Pilot Spotlights

Photo pilot: Six questions with Dan Bailey

Adventure photographer Dan Bailey of Anchorage, Alaska is our fourth quarter featured photographer. Get to know the Colorado native and Cessna 120 pilot as he answers my questions about flying and photography in the North.

Cessna 120-flying and mirrorless Fuji advocate Dan Bailey Cessna 120-flying and mirrorless Fuji advocate Dan Bailey Dan Bailey

The advent of social media and the super-simple-but-immensely-popular Instagram mobile app has revealed a thriving community of adventurers posting their amazing photography just for the fun of it (even @backcountrypilot now boasts a following.) Anything you can imagine is aggregated and searchable by hashtags, so it wasn't long before I was looking for stuff like #supercub and #bushflying.

As it turns out, there are a ton of people out there flying cool bush planes and landing off-airport and posting their photos. It's also become a great venue for pro photographers to build their respective followings and churn business. Somehow, I stumbled onto the work of Dan Bailey, a working professional adventure photographer who calls Anchorage home and whose stunning photo of his yellow Cessna 120 caught my eye.

Dan is passionate about photography. He both attends and teaches workshops around the world and is the type who is very forthcoming with his techniques and methodology. He maintains an active Twitter presence and constantly posts cool photography-oriented content. He seemed a perfect fit for our latest featured photographer, so as usual I invited him to do a short interview for BackcountryPilot.org in an effort to learn more about the pilot behind the lens. If you're interested in purchasing or hanging any of Dan's work, see the bottom of this article for more info.

Six Questions

BPWhere are you from originally, and how did you end up in Alaska?

DBI’m originally from Colorado, but visited Alaska a number of times during my 20s and 30s for hiking and climbing trips. The place has always fascinated me and every time I came up, I imagined myself living here, at least for part of my life. I finally made the move in September of 2008- we rented out the house, loaded up the Toyota and drove up the AlCan. We told everyone we were only coming up for a year. That was seven years ago and I don’t see leaving anytime soon.

Spring sunset light on Eagle Peak in the Chugach Front Range, Alaska.

BPHow did you begin flying? Were you always interesting in backcountry/bush flying? Or was that something that was new to you when you arrived in Alaska? Tell us about your airplane.

DBI was always fascinated by airplanes when I was a kid. During my early high school years, I entertained the idea of joining the Air Force so that I could fly fighter jets, but I knew I didn’t have 20/20 vision, so I that dream was short lived. Probably for the best, because I’m way too independent for military life.

During my visits to Alaska, I rode in a few Beavers, Otters and 185s with Talkeetna Air Taxi, and that had a very strong impact on me. The thought of flying started to creep into my mind again, and when I finally moved up, our first apartment in Anchorage was right underneath the pattern at Merrill Field. The constant buzz of Cessnas and Pipers overhead drove me crazy, and two months after we arrived in town, I rode my bike down to the field and started my lessons.

Just before I got my private in early 2009, I joined the Civil Air Patrol, and that exposed me to an even wider range of pilots, airplanes and Alaska aviation/safety issues. Flying with the CAP has given me a tremendous amount of experience. It’s a really great organization, certainly one of the best ways for new pilots to gain general aviation knowledge. I also met my good friend Chet Harris through the CAP, and he kind of took me under his wing and gave me my first real exposure to bush flying on the weekends in his Maule.

I bought my 1947 Cessna 120 in the spring of 2011. It had been rebuilt by a local mechanic, and he kept it light and simple- just the way an Alaska bush plane should be. At the time, it had 8.00 x 6.00 ties, which I flew on for two years. Now it’s on the Alaskan Buswheel 26” Airstreaks, which are the perfect backcountry tires for a little plane like mine. With those, I have a lot of options for where I can land and and explore. It’s really a fun little plane, and it didn’t cost very much.

My little Cessna 120 parked in front of Colony Glacier, Chugach Mountains, Alaska.

BPWhat are your other adventure hobbies/passions?

DBI do a lot of outdoor pursuits and adventures, like hiking, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, and of course, fat tire snow biking, which is pretty much mandatory up here in Alaska. I love bike touring as well. This fall, I just did a month-long cycling tour in Romania. We spent most of our time riding around the hills of Transylvania, which is an amazingly beautiful region.

Moonrise alongside Mount Gannett, Chugach Mountains, Alaska.

BPHow do you feel about being out there in the real backcountry, with no people around?

DBIt’s pretty amazing. Especially up here in Alaska- when you’re out there, you’re REALLY out there! The solitude is really special and it really makes you look at things in a new way. You can’t spend time in the wilderness, away from everyone else and not be affected by the experience. If more people spent time in the outdoors, I think we’d live in a very different world.

