Interview With Wildlife Photographer Laurie Excell

Laurie Excell is a wildlife photographer based in Oregon. As a self proclaimed ‘lifelong photographer,’ Laurie’s career has really taken off. She is now the author of several books, a popular speaker, workshop leader, and contributing editor.

I have personally known Laurie for many years and when I asked her to take a moment and talk photography with us, she was kind enough to accept. 

So you got started in photography when your dad got you a Brownie camera. The Brownie camera was the beginning for many professional photographers so tell us about your journey.

I was ten years old and out on a camera club field trip with my parents.  A man asked me to sit on the fence so he could take my picture and when I climbed up another guy started yelling at me for being in his picture.  So, I was sitting in the car when my dad came by to get a lens and when he asked me what I was doing I exclaimed “I hate these trips!  Either give me a camera or leave me home!”  He reached in his camera bag and handed me one of his Pentax Spotmatic cameras.  The rest, as they say, is history.

When did you decide wildlife was your calling so to speak?

I’ve always had a passion for wildlife and nature photography but couldn’t afford the big lenses needed to do wildlife photography properly so I concentrated on landscapes and macro more in the early years.  Once I had saved enough money to buy a big lens I and began aiming it at wildlife I was hooked.

You have traveled pretty far and wide to photograph wildlife. Is there any one favorite location?

If I had to choose just one place it would be Alaska.  It’s the closest to real wilderness that we have left.  The scenery is magnificent with glaciers flowing into the sea, snow covered mountains, lush foliage and the wildlife is plentiful.

Could you describe in a nutshell, what you believe to be the key to great wildlife photography?

A passion for your subject, knowledge of your subject and tons of patience are the main ingredients for successful wildlife photography.  I see too many people who grab a shot and are ready to move on.  Putting in the time is what leads to capturing images that are beyond mere snapshots.  Go where the wildlife is plentiful and where they are used to people and go at the best time of year to capture the behavior that you are interested in.  Selecting locations where the wildlife is plentiful and has been habituated to people is a good way to increase your odds of success.

I always ask the pros we interview if there is a moment they feel defined their career and success and I think for you it was meeting a famous wildlife photographer and then going to work him. Could you elaborate?

I worked in retail camera sales for years, dreaming of being a wildlife photographer but, never thinking I could actually do it.  The camera store I was working for brought Moose Peterson in to do a seminar and workshop.  We hit it off and he began sending me clients.  I went on a couple of Alaska coastal brown bear safaris with him and on one trip he asked if I would consider becoming his assistant.  So, I guess, the defining moment was when I met Moose.  I worked for and then with him for over a decade, learning the about wildlife, wildlife photography and the business side of things.

What special skills did you learn from him and the other top pros like Scott Kelby and Joe McNally?

I learned all about wildlife from Moose.  Understanding your subject enables you to anticipate what they will do next and be ready for the peak of action.  I also learned a lot about marketing from him.  Without good marketing skills the best photographer in the world won’t make a success of it.

From Joe I learned a very important lesson.  He told me to always say yes to the things that scared me the most and when he asked me to co-teach an online class with him I was terrified but, said “YES” without any hesitation.  When Scott Kelby asked me to teach at Photoshop World, I was sick with anxiety but, went up there in front of a couple hundred people and had a great time.  I learned that it builds confidence to do the scary things.

Scott taught me so much about presenting in front of groups.  He taught me a lot about Photoshop and I find that he has an energy and enthusiasm that just doesn’t stop.

All three have a passion for what they do, and they do what they love. I learned that following your passion and hard work can lead to success.

Do you have an all time favorite image you have shot? Please tell us why this image is it.

I was in Alaska photographing bears in the spring.  It’s a very active time of year; the bears have recently emerged from their dens and are very hungry.  The males are looking for females that they can mate with and the females with cubs are very wary.  We found a sow with two cubs on a cliff and as we approached I noticed a boar sniffing around at the base of the cliff.  He caught the scent and up the cliff he went.  It was amazing to see the interaction between the sow and boar, how she held him off on two separate occasions growling and swatting at him while her cubs cowered close by.  He finally gave up and left and when she felt it was safe, she started down the hill towards us.  The image I captured (Laurie Excell 5) is to date both my favorite bear image and my best selling one.

(C) Laurie Excell

Can we look at some of your images and have you describe them and why you feel they are successful?

