Q: I've heard photographers talk about capturing the moment, what does that mean?
A: Almost every good shot captures a unique moment in time. Sometimes the moment happens right away, and sometimes you have to wait a while. It can be as simple as a woman glancing up; or as complex as when many elements align into a perfect composition. A good way to make an interesting picture that includes a moment is to first find an interesting scene or background for your picture. Then wait for someone or something to move into that scene and capture the picture when they are in a compositionally attractive place. Great photographers spend a lot of time looking through the camera waiting for just the right extra element to appear.
Q: What is the best light for portraits?
A: Although any light can be good for portraits, the most flattering ones are usually made in what is called open shade. Open shade can be found almost anywhere out of direct sunlight. The most obvious place that comes to mind is under a tree, but be sure that there are not bright spots of light falling on the subject. The most useful portrait lighting conditions can also be found under awnings or porches or even in open doorways. The idea with open shade is to make sure that the light falling on a subject's face is even, with no bright hot spots. This also prevents the dreaded raccoon eyes caused by the light of the sun falling on a face from above, leaving dark rings under the subject's eyes.
Q: What should my portfolio include?
A: The basic rule for a portfolio is simple: a portfolio should show that you can do what the client needs to have done. It needs to be tailored to each prospective client. A travel magazine portfolio is very different from a hard news portfolio for a news magazine. If you send a portfolio to National Geographic TRAVELER you should include somewhere between 40 and 60 pictures, with strong single images that include landscapes, people, food, festivals, etc. Furthermore, it would include three or four "stories," groups of pictures focused on a theme. The portfolio is your introduction. It should include the type of photography used in the market you are targeting without slavishly copying. You'll need to follow up with the photo editor or art director over time to make an impression.
Q: How do I make better looking flash photographs?
A: With the wrong camera settings, flash photography can look harsh and unattractive. This is usually caused by the flash overpowering the scene and causing everything to look dark except the parts of the photograph that are lit by the flash. The best way to solve this problem is to use a flash setting called TTL balanced fill flash. This automated setting will make sure that the flash matches the rest of the scene, leading to a more natural looking photograph. The other main problem with flash photographs is that they look wrong when the flash is mounted on top of the camera. We are not used to seeing the world lit from our point of view, the main light usually is coming from some other direction. The simplest way to solve this problem is to bounce the flash off a nearby light colored surface. Usually photographers chose to point the flash up and bounce it off the ceiling. This will light a greater part of the scene, making the photo look more natural. However I like to bounce the flash off a wall to the side or even turn the flash backwards and bounce it off something behind me. Modern TTL flash metering makes this very easy, you don't even have to think about exposure if the camera is set to TTL or through the lens flash metering. A more advanced technique is to use a remote cord or the infrared remote firing built into many modern flash systems. Holding the flash off the camera with one hand can make for a very creative looking photograph.
Q: Is it true that a great landscape image will almost always be better if a human presence is in it? Is the color red also a plus when you add that element? Given the same composition, will those added elements make the difference for a more marketable image?
A: This depends on the intended use of the picture. In general, I would say that landscape pictures meant to be used in magazines usually benefit from the inclusion of a human figure to give a sense of scale to the scene. On the other hand landscape pictures used in calendars almost never include humans. Inclusion of the color red does increase the visual impact of a figure in a landscape. The effect is so strong that in the early years of color photography it led to what some people call the "Red Shirt School of Photography." This term was usually used in reference to photography in the National Geographic Magazine. National Geographic and other magazine photographers in the 1940s-1960's were accused of traveling with red jackets and umbrellas in their trunks to add a little extra color to their photos. I must tell you that the Red Shirt School is now used as a deprecating label because those same colorful photos often had a very cheesy, set-up look. Most photographers tell me that best selling photos of landscapes are pictures of photographers photographing the landscape. Corporate America tends to classify photographers as rugged individualists and advertisements will often use these photos to sell different lifestyle products.
