Ever wanted to ask a National Geographic photographer how they get their best shots? Here's your chance! Jim Richardson has the answers to your biggest photography questions. Send him an email and your question and his answer may be showcased. Check back often to read Jim's answers to some of your questions.
“My photography for National Geographic takes me all over the world, and while it's always a great adventure, it's also a lot of work. So I'm always sure to pack Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries. On average, I'd say I use 600 AA lithium batteries a year – that would be more than 4800 AA alkaline batteries! That's a lot fewer batteries for a lot more photos (and a lot less I have to pack and carry.)”
- Jim Richardson
Read His Answers
Click on the questions below to reveal Jim's answer.
Megan, I think the problem is that the photographers’ get more inspired by exotic locations and take better pictures there. I’m not looking for exotic locations; I’m looking for photography that is really revealing about the wonders of life. You just keep looking for great moments in life.
Marianne, the answer is: a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many pictures I take. But here is an example. For some stories that I have had published in National Geographic Magazine I have shot 40,000 images! Now there were a lot of really good pictures in there (even if I do say so myself) so it’s not just random shooting. But the really good photographers go back over and over, trying to up the ante on the shots that are already good, trying to get something better. You just keep shooting. I say over and over again, the best way to get to be a better photographer is.... to throw away the bad ones.
Guy, this is a real problem in the digital era. You’re right, we lost the depth of field markers that used to be on all the lenses. Now there are some sorts of work-arounds, charts you can download, etc. I’m not convinced that any of them will do you much good taking actual pictures. My advice: if you want maximum depth of field stop down to f16 and focus about one third of the way into the picture area. Any more precise answer is, I believe, not realistic.
Vincent, like many cameras, you can dial down the flash level on your D60 and probably solve your problem. Go find your manual and go looking for “flash exposure compensation.” This will allow you to dial down the flash. Best to leave the flash on auto. Put the camera’s exposure dial on A, S, or P. If you leave it on the Green “Auto” you won’t be able to control the flash exposure compensation. Dial down the flash until you like it.
I read with interest your article "Experience & Image". How can I ensure that my family album photos are "full of meaning and tender moments" and not a "waste of time" that would prompt you to tell me to "put the camera down"? Is there a compromise to be made between experiencing the moment & capturing it in an image? ~Pat
Pat, wish I had an easy answer for you. If I did I could write a really good lifestyle self-help book and make a lot of money. But I think everybody is going to have to come to that balance on their own. I just want to tell photographers that even professionals like me wrestle with this problem and sometimes I just put the camera down. And that’s OK.
Vicky, there are lots of answers to your questions but here is where I end up. You can take a lot of interesting pictures with most any camera, but when you get start getting serious about exploring photography then I say go get a digital SLR (or DSLR) that takes interchangeable lenses. These cameras are more responsive, work better in low light, give you room to grow and just generally give you the chance to take better pictures. Which one? Any of the “entry level” cameras from the major manufacturers are excellent. Really! These are the cheapest DSLRs they make and the come with some sort of “kit” lenses, which covers a modest range of focal lengths and is a good starter lens. Work with that for a while and you may be happy for the rest of your photographic life. Or you may discover after a year or so, that it has some limitation that you wish to overcome. When you get to that point, you’ll really have made the step beyond being a novice and well on your way to becoming a photographer.
Lorraine, use the simplest one that gets the job done. I happen to like Aperture from Apple but it is a powerhouse program and may well be more than you want. Same for Photoshop. It’s Powerful but daunting to some, and it’s a wonderful program to explore for others. Start simple and when you really understand the limitations, you’ll be better equipped to make a decision when you move up.
Kayla, if you are getting serious about photography then I’d recommend a DSLR that will take interchangeable lenses. The most inexpensive “entry level” cameras from the major manufacturers are fine. Best to find a good camera store and handle them. See what feels right in your hands and makes sense to you. But the DSLR is going to give you great room to grow and your pictures, and skills, will improve rapidly.
Since you specifically are interested in photographing "atmosphere and lights" I'd say you should go with available light. In other words: No flash! So turn off the flash and turn up the ISO (also known as "film speed" except we don't have any film anymore.) You want the natural look and feel of lights and a flash will usually kill that. But it can be a bit dark in the clubs, hence the need for higher ISO. Any digital SLR will give you a big leg up when working in darker situations, and the quick responsiveness of a DSLR will help a lot, too.
