Michelle Valberg: From Amateur to Professional
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.
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Michelle Valberg, a renowned wildlife photographer and esteemed Nikon Ambassador, has spent over three decades captivating audiences, inspiring them to cherish and protect our natural world.
Travelling around all corners of the globe, Valberg’s deep-rooted love for Canada and the Arctic takes precedence in her work.
When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?
When I picked up my first camera, the nature photography bug took a hold of my world.
To make a living in photography, there wasn’t a photography job I said no to for the first 20 years of my career – weddings, portraits, events etc., they all helped support my nature addiction.
Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?
My first photo was from a stream in Lake Placid. I had never taken a photo before my father gave me his camera. After I took this photo, my world was never the same.
I remember it vividly like it was yesterday. It is what fueled my passion for wanting to learn more and to make a living at photography.
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?
There are many images I took almost 40 years ago that I still love. They had an impact in my life in one way or another. They are a part of my photography soul.
This is one of a narwhal from my first trip to Canada’s Arctic… it blew me away – not only to capture an image of this elusive creature but to have the experience of capturing it.
My most recent favourite image is of Boss the Spirit Bear shaking.
I took this image in the Great Bear Rainforest. It has been on a few magazine covers and it has won many awards including the gold medal at the World Photographic Cup in Rome in 2022. It was a moment I will never forget.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?
After high school, when I was 17 years old, I became a photographer. I went to University and College to study photography and while in school, I started my own business.
It has been my only profession and I think I have the best job in the world. I am so fortunate to have made a living in photography for over 38 years.
Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?
My major turning point in my career happened when I visited Canada’s High Arctic. I was working on a book on Canada and desperately wanted to photograph polar bears.
I made a phone call and two weeks later I was standing on the floe-edge near Pond Inlet, Nunavut photographing polar bears, bowhead whales, walrus, seals, birds and narwhal.
It became my mission to bring the north to the south – to show this beautiful magical place on Earth. That meant more time in the natural world and less time in the studio. It was a huge transition that took time to build up to and one I am forever grateful for.
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.
I have now been to Canada’s Arctic over 60 times. Each time is different. Each visit I learn more. From better equipment and more knowledge to a better understanding of what it takes to be a wildlife photographer.
My mission has evolved as well, which has ultimately made me a better photographer.
My journey as a wildlife photographer and Nikon Ambassador for Canada has carried me across the globe, offering me the gift of incredible experiences on every continent.
Through the power of photography, I strive to inspire a new generation of conservationists, to create more engagement, and to foster a genuine interest in the preservation of our planet.
Because, in the end, it is the emotion evoked by an image that has the power to change the world – one click of the shutter at a time.
Has anything changed in regards to how you process and edit your images?
Absolutely it has changed! I started with Photoshop and still use it almost 100% of the time for post-production. We change over time, our likes, dislikes, our vision and what we want for our final output. Just like it was in the darkroom days.
We forever need to evolve/improve our style to stay relevant, to keep our interest and love for photography at the highest level.
I think it is critical, however, to always stay true to our unique style.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?
Being a young businesswoman and creator in a male dominated industry was my biggest challenge and quite frankly, it sometimes still is.
Another challenge is time and the amount of travel I am doing; finding the balance between wanting to be in the field photographing all the time and family life at home.
After 2.5 years of being at home because of Covid, I went into travel/work overdrive coming out of the pandemic. Now I need to evaluate again and figure out my next path.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
Stand your ground. Never be intimidated. Be yourself. Believe in yourself.