Q: What is meant by good composition and how do I achieve it?
A: Don't constantly put subjects in the middle of the frame. Whether it is the horizon in a landscape or a person in a portrait, dead center is rarely the best place to put them in a picture. Usually it is static. We fall in this rut because our cameras tend to have their focus aids in the middle. Learn to focus and then reframe. The easiest way to accomplish this is by pointing the focus point at the most important part of the scene, depress the shutter release half way down and hold it there. The focus will stay at that distance, you can then reframe the photo, pressing the shutter release the rest of the way when the moment is right. Many photographers like to follow what is called the Rule of Thirds. Imagine the frame divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically. The points where these dividing lines intersect is usually a good place to put one of the main subjects of your picture. This keeps you from having a static, centered composition. Another trick you can use to make photos that have more depth is by framing the scene with some object you are looking through. For example, include some tree branches in the top of a landscape photo. This framing directs the viewer. Framing scenes is a tried-and-true way of adding depth and focusing attention. But try to go beyond the obvious doorway or window frame. Framing looks contrived when done too simply or too often.
Q: What zoom lens should I use for landscape pictures?
A: You would think that wide-angle lenses would be best for landscapes and they are for one type of photo mentioned in an earlier answer. A landscape with some appropriate subject in the foreground of the picture and the larger landscape in the background. But, if you're just trying to take a picture that shows a scene in its most straightforward, beautiful form I find a telephoto lens very useful. Usually, in really grand landscapes you can't get close enough to make a nice composition of complimentary secondary subjects. It's then that you can really use the telephoto lens to bring the picture together. For example, you might find a scene with a photogenic barn on the high plains backed up by snow-covered peaks. Usually, to make a successful photo you'll need that telephoto to make the mountains and barn appear closer to each other for a pleasing composition. So, for a zoom landscape lens I would favor a normal to telephoto field of view, 50-200mm. However, It's good to remember that the real secret to great landscape photos is not deciding which focal length to use, but in taking the picture in the most dramatic light.
Q: What lens is best for street photography?
A: Street photography is a somewhat catch-all category usually referring to pictures of people taken in urban areas. The best known master of this type of photography was Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose 1952 book "The Decisive Moment" helped define this particular photographic style. Bresson used a 50mm lens almost exclusively, so that's a good place to start.
Q: What is the best focal length lens to use for portraits?
A: Slight telephoto lenses, 85mm to 105mm, are best for portraits. There are a few reasons for this. The main reason is that the photographer can stand a comfortable distance from the subject and still take a close-up photo. Generally speaking, telephoto lenses also have shallower depth of field, which allows the photographer to concentrate the photo on the subject's face. However this requires care in focusing, there's nothing worse than a portrait that has the ears in focus instead of the eyes. Although wide-angle lenses can be used for portraits by simply moving the camera closer to the subject, this is usually not the best choice. Because of the change in perspective when moving closer to the subject using a wider lens for a portrait will usually make the person's nose look unattractively large.
Q: Do I need an extreme telephoto lens to take sports pictures?
A: The realm of sports photography is usually ruled by long telephoto lenses, 300-600 mm or longer. There is just no other way to get dynamic, close-up action photos. Most professional sports photographers, when working from the sidelines, always keep a second camera around their necks with a wide angle lens for those instances when the action suddenly appears too close for the telephoto lens. There is also a second category of sports photography that in many ways can be more interesting than straightforward long lens action shots. Photojournalists refer to these photos as sports feature pictures. Think about a photo of a losing team hanging their heads in defeat. Any lens will work for that. So, don't worry that you can't take great sports pictures because you don't have the same lenses as the Sports Illustrated photographers. Look for photos that will work with what you have. One of the most striking sports action pictures of all time, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) knocking out Sonny Liston was shot with a normal (50mm field of view) lens.
Q: Sometimes when I take pictures indoors the people's skin tone has a strange color cast. What causes that and how do I fix it?
