Wildlife Photographer Captures Nature, Naturally

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46.5347° N, 88.1101° W
Michigamme, Michigan

Joan Haara, a retired nurse who unexpectedly began a second career as a wildlife photographer, is a Superior Woman. Haara, who has been shooting photographs since 2008, has grown her artistic hobby into a thriving part-time business. 

By Dale Hemmila

Life is a pretty picture these days for Joan Haara.  Well, actually it’s a lot of pretty pictures.  A resident of the village of Michigamme in Michigan’s central Upper Peninsula, Haara has become a highly-respected, award-winning nature photographer, which has turned a retirement hobby nearly into a second career.

Haara 1--pjs
Wildlife Photographer and Superior Woman Joan Haara

A registered nurse, Haara’s first career involved 20 years in the healthcare industry, much of it as an administrator with U.P. Health System’s Bell Hospital in Ishpeming.

A couple of years before retiring in 2008, Haara picked up a camera and began shooting nature scenes, while her husband, Paul, crafted frames for her work out of salvaged birch bark pieces.  They took their art work to local craft fairs and found out it was well received.

“We just kept selling more and more,” Haara said recently while reflecting on the beginning of her photography journey, “because people liked the combination.”

With that first step into photography for fun and profit, Haara was off and running on a pastime she couldn’t have imagined even just a few short years earlier.

“It’s been for me a hobby I would never have thought I would have,” she said.  “But I have always loved nature.”

And it is that love of nature and her eye for its beauty that has earned her awards and accolades for her photos.

Beginning with a newspaper insert cover photo in 2009, a long line of her creative work has blessed websites, travel guides, calendars, business walls and even hospital displays.

Haara Phinizy
Joan Haara’s award-winning photo, taken in Phinizy Swamp Nature Park in August, Georgia.

In addition, Haara’s photos have won and placed in a number of photography contests, including a shot that placed first in a 2017 photo contest sponsored by the Augusta, Georgia, Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.

“Entering contests is fun,” she said. “I started entering contests and that helped my confidence a lot and you find out what people like.”

And what people liked seemed to be a lot of what Haara enjoyed shooting.

“My love is waterfalls,” she explained. “My goal is to get photos of every waterfall in the U.P. There is more than 200 of them and I have shot about a third.”

Haara water
Haara, in her element, at a U.P. waterfall

Summertime will find her and her husband out searching for waterfall and nature photos several times a week.

“What’s nice is when we get there, there are no people,” she said.  “I put on boots and waders to get into the water and I can shoot for a couple of hours.”

While waterfalls call during the summer, wildflowers are also in Haara’s viewfinder as well.

“I do wildflowers in the spring,” she said.  “I get location leads from people on Facebook; they know I won’t harm them.  That’s a very busy time for me.”

The fall also keeps her busy during Michigan’s color season, and she also takes her photography skills with her when she and Paul winter in Florida.  Photos there tend to focus on what she finds along the nature trails, leaving the wilderness areas to the alligators.

“The birds down there are gorgeous and that’s a lot of fun.”

Interestingly enough, Haara would probably never have sold a photo or even taken very many without the sea of change that happened within the photography industry over the last couple of decades.

“I would never have gotten into this if it wasn’t for digital,” she explained.  “Digital photography has provided a lot of opportunities for people to become good photographers.”

Classes at Northern Michigan University’s Center for Lifelong Learning have helped refine her skills, and she is a member of Marquette County’s Superiorland Photography Club, where members are willing to share their expertise.

Still, there is a lot more to it than just point and shoot.

“I think once one gets into photography, really into photography, your mind changes,” she explained. “Looking through a lens makes one see the world very differently.  It reveals the world in detail to you, piece by piece.  You begin to notice things you never noticed before.  By focusing on ‘pieces’ of a landscape closer, wonderful details appear, like how the light is softly highlighting the daisies by a pond, and so you photograph not just the landscape shot, but also do other shots like a macro of one dandelion, backlit by the sun.

“Once a nature photographer decides to take a shot, before leaving the scene, you begin to automatically look behind you, to the side, on an angle, high, low, all around you.  Inevitably, something else will reveal itself to you behind the lens that is worthy to be taken.  And, if you change your lens to a macro and get to ground level, another whole world reveals itself.  Dew drops glistening on the hair of a flower stem, etcetera.”

So that requires a good deal of patience, right?

“It becomes irrelevant,” she said, “because you see so much beauty as you are photographing what reveals itself before your lens that time goes by without you noticing.

“As you can tell, photography has become a passion of mine.  And it is interesting, because I do not, or would not ever want to take portrait or ‘people’ shots. I would find that excruciating.   But anything in nature? As long as I can get out in the U.P. nature with my camera?  I am a happy woman, where time stands still, and beauty is everywhere, just waiting to be captured by my lens. ”

She eschews the auto setting on her camera and prefers to manually adjust her Canon 70D digital SLR and she also isn’t afraid to work with images in a post-production process. She has become proficient in several high-end software programs such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom and Aurora HDR.

“You can play with your pictures and manipulate them,” she said.  “It’s like having an art class.  That’s fun for me.”

But that doesn’t mean changing what she finds is the heart of her camerawork.

“I aim for the emotional part of the scene, so you get the feel that you are there,” she said.  While that may make you think more emotion might only be in the eye of a woman photographer, Haara doesn’t see it that way.

“A lot of male photographers in my classes catch beautiful detailed shots that take the same ‘photographer’s eye’ as the females in the classes,” she noted.  “I have not noticed a difference in what the women in my classes shoot versus what the men capture.”

In Haara’s case, though, you just need to peruse a gallery of her photography to see that her eye for color and composition is special.

And while this Superior Woman spends a part of the year in Florida, the vast majority of her photos show off some of the best of the Superior region’s waters and woodlands.

“I like to hike, I love the UP and I love nature,” she said.  “It has some magnetic, natural beauty.  To me it just feels like home.”

To view some of Joan Haara’s photography go to:   https://www.foap.com/search/jhaara

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