People & Culture

Michelle Valberg on her career as a wildlife photographer

The Canadian Geographic Photographer-in-Residence shares her experience getting into the field of wildlife photography, where she finds inspiration and more 

  • Nov 02, 2023
  • 944 words
  • 4 minutes
Boss the spirit bear shakes off in the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)
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Growing up, Michelle Valberg thought she was going to be a professional golfer — until she was handed a camera by her father at the age of 17. Many years later, she is now regarded as one of Canada’s top wildlife photographers, showcasing her work around the world. She was appointed to the Order of Canada for her photography and philanthropy in 2022 and has received numerous awards, including the Louis Kamookak Medal from the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Her work has been featured in National Geographic and Lens Magazine, on Canada Post stamps, and as a Royal Canadian Mint coin, among others. She is also a frequent contributor to Canadian Geographic as a Photographer-in-Residence. Here, Valberg discusses how she got started as a photographer and what she hopes to capture in the future.

A common loon stares down the photographer on Sharbot Lake, Ont. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)
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On being overlooked

I started taking pictures, and I couldn’t stop. I was 17 in university, but I was going to figure it out. So I started my business in photography and video. As a young woman entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry, being taken seriously wasn’t always easy. I was overlooked often, so it was actually a benefit for me to start in the video industry, get my name out there and get connected to the business community and such. And then, that snowballed. Once I was successful in that department, then I brought in photography.

On getting into wildlife photography

My parents were birders, and we were always out and camping in nature, and I love all animals. I think everybody’s dream when they take up photography, and they love wildlife, is that they want to be a Can Geo photographer. I’ve heard that so many times since, and I thought it myself, but I knew I had a long road to go to get there, and I knew I wanted to do photography, and I needed the expertise to learn how to do everything. There wasn’t anything I said no to, because I needed to make a living in photography. And I think that’s kind of the way it is everywhere.

A humpback whale breaches in the Great Bear Rainforest, B.C. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)
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On getting started with Canadian Geographic 

I always dabbled in wildlife photography, but I was never able to do very much with it. Then I started a studio gallery, and I put up my photos of wildlife I had taken at my cottage, and people started to buy it. And I remember, I did a portrait of someone from Canadian Geographic, and they came in, and I remember going, “Oh, she works for Canadian Geographic. They’re in Ottawa?” And then I started getting my work out there, including the Photo Club. I started to submit photos, and I got Photo of the Month. And then I kept submitting. I won a couple of the contests, and then I started working for travel companies, and then it just snowballed from there. But man, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life. I thought I worked hard when I was young, but you know, it doesn’t stop.

On why she loves being in the field 

The unpredictability. The only thing predictable about wildlife is their unpredictability. I’ve photographed so many people in my studio, and I can control that. I can control the lighting, makeup, the hair. I can tell the client how to pose and what to do. And I can control the situation. Going into the wild, you have no control, and it just has to unfold. I have no patience in the rest of my life. But I sure have patience for wildlife photography.

A Caspian tern spins mid-air, Sharbot Lake, Ont. (Photo: Michelle Valberg)
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On what inspires her

It’s kind of like that good golf shot. You hit a really good shot, you get close to the pin, and you know you can do better because you can get it in the hole. It’s like one shot to the next, it’s capturing that moment, trying to capture something nobody else has ever seen. It’s a constant obsession. I think that’s the greatest gift for all photographers. It’s like, “What’s next?” We don’t know. You can anticipate, you can visualize, you can do all that. You have these expectations, and lowering those expectations is probably the hardest thing to do with wildlife photography because you just want the shot that nobody else has ever had. And it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, you are left with an abundance, and sometimes you are left with absolutely nothing. And I think that’s the draw.

On encountering climate change in the field

I just went through the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska, and we did not see any sea ice until we went looking for it high up in Alaska. We traversed through the entire Northwest Passage without a bit of sea ice, which is absolutely terrifying. And, this year, on top of it being the hottest on record, it’s evident. Look at what’s happening all around us. Our climate — it’s frightening what’s happening. And if we’re all out there doing wildlife photography, I think we have a greater purpose as well. Nature photography allows us to tell the story and inspire people, get people engaged or expand the conversation. Because nothing tells a story better than video or photos.

On the highlight of her career

Photographing Boss, the spirit bear, shaking. I won the World Photographic Cup with it in Rome in 2022. It’s probably one of the most significant images for me. I have photographed a lot of bears shaking, but it was just all those elements — lighting, positioning and background. Everything came together because I was low to the ground, the background was dark and the light was shimmering.


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