Exploring the gap between what we eat and where we get it.

Pure Focus: Exploring Hunting and Photography with John Hafner

  1. Stumping University of Montana's faculty
  2. Poor dad jokes (on my part)
  3. Spray and pray mistakes

There’s a lot to be said about developing focus, both broadly and on a daily basis. As C.S. Lewis eloquently puts it, we’re dying for something to take our attention at any given moment: “We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work.”


In my conversation with photographer John Hafner, a lot of our discussion surrounded this matter, how he’s focused on photography and hunting throughout his life, but also how he’s always learning to focus on the moment, when it’s time to press the shutter release. Ultimately, they’re the same principles, exercised at a different scale:


“We just live in a fast-paced, nonsense world. I've got a love-hate relationship with social media. I love to show my work, talk to my colleagues and my clients, but I hate it, too. If I could run my business without my phone, I wouldn't even have a phone,” he told me. “When I'm photographing, just like when I'm hunting, I want to strip away all the distractions and just have tunnel-vision focus.”


All this is to say that whether you’re a photographer, hunter, or neither, there’s a lot to learn from John’s mindset. He’s worked with brands like Filson, Under Armour, Danner, Meateater, and many more, and has built a lifetime of experience in paying attention. That’s something that’s in short supply these days. In our conversation, we talked about the similarities between hunting and photography, how he develops patience, and, to start, how he used his passion to breeze right through his master’s thesis at the University of Montana. 


Here’s renowned photographer John Hafner.


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Steve: The journalism school at University is pretty prestigious, right?


John Hafner: I think it is, yeah. I was looking at [University of] Missouri, and I looked at Montana, and I don't know what it was about Montana, but my wife and I just kept thinking about it. She was in school for about a year and a half getting her master's degree. We knew we wanted to go out west. We didn't really know why, we just wanted to see the mountains. We were a couple of kids from Pennsylvania, and she's from southwestern New York. 


We met at Penn State and we had never been farther west than Ohio. We said, "Screw it, let's just get married and go out west." This was in 2000, way before GPS. I had to get a AAA TripTik printed map with the highlighted route to get from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Missoula, Montana. We had no clue what we were doing and how we were going to pay for it. 


But yeah, the University of Montana was a great school. We only had maybe 12 students in our program. I remember in the first week the dean said, "In order to get your master's degree from this program, you've got to do a thesis and defend it in front of the faculty, and until we bless that you're not going to get a degree." It's a big, big project, and he said, "Very few people finish this, and so even though it's two years out, I would encourage you guys to start thinking of your topics.”


I was thinking, "Man, what am I going to pick for a thesis?" And I had some different ideas kicking around in my head and I thought, "What about something in the outdoor space?" Most of my classmates were reporting on politics, government, and world affairs, and that was the last thing I cared about. I was the black sheep in the program, the token redneck [laughs]. 


And growing up in Pennsylvania, I was a big turkey hunter. I found out turkeys were not native to Montana. I sniffed around a little bit, and I realized, as a non-native species, turkeys were kind of a cool story. I did my thesis in grad school on the past, present, and future outlook of turkeys in Montana. I spent two years talking to fish and game, and driving around the state talking to landowners and people that had illegally released turkeys that they bought from the market. It ended up being a cool, natural history political piece.


When it came time to defend it in front of the faculty, they said something like, "Look, we know nothing about turkeys, hunting, or the outdoors. Just talk for 30 minutes and you've got your degree." It was pretty easy.  On graduation day, 12 students got to walk, and one got a degree, and it was the token redneck. I'm pretty proud of that. 

All photos courtesy of John Hafner


Being used to hunting back east, did your hunting world open up when you moved to Montana?


That's a great question. I wish I could easily and succinctly answer that, but I think the best answer to that is, I'm still trying to figure it out. This was our third move to Montana. We've been here for nine years next week. I've definitely had some awesome hunts here, but I've yet to really have enough time to do it justice. As a Pennsylvania guy, I learned right away, the turkeys out here are really, really dumb compared to eastern turkeys back home. 


There are birds out here you could kill with a pitching wedge, but it's too much club [laughs]. And you can quote me on that, if you want, I don't care. They're dumb. They're really dumb. I've done some mule deer hunts, I've shot two cows with a bow. I've yet to kill a bull, but I killed a cow right here by our house, up in the mountains.


I think this might lead into some of your future questions, but that's one of the toughest things doing what I do for a living. In my experience, if I take to the woods with a rifle and a camera, or my bow and my camera, and try to do both, I'm probably going to eat tag soup and shoot mediocre photos. Maybe that's just me, I don't know. I feel like I have to either hunt, leave the camera at home, or dedicate a day to photography and not even worry about hunting. 


It’s funny you mention that. I battle that conundrum almost every time I got hunting or fishing. It’s really tough.


Yeah, it's a catch-22, man. And then the other unavoidable scenario for outdoor photographers, in the off-chance that I do shoot something, is there's never anybody there that can take a decent picture of me. It never happens. 


In your mind, what’s the biggest difference between a pro photographer and an amateur photographer?


I learned early on, when your passion becomes your paycheck, it's a whole different ball game. Sure, you can write everything off, every mile you drive, every cup of coffee when you're on a shoot, every lens, whatever. But you still have to pay the bills on top of that. It's very, very much a business. Being exposed to guys like Charlie Alsheimer and the pros I worked with at Realtree, they taught me a lot about the biz early on. It's a great life, but it's not for everybody. 