A: Digital cameras allow us to adjust the color balance of each scene we photograph by changing the white balance. Different lighting circumstances create different color casts in pictures and this needs to be corrected for. The most well know example of this is the problem that photos taken indoors under incandescent lights can make a daylight balanced picture look warm or yellowish. Likewise, a photo taken outdoors in the shade will probably look blue because the subject is lit by the huge expanse of blue sky, not the sun. When you take pictures indoors you have to fight different colors of light combining in the scene and that can make peoples skin have strange color casts. Most digital cameras are set by default on an auto white balance which works well most of the time. But what you're probably seeing is the failure of that auto white balance. In order to learn how white balance works, I would recommend that a photographer set their camera to take JPEGs, then repeatedly photograph one scene using the different white balance presets on the camera. Have a look at the different results on your computer and learn how your camera sees. Also, you can shoot with your camera in RAW and adjust the white balance later. Even when shooting in RAW I try to manually set the white balance using the presets to the particular situation I'm in. I spend enough time at the computer without having to adjust the white balance on every picture I take.
Q: I've got a new ultra wide-angle lens, but I just don't like the photos, how do I use it effectively?
A: The biggest mistake that beginning photographers make with a wide-angle lens is that they think it's necessary to show more of the scene. The unintended side effect of this is the lens makes everything look far away. Most experienced photographers have a very specific reason for using wide-angle lenses and it's not just to show more of the scene. They use a wide-angle lens in order to get closer to the subject, but still include a great deal of information about the place where the photo was taken. It is a little disconcerting at first to make effective pictures of people with an extreme wide-angle lens because you have to get very close to the subject. But this is how wider than normal lenses are frequently used by photojournalists. They get close, put the subject off to one side leaving the rest of the frame to tell more about the story. A similar way to use ultra wide-angle lenses for landscape pictures is to put some subject matter very close in the front, maybe a clump of wildflowers or a fencepost. This helps give the picture a better composition. With these lenses it's all about the relationship between the foreground and the background.
Q: What is the best time of day to take pictures?
A: Most photographers love early morning and late afternoon. There are many good reasons for this. Typically, the light is coming from a lower angle. That makes the scene have more depth and 3 dimensionality. At these times the scene also has lower contrast between bright areas and dark areas. Our cameras can't see as much as we can with our eyes and having the scene more tonally compressed makes for a better picture. Another reason is for more interesting color. Photographer refer to the time from approximately 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after (and correspondingly at sunset) as the golden hour. The sun shining through the atmosphere has that typical golden glow. We're more likely to turn our back to the sun and photograph the objects or people that the golden light is falling on. Next time you find yourself on a beach at sunset, turn your back to the sun, you might be amazed at what you see.
Q: Are lens filters still necessary for digital photography? Are there filters that National Geographic photographers use to make their pictures look better?
A: Most National Geographic photographers don't use filters to define the look of their pictures. It used to be a badge of honor to not use any filters at all. The underlying philosophy in this mindset was that filters could look gimmicky and somehow cheapen the photograph. It's important to note that no filter can be considered a "magic bullet" and that's what many beginning photographers are looking for. However, there is one filter that is still very useful, the polarizing filter. The polarizing filter has a reputation among beginning photographers as being the filter that makes the sky dark or lets you see through windows. But those are probably the least useful aspects of the filter. What it really does is reduce glare in the picture. I find that a polarizing filter extends the amount of time during the day that the light looks good. By reducing haze and scattered light I find that I can take nice pictures earlier in the afternoon, particularly when shooting landscape pictures. There is no Photoshop setting that will easily do the same thing as a polarizer. Yes, a polarizer does darken the sky and make the clouds look better, but be careful to not get carried away and create something that looks too good to be real.
Q: I've heard that a National Geographic Photographer will shoot 20,000 to 50,000 photos for a typical story. Why do they shoot so many pictures?
