Frank Comisar is a professional landscape, wildlife and nature photographer, as well as the founder of Scenic Aperture, a gallery in downtown Durango where vivid and enormous shots of Canyonlands National Park, Aspen trees and grazing moose practically leap off the walls. Comisar regularly travels around the country taking pictures; he also leads photography workshops for those who aspire to make beautiful work, but need a friendly push. He aims not only to cement a moment in time, but to capture the rich emotions that lurk behind every landscape and natural interaction between an animal and its home planet.
How do you shoot wildlife without putting your own safety at risk?
By understanding their behavior and making sure that as you approach, you’re not disturbing them. If you disturb them, usually what’s going to happen is they’ll run away, or get upset and aggressive. You don’t just walk up and put a camera in their face; I’ve got long telephoto lenses. Frequently the animal knows I’m there, but I’m not threatening or invading their space or competing for their food. I work very hard not to disturb my subjects.
What’s your favorite wildlife to photograph?
Birds. They’re very challenging. Small and fast. You’re often shooting from a blind, waiting for them to come close; as opposed to a big mammal, where you’re stalking them. Generally, people don’t buy a lot of bird photographs; primarily what I sell are landscapes. My target market here is tourists on vacation; they’ve either come from one of the places I’ve photographed, or they’re about to visit one of them. People come here and enjoyed the area, took a few shots with their iPhones and say the pictures didn’t do it justice. So people can buy these to commemorate their time here.
Why do you enjoy photographing the American West?
I think the desert is underappreciated by most people, primarily because they sleep late, then go out there around noon when the light is harsh, not very pretty, and the weather is unpleasant. All my shots are taken very early or very late.
How do your photography workshops function?
They’re multi-day workshops, either landscape or wildlife, and they take place all over. Clients bring their own gear. It’s part-technical, as there’s a lot of technical knowledge required to take a great photograph. But it goes way beyond the fundamentals of proper exposure and focus. I customize my training to the individual; so if you’re brand new, I’ll be over your shoulder helping you with exposure and focus. If you’re beyond that, you’re trying to raise your photograph from merely taking snapshots to trying to capture a moment, a feeling, an emotion, animals in their natural habitat – then it’s a whole different level. It’s thinking about composition, understanding different kinds of light.
What about young people who can’t afford the gear? Can they still take good shots with an iPhone?
It’s not about the gear, it’s about the operator behind the camera. You can take better shots with a camera that has more control. Today’s smartphones have pretty amazing technology built into them, but you have little control. None of my pictures are taken with the “automatic” settings; they’re all taken by totally controlling the camera. Not letting the internal computer make decisions and judgments about how you want to portray the image. It doesn’t take thousands of dollars of camera gear; but it takes a camera that allows you to take control. Though I can take photos that make me happy with my phone. I tell my clients you need only three things to come to one of my workshops: a camera with manual control, a tripod and a lens.
You shoot on digital exclusively, no film. Why is that?
It’s so much better. Today’s digital technology gives you the ability to capture images that could not be captured with film, in regard to light sensitivity. You’ve seen pictures of the Milky Way – you couldn’t do that with film. And it’s a great equalizer; if I had to be limited to 36 shots on a roll of film, and I’m out for two weeks in the backcountry, dragging around all these film canisters and trying to send them back to a lab, and I don’t get to see the results until four weeks later. On the one hand, digital gives you flexibility and tools that never existed before; but those same tools are available to everybody who’s got a few extra bucks in their pocket.
Have you ever waited all day to shoot wildlife that’s elusive, or light on a landscape at the perfect time?
I’ve waited days, weeks. Took me 14 months to get this picture [Canyonlands National Park arch]. I knew what I wanted it to be, what it could be. That arch has been there for millions of years and it won’t move; but a moose is probably only going to be there for a few minutes. So you control what you can and try to take advantage of everything else.
Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff Writer