Straight Shooter

It’s not all exotic adventures and locations for a professional photographer. Still, Jackson-based Jeff Diener says it’s a dream job.

By Dina Mishev
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Jeff Diener

The Grand Teton looms behind a hiker high in the range. Jeff Diener snapped this shot for MontBell Japan.

The Grand Teton looms behind a hiker high in the range. Jeff Diener snapped this shot for MontBell Japan.

IT ISN’T RAINING when Jeff Diener and two friends start their hike up Cascade Canyon in Grand Teton National Park. The rain—pounding and accompanied by claps of thunder sent down by Thor himself—starts as the trio enters the canyon’s north fork. Their packs protected by rain covers, the three keep going, water dripping off their visors and running down the backs of their shirts. The plan is to get one of the first-come/first-served campsites in the north fork, set up camp, and then walk the final few miles to Lake Solitude to enjoy the sunset.

It’s still raining when they find a campsite and two tents are quickly set up. One of the hikers crawls into a tent and naps. In the other tent, Diener unpacks the gear stored in the driest, most protected part of his backpack. Backpacking gear is increasingly expensive, but, still, Diener’s camera equipment—a Nikon D750 camera and four different Nikon lenses—likely cost more than the combined gear of every backpacker in both forks of Cascade Canyon. Diener is a professional photographer hoping to get sunset shots of his two friends—doubling as models today—hiking around the shore of Lake Solitude as it reflects the Cathedral Group. Diener wants to get this image at sunset because, from previous backpacking trips to the lake, he knows that it is the time of day when the mountains’ reflection on the lake is most dramatic. At sunset, Lake Solitude, and the granite walls surrounding it, is lit orange and pink. If it’s not raining.

An image Diener took of hikers at Lake Solitude was the cover of the June 2015 issue of Backpacker.

An image Diener took of hikers at Lake Solitude was the cover of the June 2015 issue of Backpacker.

The rain stops just in time, and the trio races the one and a half miles from their campsite to the lake. At the western end of the lake, just below where the trail begins its almost 2,000-foot climb up to Paintbrush Divide, Diener gives the couple a few simple instructions and begins snapping away. Eight months later one of the images he took that evening is the cover of Backpacker magazine. Diener’s images have been published in magazines like Powder, SKI, Skiing, Bike, Backpacker, Outside, and National Geographic Adventure. Corporate clients include Patagonia, Title Nine, Stio, Cloudveil, MontBell Japan, and Royal Robbins.

The Wyoming Office of Tourism has bought images from him. Last summer it was a Jeff Diener photo that graced the cover of the printed schedules for Southern Teton Area Rapid Transit (START). There are dozens of photographers in Jackson Hole, but only a handful who actually make a living at it. Diener is one of those lucky few.

“THE LINE BETWEEN life and work has always been pretty fuzzy for me, and I guess I like it that way,” he says. “When I started shooting professionally, I focused on the ski and snowboard market because that’s what I was spending most of my time doing. I moved to Jackson to be a ski bum, not a photographer.”

For the first few years of his photography career, Diener paid his bills with money earned from driving a taxi. “I’d drive a taxi at night and take photos and ski during the day,” he says. “It was a big deal once I could quit my night job and make a supportable wage as a photographer.” That transition came around 2001.

In the fifteen-plus years that Diener has been making his living exclusively as a photographer, he has widened his subject matter. He shoots a “wide range of adventure sports and active lifestyle catalog images that span all seasons,” he says. In the week I interview him, Diener is shooting stock photos—he’s always looking to add to his collection of images—doing shots of MontBell gear in the field and planning for an upcoming assignment in Europe for Backcountry magazine. “Of course the number one misconception about my job is that I’m always on adventures and cool photo shoots. I probably spend 70 to 80 percent of my time managing clients, marketing, planning shoots, editing, and delivering photos,” he says. “There’s so much work I do inside before I go anywhere.”

Photos taken by Jackson-based Diener have been published in Skiing, Bike, Powder, and Outside.

Photos taken by Jackson-based Diener have been published in Skiing, Bike, Powder, and Outside.

