Darrell Gulin has a profession most of us can only dream about. He travels the globe, from Antarctica and Africa to Asia and Europe, capturing rare and exquisite moments in nature, whether its baby leopards gamboling in Kenya, polar bears leaping off ice floes or acres of blooming bluebonnets in Texas. A full-time nature/travel photographer, he’s also one of Canon’s ‘Explorer of Light’ photographers, a title given to a select group of world class photographers and cinematographers who are chosen to share their expertise with eager audiences.
A steady hand is a prerequisite for most professional photographers, but Gulin developed an essential tremor in his hands that in earlier times might have ended his career. He shared with ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan and Chet Cooper how he compensates and beautifully manages to snap crisp, breathtaking photos.
Darrell Gulin: I’ve developed this hand tremor over the last decade. I travel the world constantly, five, six months out of the year. What happened is, we did an interview with Canon in Hollywood just a few months ago. We started developing this idea knowing that as an ‘Explorer of Light’, I’m still able to function doing photography even with the tremor. So we wanted to start letting more people know.
Chet Cooper: Why are you here?
Gulin: Because I wanted to be!
Lia Martirosyan: Is the tremor triggered by something?
Gulin: It’s called an essential tremor, which means they really can’t figure it out. It just happens as some of us age and inherit it. My grandfather on my dad’s side had it.
Cooper: It’s not Parkinson’s or Parkinson’s-related?
Gulin: (pause) It’s a tremor. What happens is, you don’t lose balance or cognitive abilities, except I can’t sign my signature now. There’s lot of things that I used to be able to do. You just reinvent it. Like right now, I can double-click on a mouse faster than anybody. I can transfer files to places unknown.
Cooper: Whether you like it or not.
Martirosyan: When you’re holding the camera, do you still have the tremor?
Gulin: Oh, I’ve got the tremor.
Martirosyan: So the camera’s that good?
Gulin: We used to have 50 and 100 speed film, and that was about as fast as we could go. The shutter speeds weren’t very fast. So a tremor couldn’t be balanced out. What I’ve got now is image stabilization, which stabilizes after three to four shots and helps counterbalance any shaking. The ISO (International Standards Organization) allows us to have a faster-speed film. In ISO, I can go up higher and not have any of the grainy problems of the past. So my shutter speeds are faster. I can handhold a bigger lens at 1/1000th of the second, where before, during the film era, maybe I was at 1/60th of a second, and everything would have been blurry. I don’t know if that makes sense, but all these things now—
Cooper: It’s a little blurry to me.
Gulin: (laughs) It’s still a little blurry.
Martirosyan: I don’t know if you mentioned it, but were you taking photographs prior to the start of your tremor?
Gulin: Yes. And have I noticed a difference? Technique-wise, I have to be really good. I have to be cognizant of my shutter speeds. I have to be cognizant of the subject. When I can be on a tripod, I’ll be on a tripod.
Cooper: What about the camera?
Gulin: (laughs) I’ll put the camera on the tripod. He’s a smarty-pants. How long have you worked with him?
Martirosyan: Several years now.
Gulin: Oh, good! Yeah, I don’t go on the tripod, but the camera goes on the tripod, and that works also, with shutter cable releases, etc.
Cooper: You have this great photo of a polar bear leaping in the air. How did you get it?
Gulin: What happened is, the polar bear is in the middle of the air, believe or not, with the tremor. I’m using a big 500mm lens, which weighs about five or six pounds, and I’m hand-holding it because I’m on board a ship moving around. I see this polar bear on one ice floe and then there’s not an ice floe and you know the polar bear’s got to jump. What I’m doing is, I’m anticipating where that polar bear’s going to jump, and by having a fast shutter speed, I’m able to capture it in mid-air. I’ll show you the picture. Of course, somebody asked, “Did he make it to the other floe?” And he did.
Martirosyan: What is your favorite subject?
