A Conversation with Drew Hamilton

A Conversation with Drew Hamilton

Drew took a break earlier this year in between shooting aurora and brown bears to speak with us on his life and photography:

What are some of your favorite places to photograph and why?

I think my favorite place to shoot is Churchill, Manitoba.  It is most famous for the polar bears but it has so many other seasonal subjects: ice, birds, beluga whales, sunsets, tundra, fall colors.  It also has the most consistent aurora of anywhere I’ve ever been.  

I spent 6 summers working at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary in Alaska watching brown bears.  It is the best bear viewing in the world.  There is no place else on the planet where all human use in an area is secondary to letting wild bears be bears.  

Since 4th grade I have been obsessed with monarch butterflies.   Basically all the monarchs from east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in a small area in Mexico up at around 9000 feet.  The feeling of being surrounded by 10’s of millions of monarchs is otherworldly.  It is also the most photographically challenging subject as on one level they are 1/2 gram butterflies but there are millions of them. How to best capture that keeps me heading back year after year.  


Where are you currently based? 

I have a pretty good seasonal migration I’ve worked out of over the years.  Summers in Alaska doing brown bear tours on the Alaska Peninsula.  Fall in Churchill, Manitoba doing on the ground tours for polar bears.  In the winter I chase aurora in Alaska and Manitoba with a break to head down to the mountains of Mexico for the monarch butterfly congregations.  A good place to get some sun but it doesn’t get too hot.  


How did you get started in photography? 

When I was a kid my parents owned a small town newspaper so I had access to a darkroom to dodge and burn to my heart’s content.  In the beginning I would just recreationally develop the images from the newspaper’s archive but when my mother gave me her old AE-1 I could go out and make my own images to develop.  

What are you shooting with these days?

That AE-1 was my first real camera and I shot Canon until 2015 when I started shopping around for a camera system that better fit my needs.  Since I am a guide first and a photographer second I have all sorts of things I have to carry on a daily basis: first aid kits, satellite communications devices, bear deterrents, etc.  On top of that it all has to fit in a floatplane or on a boat where space is at a premium.  I chose the Olympus Micro 4/3 system for the size advantage and the high quality images it can produce.  When I’m working I pretty much just leave the 300mm f/4 M. Zuiko Pro on for the whole season. 

For my aurora hunting I use a Sony system for the low light advantages it provides.  Again, though, this system is extremely portable since aurora photography is all wide angle lenses.  

Kiboko 22L with aurora background

"I’ve got my systems dialed to the point that they both fit perfectly in the Kiboko 2.0 22L. " 


What do you look for when creating a photograph? Do you go in any order like "light, subject, composition, action" or is it a different process? 

In a perfect world if I had my choice I think for me it would be first pick the subject and what you want it doing.  Next would be composition. Then you either adapt your exceptions to the light that is available or wait.  It is very satisfying to craft a shot.  

How far do you go to capture a truly unique moment? and what is the craziest thing you've done to capture a photograph? 

So many of the encounters I have in the field on a daily basis would be considered by some to be “crazy.”  I assure you they are not and I am one of the more risk-averse photographers I know.  Tens of thousands of hours  with bears in the wilderness just gives a better understanding of what the risks actually are.  Having a long list of shots not taken or situations avoided are the mark of successful bear viewing guide.  

What or where inspires you next? 

SNOW LEOPARDS are #1 on my list.  Next chance I get I will head to India to look for snow leopards with my friend Behzad Larry.  

Can you tell us about the project(s) you're currently working on? 

 One of the projects that is near and dear to my heart is seeing permanent protections put in place for the Bristol Bay region in Alaska.  I have been working with a number of Tribal organizations and conservation groups to advocate for protections that will allow this amazing place to be enjoyed by future generations.  www.defendbristolbay.com

I have teamed up with a group of conservation-minded photographers to establish The Wildlife Collective.  We are a group of photographers united in our calling to advocate for the wild. Part of our mission is to inspire others to join our pack and create art that gives back.  www.thewildlifecollective.com

To see more of Drew's work please visit instagram: DrewHH and website: www.DrewHH.com