Would you answer the call of Mother Nature if she asked you to join her on a photography quest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to capture the beauty of the Teton Mountains? How about a deep-sea dive off the Guadalupe Islands to photograph great white sharks from a cage?
James Michael Darter, a photographer, artist, and wildlife adventure leader, always seems to be up for an unforgettable outdoor experience. And when he returns home to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, he brings with him both photographs and paintings that chronicle how he answered the call of the wild.
Darter’s been at this a while. At age 10, he took up his father’s Canon AE1 to start photographing nature subjects, but it wasn’t just for the joy of making photographs. He used the images as subject references for paintings. A year later, he entered and won his first art show for one of those paintings. He continued to photograph and paint wildlife and nature subjects into adulthood. As he matured and took on the obligations of a family, Darter found he had less time to devote to his art and so he claimed photography as his primary form of expression.
Around 2012, Darter befriended wild-life photographer Aaron Baggenstos, who was running photography day trips. The two became quick friends. As Baggenstos’ travel experiences grew in demand, Darter began assisting him with tours and managing clients. Since then, Darter has been leading nature and wildlife photography adventure niche tours for Aaron’s Photo Tours.
Working as both a guide and photographer has influenced Darter’s personal work. “It has definitely had an impact on my photography in various ways,” he says. “I think that for most people, photography is an ever-changing process. Interests change or maybe widen as you get more into one type or genre of photography. This not only includes your interests but also your process, both shooting and editing.”
Being among photographers who represent all levels of proficiency has also had an impact on his work. “I think it just makes you better at whatever you do if you teach others,” says Darter. He also cites his experience teaching sports as examples of how mentoring has improved his own well-being. “I own a boxing, judo, and jiu-jitsu school in Oklahoma City, and when I first started teaching others, especially kids, is when I saw my own techniques improving and becoming more refined. I feel that is the same in whatever you do, including photography.”
Working as a seasonal photography adventure guide, Darter has gained appreciation for the common challenges among students. “One of the biggest struggles that people have is trying to prepare for every situation and scenario and overthinking the process,” Darter says. While photographers love the idea of a simple setup, the fear of literally being on a mountain with the wrong lens can be daunting. So, it’s not uncommon for workshop attendees to overpack.
“We, as photographers, don’t want to miss the shot. We want to make the most of every opportunity, and the truth is, we are really not in control of that,” Darter says. “I struggle with it, too. There are some places that I go that I will most likely never get to again, and I want to capture it the way I see it in my mind. And sometimes, that just doesn’t happen. Being on as many tours as I have, I feel that I am getting more comfortable working with whatever presents itself and finding something that can make a great photo even if I miss what I had preconceived in my mind.”
Having spent years in the field, Darter has learned to simplify his kit, carrying only two Sony Alpha 1 cameras and two lenses: a Tamron 35mm-150mm and a Sony 200-600mm. “That range gets about anything I need in wildlife and nature photography.”
Katelyn Chef is a writer and photographer in Ohio.