Most of all, look for good light. Sounds a bit redundant, I know, telling you to look for light, but look around for those angles where the light really takes center stage. Find the light, then figure out your picture. And watch your exposure. If you are shooting backlit silhouettes you don't want to overexpose the lighting (which automatic exposure will tend to do) and wash out those beautiful colors.
By the way, you might want to experiment with longer time exposures as well. You might get interesting pictures of the blurred bodies on dance floor creating swirling patterns.
I am a beginner self-taught photographer and I have a passion for photography and recently bought the Nikon D90. I wanted to always take a picture of the ocean water with the soft cloud effect. I open my shutter for a longer exposure to get the effect but at the same time I keep over exposing the background. How can I have a great exposure with the soft water effect. What settings am I missing and/or do I need any other accessories to capture my shot? - Willie S.
Water makes a really nice effect if you can do a really long exposure, and you are trying the right stuff. First, I suspect that you need to wait till it gets a bit darker out, like after sundown when the whole scene will be more evenly lit. Even lighting on the subject is the basic cure to what you are running into. Compared to the way the scene looks to your eye, the camera is much, much more sensitive to differences in lighting levels. If you are shooting with the dark water in the foreground and the bright horizon in the background you going to have trouble doing this kind of shot.
One other trick. Buy a strong neutral density filter, known by their initials: ND. You use these to cut down on the light getting to your lens. A five stop ND filter is really dark and will let you use a much longer exposure time. I carry one made by Singh Ray and it does the trick in a lot of cases. In these cases a two stop ND filter won't do you a lot of good. And an 8 stop ND filter is so dark you won't be able to see through it. Singh Ray also makes a variable ND filter that is quite effective, but be warned. It's not cheap. (And you'll still have to pay attention to relative light levels.)
How do you approach a subject (person) and achieve the report needed to allow them to stand for a natural looking photograph without "spoiling the scene" and creating an awkward embarrassed look on the person's face. I would speak to and explain my wishes nicely and often get cooperation but not with the life and relaxed look of the "un-posed" subject. - Shawn V.
One time I gave an assignment to my photography students to go out and "photograph a stranger." One of my students came back without any pictures at all. Said he couldn't find any strangers, just a lot of people he didn't know.
My advice for people photography is pretty simple (and a lot of successful people photographers do the same thing). Get the relationship going, THEN get the pictures. If something real is happening then getting the pictures will follow pretty easily, actually. So take a little more time to have a good time. When you do you'll find that what people come up with is more interesting that what you thought you wanted. I'm glad you like my pictures of people, but most of what you are seeing is what they are doing, not what I am doing as a photographer.
Ah, the HAND OF GOD shots. (That's what we called them back in my newspaper days.) The physics of this is pretty easy to explain. Getting the pictures is something else. It's like this. You can't see the light rays themselves, but you can see them when they run into something. Like water vapor in the air (that would be fog). Or smoke in a jazz club (and that would be pretty rare, anymore.) Anyway, the light rays strike the particles and it is the lit up particles that we can see. That's why movie directors like fog machines.
So, your first task is to find those places where there is atmospheric haze or fog, with shafts of light coming through, so that some areas are lit and others aren't. A foggy morning in a forest when the sun is just starting to break through will do very nicely. But work quickly since it won't last forever. Mostly you want to shoot it backlit to maximize the contrast difference, and be sure not to overexpose the lit up atmosphere. If that means something in the foreground goes dark in your photo, then that's the way it's going to have to be.
I am looking for new lenses and have come across several companies who solely make lenses, such as Sigma and Tamron. Would you tend to stay away from outside parties that are not related to the camera manufacturer or do these lens companies make better quality lenses? Do the lenses from these parties work and fit with cameras made by Nikon? What do you use? - Max N.
I use Nikon cameras so it's not going to come as some big surprise if I tell you I like them, right? Mostly, I like the way all the cameras, lenses and flash work together. But the same would be true if I were using another camera system. When you stick with one system you generally get better compatibility and ease of use. (And if you want the very best lenses then the manufacturer's top of the line lenses, the brutally expensive ones, are where the action is at.)
That's the general answer. Beyond that I've used a number of other lenses in my career, including the Tamron and Sigma ones you mention. Often they filled a very specific hole, or did something special that no other lens would do. I once had a Sigma 14mm lens that would focus down to about three inches from the front of the lens. Great for insect pictures. They were fine lenses and made fine pictures. So if you find one you like, by all means get it and enjoy it.
Finally, I don't think there is much problem these days with other lenses not working with your Nikons.
