AOTM: Mike Grandmaison

The award winning photographer behind thirteen books, Mike Grandmaison is our Author of the Month. (Okay, photographer of the month.) Mike’s photography has also been published worldwide in magazines, and calendars. With a background in biology, he worked for the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton and Winnipeg for 20 years. Since he turned to photography full time in 1996, he has published several collections of his natural landscape photography, and recently opened The Canadian Gallery in Winnipeg. He shares with us a few thoughts about his creative process in 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Mike Grandmaison.

 The award winning photographer behind thirteen books, Mike Grandmaison is our Author of the Month. (Okay, photographer of the month.) Mike’s photography has also been published worldwide in magazines, and calendars. With a background in biology, he worked for the Canadian Forest Service in Edmonton and Winnipeg for 20 years. Since he turned to photography full time in 1996, he has published several collections of his natural landscape photography, and recently opened The Canadian Gallery in Winnipeg. He shares with us a few thoughts about his creative process in 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Mike Grandmaison.

Mike's books with Turnstone Press are:

Mike Grandmaison's Prairie and Beyond

Mike Grandmaison's Ontario

19 Questions about Process: An Interview with Mike Grandmaison


When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional photographer?

After nearly 20 years working in the biological sciences, I began a new career as a full-time freelance, professional photographer on April 1, 1996. And it was no April fool’s joke either! This was serious business, leaving a well paid job to start something totally new and which brought me a salary of $0 for the first month! It was a bit daunting but it worked out well. A week or two before leaving my Forestry Canada job of 17 years, I actually took a few days off to photograph my first architectural assignment, a forestry operation near Winnipeg. My second commercial assignment resulted in photographing the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health in Winnipeg before it opened to the public. Of course, since 1987, I had previously leased many stock images to book and calendar companies and others as a part-time photographer.

What do you typically carry in your camera bag?

I carry 2-3 bags with me when I travel. One bag will often hold my wildlife gear while the other contains my landscape gear. A third, small bag allows me to carry an extra camera body and a couple of additional lenses, as well as some media cards and accessories. I own 5 different camera bodies and an assortment of lenses ranging from a 16mm fisheye lens to a 300mm telephoto lens. A couple of tripods, two architectural lenses, a macro lens, three tele-converters, extension tubes and a supplementary diopter lens round out the basic camera gear. Flashes, media cards, flashlights and safety gear are also part of the equipment I take with me.

Is there one piece of equipment that you cannot live without on a shoot?

A tripod is a vital part of my equipment. Nearly every image I make involves the use of a tripod. It is a critical piece of equipment to maximize sharpness, obtain the most flexibility in getting the best depth of field (amount of the image that is in relative focus) and simply in allowing for the best possible composition by creating discipline of taking your time and looking carefully at what you have composed in the viewfinder.

What inspires you?

Most of my inspiration comes from the natural world, plain and simple. When photographing architecture, I am inspired by the design of ‘inspired architects’!

How many photographs do you think you take during any given year?

This varies according to the year but it runs into the thousands. I could never count. One year, when I was shooting film, I remember my ‘film processing’ account totalling about $30,000. Now we measure the number of images in terms gigabites of information. A single photograph, once processed, averages just over 200 megabytes. That’s amounts to a lot of hard drive space that is required to store all that digital data. This is in addition to five 4-drawer cabinets full of slides stored in plastic sleeves.

How do you keep track of what images you’ve taken?

My retrieval system is very archaic in a way. My slides are grouped into folders in a filing cabinet. For instance, my Ontario slides fill about 3 filing cabinet drawers. It’s crude, slow but it works! I recently looked through every single image I made of Ontario when editing for my latest book Ontario. RE: my digital files, I usually perform a search on my computer to find the required images. I seldom have time to fill out the metadata for each image that would make the search function a breeze but time is such a scarce commodity. The minimum I tend to have time to do is to give either the file or the folder a name. Luckily, the computer usually returns favourable results.

You have done both commercial, client-driven photography and creative work. Do you have a preference? Why?

In general, I prefer photographing for myself. In the first 15 years or so of my career, my income was more or less evenly divided between client-driven (commercial assignment) photography and stock photography (photographs I make for myself and which I subsequently lease out to clients). In the last 5 years, this has shifted to mostly doing stock photography with a good measure of commercial work. Most of the time, I tend to accept work that appeals to me, that I find some measure of creativity. The lack of creativity was the main reason I left the biological sciences. Working for a client does not mean you cannot be creative but I try and make sure it is before I accept an assignment. I have refused many, many assignments over the years. Client-driven assignments, by their very nature, tend to tie you down to a calendar that is not really to my liking. I much prefer to do things on my own time. Certain client-driven projects like books are very different because they allow you much flexibility and creativity. Many of the architectural projects I have undertaken have also allowed me to be fairly creative. I feel I have been fortunate in that respect.