“GOOGLE EARTH IS freaking amazing,” Diener says as we chat about his Backcountry assignment. The magazine hired him to shoot a skiing hut tour around Mont Blanc. Diener just got the trip itinerary from the guide. Now that he knows where he, and the group he’s shooting, will be on what days, he pulls up Google Earth on his computer. “The first step is getting the general lay of the land,” he says. Then he delves into more details. “I’ll see when the sunrise and sunset will be when we’re at each hut. You can also put yourself in a specific spot—say a hut we’re staying at on a ridgeline below Mont Blanc—and see a map of the arc of the sun and where it will be hitting at any given time. Where is the sun going to rise at each hut? You can see where the shadows are going to be, too. You can get all of that. I’m a planner, so I really need this to visualize.” By the time Diener boards a plane to Europe, he will have an idea of where he needs to be at what times to get some of the shots he wants.

“I’m most attracted to soulful shots, the ones that create the most dramatic image possible,” he says. “I like an epic mountain backdrop and gorgeous light. I also try to use creative angles—lying on the ground, putting the lens down in the grass or snow. I’ve got a twelve-foot stepladder that I’ve carried to some pretty ridiculous places.” Last fall Diener used the stepladder during a Stio shoot in an aspen grove on Munger Mountain, in the national forest south of Wilson. “With the ladder, I got an angle where I basically felt like I was up in the trees. Doing whatever you can to change it up, that adds interest to shots,” he says.

This stock photo was taken at “The Wave” on a November trip to the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona. Diener was traveling alone, so he served as his own model.

This stock photo was taken at “The Wave” on a November trip to the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in Arizona. Diener was traveling alone, so he served as his own model.

Back to the Backcountry assignment, Diener will be carrying about thirty pounds of camera equipment, in addition to his ski gear. “Generally it’s thirty-five to forty pounds, but for multiday backpacking or ski-touring trips, I’ll whittle it down. But I have a hard time leaving any lenses behind, just because I don’t want to sacrifice an opportunity,” he says. The Mont Blanc trip is five days.

ON A FIVE-day magazine assignment Diener expects to shoot between 8,000 and 10,000 photos. Even though the trip is in late winter, because the story will not be published until winter 2016/17 he won’t have to get the photo editor at Backcountry the images until August. When it does come time for him to sort through these images, which will most likely happen in June, Diener says, “It takes juggling my schedule a bit to fit such a time-intensive project.” He says he tackles these huge editing projects “with insane late nights. I’ll work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., take a couple of hours off for dinner and a run or a hike, and then clock back in at 8 or 9 p.m. and work until 4 a.m. The most productive time is the late night—there are no distractions. Between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., I can’t be totally efficient editing because I’m dealing with other daily ‘ASAP’ needs that come in from clients.”

This was shot in a standing burn area near Jackson with Adam Smith, whom Diener calls his “superhuman friend.” Stio, a local clothing company, used the image last spring.

This was shot in a standing burn area near Jackson with Adam Smith, whom Diener calls his “superhuman friend.” Stio, a local clothing company, used the image last spring.

Diener uses the Adobe program Lightroom to manage and edit photos. As he does a first look at his images, he’ll star the ones he likes (Lightroom allows users to tag photos with one to five stars). “It is pretty exciting when you get the images loaded into the software and start geeking out on the best shots,” he says. “It’s like Christmas. I try to be good about being efficient with my editing time, but it is pretty exciting, going through the initial edit. It’s easy to get distracted. When you’re shooting, you do know when you get a great image, but with digital, the photo isn’t complete until it has been processed on a computer, so it’s not really until this step that I know how good things look.”

It will take Diener about four or five days and late nights to whittle “the beast” down to about 1,000 shots. This is the selection that he will use Lightroom to edit and that he will then send on to Backcountry. “Any images I send to a client will be pretty well dialed in,” he says. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist.” On its side, Backcountry will be waiting for the text to come in from the writer. “Often it’s not until they see the text that they can really nail images down,” he says. “Once they do, they might come to me and ask for sixty selects from the bigger batch that they want as high-res [resolution] files.”

Look for Diener’s images in Title Nine catalogs and on its website, Runner’s World, the Stio store in downtown Jackson, and, if you happen to be in Europe, ads for financial services in France and for pharmaceuticals in Great Britain. His Alps images will be in the October or November 2016 issue of Backcountry. Diener’s photographs can also be found as fine-art prints and greeting cards, and have been included in textbooks and corporate calendars. jeffdiener.com

| Posted in JH Living
  • Mailing List

    Mailing List

    Subscribe to our mailing list to get notifications when we post new articles and when we publish new issues.