Shoot with Purpose: Dan McClanahan

Dan McClanahan USA image

Imaging USA is the premier photography conference, trade show, and exhibit in the United States, attracting 10,000 professional photographers each year. Those in attendance attend classes to improve business and technical skills and learn from some of the nation’s leading photography professionals. This year’s event took place January 28-30 in Louisville, Kentucky. 

​One of the nation’s best photographers, as recognized by his peers, portfolio, and accolades, is Dan McClanahan, owner of McClanahan Studio in Downtown Ames. 

A regular at Imaging USA, this year’s event marked a return to competition after a five-year hiatus, and it continued a renewed desire to teach when he conducted a breakout session for attendees titled “Shoot with Purpose.” 

“Going to conferences like Imaging early in my career paved the way for my learning. It was the environment that I was educated in, and I now I have my own experience and perspective that I can share with other photographers to help them learn,” said Dan as he prepared his slides. “It sharpens me because I have to make my processes make sense to other people.” 

McClanahan Studio is now over 15 years old with a portfolio and reputation that has spanned the country. Dan earned his Journalism and Mass Communication degree from Iowa State University and had plans to move to Colorado, where his wife Alex was interviewing for graphic design jobs. “My goal was to meet with magazine publishers and hopefully work with them,” said Dan. A trifecta combo of Alex realizing she did not want to be a graphic designer, Dan’s desire to own his own business, and the 2008 recession hitting, prompted them to forgo their Colorado dreams and move in with Dan’s grandparents in Ames.

Odd jobs and living in his grandma’s attic occupied the next two years for both Dan and Alex. He worked at McFarland Clinic in the IT Department, updating their computer system overnight while also continuing to nurture and explore his interest in photography on the side.

He took on his first few freelance photoshoots with the goal of making images that were fun and fresh. Posting those on social media started a snowball that led to 12 wedding bookings the following year and McClanahan Studio was officially born in Grandma’s attic. In 2010, the couple rented studio space in Downtown Ames and jumped in full-time.

It is generally recognized that creative people see the world differently, even if that process is not completely understood by everyone. This is not a philosophy that Dan holds. “Some believe that creativity is a magical gift that some people have, and others do not. Science shows that we all have it. It’s a muscle that just needs to be exercised.” 

Shoot with Purpose
Walking the trade show with Dan at Imaging USA is like walking with an industry celebrity. He would not see it this way as a self-described introvert by nature, but he is stopped about every 5 minutes by another photographer. They are kindred spirits from across the country and they are the reason why he loves attending conferences like this one. They share the same business and creative struggles, and these are the people he has learned from over the years. “The most powerful thing in my career was being given permission by people that I admired to be myself rather than try to be them.” These moments with friends transformed his career. 

At his “Shoot with Purpose” presentation, he broke down his creative process. “It’s important to define who the subject is,” started Dan. He pointed to high school seniors, as examples, to understand their interests and what makes them unique. “When you understand the truth of someone, you can use it to define parameters in which to be creative. The best images are when truth harmonizes with an artist’s creative vision and is brought to life using the craftsmanship that you’ve honed and continue to hone.”

Dan is one the youngest photographers on record to receive all three degrees attainable: Master of Photography, Master Craftsman, and Master Artist. He is also an inducted member of the Society of XXV, an international group of the finest photographers in the world. The goal of XXV is to “raise the art of photography for the members to new standards through free exchange of ideas and techniques and to increase their business awareness accordingly.”

​For those who do not know Dan at Imaging, he blends in. His hair is generally disheveled, he’s usually in a hoodie and t-shirt. He admits that he is most right brained when it comes to details, but that wiring is an asset for his image-making. He walks in the world as an artist and cannot shut off the photographic eye. 

“We have to remember how to get bored because there is no creativity without boredom,” said Dan during this Imaging USA presentation. “You need to give your brain space to take all the input, process it, form your own opinions and make your own ideas. That is where all the magic happens.”

He has made a career from leveraging his boredom and making magic, including this year. Part of the Imaging USA conference is the International Photographic Competition with the final rounds of live judging taking place during the conference. It’s a competition that Dan is familiar with, even as the format has adjusted over the years. 

He’s won the top Grand Imaging Award more than once in various categories and he’s been recognized 10 times as the PPA International Photographer of the Year. This year, he had 7 images accepted to the finals. 

To get to this point, over 1,600 images across 16 categories were scored by 15 judges to get an average score. Dan’s 7 prints were among the top 32 in the ​country in their category. Head-to-head, live judging narrowed the pool and, in the end, two of his prints scored in the final four. 

While at Imaging USA, it was also announced that Dan was selected to be part of Team USA at the World Photographic Cup. This is the fourth time Dan has been part of this prestigious team. It’s an Olympic-style photographic competition where national teams compete in different categories. He was part of the 2018 team that won the competition for the United States and one of his images earned a bronze medal. Results of this year’s competition will be announced in April 2024. His Illustrative family portrait was chosen among the top 10 in the world as part of this year’s competition.

As an artist, Dan is conscious of staying sharp and balancing the realities of pursuing art while managing a business. He often builds in additional time during his commissioned portrait sessions to challenge himself to try something new. The result is often his best and most award-winning work. 

“I want to set the tone of pursuing excellence,” he tells the audience at his presentation “because excellence increases the magnitude of the impact we can have with our careers and on our communities.”

With a portfolio, vision, and skill set, Dan McClanahan and his family could set up their award-winning business anywhere in the country, yet they have chosen to invest in Ames. Many of this year’s images are Ames-centric. Ames Main Street, the Boone Airport, and an alley in Downtown Ames were all featured. He’s given his time and talents to non-profits, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Story County, and has featured Ames families and businesses with his commissioned work. “This is where our kids will grow up, so it’s important that we give back and build community here.”