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The View from Above: Dan Anderson discovers drone photography

Technology has sent photographers scrambling throughout the past decade. These days, nearly everyone has a powerful camera in their pocket at all times, so those who make a profession out of taking pictures have had to find new ways to separate themselves from the amateurs. 

One of Door County’s leading photographic eyes is no different. Ellison Bay fine-art landscape photographer Dan Anderson now finds his edge from a different vantage point and by using different equipment: high above with a drone.

“When a photographer gets a new lens, you can go crazy with it for a while,” he said. “It’s the same with a drone.”

Anderson bought a drone in 2018 – a Mavic Pro II with a 20 megapixel fixed lens – and said he now uses it as much or more than his regular camera.

“It’s a different way of looking, and it has totally extended my vision of photography,” he said. “Rather than looking toward something and zooming in or out, looking right or left, now up and down becomes another element in that compositional tool box.”

When Anderson set out to shoot the Seaquist cherry orchard in Ellison Bay, he was surprised to find the highway catch his eye among the blossoms. “I am flying over the orchard and doing many compositions. Then I looked down and was very high and saw the highway made a great straight down shot with really good patterns. I got the gimbal looking straight down, and I can make little tweaks and line up the road, and then a little red SUV doing highway speed came into the picture, and as soon as he appeared, I started taking shots. I got that car in three different spots. The one here is my last one.” Photo by Dan Anderson.

Anderson studied with famed photographer Ansel Adams and then was one of Adams’ assistants at his workshops for several years. Adams had his own way of creating elevated photographs: He put a heavy piece of plywood on top of a station wagon and positioned his view camera up there. Anderson said it wasn’t to get a vertical view down, however; it was to shoot over the low brush and junk on the ground.

Anderson doesn’t photograph people or the rural town images that draw the eye of many on the peninsula. Instead, his photos are of landscapes, the composition dictated by weather conditions, the atmosphere, the season and especially the light. 

His style of shooting has changed with the drone as well, as he explained in describing how he approached the Cana Island Lighthouse.

“If I am around Cana Island, I look at the lighthouse and come to a composition,” Anderson said. “I see the lighthouse is where I want it, and the buildings and the lake are where I want them, but am I at the right altitude? When I am in the air, I am free of constraints because my composition and editing are so quick.”

It’s a far cry from the 8×10-inch view-camera days of the 1970s, when he might traverse a landscape for a full day just to get six shots. 

“I might hike five miles out and back, and find the best shot of the day, and not have enough film,” Anderson said. “So I almost always came back with one sheet of film left, just in case.”

Anderson is drawn to where ice meets open water, and where the water cuts through the land. Photo by Dan Anderson.

Drone Opens the Door to New Views

Last February was a very icy season, according to Anderson, who has photographed ice from Antarctica to Greenland and all around Door County.

Still, he said, “I was not impressed. But when I came through Sister Bay, I looked out and could see the Little Sister Islands, and behind I could see towers of ice – big ice shoves.”

He found the closest spot he could and launched his drone. 

“You would never dare take a snowmobile or hike [to that spot],” Anderson said. “A drone or an airplane was the only way to get the shot. Those ice shoves lasted about 10 days before the snow covered them, and I was out shooting six or seven afternoons or evenings when the sky wasn’t overcast.”

The ice cuts a new pattern at the docks of the Shoreline restaurant in Gills Rock. Photo by Dan Anderson.

His favorite Door County locales to photograph are the junctions between water and land.

“Wherever it is, it always seems to attract me when I am looking down at it,” Anderson said. “It is real – you can tell what it is – yet the composition is abstract because we don’t see it that way. The human eye is not accustomed to looking straight down from a height.”

Another favorite drone subject is wetlands – particularly the area around Mud Lake and North Bay.

“Those places are so difficult to get to on foot, and then when you do get far inland, you are into low trees and branches, and walking in water with waist-high grass all around you,” Anderson said. “It’s not only hard to get there, but it’s hard to compose because it is so messy right in front of you. But then you jump in the air with a drone and are looking down, and all of a sudden, those barriers are gone. I am not young anymore, so the idea of wet feet and [being] up to my knees in water if I can just fly over it and look down isn’t fun.”