Meet Danielle Earl
Capturing memories, making magic, and freezing spectacular moments in time - it's all in a day's work for Canadian skating photographer extraordinaire Danielle Earl. Her stunning images and kind demeanor have earned her a reputation as one of the must-have photographers in the figure skating world. From Sectionals to Nationals, Stars on Ice to The Thank You Canada Tour, and Grand Prixs to Worlds (not to mention the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games), the purple logo of Danielle Earl Photography has become ubiquitous with all things figure skating. Technically and artistically gifted beyond words, Danielle has contributed so much to the skating community, and we are so, so lucky to have a wonderful woman like her in our sport. Even more, Danielle is always encouraging the next generation of aspiring skating photographers and sharing her experience and wisdom with anyone who's interested. Read on to learn about Danielle's advice on finding your own path, what it's like starting your own business as a teenager, and what the (exciting and exhausting) life of a skating photographer is really like.
Birthday: February 12th, 1993 (26 years old)
Born: Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, Canada
Hometown: Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, Canada
Currently: Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
Job Titles: Owner of Danielle Earl Photography, photographer of figure skating and dance
An unforgettable medal ceremony at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, featuring the most decorated figure skaters in Olympic history: Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (captured by Danielle, of course)
Q: We can't talk about your journey as a photographer without first talking about your journey as a skater! What's your background in the sport, and what is it about figure skating that you love so much?
A: It’s funny you ask this, because while I was not a competitive skater by any stretch of the imagination, I feel like my whole life has had skating as a central theme. My mom put me in CanSkate at the Sackville Skating Club in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, when I was four because she and my dad believed that every kid should know how to swim and how to skate. A couple of years later, my younger sister was also put into skating lessons, and it quickly morphed into a lifestyle.
My mom is an avid volunteer, and she quickly joined the board of the club and became president when my sister and I were quite young. After we moved to Ontario and joined the Kitchener-Waterloo Skating Club, she also ran things like our club competition and year-end ice show and was a board member for over 10 years. All of this meant that my sister and I spent lots and lots (and lots) of hours at the rink each week, and honestly not much has changed for me. The rink has always been my second home.
A childhood on the ice is a childhood well-spent!
I actually skated until I was 18, but I was quite terrible. I landed an axel maybe once or twice and a double toe maybe once (if I’m being generous). I tested up to my Starlight Waltz and Senior Silver Skills before I “retired." The most competitive I ever got was the season I skated on a synchronized skating team. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I can pinpoint one specific thing that makes me love skating so much – it’s just always been a huge part of my life. Most of the friends who I’ve stayed close with throughout my adult life are friends I made through skating.
Danielle back in her (edges of) glory days on the ice...
Q: So, what inspired your transition to the other side of the boards, and how did you get your start in skating photography?
A: Ah, I feel like this story is slightly more well-known! So I fractured my tailbone at an ice show practice when I was 17-ish and never really got it properly rehabbed. Basically, from then on, I couldn’t really skate without extreme pain in my leg and back – to the point where I wouldn’t be able to walk after a training session, and I would have to crawl up the stairs and lay on the floor for hours before I could even move again. At that point, I kind of made peace with the fact that maybe my body wasn’t made for skating and decided to funnel my love for the sport into my other passion, which was skating photography.
I actually started taking photos of skating because a friend of mine was doing a pairs tryout, and her mom wanted some photos for her Facebook page to share with their family and friends (back when Facebook was cool haha). My mom had just purchased this new Lumix point & shoot camera (which I still have!), and I wanted to play with it, so I offered to take photos for her. The rest, as they say, is history (and years of hard work, dedication, and support from an amazing group of women and skaters).
#TeamUSA at the 2017 Junior World Synchronized Skating Championships
Q: You enrolled in Humber College, but soon left school and pursued your photography business full-time instead. Can you tell us about that experience? Did anyone try to "shame" you for not going the traditional university route?
A: I did! I stayed at Humber for one semester (and two weeks) before I dropped out. I think college and university are super great, and it’s one of my biggest life wishes that I get to someday go back and get a degree in business, but at that point in my life, it was not what was good for me or my mental health. I very much value what I learned about myself during that time (now that I’m many years removed and can reflect back with a different view), but I did not love college at all. When I applied, I had convinced myself I would be learning how to run a photography business and learning new technical skills that, until that point, I had only ever taught myself. Once I got there, though, it felt like the program was catering to someone who wanted to solely be a studio photographer, and I didn’t feel I was learning anything I a) didn’t already know, and b) couldn’t teach myself via YouTube or asking other photography colleagues. I also really hated living in residence and was struggling with some mental health challenges, which meant I was not making it a good experience for myself.
