Dawn Wilson: From Amateur to Professional

dawn wilson photography

In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional” we will be asking established nature photographers to share their photos and see how their practices have developed, changed, and improved over time. 

You’ll get to see the progression of their images, learn how they got started, and find out how they transitioned from amateur to professional.

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Dawn Wilson is a professional and award-winning nature photographer specializing in images and stories about wildlife of high latitudes and high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains and Alaska. Dawn’s text and photography have appeared in more than 800 regional and national publications.

In addition to her editorial work, Dawn can be found leading wildlife photography workshops around North America.

When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?

I grew up carrying a camera to every family event or outing with friends. I was on the yearbook staff in high school. I was the historian for my sorority and worked on the school newspaper in college where I continued to put the photography and writing skills to use.

But I also spent a lot of time outdoors exploring the woods and coastline near where I grew up in southern New Jersey.

dawn wilson photography

I never spent much time combining photography, writing, and the outdoors, however, until a move to Colorado nearly two decades after receiving my first camera. Here, I had moose, elk, red fox, bighorn sheep, bald eagles and so many other birds within minutes of my home.

I could look out my back window and see 14,000ft mountains covered in fresh snow. I could walk along gurgling rivers and enjoy the high-mountain meadows full of alpine flowers on camping trips. There was an endless supply of natural subjects near and far.

Although I now wish I paid more attention to the nature that was around me in New Jersey, I feel blessed to have discovered the infinite joy I experience and the mindfulness I embrace while in nature with my camera in Colorado.

Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?

Although not one of the first images I took, the below image was one of the first images I took after moving to Colorado and before I made the switch to working as a full-time nature photographer. 

I am often asked what was my ‘spark bird’; that species that generated the spark to become a birder.

I don’t describe myself as a birder, but as a photographer that enjoys photographing birds. So instead, I think of this photo as my ‘spark photo’ – the photo that got me thinking, “I could do this. I could really combine all of my interests into a career.”

dawn wilson photography
Bald eagle, Colorado

This was one of the first photos I took of a bald eagle. I didn’t see many bald eagles growing up in New Jersey because in the 1970s their numbers were still extremely low.

Moving to Colorado in 2002, bald eagle numbers were on the rise, and I frequently saw the stunning birds in the winter. 

It was after this photo that I upgraded my equipment to have better lenses and camera bodies for wildlife and bird photography. I also started to study and learn a lot about the wildlife I wanted to photograph, particularly focusing on behavior.

Looking back on this photo, I see the flaws. I no longer like to shoot looking up at birds. I am more selective about time of day, opting instead for golden light at sunrise or sunset or early morning light rather than harsh midday light.

And I also pay much more attention to the direction of the light to avoid these harsh shadows, which obscured the face in this image. I also would prefer to have more dramatic skies behind the subject rather than just dull blue sky. 

At the time, however, I was ecstatic to capture a photo of a bald eagle taking off from a branch. I was also quite happy to properly expose the light and dark feathers, a difficult task on the adult bald eagle, especially in bright light. 

Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early/amateur days, and one from your professional career. Why do you like them, what made you so proud of them, and how do you feel about the older image now?

The first image, ‘Rams Eye’, is still one of my favorite images. 

It was a slow, late fall day in Wyoming in my early days of pursuing wildlife photography. Back then, I had a lot more time to travel and photograph the subjects I was interested.

I had time to drive up and down canyons over and over again for several days looking for specific subjects or sitting with subjects for hours waiting for the perfect photo. My goal for that trip was bighorn sheep during the fall rut.

dawn wilson photography
Bighorn sheep, Wyoming

On the day of this photo, however, I saw no sheep until mid-afternoon. These two rams were sparring near the road. Over what I don’t know, as there were no ewes nearby, but with hormones running high that time of year, it probably didn’t take much to set them off into a battle. 

I witnessed them head butt each other over and over again for more than an hour. Considering they were already bloody when I arrived on the scene, they must have been there for much longer.

Although they didn’t seem tired, the one ram stopped for the briefest moment. As the other ram moved in front of him, I saw the shot coming.

I captured the series of frames on a camera body with a fraction of today’s rates in hopes of that one single shot where the ram in the back would look through the horn of the other male. I had it!

