For many individuals, it takes a specific motivating reason to get out of bed at 4 a.m. It may be to provide for your family, further your education, or for some, fuel an out-of-control hobby.
Thomas Spence, a photographer along the North Shore of Minnesota, considers himself in the latter category.
“The early mornings are my favorite,” Spence said. “It’s my favorite time of day as far as light goes.”
Fortunately, Spence lives and works in a location where the early morning photography opportunities are endless. Most of the wildlife or beautiful sunrises are found right outside his front door and not too far from his alarm clock.
Spence lives on the Sawbill Trail in Cook County, which he said “makes it pretty easy for me to get into the woods.” In addition, Spence works construction throughout the county, providing ample opportunity to scout to and from work. “I often, not always, but often bring my camera to work because the commute in the morning and evening can be pretty good for wildlife.”
While Spence’s photography is widely known along the North Shore for capturing stunning photos of Canada lynx, moose, or other critters in northern Minnesota, his path in photography started with capturing photos of waterfalls and the northern lights nearly 12 years ago.
“I liked the long exposure of waterfalls and how people would smooth out the water,” Spence said. “And I thought, I need to learn how to do that.”
In his early years, while developing his skill for photography, Spence spent a considerable amount of time exploring the woods, rivers, and lakes in the Superior National Forest with his Canon Powershot.
“There was a bit of a learning curve, like knowing what gear to use, as well as the technical aspects of the camera,” Spence said.
It wasn’t long before he decided to upgrade his photography equipment to a Canon 660D and sign up for a workshop from photographer Bryan Hansel. “A workshop really came in handy. It helped to have a professional show you hands-on exactly what each setting does in relation to other settings,” Spence said.
After the workshop, Spence was hooked. “Ever since then, it’s kind of been an out-of-control hobby that pretty much takes up all my spare time,” he said.
Throughout the past 12 years, Spence’s hobby has grown in notoriety along the North Shore and, more recently, internationally. In November of 2022, Spence received an email from a curator for the Art in Embassies program. The curator and the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Meg Whitman, wanted to feature wildlife in the United States inside the embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The curator found Spence’s wildlife photos online and reached out.
Spence said he was “quite shocked” after opening the email and learning more about the program. “I mean, it’s quite an honor.”
He said he supplied the curator with a few of his favorite photos, and they spent time narrowing down which one to feature. Ultimately, Spence and the curator chose his favorite photo of a Canada lynx, the same photo that was featured in the Catchlight section in Northern Wilds magazine a few years prior.
“When I take these pictures, I never really know where they’re going to end up,” Spence said. “So, to go from having it sitting on my website or sitting on my hard drive, to in Nairobi on the wall of the embassy, it’s kind of mind-blowing.”
The selected photo derives from one of his favorite photography moments in the field. Five winters ago, Spence encountered a family of five lynx on a backroad and spent two hours watching the feline family hunt for snowshoe hares and relax in the morning sun. “That was one of the most incredible experiences,” he said.
Compared to other photographers, Spence explains he focuses more on the experience rather than checking a species or composition off a bucket list. “I’m more whatever’s in front of me,” he said. With that being said, there is one mammal that Spence would love to photograph, and he has taken a unique tactic to improve his luck.
“I told my sister that the fisher is probably the animal that I want to photograph the most,” Spence said. Two weeks later, he received a pair of socks with fisher illustrations. Spence said he now “tries to wear them when taking pictures as often as possible,” hoping to boost his luck.
While Spence has progressed in his skill and camera equipment, he often reflects on the impact of taking a workshop during his early photography years. “I kind of held off on a workshop or a lesson for a while, and it was one of the most valuable things I did,” he said.
Spence said he hopes to offer workshops of his own someday. In the meantime, he said, “I still feel like I have a lot to learn before I start teaching anyone, but I’m getting there.”
“It’s definitely something I’ll be working towards in the next five years,” he said.
In addition to the exciting news about his work featured in the U.S. embassy in Kenya, Spence shared he is preparing for an upcoming artist feature at Photography and Art at the Rock, a monthly rotating artist exhibit at the Split Rock Lighthouse. Spence is the featured artist this upcoming fall season, during September.