Through the Lens

More than 20 years after they published their first book, wildlife photographers Carl Sams and Jean Stoick zoom in on how they got started // Photography by Carl Sams
A Sams photo that captures the breathtaking beauty of a pair of loons.

It was the thing every writer and photographer fantasizes about: receiving phone calls from the two largest bookstore chains in the U.S., saying they want to sell your book. When that happened to photographer-writer Carl Sams, he said, “No, you can’t have it.” “Stranger in the Woods: A Photographic Fantasy” was the first book Sams and his wife, Jean Stoick, published. Sams, who lives in Milford and spends time in Marquette and the Huron Mountains, says: “We printed 20,000 copies to start with. At the Art and Apples Festival in Rochester, this lady comes up to me in my booth (and) she (said she could) get Kiwanis to sell the book.  (Kiwanis is an organization that helps kids around the world.) When Barnes & Noble and Borders called and wanted to carry the book, I said, ‘No, you can’t have it; I’m using it to make money for kids.’ ”

After hanging up, Sams realized what he’d done. “So I called back and said, ‘If you match the money for kids, I’ll let you carry it.’ And they did,” he says. Since then, “Stranger in the Woods,” first published in 1999, has sold more than 1.5 million copies and won more than 25 awards, including  the Benjamin Franklin Award. It also became a national and New York Times bestseller.

Sams’ wildlife photography, which has made his name known in the literary and photography worlds, was a long time coming. “I grew up hunting and fishing in my teenage years. I always wanted to photograph, but I didn’t have a camera. There was a photography class in high school, but you had to have a camera and I couldn’t afford one. I took photos in my head,” he says.

Carl and Jean Stoick are in front of the lens, for a change.

The years passed by, and Sams earned a builder’s license and a real estate broker’s license. One day, after working in real estate for what he calls “a long time,” he walked out into a nearby field while at a model home and realized it was the perfect place to try getting wildlife photos. He says it was the moment that would turn his life in a long-awaited direction. “I … started photographing bobolinks. That’s when I knew I’d crossed over,” Sams says.

His long-awaited dream — becoming a wildlife photographer — is something to which he’s devoted. He frequently spends hours outdoors, often in frigid, Michigan-winter temperatures, awaiting the “perfect” shot. He has yet, however, to attain his personal holy grail of photographs: Getting a picture of a snowshoe rabbit, white animal on a white background. The closest he’s come so far, he says, was finding a group of the elusive creatures huddled under a car, where he wasn’t able to get the shots he hoped for.

“(Another shot) I wanted to get was a deer eating the (carrot) nose off a snowman. I wanted to get that shot for the book. We had a snowstorm in March, and I thought, ‘This is probably going to be my last chance to get it this year.’ My friend and I were out there three and a half hours that day, (but I got what I wanted),” Sams says.

He explains that the secret to capturing wildlife photos is about always being ready and having the camera ready. His signature style also involves getting a great background. “I look for backgrounds, and then behavior,” he says.

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Learn more about Carl Sams and Jean Stoick and their books by visiting

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