Persistence pays off for wildlife photographer Danny Brown
You might walk right past Danny Brown and never know it if you spend any time outdoors in Missouri. He’s likely perched in a chair covered with camouflage netting, patiently waiting for his prey to show up in his viewfinder.
You likely also know his work from reading Missouri Conservationist, Birds and Blooms or many other outdoor-related publications. His image of a coyote bathed in golden early morning light graced the Conservationist’s July 2023 cover.
What you don’t know about Danny and his 16-year effort to capture images of Missouri’s wildlife is the incredible patience behind every shot. Take the photo of the bobcat framed by wildflowers he shot at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit. It’s one of the few images he’s framed and hung on the wall at the home he shares with wife, Joyce, near Union.
That beautiful image required leaving the house early in the morning and patiently waiting for the bobcat to put in an appearance. “I sat for several days near that area every morning before daylight. After almost a week — and 25 hours of sitting in my turkey chair — it came out and stared right at me.”
Danny didn’t set out to become a wildlife photographer. His calling was fisheries and wildlife biology. For much of his career with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) he worked on Missouri’s big rivers improving fish habitat.
His interest in photography came from a hitch in the Air Force. While based in Turkey, he bought a Pentax camera and some lenses. “You can get a good deal on cameras overseas,” he says. “And there is always some sergeant who is a good photographer. I had a mentor who taught me about light, exposure compensation, shooting in snow, stuff like that.”
But Danny didn’t turn his lenses in the direction of wildlife until 2006. A lifetime hunter who grew up in the Ozarks, Danny began having weird encounters with wildlife that showed up when his intention was harvesting other game.
“I kept having these experiences with birds landing on my shotgun barrel,” he says. “I guess the turning point was when I was hunting turkey and this skunk came up and started sniffing my foot. I decided I needed to start documenting this.”
He bought a video camera and tried to capture these close encounters. He had little luck because the wildlife didn’t cooperate. Then he took a news photographer out on the river and was intrigued by her digital camera. At the time, digital cameras were not taken seriously by photographers. This one was different. It was a professional-level camera and it prompted Danny to move away from film and embrace the world of pixels.
“It was then that the hunting had to change to photography,” he says. “I gave up deer hunting. I gave up turkey hunting. I kept hunting until all that was left was duck hunting. I was bringing all my camera gear and my gun. Finally, by 2011 or 2012, I let go of the hunting part altogether and I haven’t had a license since that day.”
This background in hunting paid dividends for Danny, who retired from MDC in 2015 and now devotes his time to shooting wildlife images that are worthy of magazine covers and high-end calendars.
“It sounds cliche, but it’s really true — it is the same feeling,” he says, comparing hunting and wildlife photography. “Every-thing is the same. You get up early in the morning. You don’t sleep at night. It’s cold. You get some coffee and you go out and sit in your turkey chair. It’s the same feeling but better because there’s no seasons.”
Armed today with a professional mirrorless Canon camera and a 500 mm lens, Danny has become one of the pre-eminent Missouri wildlife photographers. His images are recognizable because of the clutter-free framing and the intense stares of his elusive subjects.
Of the thousands of images he’s shot over 16 years, Danny is hard-pressed to name his favorites. He estimates he shoots 10,000 photos per year, while keeping less than 10% of them. That adds up to between 15,000 to 16,000 keepers. Still, when pressed he can name a few he’s especially proud of.
One is a trio of pileated wood-pecker chicks peeking out of a hollow tree. A friend told him where to find the birds near Washington, but explained the Missouri River was flooded so access could be a problem. Undaunted, Danny trekked into the site wearing chest waders. He spotted the family and set up his tripod with the camera and expensive lens.
“A big carp hit my leg and then the tripod and the whole thing started tipping over. I grabbed it just as the lens hood was hitting the water,” he says.
Other images come to mind with equally good stories: a line of eight trumpeter swans bathed in early morning light; an otter napping on an ice flow; fox kits playing on a log; a gorgeous, hooded merganser that’s been featured on covers and calendars.
Then there’s his shot of a pelican gulping down a silver carp. That one drew a lot of attention because no one else had yet captured a moment quite like this.
Danny fields many questions from aspiring wildlife photographers. They want to know where to find a particular species, as if it will be waiting for their arrival.
“I say you don’t just go somewhere and photograph a coyote. You’ve got to be up in the middle of the night and sitting somewhere. The whole concept of being a wildlife photographer goes back to being a really good hunter.”