MALE POLAR BEARS SPARRING NIKON D3S AF-S 500MM F4 VR In late fall the polar bears congregate on the shores of the Hudson Bay near Churchill Canada waiting for the freeze up so they can go out on the ice to catch seals.

BALD EAGLE WITH CHICK NIKON D3S AF-S 500MM F4 VR WITH TC-14E II Bald eagles are plentiful in Alaska and early June finds them nesting with young. We found an incline where we could get at eye level with the birds while not disturbing them. At this age, the chicks need their parents for protection and warmth. It’s imperative to not drive the parent off the nest leaving the young vulnerable.

WINTER WONDERLAND YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK NIKON D2X AF-S 14-24MM 2.8 I took this image my first year in Yellowstone in the winter. Every year since I have gone back to this location and photographed the same scene (as close as possible). It has never been as beautiful. Lesson learned…you can never go back and get the shot later. Conditions change, light changes, it is never quite the same.

WINTER STORM BANDON OREGON NIKON D2X AF-S 70-200MM 2.8 VR Winter storms at the coast are incredible. I had to brave driving winds with gusts to 70 miles per hour and pouring rain to get this shot. I was holding on to a railing to avoid being blown over. This is one of my all time favorite storm pictures from the coast. Lesson learned…some of the best photography is in the worst weather.

COYOTE MOUSING NIKON D3S AF-S 600MM F4 VR Having high performance equipment and knowing the behavior of the coyote enabled me to anticipate it’s next move and be ready to capture peak of action as the coyote leapt into the air and dropped into the snow bank trying to catch mice.


ERMINE WITH VOLE NIKON D3S AF-S 600MM F4 VR An ermine with a vole in it’s mouth ran across the road in front of the van. Not expecting to get anything I quickly pulled over and while my group was photographing it from the van, I quietly slipped out the door and shot over the hood of the car. Lesson learned…you won’t get the shot if you don’t try.

LIGHTNING STORM GRAND TETONS NATIONAL PARK NIKON D2X AF-S 28-70MM 2.8 While photographing a sunset in the Tetons a storm moved in and lightning was flashing all around. I composed the image, plugged in my Lightning Trigger and waited for a bolt. Without the Lightning Trigger I would not have been able to capture this image.

SUPERCELL STORM CHASING NIKON D3X AF-S 14-24MM 2.8 I love storms. Each year I go storm chasing in tornado alley and while we have had some amazing tornados, it’s the supercells that I think are so beautiful.

COASTAL BROWN BEAR WITH SALMON NIKON D3S AF-S 600MM F4 VR WITH TC-17E II Being the in the right location at the right time (Alaska during the salmon run) increases your chance of success. During the salmon run we simply park ourselves along the river and enjoy the action.

CLOSE UP POLAR BEAR NIKON D3S AF-S 500MM F4 WITH TC-14E II Using a long lens and photographing from the safety and height of the Tundra Buggy enabled me to safely capture a tight shot of a polar bears nose and claws.

YELLOW CROWN NIGHT HERON GOING IN FOR THE KILL NIKON D3S AF-S 600MM F4 VR Patience is the key to many successful wildlife images. When I saw a Yellow-crowned Night Heron standing motionless I knew it was hunting so, I got low, set up my camera and waited. When he suddenly lunged I started firing and captured the entire sequence. Nine frames per second yielded eleven images. Had I looked away for a split second I would have missed the action.

HORSETAIL FALLS YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK NIKON D2X AF-S 70-200MM 2.8 VR Knowing when to visit a location also increases your odds of success. The phenomena of the light hitting Horsetail Falls in Yosemite National Park just at sunset only happens a couple of days a year. Of the five days we were in Yosemite, only one produced the right light and weather conditions to light the falls.

Now you have a couple books out. Please tell us about those.

I have written two books for Peachpit Snapshots to Great Shots Composition (with John Batdorff, Steve Simon, David Brommer and Rick Rickman) and Wildlife Photography.


You are also running workshops to some wonderful locations. Could you please tell us what you have planned?

2013 is shaping up to be a great year of photo adventures with locations such as Yellowstone in Winter, Cuba (OK, not a wildlife adventure but an amazing place), Alaska  in both June for the spring and August for the salmon run, Storm Chasing in Tornado Alley, Africa and the American Southwest.  I’ve also got a scouting trip to Iceland with plans to go there with a group in the future.  You can follow my blog and learn more about my “Excellent Photo Advetnures” at

If you have any thoughts please leave a comment.

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