I think the only person who shamed me for not taking the traditional university route was me. My family is full of teachers, professors, and academics, and all throughout my childhood, I thought that’s what they wanted for me. I had built up in my head that if I chose this other “artsy” path, then I would be disappointing them. Looking back now, it could not have been more obvious that everyone in my life just wanted to support me and wanted me to be happy, but when you’re in your late teens with the pressure of deciding what to do with the rest of your life, it’s really hard to see that. So, no, I don’t think anyone really shamed me. They may not have understood it fully, but they wanted me to be happy.
Is the subtle side-eye because Danielle is wearing a Canon vest but
shooting on a Nikon? The world may never know.
Q: Let's talk about your early days as a skating photographer and a business owner - what challenges did you face, what lessons did you learn, and did you ever doubt your path?
A: I was extremely lucky that I had a passionate support system of skaters, skating moms, and family to support me in my photography journey from the time I was 14. I think my biggest challenge was my age. Most people that I had to negotiate contracts with didn’t really take me seriously because I was very young. I was consistently passed over for a company that was run by an adult, even though my photos were better and the skaters requested me. At the time it seemed unfair, and I was often frustrated, but looking back I’m not sure I would change anything because it lit a fire in me, and it became a challenge to better myself to be so good that people couldn’t say no. I also had to learn how to relationship build with the people who oversaw the contracts that I wanted very early on.
Q: From shooting at the Olympics in February to being the official photographer for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's The Thank You Canada Tour in the fall, 2018 was really a "watershed moment" year that established you as one of the best in the business. What was all that like, working with the crème de la crème of figure skating?
A: Honestly, I still pinch myself reading that. I still can’t believe that I was so lucky to get to go to the Olympics. It doesn’t feel like a real thing 90% of the time - same with the tour, honestly. For the longest time, I didn’t even want to talk about either one because I didn’t want to jinx it and somehow like be told that, “oh we were actually just kidding.” All of it has been an absolute dream come true.
Left: the amazing cast of The Thank You Canada Tour in rehearsals
Q: What does a day in the life of Danielle Earl look like when you're shooting at a competition? And do you ever get to sit down?!
A: Depends on what kind of competition! It differs if it’s a competition where my company is a vendor versus if I’m freelancing. Also, sitting down? Never heard of her.
For vendor events, we arrive at the venue either the night before the event, or two hours before it begins. Once I get to the arena, I stop in with the registration desk to pick up accreditation for myself and my team members. I then locate the competition organizer, who will show me where our booth will be set up. Then, I head back to the car and start unloading equipment (my least fave part because it’s soooo heavy haha). Once all the equipment is unloaded, my desk manager starts to set up the desk, and I start setting up cameras and establishing where the LOC (local organizing committee) has the photographer positioned in each rink. I will set the cameras for each rink and then locate the data specialist’s room to get a copy of the day’s starting orders. I will then check on the desk situation and make sure everything is getting set up properly there. I’ll get my second shooter set up in one rink and then head off to the other to start shooting. At each warm-up we bring the memory card to the desk, where the photos are imported and displayed for parents and skaters to look at and purchase. Basically, we rinse and repeat that from 8 AM to 11 PM, and that’s the day. On Zamboni breaks, I will try and get a snack or a meal from hospitality or catch up with some skaters or parents. It’s funny, I always think about making a little video about the competition set-up process, but I’m often pretty stressed and feeling like I’m running behind (and sometimes I get self-conscious and start to think it’s a stupid idea haha), so I always forget to actually record anything.
Left: Danielle Earl Photography's vendor desk at a competition
Right: Hannah Kreft and her coach Gordon at the 2019
Ontario Provincial Championships
For a freelance event - like a Grand Prix or Worlds - it’s a bit different. I’ll show up to the venue and get my accreditation and then head to the media room. I’ll put my business card on an open workspace so that no one else sits there, and then I will head over to the info desk to figure out when the photo draw is. Then, I’ll scope out the rink and try and determine which photo spots are the best and have a few options in mind for the photo draw. An hour before the first event of the day, all the photographers head into the press conference room and draw for photo positions. Each event is different, but generally, it’s a tiered draw with agencies getting the first pick, followed by big media and then smaller media. I’m almost always in tier 3 because the people I work for are considered small media (like a blog or a website). Once I have my photo spot (sometimes there are no ice level spots left by tier 3, so you get to sit in empty audience seats or in the elevated photographer overflow seats), I set up my workspace and camera and head down to the rink to shoot the event. As soon as the last skater in the warm-up/event gets their marks, I make a mad dash back to the media room to back up and file photos as quickly as possible. I send out all the images that my editor needs over the Zamboni break, and then I’m back out for the ISU fanfare for the next event. If there is a medal ceremony, I will head out with the other photographers onto the judges' stand, and then I’ll make my way back to the media room once the ceremony is over.
2016 Skate Canada International exhibition gala
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring skating photographers looking to get their foot in the door, and what are some of the qualities that will help someone succeed in your field, in your opinion?
