With a career spanning two and a half decades, photographer Cheryl Opperman, of Littleton, Colorado, has traveled to more than 20 countries on seven continents recording dramatic images of the natural world. Combining a passion for the art of nature photography and the conservation of Earth’s fragile environment, she works on projects to help spread awareness and understanding through publications, exhibitions, workshops, and speaking engagements across the nation. Approaching her photographic work as an artist, she utilizes a variety of traditional and state-of-the-art tools and techniques to create her own unique visual interpretation of the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. Her images are not intended to merely document the nature of today, but rather elicit an emotional connection with the public to inspire a greater appreciation for the profound beauty and diversity of wildlife and wild places.
We sat down with Cheryl to learn more about her photographic journey, philosophy, and goals for the future.
NBP: What or who inspired you to start taking pictures?
CO: I always enjoyed taking snapshots during family vacations, but it wasn’t until I was standing on the balcony of a hotel trying to photograph the moonrise over the ocean that I became more serious about developing photographic skills. I was probably about 15 years old at the time and I remember my dad asking me what I was doing. I told him I was trying to record what I saw — the amber glow of the moon reflecting on the gentle waves of the ocean surrounded by silhouetted palm trees. Much to my disappointment, he informed me that my point and shoot just wasn’t capable of achieving the results I wanted. He said I would need a much better camera to capture that (not to mention technical knowledge, skill, and most likely Photoshop which didn’t exist then!). Little did he know that his single remark would spark a lifelong interest in photography and the basis for my career. I subsequently asked for a “better” camera for my Christmas gift. I was so fortunate to have supportive parents who encouraged my interests, so at Christmas that year I awoke to packages containing a 35mm SLR film camera and enough lenses to get me started. I signed up for the photography class at my High School that spring and within two weeks of starting the class, returned home to announce I had discovered my career path.
NBP: How did photography become your profession and why did you chose to specialize in nature photography?
CO: There are many photographers who are self-taught, but I felt as though a formal education would give me a much stronger foundation for such a competitive career path. I attended Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, and received my B.A. in Industrial/Scientific Photography in 1992. I selected the most technical major available at the college and focused a great deal on the science of photography. Creativity was an important part of the curriculum as well, but I’ve always believed that if you don’t fully understand the technical aspects of the photographic arts, your creativity will be limited.
I studied many different types of photography and developed a wide range of skills, but it wasn’t until I had an opportunity to work on a book project about Africa shortly after graduation from college that I thought of wildlife and nature photography as a viable specialty. I was privileged to spend three weeks photographing in East Africa for the book along with other professional and amateur photographers. After returning home, I worked with the publishing company to market and promote the project’s important mission of encouraging the conservation of Africa’s wildlife through responsible ecotourism. It was an opportunity that changed my life and expanded my view of what could be achieved through the powerful medium of photography. Realistically it takes years to capture enough images and attain a reputation that enables one to pursue nature photography exclusively, but this early opportunity laid the foundation on which I could build.
NBP: How do you choose the best gear and software?
CO: I use a wide variety of equipment to produce my images. Almost all of my equipment and software choices depend on the subject matter I will be capturing. However, when choosing a camera body, I am most concerned with the sensor. The sensor determines so much about the quality and attributes of the image. The sensor size, megapixel count, and the amount of noise at various ISO settings are all important factors. Then I consider other features such as manual controls, frame rate, customizable settings etc. Some cameras are better for landscapes and some are better for wildlife, so it is not necessarily a simple decision to make and I often carry two different camera bodies with a subject in mind for each.
Lens quality is also critically important, so I buy only the highest quality lenses. Fixed focal length lenses, in theory, should be the sharpest, but I find that the high-quality zoom lenses on the market today perform extremely well and they make up the majority of my gear. A sturdy tripod is essential and there are a number of accessories and filters I carry in my bag as well.
To process and present my images, I primarily use Adobe Photoshop which gives me a lot of control in the interpretation, and in more artistic applications, alteration of the sensor data. I also use plug-ins and specialized software for advanced techniques and creativity such as Aurora HDR, Luminar, Topaz Studio, and Helicon Focus.
I’m asked a lot about the equipment I use, but the most important concept to understand when buying camera gear or choosing software is that it has to work well for each individual photographer’s particular purpose. For some people, that might mean an expensive, state-of-the-art set up, but for others, that might mean a camera phone.
NBP: What is your creative approach to nature photography?