Gulin: This might sound silly, but my favorite subject is what’s in front of my lens. I was a bird photographer. I love birds. But then I left a really good six-figure-paying job, and I went full-time at this. Now I’ve been married 50 years this September, and my wife’s looking at me, “What are you doing?” I had to say to myself, “Do I want to be famous, or do I want to make a living at this?” And I chose to make a living. Birds were just not the thing.
Now one of my biggest-selling things—I travel the world. I’ve been to all seven continents. I just got back this last week from Venice. I’m in Africa, Japan, China—all over the world. But 40 percent of my sales dollar-wise come from things I take in my backyard or in my house. Butterflies, rocks, feathers and other details, etc.
Cooper: That’s in your house?
Gulin: It’s in the house. I’ve had in the past USDA permits to raise tropical butterflies, and my grandkids would come over on Thanksgiving and butterflies were flying in the kitchen, trying to go into the turkey gravy.
Our friends would come by. They’re called atlas moths. I raised them, and they were up on the ceilings and all over.
Cooper: Do they come from the rain forests in South America?
Gulin: Yes. Some of them come from the rain forests, some from Asia. What I found is, I have all these different passions. So I’m sorry, I don’t have a favorite subject. I love wildlife, just because of the interaction that you get with it.
Martirosyan: You don’t have to have one, I was just asking if you do.
Gulin: I know.
Cooper: But wait a minute. He does. It’s you.
Gulin: (laughs) See—Not too bad.
Another question that I get is, what are my favorite places on the ground? They are wildlife areas. One is East Africa on the plains of Kenya with the Maasai and a million wildebeests coming across the river. The next place is south Georgia, not Russia, but south Georgia. There is an island down near Antarctica. I’ll show you pictures of the king penguins. And the third place is my backyard, because I have developed our garden over the last 30 years to be photographed.
Cooper: I heard that people will hire you to take a photo adventure.
Gulin: I teach photo workshops and conduct my own tours now. I’ve done them for over 30 years. People then pay me to travel the world to teach them how to photograph. Isn’t that a great gig?
Martirosyan: That’s not bad at all!
Gulin: So I go to Venice. It costs clients $6,000-$7,000, and I get to photograph alongside them and have the nice Italian meals. I love working with people. Teaching teaches the teacher. I’m always learning.
Martirosyan: I like that.
Cooper: You mentioned something about horses earlier. Were you talking about the Calgary area?
Gulin: I’ve been doing cowboy and cowgirl horse drives at different ranches around the West. But where I’ve been doing it lately is in Shell, Wyoming. I just came back from one last month. It was eight below zero.
Cooper: You’re shaking because you’re still cold!
Gulin: I was so cold, people there didn’t know if I had a tremor or if it was just cold. But we have almost 90 head of horse that we run en masse. It’s exciting.
Martirosyan: Where do you stand when they’re running?
Gulin: Sometimes they run right to me.
Martirosyan: Oh, my gosh!
Gulin: One time a cowboy was running his horse and broke the rein. The lady didn’t move. She got hit. I swear, she flew five feet in the air and landed on the ground. We were out in the middle of nowhere. We had no cell service. So we had to have one of the cowboys ride to the next house, which was a mile away. The emergency vehicle followed the cowboy through the fields by horseback.
Cooper: Was she OK?
Gulin: That night she went to the hospital, and the next morning she was out photographing again. I think I would have been slow and in bed.
Martirosyan: You have great stories!
Gulin: Well, I’ve been charged by bull elk. I’ve been stalked by polar bears. I’ve been charged by grizzly bears. I’ve been growled at by mountain lions. I’m still here.
Cooper: And 50 years with your wife!
Gulin: That’s been—if this goes into the magazine—really smooth sailing!
I’ll be in Austin next month for the bluebonnets.
Cooper: Is that jazz?
Martirosyan: Aren’t they birds?
Gulin: No, the bluebonnets are little lupine.
Cooper: Oh, flowers!
Gulin: I can teach you guys. The bluebonnet is the state of Texas wildflower.
Cooper: Those jets.
Gulin: What are the Blue Angels?
Cooper: That’s what I was thinking of.
