am trying to accomplish. Sometimes I am working for a client, shooting a shot list as efficiently as possible. Other times I am working on personal projects. Sometimes the trips revolve around a specific climbing or backpacking objective where photography is almost secondary. On most of my trips, I live completely out of the back of my truck. I love traveling that way, because I can sleep just about anywhere and bring whatever I might need with me. Though it can vary, I usually go on seven to nine trips a year.

Two climbers approaching a climb with Snowpatch Spire in the background in British Columbia's Bugaboo Provincial Park.

What equipment do you take on a shoot?

Again, this can vary greatly from trip to trip. If I am traveling internationally, I usually try to go as light as possible most of the time traveling out of one small duffel bag and a camera backpack. If I am driving I load up my truck with lots of gear. Some of the gear comes with me no matter where I am going such as photo equipment, computer, camping gear, emergency beacon, etc. Other stuff such as climbing gear, snowboard, Kayak and SUP, or my mountain bike are packed depending on the location and itinerary.

You often talk about contacting to a deep spirituality in nature.   This seems to be quite a common theme across wilderness photographers.  Do you think that the artificial construct of the modern world has resulted in a society deprived of any sense of how they fit into the natural world? 

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I don’t know if I can speak for society, but I can say that for me personally, nature has always provided a place to find a stronger spiritual connection. I do think it helps to unplug and turn off the distractions of the modern world and go for a hike. The solitude of the mountains can be a powerful and inspiring thing. I have always loved John Muir’s quote, “I would rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in church thinking about the mountains”.

Your stated aim seems to be to photograph the landscape in a way that will help others appreciate and care for it.   What conservation role do you think adventure photography has in an increasingly electronic world and what would you say to criticisms that it simply increases impact by encouraging more people out into fragile environments? 

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Due to social media, I think this generation of photographers have the power to reach more people than ever before. I genuinely hope that my images inspire people to take care of this planet. I hope that they look at my images and recognize that we all have a responsibility to care for these wild places. I realize that is sort of a passive take on conservation and I hope to grow into a more active conservation photographer.

The internet presents an interesting dilemma because we as photographers (and I include myself in this group) often act like we are somehow entitled to the landscape and that we are doing more good than harm simply by taking beautiful photos. The reality is that sometimes photographers create negative impacts in pristine places. Social media can be a double edge sword as it can draw lots of people to very specific and fragile places. I have seen many popular photo spots trampled to death because of an influx of people all trying to capture that photo they saw on Instagram. I think we have an obligation to record the landscape in a responsible way. By that I mean not doing any damage to the environment in order to take a photo and trying to avoid excessively drawing people to specific spots. I want to be clear that I think it is great that someone might see an image of a lake and get inspired to go there instead of sitting on the couch all weekend. I just think that we need to keep in mind the potential impact we can have on a place even after we leave.

Where do you get your photographic inspiration from and do you follow any other photographers that you particularly admire?

I get most of my photographic inspiration by the landscape itself. Traveling and visiting new places always motivates me photographically. The world is a big place and to be able to visit some of the most remarkable parts of it is really inspiring to me.

As far as specific photographers, there are just too many to name! I hate for this to sound like a copout, but there are just so many good photographers working today. I love looking at other photographer’s work when I am lacking inspiration. I find myself inspired by all sorts of genres of photography, not just outdoor work. I think it is important to study the work of other photographers. It helps you to understand how they saw the world around them and is critical to developing your own vision.

As someone who admires both mountain and weather photography your Grand Canyon lightning strike photo would have to be one of most dramatic shots out there given how well the microburst of rain is illuminated by the lightning bolt.   Weather photography is normally a function of both planning and patience, was this the case for this shot?  Or was it more of case of being opportunistically in the right place, at the right time?  

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Thank you! That specific shot was definitely more about being in the right place at the right time. I had been at the Grand Canyon for several days working on a project while trying to shoot the summer monsoons. I was starting to get a feel for the storms and how they were moving over the canyon. That night, I scrambled down the rim to a secluded spot on the South Rim to shoot sunset. I was obviously prepared to shoot any lighting strikes, but wasn’t exactly planning on it. Once I noticed the strikes, I adjusted my plans and got back up on the rim to put myself in position to shoot the oncoming storm. I shot the storm for about an hour as it moved closer and closer. I was composing my shots as tightly as I could, just hoping a strike would hit in the right place. Finally this bolt hit exactly where I was hoping. I checked that it was sharp, and then sprinted a half mile back to the safety my car as the rain came down on the South Rim. So while I was certainly adjusting and waiting for the best-case scenario, there was absolutely an element of luck to have it all line up the way it did.

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Which photo is your most popular photo and why do you think people like it?

My best selling photo is definitely my sunset over Eichorn Pinnacle image in Yosemite National Park. It has sold many times including on the cover of a magazine and textbook. It is always hard to fully understand why a photo resonates with someone. I honestly wish I were better at predicting which photos will sell well. Sometimes photos that I am sure people will love end up collecting dust on my hard drive or in a stock agency. Other images that I had relatively low expectations for end up selling really well. As far as this specific photo, I think that the dramatic landscape and nice light help, but the fact that there is a tiny person on this small summit giving scale to the whole scene is what really pushes it over the top. I’ve had people who are rock climbers that love the image because they have been in similar situations and can imagine themselves being that person. I also have had people that love the photo because their fear of heights would never let them stand on top of a spire like that. I think that if people can bring their own experience to an image, it is more likely to resonate with them.