Two things come to mind when you ask about "haze" on a bright sunny afternoon. First you could be talking about how bright and contrasty it is, so that your pictures come out either with inky black shadows or blown out highlights. Cameras just can't handle the full range of lighting levels (though your eye and brain usually can). There are two cures for this, both of which have possibilities and drawbacks. First, you can pull out your flash and add a little light to the shadows. Fill flash can do wonders, but in somewhat limited circumstances. Like, with people who are not too far away. Second, you can just expose for the highlights and let the shadows go black, and don't put anything you need to see in the shadows. Use the shadows as big black compositional shapes contrasting sharply with the stark highlighted areas. Think drama. Think spaghetti Western.
Or you could mean, genuine, real haze. If so I bet you are shooting with a zoom or telephoto at things a good ways away. You might even be getting some mirage if it's really a bright day. And to be honest, that is one of the downfalls of thinking you can shoot things from a long ways away with a telephoto lens. Haze degrades the image quality. So get closer. (I run into this all the time when shooting aerial photographs. So I fly lower to cut out the haze.)
Finally, I'll bet if you get a polarizing filter you are going to like your mid-day pictures a lot more. Polarizers block the surface reflections from objects so that the real color comes through. Skies are darker, clouds are whiter, apples are redder, and the grass is always greener.
Jim, you mentioned that you enjoy shooting pictures of people which I also like to do. If I might want to enter these photos into contest, however, do I need to carry release forms of some kind around with me? It seems awkward so I just tend to stay away from taking pics with recognizable people in them. I feel like I'm missing out. What do you do? - Diane T.
That always depends on the use. And in the case of this contest (and most contests for that matter) the answer is yes. (So read the rules.) Other than that the law varies with the use of the picture. News pictures, by and large, don't need a release. Commercial pictures almost always need a release.
Yeah, it's often a drag, but if you want to enter your pictures in contests you'll probably have to carry around some good releases. You can find various releases on the Internet to adapt for your own use. As for asking people to sign a release, much of it comes down to the same advice I would give for photographing people in general. The better the relationship you have with them, the less awkward it is to ask them to sign a release. (Of course your best defense is to treat the people you photograph so nicely and decently that they wouldn't think of taking you to court.)
And then there is this. There is a very good reason some photographers only take pictures of wildlife. You don't need a model release from a bear. The bear may eat you but it will never, ever hire a lawyer.
I love macro photography, especially of insects. But I tend to get a halo type of look at the subject's edges. It doesn't appear anywhere else in the photo. Is this due to the shallow depth of field? I don't like it because it looks like the image is blurred, even when the primary subject itself is in focus. Any tips? - Ken S.
I think what you are seeing is the extremely shallow depth of field common in macro photography. Mostly the cure for this is to stop the lens way down, to f16 say, to get a more depth of field. Even then, you'll still have lots of acreage in your photos that is very "soft." Some photographers are able to use that softness to their advantage, producing ethereal abstract flower pictures, perhaps.
Right now, let's go back to stopping the lens down to get more depth of field. First, a true macro lens (as opposed to a zoom that has a "macro" setting) will do a better job stopped down. And it is optimized for close focusing distance so it starts out ahead in sharpness and it stays ahead at small f-stops. But, small f-stops mean slow shutter speeds (it's always something, isn't it) and that can mean camera shake. Second, most macro photographers therefore use one or more flash units mounted off camera to give them plenty of light and every bit of sharpness they can get. The flash doesn't have to be very far from the subject, as little as three inches away often works. And a through the lens metering flash (TTL) will often work very well at those distances.
Third, macro photography ranks up there with astro photography for difficulty in getting everything right. It take some special gear, it takes practice, and it takes a perverse sort of cussedness to stick with it. So stick with it.
Aaaah, shooting a picture and rolling the film back to take a second exposure. Photographers would take a whole roll of pictures of the full moon, then reload the film and photograph clever landscapes with an improbably large moon hanging around in impossible locations. Hadn't thought about that for a long time, like about three decades.
A quick bit of research and I found that, sorry to say, your Canon Rebel XTi won't do double exposures. Some cameras will but yours won't. But, if you were cagey enough to do the rewinding the film trick, then maybe you'd be up for this trick. Find an appropriately dark scene, one that will let you do several second exposures. Then put your camera on a tripod and put a card in front of your lens. Open up the shutter using the "Bulb" setting and take one exposure by removing the card from the lens and then putting it back. Then, while still keeping the shutter open, do it again.
Mind you, I have no idea at all of what kind of subject this would be effective on, but you could do it.