In life, especially for guys, we have too many hobbies. One of my buddies was a great photographer, but he's never made it full-time, because on the weekends he wants to snowmobile, motocross, or go golfing, and he's always complaining about his lack of time. I always tell him, "It takes tunnel-vision focus. Put down your phone, go take pictures with a plan, and sell them." 


Speaking of focus, I was curious about how similar or different your mindsets are when you’re hunting versus photographing wildlife?


I'd just like to lead into that question by saying, I'm convinced that being a wildlife photographer has absolutely made me a better hunter. It's made me a more patient hunter. You always have to wait for the light, composition, body language, behavior, and you're always waiting for that perfect shot. Being a photographer has taught me patience. I've spent lots of days in miserable weather, waiting on animals, waiting for good photos, and that plays into being a more patient hunter as well. 

All photos courtesy of John Hafner


In my wildlife photography, I try to bring the same mindset that I would if I'm documenting an event, or shooting an ad campaign for a client. For me, it's about unapologetic storytelling. I want to capture natural history. If I'm shooting wildlife, I want to shoot honest action as it's happening. If I'm photographing a hunt, I want to shoot it tastefully. I want to shoot it unapologetically, authentically. 


So for me, it's all about authenticity. I never want people to look at my work and think it's contrived. Quite the opposite, I want people to look at my work, whether it's a picture of a big bull, or a guy in a tree stand, or whatever, and I want people to identify with it, I want it to resonate with people. If they're not a hunter, or if you’re a relatively new hunter, I want them to say, "Man, that's going to be me this weekend.” I want to put people in the shot. 


We just live in a fast-paced, nonsense world. I've got a love-hate relationship with social media. I love to show my work, talk to my colleagues and my clients, but I hate it, too. If I could run my business without my phone, I wouldn't even have a phone. When I'm photographing, just like when I'm hunting, I want to strip away all the distractions and just have tunnel-vision focus. 


To be honest with you, Steve, I don't know if I can contrast the two. I think I'd probably draw more similarities between the two. My mindset on hunting is my mindset when I'm photographing—patience, focus, tenacity, and, whether I succeed or fail, it's a blessing to be out there in God's creation, making the most of it. 


How do you develop patience?


I'm not a very patient person, so I've been in the school of hard knocks over the years. In terms of hunting, when I first moved to Montana, I was just amazed at how much easier turkey hunting can be, because the birds just aren't pressured like they are back home. Whenever I go home to hunt turkeys in Pennsylvania, I screw up so many hunts. I’ll sit there for 15 minutes, get up to move, and there'll be a gobbler right behind me.


I've developed patience by making mistakes. A couple days ago, I was out photographing goslings at a wildlife refuge with my wife, and a third of my takes were out of focus. I just wasn't patient. I was spraying and praying, thinking I was getting cool stuff, and I wasn't. It all comes back to paying attention, being in the moment. 


It's one thing to know your exposure, know your f-stop, your aperture. If a gobbler's walking towards you in full strut, and you shoot your lens at F/2.8, his tail's going to be out of focus if you focus on his eyes. If you want the whole bird in focus, stop down to like F/8, F/11. Those are things that have to happen in the moment; you have to know that stuff. 


It’s muscle memory. Just like bow hunting, over time you learn where the buttons are on the camera, you can make snap decisions based on animals' posture, behavior, and ever-changing light. You can make those decisions on the fly, adjusting the camera without even looking at it, without putting it down, and that's the difference between getting a great shot and missing the moment completely. 


Photography is great practice because, unlike hunting, you can shoot as much as you want. Pardon the pun, but it must be great exposure.


[Laughs] There’s the dad joke. There's no season, there's no bag limit. If I'm in a blind, and I’ve got a winter flock of turkeys in early spring, there's almost 100 turkeys on this one property, and they’re 10 yards in front of you. They fly down, they strut, hens are cackling and putting and it's just chaos, right? When you’ve got that many eyes on you, you learn not to move.


If I'm in a blind photographing whitetails, it's no different. You pay attention to the wind, you sit still, you’re quiet, and you raise the camera up at the right time. All of that stuff makes you a sharper hunter, a more patient hunter, getting dialed into your surroundings, whether you're taking pictures or hunting. With photography, if you spook an animal, I don't feel so bad about it. I didn't miss a chance to fill my freezer. You keep shooting and shooting and shooting. Film's cheap these days, it's digital.

All photos courtesy of John Hafner


That brings up a question I had. With photography becoming easier and more accessible than in the past, what’s the value of a photograph these days?


That’s a really great question. For somebody my age—I'm not an old guy, but I'm not a young guy—my experience and opportunities are coming together, 20 years into it. I want to believe my best work is yet to come, and my best stuff is going to be my next shoot. 


And I grew up in a time where I learned in a darkroom, and even in graduate school, I took a class in black and white darkroom. In my second year, like 2002, digital really came on the scene. By the time I graduated, I was shooting my first digital camera. It was a cool time, because there was a grounding in the physics and mechanics of photography.


And I think it's important to really keep in mind and remember that a digital camera is still a light  and a box, right? The same principles still apply. Ansel Adams was dodging and burning in the darkroom the same way we do in Photoshop. It's the same principles, just with a different technique, but a means to the same end. 


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