David Akoubian of ‘Bear Woods Photography‘ first started his photography journey back in 1972, not even a year after Canon unveiled the now famous ‘F-1’ camera system. It took twenty years of learning and practicing his photography before he was able to pursue it as a career and become his own boss. Since then, he has worked alongside photography legends like Art Wolfe, been contracted by companies like Coca-Cola and had his work published in publications like Outdoor Photographer and Backpacker Magazine. Obviously, with a resume like that, it’s no wonder he was able to add Tamron Image Master to it five years ago. Akoubian described that moment as “Truly one of the greatest honors I have been bestowed during my career.”
With Akoubian’s storied 25-year career anniversary happening in 2017, we were anxious to sit down and talk with the photographer about his work, his love for teaching photography, and how his childhood passion of painting helped him become an accomplished photographer.
Being that the Canon F-1 came out just a year before you started your photography journey in 1972, was this the camera that accompanied you on those early days?
My father was a big Pentax guy until the digital age, so my first camera was an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic. Great simple camera, perfect for learning photography! I replaced it with the Pentax MX a couple years later. I bought my first Tamron lens, an Adaptall model 90mm Macro lens for the Pentax MX, around 1979 or 1980. I loved that lens, so I kept it and used it when I started shooting Nikons about 10 years later.
It took you 20 years to convert your hobby into a full-time career. What was your day job in those 20 years? At what point in those 20 years did you determine you wanted to work towards making this a full-time career?
I worked in retail for many years and had always promised to serve the Country, so in 1987 I joined the Marines. When I was discharged in 1992, I simply declared myself a photographer. My big break though came in 1993 when I decided to attend a photography workshop in the Great Smoky Mountains with John Shaw. I knew from that weekend what I wanted to focus on doing with my photography.
You do a lot of teaching of young students, camera clubs, etc. What is it that attracts you to the educational aspect of nature photography?
I have found that teaching others often gives you as much of an education as it does for them. I find verbalizing what I am doing helps me to develop better habits. I have also found it is very rewarding hanging out with others that share similar passions like photography and a love of nature.
Before you got your first camera, you were a painter. Did you enjoy painting landscapes and nature scenes? How do you think your visual style transferred over from your painting?
I loved painting landscapes, but did a lot of murals which took a long time to finish. I found I needed more of the satisfaction of seeing my work more quickly, which is what I was able to achieve with photography. I owe most of my composition education to my days painting. I teach today that if someone wants to learn great photography composition, study the painters of 400 years ago. They arranged elements in a landscape with their brush that I try to emulate with my camera today. Studying painters makes you “work” a scene to get things where you visualize them in your mind.
You talk about your love for nature photography being born when your father took you to the Grand Tetons in 1976. Obviously, it seems that the Grand Tetons is your first true love, as you return quite often. Can you tell us about your connection to the Grand Tetons and how those mountains help you to clear your mind?
The Tetons have always been special to me because I have felt it was where I truly developed the love of the grand landscape. I spent days riding horses and hiking and all the time discovering such a different world from the area I had grown up, outside of Atlanta. I was and am still in awe each and every time I look at the Tetons. I know I can always find peace in my soul when I am sitting in such a great place. I joke that each time I physically have to leave there, my soul remains waiting for my return.
Who inspires you as a nature photographer, either past or present. Who are some of the photographers that you respect and admire?
Social media has given me the opportunity to see so many inspirational photographers. So many new techniques and viewpoints. I still am inspired daily by my mentors John Shaw, Art Wolfe and Bryan Peterson through their posting and websites. I teach with a fellow photographer Cecil Holmes and I find it very inspirational to see how he shoots a scene having never shot film before or really studied art. It is very natural for him and his process is where I find inspiration.
After speaking at length with Akoubian, it’s no wonder why he has maintained a successful career over two and a half decades. His work alone is exceptional, but his passion for sharing the beauty of nature resonates with almost everyone.
All photos captions contain the Tamron Lens used as well as the EXIF data.