It is those decisive moments of achievement, patience and drama that make wildlife photography so exciting. 

Today, I find the photos that take that kind of time and patience, techniques that are so important for successful wildlife photography, are few and far between.

More of my images today are for assignments and articles or taken during workshops when my focus is for my clients rather than my work. My photography has also evolved to focus more on the wildlife in the landscape to tell their complete story.

I now love combining the animal into a scenic shot that conveys the beauty of nature.

I have also found that I have ventured back into other forms of nature photography. Beyond wildlife and bird photography, I also capture a lot more images of landscapes and night skies. I also find I have embraced more dramatic light, with a particular fondness for backlight.

And I guess overall I have become a bit complacent about what is exciting and memorable for me as I spend so much time in the field witnessing such amazing natural beauty.

dawn wilson
Bison and grey wolf, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

So, narrowing down for a second favorite image from my more recent work has become difficult.

My favorites are more about the experience behind the shot rather than the shot itself — partly because I don’t have the time like I used to enjoy those unique moments and because it really has become about the story of nature, not just a pretty image. 

This second image is from a recent winter workshop in Yellowstone National Park. Although the image may not go down as a winning photo, it has definitely become one of my more recent favorites for the rare opportunity to experience the interaction between a wolf pack and a bison. 

Our group came upon the wolves in the early morning light. We were the first to arrive and discovered not just the first two wolves we saw in the road but a whole pack of 12 plus an injured bison. 

The drama unfolded over the entire day. Watching the dynamics of the wolf pack was fascinating yet witnessing the demise of the bison was heart-wrenching.

Ultimately, the bison did perish, and that single animal now fed dozens of other animals, including wolves, coyotes, ravens, magpies and bald eagles. 

To me, this photo captures that 10-hour showdown between the wolves and the bison.

Would I have preferred for a cleaner background and lower angle? Absolutely. Would the image have been better with maybe some falling snow and a fresh blanket of flakes on the ground? Probably. But I didn’t have that.

What I did have was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch nature come full circle. 

When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?

Before I ever considered a career as a professional nature photographer, I considered attending veterinary school. I’ve always had an interest in animals and science. but I also had an interest in writing, telling stories, and sharing information with a larger audience.

Instead of biology or ecology, I studied communications in undergraduate school. I looked again at veterinary school after college, deciding I had ventured too far down a different path to change at that time. Instead, I attended business school, earning an MBA in marketing. 

dawn wilson photography
Polar bears, Alaska

What I have discovered is a unique way to combine all of those interests into one amazing career. I now run my own business, applying all of the skills I learned in business school and 20 years of corporate marketing.

I watch and participate in nature on a daily basis, using my communications skills to tell the stories of the natural world.

After a difficult personal time in 2012 and 2013, I decided I no longer wanted to sit in a gray cubicle filling out spreadsheets. I instead wanted to follow my passions and dreams because life is short and we need to enjoy every moment of it. 

I had started my own business in 2006, but in 2013, I modified the business plan, left the corporate job and ventured out on my own as a wildlife photographer and travel/outdoor writer. 

Dawn Wilson photography
Brown bear, Katmai National Park, Alaska

In those first few years, my goal was to build up my portfolio of content. For three years I traveled anywhere and everywhere I wanted to photograph wildlife, starting with trips to photograph brown and polar bears and culminating with 15 months on the road in an RV.

It has not been easy, and COVID didn’t help, but I have learned to have multiple streams of revenue to keep my business afloat.

I always have new opportunities in the pipeline for long-term business success, yet I need to focus on what short-term assignments and goals are required to maintain a steady stream of income today. 

Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?

Yes. After unexpectedly losing my partner and father within three months of each other and watching my mom go through some difficult medical issues at the same time, I knew I had to be true to myself. I knew I had to live my best life.

dawn wilson photography
Bald eagle, Colorado

Although it has not been easy and I still have a lot to accomplish, I am proud that I have made it work for more than a decade. There have been times where I have questioned my decision but I really have never regretted leaving a standard 9-to-5 office job for this unexpected and rewarding life.

Are there any species, places, or subjects that you have re-visited over time? Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.