CO: I always start the creative process by pre-visualizing the images I hope to capture. In nature photography, you can’t predict exactly what you’re going to see, but you can have a general idea of the types of photographs that might be possible. At the moment of capture, I’m already envisioning my final image or print with all of the various steps I’ll have to take to achieve the look I want. I often compare it to playing chess. In my mind, I’m working several moves ahead of where I am at that moment. To me, pre-visualization really is the key to creating photographs or works of art versus simply taking snapshots. It is important to remember, however, that the purpose of the photograph does set some creative limits. For example, if an image is to be published in an editorial magazine or newspaper, then using software to make dramatic changes is not appropriate, but photographs presented as art can be changed with any method you choose. As a result, my creative choices are always dictated by the anticipated use of the image.
My photographic philosophy and purpose regardless of style, technique, or use is to capture and interpret the beauty of nature in a way that motivates people to help protect it. I think generally it is difficult for people to care about something they have never seen or experienced. While all humans live among some sort of nature, even if it is just the gardens and trees planted around skyscrapers or the brilliant blue of the sky overhead, many people will never see a landscape virtually unchanged by man except through a photograph. Photography makes us aware of what exists in faraway places and in our own backyard with a poignancy seldom achieved through any other form of communication. I truly believe that even a single photograph has the power to inspire a change in awareness and attitude. By showing my work, in any form, I hope I can reach people on an emotional level and encourage positive change and individual action.
NBP: What role does photography play in conservation?
CO: I do believe that the very act of capturing and sharing images of nature can help to promote its conservation. I also think it can do damage to conservation. Nature photography is a double-edged sword that must be handled carefully. I’ve spent decades traveling back to the same National Parks every few years and I’ve watched the crowds with every type of camera multiply exponentially. The internet has made sharing our experiences so easy, but it is also leading to increased environmental pressure and some very unfortunate behavior around wildlife. It’s wonderful to see people out enjoying nature, but we might be visiting some places to death. Traffic jams are a common occurrence during peak seasons and tourists with selfie sticks often think nothing of running up to a wild bison to grab a portrait for their social media posts. Without education that reaches everyone about environmental and nature photography ethics, we may end up destroying these once wild places instead of protecting them.
While professional nature photographers continue to tell important conservation stories through their images, many professionals are also teaching photo workshops around the world. Those workshops can also play a vital role in protecting our natural resources. By teaching amateurs and aspiring professionals responsible field practices, we are helping to ensure that capturing photographs can be done without harming the wildlife or landscape. When I teach workshops, I’m also partnering with conservation organizations whenever I can. I’ve been working with the Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska for several years now and our photography programs allow visitors to capture the magnificent sandhill crane migration that occurs along the Platte River every March from specially built photo blinds that provide excellent vantage points while also protecting the birds from our presence. Without non-profit organizations such as the Crane Trust, many vital habitats would be developed rather than preserved. Funds generated from programs like this help to ensure that these lands, and the wildlife that relies on them, will be protected for generations to come.
NBP: How to you think photography will change in the coming decades?
CO: It’s very difficult to predict exactly how photography will change in the coming years. Cameras are getting better and lighter, but I think the way we view images will be changing as well. Stills from video, virtual reality, and 3D may all develop in ways we can’t currently imagine. As with anything in life, we can be certain that photography will change. Hopefully it will change for the better and help us feel more connected to nature. Sometimes technology seems to separate us from our natural origins, but photography and other forms of art can be powerful reminders of the wonders all around us. After all, photographs would have very little impact without the vision of the person behind the camera and the messages they are trying to convey. Light makes photography possible, but the artist makes it meaningful.
NBP: What has been most rewarding in your career and what are your goals for the future?
CO: There have been so many rewarding experiences throughout my career so far. Just having the opportunity to see so many amazing places and animals has made all of the effort worthwhile. I am grateful everyday that I have been able to live this kind of a life and then share those experiences through my photographs. I’ve met and talked to people from vastly different cultures and walks of life and it is amazing how a simple photograph can open the doors of understanding. Much like music, photographs are a universal language that almost anyone can speak.
As I look to the future, however, I would like to accomplish two primary things. First, to do whatever I can to protect or encourage others to protect earth’s most fragile places. We can dwell on all that is wrong, but I really prefer to be more optimistic. When we all work together, it really is amazing what the human species can accomplish. Our problems are solvable, but it does require work and a willingness to consider multiple points of view. Photography can play a vital role in turning the tide. When people are able to see the glaciers receding or the garbage accumulating in the oceans, it’s difficult to ignore the problems and easier to suggest solutions. And when photographers capture the exquisite beauty of nature, they help motivate people to protect it.
I would also like to help talented aspiring photographers establish meaningful careers. It is getting more and more difficult to make a living as a nature photographer, but I believe it is important to have full-time artists in our society. There is a level of skill and depth of coverage that can only be obtained by having adequate time and resources. While there are charities that focus on the arts, I think there is more that can be done to highlight the important contributions that photographers make to our society including creative solutions to provide the funding necessary to support their work. I hope to initiate projects in the coming years that will help to accomplish that goal.