Which photo of yours means the most to you personally?

That is a really hard question to answer, and I am not sure if I can truly come up with one photo. The photos that mean the most to me personally are the ones where the experience of taking the photo means a lot to me. An image that required a multi day backpacking trip and multiple nights camped at one location waiting for the perfect light will always resonate more with me than a photo taken from the side of the road. A lot of my wildlife images also mean a lot to me because seeing animals up close in their natural habitat is an experience that will never get old to me. I am fortunate to have had many experiences in nature that I highly value and thankfully I have been able to record those memories with my camera.

If I had to pick a recent image, I would probably choose this shot of an illuminated tent beneath the northern lights in the Yukon. This valley is very remote and few people hike all the way back there. We spent several days backpacking in frigid temperatures to get there, but it all seemed worth it once the Aurora came out. I look at this image and I don’t just see a tent in the mountains, I see all the planning and hard work that went into getting to that location. I remember how incredibly cold it was and how sore I was after hiking in there. Its photos like this that mean the most to me personally.

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What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?

I want my viewers to be inspired by the world around us. I try to photograph the world in a positive way and I hope that comes across to people who look at my photos. I hope people that view my work are inspired and recognize how incredible this planet really is!

If you could pass on one critical tip or technique to someone, what would it be? 

I think it is very important to photograph what you are passionate about. If you are passionate about your subject, that will show in your work. It doesn’t matter what it is, but if you don’t care about your subject and you are just going through the motions of photographing it, it will be hard to create meaningful work. If nature is your passion, I would encourage you to regularly spend time in nature without a camera. Go out and just enjoy the outdoors; having that experience will help you for when you do have your camera.

Are your compositions normally pre-meditated or developed on the fly?

I think it is usually a combination of the two. Most of the time when I head to a location, I pre-visualize the type of photo and composition I want to take. If I am familiar with the location, the final product usually is nearly identical to what I had in my head. If I am new to a location, I often look for compositions on the fly, but I am always looking for scenes that I pre-visualized.

What clichés in photography do you try and avoid?

I usually just try to avoid the super over photographed locations. I just don’t have a huge desire to stand tripod to tripod with other photographers shooting the same thing that has been photographed a million times before. That being said, I think there is value in trying to come up with new and creative ways to photograph these iconic landmarks because at the end of the day, these locations do sell. Regardless, the iconic landscape clichés are never really a priority for me.

A brown bear chases a salmon in Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Can you elaborate on your post production workflow and what people might learn in the workshops?

My post production workflow is pretty simple and straightforward. I use Lightroom for downloading/editing through my images as well as basic global corrections. These days, Lightroom is pretty powerful and I am able to do most of my editing in that program. I usually only open an image in Photoshop if it needs some fine-tuning, or if I am prepping it to be printed.

In our workshops I am a part of (run with Jerry Dodrill and other great photographers), we aim to give the clients the best experience we can. We scout locations extensively ahead of time to make sure we put clients in the best possible scenarios. We give presentations on the art of photography, the practicalities of chasing light, and in-depth workflow practices among other things. We also find there to be tremendous value in giving well thought out and constructive critiques. These are often the sessions where people feel like they learn the most. Between our classroom work and the early and late shooting sessions in the field, these workshops can be very intensive (in a good way of course).

What locations are on your wish list for an extended photographic adventure?

This could be a never-ending answer because my list of places I would like to visit never seems to get any shorter! If I had to pick a few places that are at the top of the list they would be the Southern Fjords of Greenland, the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan, the French Alps, and I would love to photograph Polar bears in the arctic. Of course that is only the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully I can get to some of those places in the near future!

How important is social media in your strategy of deriving an income from photography related activities? What recommendations would you have for someone starting out in the industry today who was aiming to earn a living from photography? 

I think a social media presence is critical for working photographers today. An older photographer lamented to me how amazing it is that we can take a photo and on the same day share it with thousands of people online because in the past you had to publish a book to get that sort of views. I am by no means a social media expert, but I have seen the benefits of having a large following to interact. I think we as photographers are lucky to have the advantages that social media provides.

If I could offer any advice for earning a living in photography it would be to diversify as much as possible. I mean that in both what you shoot and how you earn income. If you decide you are only going to shoot trees, then you will have a limited market to sell your images. Photograph things that you are passionate about, but at the same time keep an open mind and be careful not to limit yourself to specific subjects. Even more important is to diversify the way you make money. Photography is a very competitive field and I think it is crucial to not put your eggs all in one basket. Sell prints, teach workshops, work with publications, submit to stock agencies, present at the local art shows; all of these things can add up to a legitimate income. This way if one stream dries up, you have others to fall back on.

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Anything else you would like to pass on to the readers?

Get out there and have fun!

Where can people go to look at your work and get in contact with you ?

People can find my work at http://www.grantordelheide.com or follow me on Facebook or Instagram.

 

 

All photos in this article remain the copyright of Grant Ordelheide and have been reproduced with permission.

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