Do you always shoot images with an end product in mind?

To be honest, I usually photograph for myself. If the resulting image can be used later in a specific project, then that is wonderful. If not, so be it! While working on certain projects like books, there is a focus that has already been prescribed, as in most of the architectural projects for that matter. Many of the agricultural projects for instance were much more flexible in terms of content. While a large part of my business revolves around calendars and many calendars are subject specific, I often do not let that dissuade me in how I approach a particular image.

Do you know at the moment you see a potential image if it will belong in a calendar or book or other? Or do you shoot first and ask questions later?

Often you know when you have created an image that will please you. There is a small ‘eureka moment’ that plays inside your head as you see that image appear on the back of your camera. That is always special. As I previously mentioned, I almost always photograph for myself, often reacting to situations in front of me. It’s more of a contemplative approach. I seldom plan an image. That is not to say that I don’t ever think about the venues that the images I make will find their way into.

What role, if any, does research play in your photography?

I tend to research when I have a very specific project to do. For instance, when I created images for the recent Canada Post stamp commemorating the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, I had a good chat with the designer, Rob Peters from Circle Design, about the specific needs required for that very secretive project. I spent a lot of my own time scouting different locations to capture the images required. I also made a lot of images in the process. Ultimately, two images were used on the stamp itself but a handful of other images were used on collateral pieces like the First Day Issue Cover and the stamp booklet. Similarly, when I have a book project about a specific topic like the recent book about the St. Boniface Cathedral in Winnipeg, I did some research and talked to both the publisher (Les Editions des Plaines) as well as the architect, Etienne Gaboury, to find out what was important to document and capture.

You have photographed throughout entire country. What is your favourite area/region?

That is like asking which is your favourite child! All of them, of course. Each region exhibit an intrinsic beauty of their own. That’s what makes this country so special and why I have spent a lifetime traveling through the various parts on numerous occasions. Each time, it looks different, depending on the light, the weather, the circumstances, etc. It’s a new discovery each time.

Is there an area you haven’t photographed but wish you could?

My bucket list for Canada is extensive! In the next few years I would love to travel to the Queen Charlotte Islands (now called Haida Gwaii), the Canadian High Arctic, Labrador, Sable Island, the Caribou region of British Columbia, many of the mountain parks in British Columbia, The Athabasca Dunes, The Mingan Archipelago, The Magdeleine Islands, Anticosti Island, Great Bear Forest, the caves along Lake Superior, remote islands in Georgian Bay, and the list goes. In a lifetime, I doubt I could explore all of these places.

What are your favorite conditions to photograph in? 

Conditions of fog and hoarfrost are perhaps my favourite conditions to photograph in. I love the simplicity and a sense of mystery and magic they offer.

And you’re least favourite?

I find windy conditions to be the most challenging. Having said that, one can also use wind to show movement. While cold winter conditions can be challenging, one can usually dress for them.

What are currently working on?

Now that the Ontario book is complete, I am beginning to focus my attention on a second Canada book for Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. I have already started to assemble some of the images but I will keep photographing until the very end. I travel frequently to various regions of the country to always have a fresh selection of photographs for my calendar clients. I am also trying to break into the fine art market in the next few years.

What are your thoughts about copyright and photography in a digital world?

I am a firm believer in copyright and artworks should belong and remain with the artists. Of course, negotiations between artists and clients can modify those rights. The erosion of artist rights is a major issue facing us today. This erosion also tends to limit or reduce an artist’s ability to make a comfortable living. Often, I find my own images on the web have been ‘stolen’ by Flickr members who have even had the audacity to call the images their own, even if my copyright symbol is boldly displayed on their own site! A lawyer can usually bring a little fear in their world! Social media has its positive side but it is also very time consuming, to speak nothing of the impersonal nature it has.

And now a few fun questions:

Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you process photos? How about when you draft articles about photograph?

When I write, I usually like it quiet in order to concentrate on the task ahead. A freshly brewed cup of fine coffee is always welcome but I do keep it to 3 cups a day. While processing images, some fine, eclectic music often complements the work. A glass of fine wine or imported beer, or even a fine cup of coffee, makes reading or browsing through a beautiful book an even more enjoyable experience.

Favourite music to listen to while you process and edit your images?

I love almost any genre of music, as long as it is well done. I have a soft spot for folk music and today we enjoy an incredible variety and selection of Canadian indy music. I also enjoy jazz very much, especially when I’m on the road!

If you could not be a professional photographer, what career might you have?

Previous to my photography career, I worked in the biological sciences and I enjoyed that very much. I miss the people I worked with for so many years. It was because of the lack of creativity that I left science for photography but my experience in understanding science has also helped me tremendously in my photography career. If I could not be a professional photographer, I could easily have been involved in music somehow. I dabbled with the guitar for awhile but I was never very good at it. But I am an expert listener! My ‘first love’ was probably music!