A: The simple answer is that capturing their story is all they are doing when on assignment. A more reasoned response is that the photographer who consistently produces great photography really works the angles. They find a situation that looks ripe for a photo and they proceed to cover it from every conceivable point of view - high, low, front and back. One picture editor friend of mine refers to this style of photography as "dancing around the teacup." Back in the days of film, if a photographer found a subject that warranted their attention for a photo, they would shoot a minimum of one roll of film if not more of that one subject. So a hundred or so pictures of every little subject really adds up.
Q: Are prime lenses (single focal length) better than zoom lenses?
A: 30 or 40 years ago there was probably a good argument to be made that single focal length lenses were better. If your intention is to photograph test patterns instead of interesting subjects that may still be true, but zoom lenses now are more than good enough for most photography. However there is a behavioral problem that photographers need to overcome when using zoom lenses. As a photo editor, even when looking at pictures from experienced photographers, there is a problem that I see over and over. As I'm looking at a set of pictures, I can see the photographer zoom out on the picture, including more and more in the frame. In my opinion this is a great composition destroyer. I also notice that photographers don't take many vertical photos anymore. I blame that on the existence of great quality ultra wide angle lenses (16-35 mm or wider). Photographers zoom out to include more top to bottom and don't really pay attention to what is on the sides of the pictures. I guess they forget that they can just turn the camera sideways. Also the covers of magazines are always vertical. I'm not suggesting that everyone should carry around a bagful of lenses, but there is one way to counteract the tendency to zoom too much. Look down at your lens and decide what focal length setting you are going to use for a particular scene. Set the lens there and leave it until you think you've worked out all the possible photos. Only then should you choose another setting. It's a great way to force yourself to make better compositions.
Q: Do most National Geographic photographers shoot in raw format? Who does all the editing and final correction on the images? Is the photographer involved in this process?
A: Yes, National Geographic Photographers shoot exclusively in RAW format. Shooting in RAW allows for more flexibility in making the pictures look good in post processing, particularly in correcting for white balance. If the photo was shot as a JPEG with the improper white balance, it's almost impossible to fix. There is a danger in shooting RAW - that is shooting with the mindset that you will just crank out the photos and fix problems later in the RAW converter. I would encourage beginning photographers to not shoot in RAW. The JPEG engine in most newer cameras is very good and shooting JPEGs lets the photographer learn how the changes they make in camera settings affect the photograph. They should bracket different exposures and white balance settings then look at those pictures with their computer. From there they can immediately see what they are learning. After they've spent some time learning how their camera works they might want to shoot in RAW so the pictures can be optimized. But we don't want to use RAW as a way to try to make bad pictures look good.
Q: Which exposure mode should I use with my camera? What's the difference between "auto" and A?
A is actually referred to as Aperture Priority mode. The user chooses the aperture and the camera sets the appropriate shutter speed. Similarly, S is Shutter Priority. M is Manual with the user choosing both aperture and shutter speed usually with the help of the in-camera meter. P, Program, is a bit of a hybrid mode. A simple explanation is A user can choose the aperture or shutter speed and the camera uses some built in intelligence to make sure the picture does not result from a wrong setting. Usually that would be a shutter speed that is too slow and would cause the picture to appear blurry. AUTO would appear to be the same as program with one important difference, AUTO wants the camera to produce a reasonably correct photo in all situations. Usually this is achieved by making the flash go off if the scene is the slightest bit dim. The problem here is that experienced photographers know that when the scene is starting to get dim, that is the interesting light that makes for great pictures. The last thing they want is for the flash to suddenly go off and ruin the beauty of the scene. Another detail about the AUTO setting is that it often locks out specialized settings within the camera menu such as custom settings for saturation, sharpness, etc.
