By Amanda Eggert
The titles of professional photographer and bear spray tester wouldn’t regularly go hand-in-hand, but if you’re Michael Francis, they do.
Several years ago, Francis was in Canada with another photographer when they were charged by a grizzly bear sow. They stopped her from a full charge when she was just six feet away – they couldn’t use the spray any earlier because underbrush interfered with the spray’s range.
“That was the first time that Counter Assault had ever been used on a charging female grizzly bear with cubs,” Francis said. “No one knew whether it would really work or not and obviously both my friend and I are here, so the spray worked well.”
While it might be a stretch to say such situations are the norm, Francis, 55, has found himself in a number of dangerous situations during his three-decade tenure as a nature photographer.
Yellowstone National Park’s beauty – its unique geothermal features, assortment of wildlife and stunning landscapes – inspired Francis to pick up a camera more than three decades ago. “It pretty much started my first day in Yellowstone Park when I said, ‘Hmm…This is what I’d like to do,’” he said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in entomology and taking three years of photography classes at Montana State University-Bozeman, Francis spent several years perfecting his craft while managing hotels and lodges in Yellowstone.
He started showing his photos to fellow employees, then to guests. Before long, he was winning photography contests.
“Pretty soon I started thinking ‘you know, I think my stuff is as good as what I see in magazines.’”
His professional career took off in 1983 when National Parks magazine published some of his work the same month he had the cover of Bowhunter.
Francis estimates that he now works regularly with 15 to 20 publications from his home-base in Billings, Mont. where he lives with his wife Victoria and his 17-year-old daughter Emily. His 22-year-old daughter, Liz, is a student at the University of Nebraska.
Francis’ background in biology helps him recognize subtle cues animals give before they’re about to do something exciting. “I’m always looking for natural behavior and I think a lot of editors around the country know me for my behavior as opposed to my animal portraits,” he said.
Francis spends about 200 days a year in the field – photographing everything from orangutans in Borneo and polar bears in Manitoba to lemurs and chameleons in Madagascar – but still tries to make it back to Yellowstone once a month.“My favorite place, even though I travel all around the world, is still Yellowstone Park,” Francis said.
Francis is lucky enough to see his former role models become friends. Growing up, Francis admired the work of Leonard Lee Rue III. Now he counts the legendary photographer among his friends.
In the early 2000s, Francis led Joseph Van Os photo tours with Rue III’s son, Len Rue Jr., in Manitoba, Canada. They led groups of outdoor photography enthusiasts on trips to photograph polar bears.
“He was great,” the younger Rue remembers. “He’s responsible, fun, and gets along great with people. He’s excellent.”
Photo tours are one source of revenue in an increasingly competitive market. “Selling photography is a lot more difficult today than it was when I started in the 80s, much more difficult,” Francis said. “What you’re doing now in order to be successful is finding as many little niches as you can in order to sell your expertise.”
Photo tours are one niche, book projects are another. Francis has 35 single photographer books to his name.
“His publishing record is enviable,” said Francis’ colleague Michael Sample. “It’s an amazingly wide body of work.”
Another way Francis supplements his income in the midst of falling stock photography prices is by maintaining a state-of-the-art Web site (www.michaelfrancisphoto.com) where approved professional photography buyers can purchase photos without having to contact him personally, an important consideration for someone who spends so many days in the field.
“They can go onto my site, find the image they want and actually download a high-res TIFF off of my site, use that, and send me a check without ever having to talk to me,” Francis said. “There are just a very small handful of us right now that are doing that, but that will probably be the norm in less than ten years.”
Although the digital revolution has changed the professional market and it is a constant struggle to stay abreast of new technology, Francis said he prefers digital photography to the old film days. “It is, I think, a lot more fun,” he said. “I would never go back to shooting film. I don’t think I could.”
Francis joined OWAA in 1989. He also joined the North American Nature Photographer’s Association when it was founded more than 15 years ago, serving as its president from 2003 to 2004.
“He’s done a lot to promote outdoor photography,” Sample said. “He’s just an all-around upbeat, positive, ethical, friendly photographer who’s quite skilled at what he does.”
The hunting season is underway – orange and camouflage-clad hunters are roaming the outdoors with bows and rifles in tow. Francis will be combing the woods for wildlife, too, but with a camera rather than a gun.
“I used to be quite the avid hunter, but really, hunting and carrying a camera don’t go very well. You can be good at one but not good at both typically,” Francis said. “I haven’t carried a rifle with me for quite some time. Basically, I hunt year-round, but with a camera.” ◊
Amanda Eggert grew up in Billings, Mont., skiing in the Beartooth Mountains and rafting the Stillwater River. She has since moved to Missoula, where she is finishing up a degree in print journalism at the University of Montana. Her intern duties include crafting Character Sketch articles, compiling Supporting Group News Tips, News Briefs, Bookshelf items and Outdoor Market listings.
By Amanda Eggert