ELK RIVER, Minn. — Steve Oehlenschlager wipes the sleep from his eyes as he rolls out of his hotel bed at 3 a.m. It is day five of a week-long trip to North Dakota or South Dakota. Maybe Montana.
Oehlenschlager will drive 600-700 miles from his home in Elk River, Minn., for these excursions. The early mornings are a necessity to make sure he is tucked into the cattails in plenty of time to catch the sun coming up over the slough. Fog hovers above the water in the cool morning air as ducks start setting their wings into his decoys.
In his younger years, Oehlenschlager certainly would have had a shotgun in his hands. Not today. At 53 years old, he almost always lets others do the shooting now while he catches the memories with one of his Nikon cameras.
“It’s exactly the same,” Oehlenschlager said of the similarities between hunting and wildlife photography. “You have to be in the right spot. You got to find out where they’re at. You have to anticipate their moves. It’s hunting with a camera, and it’s harder than hunting with a shotgun. A shotgun you can swing around and no big deal. If the light’s not right, if it’s not in your proper quadrant, it’s a wasted shot with a camera.”
Oehlenschlager has long had an interest in outdoor photography. His hunting party would come in from a successful day in the fields or wetlands and Oehlenschlager wanted all of the photos to look like they belonged in a magazine.
It was not until about 15 years ago that he started to take his passion with a camera more seriously. His only formal training was one class he took as a freshman in high school. Everything else is self taught — not unusual for many of the most well-known outdoor photographers out there, he said.
Today, many of Oehlenschlager’s photos have been in those outdoor magazines he admired so much growing up. Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever have all published his work.
“Pretty much every mainstream outdoor magazine in one shape or another now,” he said. “You got to try and get something unique. Action shots. A different angle. You might have a beautiful picture of a duck sitting on a log that’s just gorgeous in its own right, but the shot where its bill is open and it’s scolding another duck — sometimes it’s that little difference in body language that makes the difference. A lot of times it's anticipating what birds or animals are going to do.”
Oehlenschlager learned to pick up those traits by being around animals. He raises grouse and will sometimes take a few images or videos of them for his Instagram page (@steve_oehlenschlager) that has almost 22,000 followers, but almost all of his images are of wild animals in wild settings.
Some of that happens on public land. Most of his photos are taken on the nearly 40,000 acres of private land he has gained permission on in different parts of the country.
“By and large, they’re all wild stuff all over. I spend a lot of time in North and South Dakota in the spring and fall taking pictures,” he said. “That’s one of the things that separates the people who are serious and the people who are not. There’s very few people who are willing to drive to North Dakota, spend a week and carry a camera around for six and a half days when they could be out shooting birds. But it’s just as much fun for me.”
Powered by passion
Even when putting that kind of energy into outdoor photography, it’s hard to make a living at this. Camera technology has come so far in recent years, even in smartphones. Everyone wants to be published and many will give away their shots for free in order to make that happen.
“It’s definitely a dying industry just because people can take pictures that are absolutely stunning now with the equipment available,” Oehlenschlager said. “The mainstream users of photography do try to get their images from people who do it as more of a living. They need a core group of people they can count on for stuff.”
Oehlenschlager sells the photos he can. He is also hired for some custom photography by groups or individuals. He often shoots alone in the spring. In the fall, he has a good group of family and friends he immerses himself with on hunting trips to capture the moment.
The photography pays for itself now and has allowed him to purchase great equipment and cover travel costs, but Oehlenschlager does not aspire for his photos to be his sole way of making a living. His primary job is as a chemist. He works two days one week and five days the next to allow him the flexibility to pursue this passion.
That’s what outdoor photography has become for Oehlenschlager — something that drives him every day. It’s why the 3 a.m. wake-up calls are worth it, even after five straight days of little wildlife to photograph. That sixth day might be the day it all comes together on the perfect shot.
“There are days when it’s an absolute bust,” Oehlenschlager said. “But when the going is good, it can be amazing. It’s just something I have a passion for. You can sit at home and watch TV or you can go outside and make beautiful pictures. I’ve just always loved it.”
There are plenty of things that go into taking a great outdoor photo, but following a few important points can be helpful for those looking to get better shots.
Backgrounds are key.
“You can be in the best spot in the world with birds flying in beautifully at you, but if your background is terrible, it just breaks your picture,” Oehlenschlager said. “You just can’t have three telephone poles in your background or a McDonald’s sign. You have to set up for it.”
The early-morning sunlight, especially in the fall and spring, creates ideal light conditions. Same with late evening.
“Then preferably if it’s overcast, the middle of the day is fine,” Oehlenschlager said. “But it’s that first hour, hour and a half in the morning and then the evening that just makes or breaks good wildlife pictures.”
Two of the most important pieces of advice Oehlenschlager would give anybody to improve their photos is take them at a low angle and take a lot of them.
“Get as low as you can. If your knees don’t hurt after you’re done, you did a bad job,” he said. “You’ve got to get low. If you can get eye-ball level so you’re shooting the pheasant at eye level when he’s coming at you, that’s what you want. If you’re taking a picture of your dog after a successful hunt, get low. Don’t just stand at a 45-degree angle and look at him. If the eyes of the critter are a foot off the ground, you want to be a foot off the ground.”