Photo Tip: You can do it too – The story of Billy Dodson

Billy Dodson was the 2007 Winner of the The Nature Conservancy Digital Photo Contest.  At the time he won the event, he had only been seriously into wildlife photography for TWO YEARS.  I think this is a great story and, hopefully, it will inspire you to get out and shoot more.

Billy Dodson (left) with David Muteti - "We are a team and he (David) is the most important part of it"

“I’m not a photographer who happened to visit Africa and fell in love with the land and the animals. I do what I do because of Africa … that is, the magic of the place turned me into a photographer.”

Upon returning home to Williamsburg, Virginia,  Dodson found that he “spent an excessive amount of time trying to figure out a way to return to Africa – often – and make the travel self-sustaining.” Since he enjoyed documenting the Kilimanjaro climb with the SLR he purchased for the trip, Dodson decided to pursue photography as his ticket back to Africa.

“I subscribed to a couple of the popular photo magazines and really learned the principles of light, exposure, metering, etc. from reading them,” says Dodson. “Composition seemed to come naturally. I live in a very photogenic town (Williamsburg, Virginia), so I did a lot of shooting around town and even landed some images on the cover of our local magazine …but a return trip to Africa was my real goal.”

His goal was realized in 2005 when he bought a used 500mm Sigma lens, a Nikon D70 and a plane ticket to Tanzania.

“The images I captured on that first trip began to sell immediately, and the cycle has continued in the years since,” Dodson says. “Wildlife photography is now both my means and my excuse to continue to visit Africa.”

Dodson’s love for the natural world wasn’t always such a strong pull for him. Born in the farmlands of Sikeston, Missouri, Dodson’s outdoor experience was confined to his work in the hayfields and watermelon patches. Then as an adult, his time was spent dedicated to his career as a Naval officer.

“It wasn’t until my wife [Cynthia] insisted on a hiking trip to Glacier National Park that I realized that I’d never really taken the time to appreciate the natural world,” Dodson says. “And then my first visit to Africa heightened that realization — it was truly a life-changing experience. Since that trip I’ve been trying to make up for all the wasted time and missed opportunities in the preceding years. Better to learn late than not at all.”

Since that first fateful trip in 2001, Dodson has returned to Africa seven times, and has a number of future trips in the works. Starting in 2011, he will begin leading photo trips to different destinations to share with other photographers his many African loves: elephants, zebras, the landscapes and light of the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti, as well as the great animal migrations.

Throughout his travels, Dodson has found himself face-to-face with a hungry giraffe and an agitated bull elephant, but like most nature photographers, he has a wishlist of shots he’s still waiting to get. And at the top of his list? Cheetah cubs. “That’s my holy grail, and I ain’t quitting until I photograph some!”

Dodson hopes to use his photography to help protect his incredible subjects. He donates his images to conservation organizations including The Nature Conservancy (TNC), African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and Kenya Land Conservation Trust.

“I want to do everything within my power to protect the vulnerable animal species of East Africa and to preserve their fragile environment.”

As a member of The Nature Conservancy, Dodson has found a “natural fit” for his conservation interests within the Conservancy’s work in Africa.

“These days I’m also acutely cognizant of the pressure on the game reserves and the fragility of so many of their species,” Dodson says. “It’s made me appreciate organizations like TNC and AWF because I’ve seen the positive impact of their efforts firsthand. Supporting what these organizations do is the best possible use of my images.”

Dodson’s love of photography grew out of his passion for African wildlife. Once you’ve learned the basic principles of photography and digital post-production, Dodson believes the key to being a successful nature photographer is having a subject that you’re passionate about.

“I think it actually helps if you love nature, or some aspect of it, to the point of obsession. I’m not recommending insanity, but in my case I think it’s helped make me successful,” Dodson says. “If you’re passionate about your subjects, I think it makes it much easier to capture their heart and essence.”

Dodson will return to Kenya (and the animals he loves so dearly) this October.

Billy noted that he was packed and ready to leave when he saw this young zebra foal. Clearly it was worth unpacking the gear for a few last shots. Another reminder to always be ready. Note also, that a centered composition is normally not suggested. Further, the landscape orientation is unusual for the vertical features of the zebra, but the background, out of focus zebra makes this composition work for Mr. Dodson.

Elephants in early morning light - Note how the early morning light allows a nice soft feel for the image and allows image separation of the young elephant from the other elephants.

The 'money shot' that won the contest. Billy noted that his plan was to shoot a griaffe in profile and that the appearance of the ox pecker created the unexpected bonus. Two editorial comments: 1) always be ready, as you cannot predict nature and 2) adding action to an image (bird wing flutter) will separate your image from those of most others.

To Learn More about the photo Contest, visit The Nature Conservancy

To see more of Billy Dodson’s work visit his site, Savanna Images or see his photos at Photo.net

3 comments for “Photo Tip: You can do it too – The story of Billy Dodson

  1. June 24, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Thanks much for posting this. I very much hope to visit Chobe one day.

    Very respectfully and best wishes,
    Billy Dodson

    PS … obviously, I google my own name once in a while. 🙂

  2. Rob Beck
    November 5, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Folks, I’ve known Billy for a long time. Heck, I knew him before he was a photographer. He’s a wonderful man who has found his passion and I wish him the very best. Good for you Billy!!!

  3. Rob Beck
    November 5, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Folks, I’ve known Billy for a long time. Heck, I knew him before he was a photographer. He’s a wonderful man who has found his passion and I wish him the very best. Good for you Billy!!!

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