Photographer of the Month Interview: Michael Frye | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, November 2013:   Michael Frye

This month, our featured guest, professional photographer, Michael Frye! We truly appreciate his time, and thank him for answering our questions and sharing some of his terrific images with us! Please visit his links to see more of his inspiring work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start with photography?

My father and older brother were photographers, so I'm sure that had some influence on me, but mainly my interest in photography coincided with my growing appreciation of nature when I was a young adult. As I went hiking, climbing, and looking at wildlife, I wanted to document what I saw.

:: You work primarily in Yosemite National Park; how did you first find yourself in that park, and what keeps you there?

My first job in Yosemite started in August of 1983, as a host in the Ahwahnee Dining Room. Before that I was living in the Bay Area, but going to Yosemite virtually every weekend to go rock climbing. The manager at my apartment building told me that if I ever wanted to get a job in Yosemite that he knew some people, since he used to work there, and might be able to help. So at one point I decided to take him up on it, and was able to get the job at the Ahwahnee.

My interest in photography was growing at that time, and a couple of years later my fiancé and I both got jobs at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Valley, and we've been in the area ever since. I worked at the gallery for six years, my wife for twenty-five years.

I think what keeps me here is obvious: it's a beautiful place, and a wonderful area for photography.

:: Spending a lot of time in one park obviously allows you to know a location very intimately. How does that change the way you approach a scene, or what you look for when composing a shot?

Indeed, I know Yosemite very well. That familiarity makes me more selective about what I photograph. Since I've made images from all the standard views with great weather and lighting conditions, I'm not going to go to those spots when conditions aren't that interesting.

But this also pushes me to go beyond the obvious and look for smaller scenes, more intimate views of the park that a first-time visitor might overlook. And my familiarity with Yosemite also makes me aware of when unusual conditions might provide a special opportunity. This could be something as obvious as a clearing storm from Tunnel View, or as subtle as a change in water level that would make a composition of a certain dogwood along the river work.

:: Do you ever get the urge to venture elsewhere? If so, where?

Sure. I do a lot of workshops in and around Yosemite, so that keeps me here most of the time, but I love photographing other beautiful areas around the western U.S. Some of my favorite places include Redwood National and State Parks, Yellowstone, and southern Utah.

:: You've become the go-to expert on Yosemite's iconic Horsetail Falls image. How did you come to hold the torch, so to speak, for that location; how did you come to find the spot, and does it ever get old?

Good questions! I'm not sure how that happened exactly. First, I didn't find the spot; Galen Rowell did. He photographed the backlit, orange glow on Horsetail Fall in 1973, and as far as I know was the first person to photograph that lighting event. I photographed it, along with plenty of other people, in the '90s, but the popularity and fame of this event didn't take off until the last decade, with the growth of the internet.

At some point I got into a discussion with a photographer friend, Keith Walklet, about the best time to photograph Horsetail Fall. He thought it was mid February, while I thought it was late February. So I used images from one of the Yosemite webcams to try to pin this down more precisely, and wrote an article about my findings on my web site. I think that established me as an expert about Horsetail Fall in some people's minds, and one thing leads to another, so I got interviewed about Horsetail Fall by Steve Bumgardner for his Yosemite Nature Notes video, and then by Associated Press and NPR last year.

For the record, my initial findings indicated that the best window of light on Horsetail Fall was about February 11th through 21st, but with further observation I've since revised that, and think the best window is from about February 16th through 23rd.

:: What is your favorite non-iconic location to visit in Yosemite?

There are lots of them, but I'll say El Capitan Meadow. There's a wonderful grove of oak trees there that I've photographed under many different lighting and weather conditions.

:: Having spent a lot of time with photography, you've obviously watched the medium undergo a lot of changes. What changes have you been happiest with, and which aspects do you wish could change back?

The advances in color printing have been tremendous. Making great color prints in the wet darkroom required a long, steep learning curve. It's much easier to make good color prints now with the digital darkroom and high-quality inkjet printers. There's still a learning curve, but the knowledge and skill required are much easier to attain for the average photographer.

It's also much easier to deal with high-contrast scenes. I can capture images now that I wouldn't have dreamed of photographing with film, both because of the improved dynamic range of some of the better digital cameras, and the because I can blend exposures together. I don't care for the look of most HDR photographs, but there are other ways of blending exposures that look much more natural.

However, modern reliance on auto-focusing and automatic exposure has left a lot of people with big gaps in their photographic knowledge. Ten years ago I didn't have to explain to most workshop students what an f-stop was, but now I often do, even to people with a lot of photographic experience.

:: How did you become affiliated with the Ansel Adams gallery?

As I said earlier, I worked there for about six years, from 1985 to 1991. I continued my relationship with the gallery after I stopped working there, and now I teach workshops for them, and they represent my work and sell my prints.

:: What do you enjoy most about the educational side of photography?

I really enjoy teaching photography. It's gratifying to see an improvement in a student's work from the beginning of a workshop to the end, especially when they start making images that convey something about their own unique point of view, and their feelings about a place.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic gear, and why?

I'd have to say shoes! I know that seems mundane, but good shoes allow you to get around to all those great photo locations comfortably.

:: Do you do much backpacking into the high country of Yosemite?

I don't enjoy punishing myself by carrying heavy camera equipment along with a tent, sleeping bag, and other backpacking gear. I'm happy to make day hikes, and stay at a location until sunset, or even later, and hike back in the dark.

:: You've got a nice set of night images from all over; what do you enjoy about night photography that maybe the day doesn't offer?

Photographing at night allows me convey a sense of the power and mystery of the natural world, something that's difficult to do during the daytime. Also, a popular location in a national park might be overrun by tourists during the day, yet it can be quiet and peaceful at night, so being out after dark allows me to connect with the landscape in a deeper way.

:: Are you doing any new projects that you'd like to tell people about?

Well, I'm always working on something. I just released my latest ebook, Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. I've already started working on my next ebook, but I can't reveal any details yet.

:: With all the great photographers (Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, and William Neil, to name but a few) who have made Yosemite/Eastern Sierra their primary settings, how do you want to leave your mark when all is said and done?

I really don't worry about things like that. I just try to make the best photographs I can, and help other photographers make the best photographs they can, and let the future take care of itself.

:: How has the role of social media changed the way you approach the business side of things, and how do you think this will change in the future?

The internet in general, of which social media is a part, has changed all businesses, photography included. I love the fact that you don't need to go through gatekeepers anymore. When I started out, building a successful career meant convincing magazine editors, stock agents, or gallery owners to use or carry your work. Now you can bypass all of that. If you build a loyal following online you can market to people directly, without the middleman.

As for what will happen in the future, there are a lot of people trying to predict things like that who know more about technology than me, and they often get it wrong, so I won't even attempt [to answer] that.

:: What piece of advice do you have for beginning photographers who might be looking to start a career in nature photography?

Pick an easier career! Seriously, a lot of people have an unrealistic idea of what the job is like, and how long it takes to get established. People think that I spend all of my time out in nature making photographs, returning home only to deposit the checks that have somehow miraculously appeared in my mailbox, when actually I spend most of my time behind a desk at a computer, just like everyone else.

If you really want to make photography your career, you can do it with a lot of patience and persistence, and some talent. But don't expect it to happen quickly, or easily. It takes time and a lot of work.

Michael Frye

"I just try to make the best photographs I can, and help other photographers make the best photographs they can, and let the future take care of itself."

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