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Award-winning photographer captures luminous local landscapes

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The path to success doesn’t necessarily run in a straight line. Just ask Rachid Dahnoun.

An adventure, landscape and travel photographer based in Healdsburg and Lake Tahoe, Dahnoun’s recent achievements include landing the cover photo for National Geographic’s Night Sky of North America and being named to the Nikon 100 List of the world’s top 100 rising stars in photography.

His work has appeared in such magazines as Travel + Leisure, Outside, Sunset, Runner’s World and Smithsonian, and among his heavyweight commercial clients are Time Inc., American Express, The Travel Channel and Visit California.

At 37, Dahnoun has clearly achieved success in his field — a remarkable achievement when you consider that the journey he took to get there was circuitous and filled with adventure.

Around the turn of the millennium, while a student at Baltimore’s prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art, Dahnoun’s focus was aimed squarely at painting and drawing. But that changed in his sophomore year, when he took an elective class in black & white photography.

“I had never even picked up a camera before then,” he said, “but I quickly fell in love with photography. With painting, I’d sometimes spend a month or two on a work and be really married to that composition and image, but with photography I could go out and shoot all day and try different compositions and images and create a lot more diverse content quickly. I loved that. I switched majors and went full-bore into photography.”

After college Dahnoun, who grew up in Hilton Head, South Carolina, took an internship in Baltimore and frequently traveled to New York City.

“But after a few years I was sick of cities,” he said. “I had a good friend living in Lake Tahoe who had a spare room. So, sight unseen, I packed up my truck and moved out there for a winter. I had a little bit of money saved, so I figured I’d snowboard all winter and make a decision after that about what to do next.”

But as with so many best-laid plans, life intervened. Dahnoun fell “absolutely in love” with the Sierra, and decided to stay through the next summer, and then the next winter, and the years kept rolling on. He was happy and engaged, bartending nights at Kirkwood and spending his days snowboarding, climbing, mountain biking and backpacking.

“I didn’t pick up a camera again for the first five or so years,” he said. “But eventually a camera found its way into my pack. Little by little I built a portfolio of imagery that was true to me and what I liked to shoot — an outdoor portfolio. It started out as landscape, and I transitioned into adventure work. I was involved with snowboarding then (he competed in the North American Extreme Championships), so I had a network of friends who were competitive athletes, and I’d photograph them doing what they do.”

One day in the winter of 2009-2010, the CEO at Kirkwood invited Dahnoun to accompany a film crew on a shoot. He leaped at the chance. The images he shot that day ended up landing his first contract.

“That was the jumping off point,” he said. “All of a sudden I was making real money. I was still bartending, but over the next two years I was able to go full-time into photography.”

Not long ago, an accident slowed Dahnoun’s momentum for a time. On Christmas Day 2016, boarding through a rocky shoot at Kirkwood that he’d run more than 100 times, he slipped and flew through the air, descending 15 feet to land on his back atop blue ice.

“I broke my back with a burst fracture,” he said. “It was 1 millimeter from severing my spinal cord.”

The resultant surgery to fuse vertebra above and below the fracture was successful, but Dahnoun used a walker for three months and a cane for another month. His bones have healed completely, and this year he’s concentrating on regaining muscular strength.

In recent years, Dahnoun has become known for night photography.

“The technology that’s evolved with cameras is just incredible,” he said. “Before, even with film cameras, you could do long exposures and have these star trails going across the sky. But now we can take a shorter exposure and actually see the individual stars. What today’s cameras can do at a higher ISO is basically see into the dark and take pictures of the night sky.

“And there’s a solace you get when you’re out shooting at night under the stars. On the creative side, I work a lot with light painting, off-camera flash and other things, so I can craft the scene a lot. I find that really compelling.”

Being included on the Nikon 100 list was a high mark for Dahnoun, who has used Nikon cameras for ground photography throughout his career. His current go-to camera is a Nikon D850 DSLR; he also uses a DJI Phantom 4 Pro for aerial shots.

For photographers just starting out, Dahnoun’s advice is simple: Don’t be afraid to fail, because you’re going to fail a lot.

“Amateurs and aspiring folks think that every time a pro takes a picture it’s an ace photo,” he said. “That’s not the case. You always have to work the scene, and you’re going to have a lot of failures before you succeed. You don’t need a lot of gear to make a photo — your phone can make wonderful photos. If you have a compelling visual story to tell, that’s the most important aspect of the photograph.”

These days Dahnoun’s work keeps him on the road about 200 days per year. When not living from a suitcase, he divides his time between Lake Tahoe and Healdsburg, where he rents downtown studio space and lives with his wife, Regina Sanz Dahnoun, director of brand engagement at Sebastopol’s Kosta Browne Winery.

“I love shooting the Sonoma Coast,” he said. “I started going out there seven or eight years ago when we first moved down from Tahoe. If I have a day free, that’s where you’ll find me, usually at Salt Point or Bodega Head.”

He also likes to go hiking with his dog, Avery, near his home on Fitch Mountain, as well as along Pomo Canyon and Red Hill Trails.

“I start and end at Shell Beach,” he said. “It’s beautiful, the way it overlooks the Russian River. It’s one of the most scenic hikes in the area.”

None of those trails follow a straight line, either.