There are many, but Yellowstone National Park is one particularly impressive location. Next to Rocky Mountain National Park and Alaska, Yellowstone National Park is one of my favorite places to photograph wildlife.

dawn wilson landscape photography
Bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Winter in particular offers many unique settings for wildlife photography – from frosty bison and wolves in snowy landscapes to swans on foggy waterways.

My first trip to Yellowstone in winter took me to the interior of the park by snowmobile where I photographed bison staying warm by laying on the thermals. The frost-covered animals provided numerous opportunities for images full of stories about survival in this harsh climate.

There are three images I will share, each showcasing bison in winter. The image of the bison lying down (above) was from that first trip in 2007. I have since gone back and re-edited the image as the first capture was a good – or poor – example of my neophyte photo skills.

The photo was underexposed and horribly grainy due to the early-generation digital camera.

This new version takes advantage of better noise reduction software and my editing skills to make it brighter but there are still some compositional faux pas that I would do differently today, like the busy background of other bison. 

dawn wilson photography
Bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

The second image (above) was taken in 2016 and is more in the style of photographs I would continue to create today when presented with a frosty bison. I like the blue and brown colors and the cleaner background, which isolates the bison.

The low-angle makes the bison look larger and more impressive, and the editing software and newer digital camera model handled the higher ISO much better.

The third image of the bison in the landscape (below) was from my most recent trip in January 2024 (below).

dawn wilson
Bison, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

In addition to following that complementary blue and brown color palette, several things have evolved into this image

The lack of snow this winter season shows how variable the weather has become even in Yellowstone; the nod to the wildlife in the environment showcases my interest in telling the story of the ecosystem in my more recent work; the latest digital cameras and software do an unbelievable job in processing high noise, making it almost no issue to shoot in low-light conditions, a necessity in Yellowstone in winter.

Has anything changed in regards to how you process and edit your images?


When I started in communications more than 30 years ago, Lightroom didn’t exist and Photoshop was in its infancy. A disk could hold one photo on it.

Today, software is lightning-fast. AI will change photography in leaps and bounds as people can now become their own visionary artists rather than being at the mercy of what nature provides them.

For me personally, I now do most of my editing in Lightroom. Photoshop still plays a part but only for minor aspects of the editing process.

Plug-in software has become a larger part of my process as well, with programs like Topaz Photo AI being a game changer for things like improving noise reduction and sharpness.

Cell phones and tablets have also brought editing into a new realm, with software available on phones to edit and share in the field. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?

They are one and the same: finding work.

The industry is changing, and changing fast. When I started, there was still some work in stock imagery. That has pretty much dried up now; the agencies are there but they no longer pay very well because there is just so much content.

When I started, photographers were hosting workshops but not on the scale of today. Locations are saturated and some destinations can be hard to fill because of costs compared to others who can do it cheaper.

dawn wilson
Black-capped donacopius, Peru

I am thankful I also write because that has given me a differentiation in the crowded market – I can produce one package of content, eliminating the need for multiple people for editors.

There used to be a fine art print business but with digital photography changing in leaps and bounds, many people can now capture their own stunning photographs.

Commercial print sales seem to have slowed down as well with more people working from home and fewer or smaller offices being required for employees.

Today, instructional videos and creative marketing tactics seem to be the best way to find new work, which is a constant task as a business owner.

Finding and offering unique photo tours is another avenue many photographers are exploring, including myself. I currently offer private tours in Rocky Mountain National Park and guide for two companies, Women in Wildlife Photography and Wildside Nature Tours.

What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?

Be prepared that you will give up time in the field taking photos to run a business. This is a business like any other — whether that is running a restaurant, a gift shop, an accounting firm or a graphic design agency.

There are deadlines, expectations, clients, bills and paperwork that all take precedence over going out to shoot. Daily, you are the marketer, accountant, salesperson, office manager, strategist, product developer and mail clerk.

The work never stops.

Dawn wilson photography
Night sky, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

If it does, your business isn’t doing well. If you want to take a day off, you absolutely can; you are your own boss. But I have found out that my current boss – me – is harder to appease than any other I have ever worked for in the past. You must find a balance.

The one piece of advice? Take it slow. Don’t jump in too deep or too fast or you may find yourself scrambling to get back out at the worst time.

And for goodness’ sake, differentiate yourself. Don’t try to be every other photographer out there, but rather your own unique, incredible you.

Finally, remember to enjoy the ride.

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