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Death Valley
Photographer's Guide


Since 1978, I've been providing nature and wildlife photography for books, magazines, calendars, brochures, museum exhibits, advertising, and a variety of other uses.

My catalog includes photos of frogs and toads, snakes and lizards, birds and mammals, native plants, and many locations in Death Valley and other deserts of the southwestern U.S. I've also photographed birds, reptiles, and amphibians in Costa Rica and Ecuador; wildlife, scientific research, and local culture in East Timor; and National Parks throughout the Western U.S. Every photo is captioned and keyworded with common and Latin names, location, behavior, Federal and State endangered status, and any other relevant information.

My approach to wildlife photography is simple: I look for a strong composition that will capture the spirit of the individual as well as the species or location. I sometimes think of myself as a portrait photographer, using the same techniques of lighting, composition, and color to reveal a glimpse of each animal's "personality."

But if you really want to know who I am, scroll down to read what Rangefinder magazine had to say about me.

Photographer Dan Suzio
Frogs & Snakes & Bugs, Oh My!

By P.J. Heller
Rangefinder magazine, June 2001

As a youngster in Northern California, Dan Suzio used to chase after snakes, frogs and assorted bugs.

As an adult, he’s doing the same thing, only this time with a camera in his hand.

Suzio describes his photography specialty as "snakes, frogs, bugs, and other creepy stuff."

No annual reports or corporate suits for this photographer, whose interest in nature and photography dates to his childhood.

"All those years as a kid catching frogs and catching lizards and snakes kind of paid off," said Suzio, who operates Dan Suzio Photography in Berkeley, California.

Suzio had planned to be become a biologist. But after less than a year of college at the University of California at Berkeley, he decided to drop out and take a break from school. Although he planned to return to school after a few years off, he never went back.

But his love of nature and the outdoors and his interest in photography didn’t wane and gradually led him to combine those interests into a career. He managed to interest a stock photo agency in his work and his photos began selling.

To supplement that income, he took on other jobs, including shooting brochures for companies in the San Francisco Bay area.

"I felt like nature photography was not an easy way to make a living," he said, then added with a laugh, "It’s still not."

He quickly realized, though, that corporate photography wasn’t his calling.

"Commercial photography didn’t thrill me," he admitted. "I never found it interesting enough or satisfying enough. Shooting a brochure for an investment company or an importer just doesn’t excite me the way shooting frogs and snakes does.

"At some point, 10 or 15 years ago, I realized that it didn’t make sense just to do whatever kind of photography was out there," he said. "It made more sense to concentrate on what I enjoyed and what I did best."

His background in biology has served him well. So have his days as a youngster chasing frogs and snakes and bugs.

"It’s given me the patience and knowledge of reptiles’ behavior that it takes to be able to approach them closely," he said.

"I’ve had cases where I’ve spent an hour or more approaching a lizard and end up with my camera three inches from its face and it’s just sitting there looking at me," he recalled.

"I don’t know how much conscious thought a reptile is capable of, but I imagine it’s sitting there thinking, ‘What the hell is this,’" he said with a laugh.

Most of Suzio’s work is sold to textbook publishers through his stock agency, Photo Researchers Inc. His success is partly due to the fact that he specializes in reptiles and amphibians and other "creepy stuff" rather than trying to be a jack-of-all-trades. It’s also due to the fact that he carefully captions each of his slides.

His advice to other photographers is simple:

"Don’t shoot the same ‘big hairy mammals’ that everyone else is shooting," he recommended. "You might have a great shot of a snarling grizzly bear or a beautifully backlit elk at sunrise, but every stock agency in the world already has a couple hundred just like it. Pick a specialty -- or two or three -- that you know something about, and shoot it in depth.

"If you like dragonflies, for example, don’t just recreate the standard shot of a dragonfly resting on a leaf beside a pond," he advised. "Photograph every aspect of their lives, from egg to adult, including what they eat and what eats them."

As for captions, the words attached to an image can often make or break the sale, Suzio noted.

"If you caption a photo as 'desert cactus flower,’ it will be marketable in certain areas," he said. "But in the kinds of markets I sell to, it would never sell. I’m not sure my stock agency would even accept it."

Suzio said he has seen royalty-free disks that contain numerous incorrect descriptions, such as an ape labeled as a monkey and a toad labeled as a frog.

"Complete and accurate captions won’t make a bad photo marketable, but without them a good photo can be useless," he pointed out. "A caption that says ‘bee on cactus flower, Mojave Desert’ isn't good enough for the textbook market, but the same photo labeled ‘honeybee, Apis mellifera, with pollen on legs and head, on flower of beavertail cactus, Opuntia basilaris, in upper Thousand Palms Canyon, Joshua Tree National Park, California’ might be just what the editor is looking for.

"Doing this requires that you be a naturalist, in the 19th century sense of the word," he said. "You need to know some biology, some botany, some ecology, some geology, a little chemistry, and you need to spend as much time researching and captioning as you do shooting.

"My bookshelves are overflowing, not with photography books, but with science textbooks and field guides," Suzio noted.

From a photo standpoint, Suzio has captured images of reptiles and plants using minimal equipment. Most of his work is done outdoors, although some work requires that photos be taken in the studio -- or on the kitchen table or over the sink.

"In some cases it’s impossible to shoot in a natural setting," he said. "You’re not going to get a close-up of the different stages of development of a tadpole just by sticking your camera into a creek. You have to temporarily scoop them out of the creek and put them in a little aquarium and then light it to avoid reflections."

Suzio shoots strictly 35mm, relying on Nikon cameras with either a 55mm f2.8 macro or a 105 f2.8 macro. His film of choice these days is Kodak Ektachrome 100VS, which he exposes at its normal ISO of 100.

In the field, he’ll use fill flash to cut down on shadows or a reflector. In the studio, he’ll use one or two handheld strobes, sometimes bounced through a small softbox, and reflectors.

"I do set up a lot of reflectors (in the studio)," he said. "I don’t like the harsh lighting I see in a lot of reptile photos. I try to make the lighting as natural as possible."

Lighting creepy crawly creatures isn’t always easy, he added.

"Amphibians are wet and they need to stay wet when you’re working with them, even if you bring them into the studio. That makes for all kinds of problems with reflections and highlights," he said.

Snakes with their shiny skins create reflection and contrast problems. And lizards, while not shiny or wet, are only out when the sun is harsh, creating hard lighting effects.

"When I’m out shooting in the field, I like to use what’s around to soften the light," Suzio said.

That may mean using rocks to frame the picture or a branch or leaves to create a more dappled lighting effect.

Understanding an animal’s behavior is also important in order to get close enough to get a photo and to ensure that the photo accurately depicts the animal’s activities, Suzio noted.

"With reptiles, they know you’re there," he said. "It’s more a matter of not being a threat because of your own behavior. If you act like a rock, a lizard is not going to be afraid of you. If you act like a coyote, the lizard will be gone before you have a chance to make a picture."

"I enjoy the isolation, the solitude of getting out, shooting out in wilderness, even if it’s just three miles from my house," he said.

P.J. Heller is a freelance photojournalist based in Santa Barbara, Calif. He can be reached via e-mail at This article first appeared in Rangefinder Magazine, June 2001. Copyright 2001 by P.J. Heller. All rights reserved.

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Dan Suzio Photography
P.O. Box 5803
Berkeley, CA 94705

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