So this is about taking a picture of the moon itself. Just the moon. No regard for the surrounding landscape. Well, it will help to remember that the full moon is just a landscape lit by the sun, only further away. As such, any exposure that would work on a daytime landscape will sort of work on a nighttime full moon. (In practice I find that I need about one f-stop more exposure for the moon than the landscape.) And remember that the full moon is always, always going to be just equally bright, and take exactly the same exposure every time you see it. The only time that is not true is when the moon is just rising on the horizon and is a dimmer orange ball.
So the next time you have a full moon go out and do a series of bracketed exposures. Go from exposures that are much too dark to exposures that are much too light. Then go back on your computer to see which exposures you like and make a note. "Full moon exposure: 1/250 @ f5.6" or whatever. (This will depend on your ISO so make a note of that, too.) Better yet put a piece of masking tape on the back of your camera and write the note on that. I know all kinds of photographers who do just that kind of stuff, me included.
Going back now, you may very well want that landscape in the picture with the full moon and so the lighting level both the moon and the landscape will matter a lot. In that case you have one shot of getting them both lit evenly: when the full moon rises at sunset. That's another trick to remember. The full moon always rises at sunset. And you get thirteen full moons a year. (Note to knowledgeable astronomers: cut me some slack on this one.) When the full moon pops up you'll have about half an hour right after the sun goes down when the landscape and the moon will be nicely balanced out. Soon the landscape will slide into darkness and the moon will appear ever brighter, so work fast.
Getting close brings impact and immediacy to your photography so I work hard at it. When photographing people I almost always ask their permission, then take the time and effort to become part of the social fabric of what is going on. People have to become comfortable with me, and it sometimes takes a little time and reassurance to make that happen. But the pictures are rewarding when they bring us into the middle of the action.
For macro photography of small subjects (flower and bugs, for instance) you'll need a real macro lens that can deliver excellent quality. (Zoom lenses with "macro" settings don't really get close enough most of the time.) You'll soon find that your main problem is getting enough depth of field to get enough of your subject in focus to make good pictures. The usual cure is stopping the lens down to a small f-stop like f16 for f22. So most macro shooters use small flash units to add enough light for fast shooting (butterflies have an irritating way of fluttering off at just the wrong moment.)
Before digital I would have suggested that you go looking for a really fast lens, with an f2 for f1.4 maximum f-stop. Today I'm more inclined to suggest that you look for a digital SLR capable of shooting with a high ISO, making it very sensitive to low light -- something like ISO 1600 at least. Most point-and-shoot cameras can't really deliver this kind of low light performance. Noise will start to creep in as the ISO goes higher but you'll be amazed at how good the cameras are today. (I often think they can see in the dark.) So you'll want to find the best compromise of ISO setting that delivers a shutter speed that you can handle, but that doesn't make your pictures look too "grainy."
The first thing to remember about lightning photography isn't camera settings, it's safety. Don't get yourself killed. Only do lightning pictures from safe locations. (Tripods out in the open look a lot like a lightning rod to a passing thunderstorm.)
The trick of lightning photography is that you can (almost) never see the lightning and press the shutter release fast enough. So shoot at dusk or later when you can use a several second exposure (the longer the better.) Watch where the storm is producing lightning and frame up your shot accordingly. Then begin exposure and hope that a lightning bolt goes off while your shutter is open. If not, do it again. And again. If your shutter speed is 30 seconds, say, you have a fair chance. To get good quality pick a lower ISO speed setting of perhaps 400 and an f-stop of around f5.6 or f8 so that the lightning will look bright enough in your pictures. From here on it's luck and perseverance.
Nicole, your friend gave you good advice for one simple reason: a UV filter is the best way to protect your valuable lens from getting scratched. It really doesn't do much at all (if anything) for the picture. But it is much cheaper to replace a UV filter that got scratched or otherwise dinged up than to replace or repair the lens. Just leave it on and in a year or two when it gets scratched up buy a new one.
Samantha, I'd opt for a mid-range zoom, something that would go from wide angle to short telephoto. I'd want to be sure that the lens was wide enough to get enough of interior spaces like cathedrals. And fast enough to work in relatively low light. If I was just on vacation and I wanted to travel light I would pick one of the great 18-200mm lenses. No lens can do "everything" perfectly but these come close enough when convenience trumps weight and bother.
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Jim and Energizer Batteries
The Galaway Inn was alive with Irish music, packed wall to wall with people and like all Irish pubs, very dark. My Energizer-powered flash units lit up the scene—the musicians kept playing, the energy was fantastic, the action never let up and my camera outlasted us all.