Gulin: No, I’m not going to do the Blue Angels or bluebirds. I’m doing bluebonnets, paintbrush, and all these others, where there are acres and acres of seas of blue.
Cooper: That’s happening in Death Valley right now apparently.
Gulin: Oh, right now. We’ve had so much rain here in California, but the same thing’s happening in Texas. Right around April is the time to be down there for the bluebonnets. I fly into Austin, with my wife, and we’re going to go chase wildflowers.
Martirosyan: Beautiful! Are you based in California?
Gulin: I’m based out of Seattle, Washington. But I get down to California quite a bit.
Martirosyan: How do you maintain a garden? Doesn’t it rain a lot?
Gulin: Seattle does not get a lot of rain. They get a lot of cloudy, misty days, which are really good for gardens—they’re almost like English gardens. We get a little bit of snow, about 35 to 37 inches of rain per year, which is not that much.
Cooper: How did you get connected with Canon? Apparently you’ve been using Canon products for a long time.
Gulin: I got connected with Canon when I started working with them 32 or 33 years ago.
Cooper: So it’s a new relationship.
Gulin: A new relationship. To be successful in photography, you need three things. One, you’d better be a great photographer. It doesn’t mean the best, but a great photographer. You need to be really good with business, and you need interpersonal skills. Trust me, when I meet with people, I love talking and interrelating with them. George Lepp, who is one of the Explorers of Light, has been a friend since ‘88. I got him into the stock agencies, such as Getty Images, and he helped me develop a relationship with Canon.
And then the instant success took 20-some years before I became an Explorer of Light, which is probably, along with being the president of North American Nature Photography, the biggest highlight of my career.
Cooper: What happens with the Explorer of Light program?
Gulin: With the Explorer of Light program, they’ve got 40 or 41 of us in North America right now who are Explorers of Light in all fields, from Sports Illustrated photographers to the top wedding photographers, like Bob Davis out of Chicago, and we’ve got four or five in the nature and wildlife field. Fortunately, I’ve been one of those. We’re under contract on a yearly basis. We go and speak around the US representing Canon. I do printer work with them, so we go to different events to speak for them. For example, I’ll be at the Professional Photographers of America conference in Wisconsin this Saturday.
Cooper: And then you’re off to Austin?
Gulin: And then I’m off to Austin on my own. I have to fund some fun for myself.
Martirosyan: It sounds like a lot of traveling.
Gulin: People ask me, because I am 70, “When are you going to retire?” Well, I’m not going to. It’s interesting that it takes years to develop some of these skill sets. It’s good to share them with people.
This is not a job. When I was the executive VP for a beer, wine, and hard liquor distributor, it was work when I’d have to negotiate with the Teamsters in Alaska. Going to the Venice carnival is not work. I’ll be doing the cowboy horse drive shortly, and I’ll be in some ghost towns in Montana in May.
Cooper: Where? We only know Whitefish. Is it near there?
Gulin: No. These are more down by Dillon and Missoula. We’ll base ourselves out of Missoula, and then I’m in Africa again in June.
Cooper: Can you invite us to go to Africa with you?
Gulin: Sure. We’re sold out this year, but the following year it only will cost you about nine grand.
Martirosyan: You can get a photo of the lion chasing me.
Gulin: We don’t want that.
Martirosyan: It’ll be quick, though. You’ve got to be fast.
Gulin: I’ll tell you, lions concern me, but leopards more so. They’ll consider you more prey. But probably the most dangerous animal I deal with is the polar bear. I was onboard a ship holding 45 to 50 passengers. It’s not a huge ship, but it’s a good size. A polar bear can reach over 12 feet high and one reached up onto the third deck, shimmied up, put its head through the drainage area, and grabbed one of my clients’s legs and tore his pants as we pulled him away. Now, if it would’ve gotten his ankle, his leg would be gone, because the polar bear weighs about 1200 pounds.
Cooper: This is why I don’t buy skinny jeans.
Gulin: (laughs) I wouldn’t either.