Behind Keith's Lens

National Geographic Photographer Keith Ladzinski and His Passion for What Falls in Front of the Camera

Article by Kailey Beuerlein

Photography by Keith Ladzinski

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

In the world of visual storytelling, few wield the camera with the mastery, finesse and distinct style that Keith Ladzinski does. World-renowned for his captivating and thrilling shots, Keith has carved his own distinguished path through the photography and film realm as he captures the essence of life’s myriad moments. Whether he’s directing Emmy-nominated films, or traveling on his latest National Geographic assignment, Keith shares how his career has taken him on journeys around the globe and how this path has led him to his greatest love of all: fatherhood.

An avid skateboarder growing up, when Keith picked up the camera, it made sense to start taking pictures of what he knew. “My early work was skateboarding and nature, two subjects I knew from growing up in Colorado," says Keith. "They couldn’t be any more different: One was trespassing in the city, rushed camera setups that usually resulted in running from security guards alongside my friends. While the other was hiking alone in the quiet mountains waiting for the light to unfold or wildlife to present itself. It was a very polarizing two things to be gravitated towards, but it helped me establish a voice later as I would start to figure out what this career looked like.”

How does one combine a passion for the sharp edges of skateboarding and an appreciation for the outdoors? Rock climbing. “A friend introduced me to it, and I started going out and photographing it quite a bit,” says Keith. “I started traveling around Colorado and the surrounding states with top climbers based here, which opened up doors to magazines and commercial work for sponsors and brands.”

As he fell in love with rock climbing, Keith’s career started to expand. Working with industry magazines, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post Sunday Magazine, led to introductions to National Geographic’s sister publications. He quickly found himself established as a well-known and capable adventure sports photographer. But in 2015, he was given a chance to showcase another side of his photography skills, photographing America’s National Parks and showing how climate change was affecting them—an assignment from National Geographic Magazine.

“That was a real turning point in my career,” says Keith. “It changed the way I was looking at the outdoors, the things that I was learning, and the people that I was working with. The magazine put faith in me to go out and photograph it in my own style, which opened up opportunities to really move more into the natural history and climate change space. It was a real olive branch that I was handed.”

Keith believes he was given this opportunity because of his distinct photography style. “A lot of my work is rooted in off-camera lighting, bringing in my own sort of look,” he describes. “That’s how I approached that entire first story. I brought in high-power strobes and gigantic lighting rigs into the natural history space, for a story that was primarily landscape. I approached it the same way I would a climbing shoot or a running shoot, just doing everything on a larger scale. And I became someone they could call on for that look.”

“The breath of my career is a small series of successes, wrapped up in a lot of failures," says Keith. "You get used to hearing the word ‘no’. But once you get people to trust and believe in what you can do, you can then begin to do work that you hope makes a difference.” 

And thus began the exciting, illustrious, exhausting and exhilarating career that Keith has found himself in for the past 20 years. It seems like all of his experiences led him to the climate change and natural world he has grown to be so passionate about. His adventure/sports backdrop instilled in him inquisitiveness and a taste for adventure.

“I’m a very curious photographer,” says Keith. “I love shooting wildlife as much as I love telling meaningful stories around climate change, pollution, natural history and humanitarian projects. I like to shoot underwater. I like to shoot night photography and aerials. I’m a little disorganized when it comes to how you would categorize the work that I do. I feel like I learn a little from each genre that helps me work better in different environments.”

The perfect partner in crime to Keith’s curiosity is his next love: travel. From having traveled to all seven continents multiple times over on various assignments and projects, Keith expresses how it’s given him a deeper understanding of the world, more empathy and how he cannot live without it.

“Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it. Once you’ve experienced it, you yearn to experience it again and again,” Keith says. “I’m addicted to it. I’m the luckiest person ever, that travel is one of the prerequisites of doing the work that I do, to go to these wild places and see these incredibly moving things.”

Aside from the travel and experiences, Keith’s favorite thing about his work, and what drew him to it in the first place, is the way that photography makes him feel. “I have a pretty busy mind, and from the moment I picked up a camera, it gave me a very blissful form of tunnel vision. It’s the only thing I’ve found in my life that gives me this hyper, intense focus,” says Keith. That was until he became a father.

Now in the midst of a self-proclaimed reinvention, Keith’s new strategy is: how can I stay home more? In the process of doing two books, more public speaking, writing and editing from home, Keith has found his newest love in fatherhood. “I find greater joy in being a dad than anything in my life,” he says. 

Dad to four-year-old son Gray, Keith shares earnestly that fatherhood has changed everything in his, and his wife Dana’s life. “My wife has always been such a source of encouragement for me,” Keith says. “But as soon as we became parents, I don’t push it anywhere near as hard as I used to (regarding traveling). I want to be home for every possible moment I can experience as a father. My biggest responsibility is making sure that he understands that you have to work hard if you want really great things to happen in your life. I want Gray to feel pride and a good sense of appreciation for going out, working and finding your passion.”

Keith and Gray just returned from a trip to watch the Sandhill Crane migration in the San Luis Valley. Staring at four different mountain ranges as they all collide into one massive valley, Keith said it didn’t matter what direction you looked in—you’re just seeing waves of these beautiful birds. “I shot some photos, but it was so minimal compared to what I would do if I was alone,” Keith says. “I was just watching Gray get excited, watching him see it for the first time. He has changed everything.” 

As Keith now navigates the balance between raising his son and pursuing his passion, he finds inspiration in the simple joys of everyday life. He’s always shooting photos, always “exercising that muscle”, now through the lens of parenthood—something that has given him a renewed sense of purpose and boundless creativity. On this evolving journey as a parent, intertwined with his identity as an artist, Keith’s biggest adventures are yet to come.

Keith Ladzinski is a National Geographic Photographer and Emmy-nominated director, based in Boulder, CO.

@ladzinski on Instagram

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