Chet Harris zooming low over the grass in his Maule, near Goose Bay, Alaska.

BPYour photography is stunning. What are you looking for when you shoot? What makes you pull out the camera when you're out flying? What have you been doing longer: Flying or shooting photos?

DBThanks. I’ve been shooting photos for over 25 years, so way longer than I’ve been flying. I’ve been a pro photographer for almost 20 years. I’m drawn to dramatic colors, simple form and powerful relationships between two or more subject elements. At the core, I’m always looking to produce images that communicate the essence of adventure and translate a strong impact to my viewers. Also, I like showing the the world in ways that few people ever get to see. For me, aerial photography seems to fit with all of those creative goals, so when I’m flying, especially when I’m in the mountains, I’m focusing on dramatic peaks and strong natural light.

I like to go up about an hour before sunset and chase good light around the peaks and glaciers of the Chugach Mountains, especially in winter and early spring. The scenery and the light during that time is amazing. I just open the window and shoot frame after frame while making shallow circles around the peaks and ridges until the colors fade. Sometimes I'll pick out a different area to explore that I haven't shot before, and other times it’s fun to capture the same peaks in different light. There’s so much terrain up there, and endless variations in the intricacies of light and potential vantage points. I consider my mountain aerials to be some of the most rewarding and dramatic imagery I’ve ever created.

Aerial photo of the Kichatna Spires, Alaska Range.

BPDo you ever think: "This shot is different or innovative"? Or do you just fire away and sort it out later?

DBI don’t just “spray and pray,” as it’s called. I tend not to fire unless I see something I really like. I think you should have an idea of what you’re going for before you press the shutter. That way, it becomes less about luck and more about your own personal vision. With experience, I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting compelling subject matter, recognizing special moments and anticipating convergences I feel will make for a great shot. That’s not to say every single photo turns out great. It’s all a process, and if you practice and shoot enough frames, occasionally you get an image that really stands out.

One of my favorite shots of Alaska bush pilot and Cub training specialist, Jay Baldwin, who sadly passed away earlier this year. Jay was an accomplished pilot, a great teacher and a wonderful, encouraging, friendly man.

BPI've noticed a portrait element to some of your pics (Chet, Jay, etc.) What are you going for with those? Are you creating characters?

DBI love shooting portraits, and it’s really fun to do the aviation portraits. And no, these guys are already characters, they don’t need my help! I’m just trying to capture their personalities and create photos that communicate the feelings we all have have about flying, or else show specific aspects that makes each of them unique.

Mount Redoubt and the Neacola Mountains, Alaska.

BPWhat's your favorite piece of kit/gear? What's your go-to body/lens/filter configuration for cockpit and/or for ground-based shooting?

DBI shoot with Fujifilm mirrorless cameras. I use both the X-T1 and the X-T10. They’re both smaller and lighter than DSLRs, and since they have full-time live-view LCD screens, they’re much safer to use in the cockpit. I don’t have to hold the camera up to my eye when I’m flying the plane, which means I can shoot freely and still see what’s going on in the rest of my field of vision. For that reason alone, I strongly encourage anyone who wants to shoot photos while flying to look at mirrorless cameras.

I’ve got a wide array of Fuji lenses, and on the ground, my favorites are the 14mm wide angle, the 27mm normal lens, the 56mm and 90mm short telephotos and the 50-140mm tele zoom. For aerial photography, I find the 27mm and 56mm to be most useful. Too wide and you’re seeing the wing strut. Too long and it’s hard to hold them steady. I also have the Fuji 18-135, which I use quite a bit. It’s a decent all-around kit lens that covers a wide range, which makes it a great single lens to take when I’m going flying. I’ve shot a few of my favorite aerials with that lens. For a full list of the gear I use, and lots of photo tips, people can check out my Adventure Photography Blog.

N310N parked on frozen Lake George in early January, Chugach Mountains, Alaska.

BPAre your danbaileyphoto.com photos for sale? What if I want a poster of one of your shots for my hangar?

DBYes, any of my photos can be ordered as prints in just about any size. In fact, I have created a special Alaska bush flying and aerial photo gallery for BackcountryPilot.org readers where they can order directly from the site at a special price. If anyone is interested, I highly recommend the metal prints, they have incredibly vibrancy, which is well suited for this kind of imagery. For any photos that are not in this gallery, people can just contact me directly through my website and I can do a custom order.

Last light on two big, snowy peaks in the Chugach, near Prince William Sound, Alaska

Complete gallery


Zane Jacobson

Zane Jacobson is the founder/editor of Backcountry Pilot and currently flies a variety of rental aircraft around his home area of Portland, Oregon while continuing construction of his Bearhawk.

Website: https://backcountrypilot.org

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