A: First, you really have to love it. From the outside, it’s a job that can look very glamourous, but if you really boil it down, it’s a lot of 16+ hour days in an ice rink, often standing. Second, I think building relationships is super important. Volunteer with your local club, get to know the skaters and their families – every little bit counts. I think you also should be comfortable practicing perseverance and have lots of patience. I have been taking skating photos for 11 years - in business for 7 – and I’m just starting to really feel like I might actually be able to make a go of this. It takes time and a lot of hard work. Be kind to everyone. Appreciate what every single person in your life has to offer – good or bad. Make friends with rejection. Being told no shouldn’t discourage you but rather motivate you to work harder. But of course, this is all my opinion and not hard, cold facts haha.
Q: Technically speaking, can you walk us through all the equipment and storage methods you use? Let’s talk SD cards and servers, baby!
A: Storage-wise, I’m super paranoid, and I have everything backed up a million different ways. I have three servers in my office that I use as my master storage. Each server has like 100TB of space, and I’ve got all my photos all the way back to 2004 on there. I also have big events (internationals/Olympics/Worlds/tour/etc.) backed up on external hard drives, in case the servers go down. I have one copy of the hard drives in my office and another copy that I keep in an offsite location in case my office ever gets broken into or burns down (touch wood THAT never happens!).
Picture-perfect memories feat. Canadian ice dancers
Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen
at the 2019 Canadian Nationals exhibition gala
In terms of equipment, I shoot with a Nikon system, and my main cameras are the Nikon D5, Nikon D500, and I just added the Nikon Z6 to the fold. My favourite lenses are the 70-200 f/2.8 and 300mm f/2.8 for sports, but I also love the 85 f/1.2 for portraits and the 400 f/2.8 for sports when I can get my hands on them.
Q: From one Broadway geek to another, how excited are you for next season’s rhythm dance?! What show tunes do you think would translate well on the ice, and are there any overdone songs that you really hope no one uses?
A: Okay here’s the thing, I love Broadway so much, and I’m overwhelmed with excitement at the idea of so many Broadway RDs next season. I really hope people don’t just stick to the classics but also branch out into less obvious choices. Like, I love a POTO (Phantom of the Opera) moment, but do I wanna see 20 of them? No, probably not. I would say The Greatest Showman and La La Land are no’s from me, just because I’ve seen so many of those programs this year in synchro and dance, and I’m kinda over it. I’ll have to take a closer look at the tempo requirements and what fits. I know there’s an awesome Twitter user who has a thread of music that fits the requirements, so maybe I’ll take a gander at that soon to see what we could be in for next season. I’m probably one of the very few people who are actually super excited about this theme (granted, I am excited every year for a new theme).
Q: You’ve accomplished so much already, so I’m curious – what are your goals and hopes for both your future and the future of your business?
A: This is the hardest question, I swear! I can honestly say I’m not 100% sure what my goals are just yet. I accomplished all the ones I had up to this point, so I’m currently in the process of redefining who I want to be, how I want to be, and what mountain I want to summit next.
I’ve said this before, but I would love to work with the National Ballet of Canada at some point. I want to go to the Summer Olympics one day. I’d love to go back to the Winter Olympics as well. Other than those super broad, long-term hopes, I’m still kinda figuring out what I want, which I think is okay. I’m still working my way out of that post-Olympic emotional crash (I know it’s been over a year, but it’s not a joke y’all – it hits you hard), so we will see what the future brings. I’m excited.
Danielle arriving at the airport for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea!
Favorite camera to shoot with?
Number of competitions you shoot per season?
Between 35 - 45, depending on the season (that’s just comps - not any other shoots)
What makes you the proudest about being Canadian?
I like to think that we are generally kind people, which is a trait I really value in a person
All-time favorite skating program?
This is so hard, oh my gosh. My favourite synchro program is NEXXICE’s short in 2009 to Baba Yetu. Singles/pairs/dance is so hard because I see so much of it, but the first stand-out program that comes to mind has to be 2005 Junior Worlds – Tessa and Scott’s Blues compulsory dance. I was in the audience at that event, and I remember being so inspired to skate better afterward.
If you were a type of cat, what kind would you be and why?
I feel like I’d like to be just like a lazy, fluffy Persian cat
Meet Frank - one of Danielle's adorable fluffballs
What song would be the theme song of your life?
Gosh, I’m constantly listening to music, how do I narrow this down?? Right now, I’m really feeling “Older” by Ben Platt.
If you had to photograph another sport you’ve never shot before, what would it be?
Artistic gymnastics, diving, or tennis
What fictional character would you like to have the chance to meet?
One thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m extremely shy, and my sense of humour is very, very dry
Quote to live by?
“The purpose of this glorious life is not simply to endure it, but to soar, stumble, and flourish, as you learn to fall in love with existence. We were born to live my dear, not to merely exist.”
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All photos courtesy of Danielle Earl Photography and Danielle Earl