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Ryan Stephens learned to shoot outdoor adventure photography in the middle of the night while capturing the stunning northern lights. A regular photographer for The Marji Gesick, Polar Roll, and The Crusher, Ryan shares his story in today's interview.

Ryan Stephens is a photographer living in Marquette, Michigan. He specializes in shooting action sports and nature and is the Photo & Video Director at Northern Michigan University.

You’ve photographed Marji Gesick, The Crusher, and Polar Roll. Have you ever actually biked any of Todd’s events?

I will happily go camping when it’s -40, but I’m still not crazy enough to race any of Todd’s events. Plus then I would miss out on photographing them!

What’s your background and how did you choose photography?

My Dad passed down his love for biking to me at an early age. He would take me to the local trails, dirt jumps or skatepark and we would often take pictures of each other to see how much (or little) air we would get on the jumps.

Before long I felt the need to document the silly things my friends and I would do around town and on a jump in my backyard. I would use a little point and shoot but I found the limitations of that pretty quickly.

My parents bought me my first DSLR, a Canon Rebel, for my high school graduation gift and I brought that camera to college which is when I really discovered my love for photography.

How did you learn outdoor adventure photography?

When I was getting started I just got outside with my camera as much as possible because I loved it and it was just another excuse to play outside.

Getting into specifics and technique came along later. In the digital age it doesn't cost anything to learn by trial and error and leaves no excuses to just practice and practice.

I noticed that I didn't see much night photography online, so I decided to focus on that, and for a long time that was all I did.

Many nights after class and work my friends would go out on the town while I would drive to the middle of nowhere shooting the stars all night.I would check for northern lights nearly every night, and when I found them I would shoot until 4 or 5am often in sub-zero temps and still find a way to make it to my 8am class.

After you master your camera shooting in the dark with freezing hands and dying batteries, every other shooting situation becomes much simpler.

Through social media I eventually gained a small amount of local recognition which opened opportunities to work with some great local professional photographers who helped me learn so much about not only the craft, but the directing and business side of photography as well.

The U.P. has an iconic reputation. What is it about the land and people that give it such an adventurous spirit?

The U.P. is a beautiful, yet rugged place to live. Lake Superior and the surrounding landscapes are extremely unique and provide opportunities for adventure, but also bring isolation and rough weather.

It takes a certain resilience to make a life here and the people that do are often the ones who embrace winter and know how to make the most of it.

The adventurous spirit thrives here and this small community understands the importance of being active outside and the happiness it brings.

Do you get cold shooting hundreds of active fat bikers while you stand still in the snow?

My shooting style while on an event like the Polar Roll is actually very active which helps me stay warm in the winter. I make it a point to move around the course as much as possible to capture as many racers in different locations, climbing trees to get different angles, and flopping around with snowshoes to get a unique photograph of as many participants as possible.

My family often joke about how many jackets I own, but being an outdoor photographer in the U.P. makes you realize quickly that you need good gear.

Being able to focus on your job instead of your survival makes a big difference in the end result of a shoot day.

What do you shoot with?

Canon R6 with my main lenses being the Canon 16-35, 50, and 70-200.

What kind of biking do you do?

A big reason I moved to the U.P. was because of the phenomenal terrain here. Mountain biking is one of my favorite things to do while not behind the lens and I feel fortunate to have one of the best trail systems in the midwest a mile from my house.


To see more of Ryan Stephens' work, follow him on Instagram or check out his landscape print galleries and race coverage.




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