By Steve Hubrecht
Columbia Valley local and new permanent Canadian resident Denise Hoffgaard is quickly making her mark as one of the best wildlife photographers in the area.
Her images are so crisp and so detailed it feels as though you are standing right there in the forest with the animals. You can practically feel the softness of the fluffy yellow plumage of a Canadian goose gosling, and hear the water rippling as a moose wades through a pond. You stand stock still for a second when catching the yellow-eyed gaze of a Great Grey Owl, before realizing it is in fact, an image, not the real deal.
Photography has exploded for Hoffgaard from passion to a burgeoning profession starting since she first moved to Canada three years ago. To hear how her plan for one year of backpacking in Canada, leaving from her native Germany, turned into a three year (and counting) stay in the Columbia Valley that earlier this summer culminated in her getting permanent resident status. Before leaving Germany it took a friend to convince her to buy an automatic point-and-shoot digital camera to take photos instead of relying on what she concedes was a mediocre smartphone. She acquiesced, mostly, as she put it “to make some travel memories for myself”.
And for her first months in Canada that’s exactly what she did: post images to her Instagram account for friends and family back in Germany to see. Then when hiking in Golden in – 25 degree weather in early 2019, she damaged the lens, and needed to ship it off for several weeks to get it fixed. By that point photography had become such as integral part of the way she related to the open and wild Canadian landscapes that she couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to take photos for a month or more. So while her lens was off being repaired, she went out and bought her first digital SLR camera.
“I got a good deal on some other equipment, and I was hooked,” she said, adding she’s recently upgraded again.
She wasn’t just hooked on photography, but on the Columbia Valley too and by 2020, her thoughts had already turned to moving here permanently. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“That really was the spark that got me to understand how to use my photography gear to its full potential, and to spend more time getting out in the Columbia Valley’s backcountry. That in turn was what inspired me to focus on wildlife,” Denise told the Pioneer. “I really like shooting landscapes, portraits, weddings, I really like doing it all. But there’s something about wildlife photography that just gets me. I wouldn’t get up at 4 a.m. just to shoot a sunrise, but I am excited to get up at that time to go out to a new spot where there might be wildlife to photograph.
“I love animals. I feel in wildlife photography you really have to do your homework, learn a lot about the animals you want to get images of. You have to know their habits, what their food sources are, what their routines are, if you want to find them in the first place,” she says. “And I love how you never really know what you’re going to get. The first time I photographed a Great Grey Owl, for instance, I was trying to find a grizzly that I had heard was in the area. The grizzly wasn’t there, but the owl was, and as soon as I saw it, saw those eyes, it was amazing. I had never seen any kind of owl before, and it really floored me. It was one of my favourite photography moments.”
The photos on Hoffgaard’s Instagram account improved and soon the number of her followers had grown exponentially.
“I started to get strangers following me (on Instagram) and at first I was flattered. But then I thought, I have to do something to make it interesting for them. Of course my family and friends will follow me no matter what, but for people I don’t know, I thought I should add something more,” Hoffgaard says.
She began adding background information, usually about the animals, but also about wilderness etiquette and conservation issues. This fuelled her popularity online even more.
In some ways, her new wildlife photography career is bringing Hoffgaards life full circle. As a five-year-old, she was deeply interested in earth sciences, and started a nature club. This passion faded a bit, however, as she grew up and became a big city paralegal.
“Then I decided I wanted to change focus in my life,” she says. “I came to Canada and this passion for nature was re-awakened.”
Since getting her permanent residency, Hoffgaard has flung herself headfirst into her photography, offering wedding events, photography sessions, portrait and personal sessions, and pet photography in addition to selling her wildlife photos. She has also set up booths occasionally at some of the local farmers’ markets.
“In photography you can really capture the moment…I think it’s just the way I look at the world. The details I see. For instance, I often find I can’t help but notice small things, like the way the moon looks between two trees. But these small things really help with photography,” says Hoffgaard. “Even before I had a smartphone with a camera, I would see some kind of small details, like the moon, and have a feeling of wanting to capture it.”
In terms of future plans she says, “I really do hope I establish myself as a wildlife photographer with a conservation background. We need to preserve and protect species.”