I would recommend most users try to shoot with the Aperture Priority setting. But be careful and pay attention to the shutter speed produced by your chosen aperture, it's easy to forget that your lens is set to f/11 when you move from outdoors to indoors. If you leave that lens setting all of a sudden your indoor shutter speeds will be very slow (something you can actually hear, if you're paying attention). If you find yourself being a little forgetful, try using Program. Many cameras also have SCENE modes. Usually these are indicated by little icons such as a portrait, flower, mountain, running person, etc. Those modes are great, much better than AUTO, give them a try. My favorite SCENE setting is the person with star or crescent moon icon (Night Portrait). This mode will keep the camera shutter open for a long time at night while using the flash to illuminate what's in the foreground and freeze the action even though the shutter speed is slow. This mode produces amazing looking night pictures, give it a try.
Q: If you had only one lens to carry everywhere, what f-stop would it be?
A: I would actually be more concerned with what focal length lens to carry. If I could only use one, I would use a 35mm effective focal length. (When I say effective focal length I am referring to the field of view that would be shown with that lens on a 35mm film or full frame digital camera. To know what to use on a cropped sensor camera you need to use that camera's focal length multiplication factor. For example when I say 35mm, to get a similar field of view on a typical cropped sensor DSLR camera you should use a 24mm lens) The 35mm lens to me provides a slightly wide view, to help show not only the subject, but their surroundings. But, it's not so wide that it introduces a distorted look. However, you do raise an important point about lens f-stop. Many photographers think a lens with an extensive zoom range, wide to telephoto, will provide everything they need. But, affordable versions of these lenses have very small maximum f-stop openings (around f/5.6) making it difficult to get good pictures in low light without using flash. As the newest generation of digital cameras have increased high ISO sensitivity without looking bad this does matter less. But image quality is still best at lower ISO settings. I personally don't like to use lenses that are slower than f/2.8. So for me the ideal zoom lens would be 24-70mm f/2.8.
Q: How do you approach someone you've never met and begin taking their picture, especially when there is a language barrier?
Taking a photograph of someone you don't know is one of the most difficult things to do for many beginning photographers. Although many people think of National Geographic as being home to wonderful pictures of wildlife, in truth most of the photos are of what we refer to as pictures of the human condition. Photography is a powerful tool for showing what the world is like on a human level. So, how do you get comfortable taking pictures of people. The first step is to realize that most people don't mind being photographed. The simplest thing to do is make up your mind that you are interested in showing people in your photographs and force yourself to go out and meet people with your camera. Make an assignment to yourself, a story that you would like to cover. Just like the entrants to this contest. This story idea provides you with your strongest tool to making people feel comfortable with you photographing them. Now you have the answer to the inevitable question you will be asked when you request a photo. It's very important to force yourself to interact with people to take their picture. Some people are naturally friendly and enjoy walking up to strangers and introducing themselves, the camera gives you an excuse to become one of those people.
If you see something interesting happening that might change if you stop to introduce yourself, feel free to snap a few frames. Soon, the subject will figure out what's going on. At that point you'll want to tell them who you are, what you're doing and ask if you can hang around a little bit. The hanging around part is important because it can take a while for the situation to return to normal. Sometimes you have to tell people to try to ignore you. The other reason hanging around is important is because you don't want to have the attitude of being a "taker." You have entered into a social contract with this subject and you owe them the courtesy of spending a little time with them.
Q: How do you get into galleries? How do you get your stuff into books? Do you just submit and submit? Is there a secret to it? How do I become a photographer for National Geographic?
Photography is really no different than any other pursuit in life if you plan to make your living at it. Taking pictures is an enjoyable activity, but if you decide that you want that to be your job you may find that it's not so much fun anymore. All the photographers that take pictures for National Geographic are freelance independent business owners. Unfortunately, there are very few full time salaried photography jobs. So in order to be a successful photographer you need to be absolutely obsessed with photography. You also need to have an inner compulsion to communicate stories that you feel strongly about to the viewers of your photographs. Becoming a photographer is not too different than many other jobs, first you need to find out everything you can about that field, then find out who the decision makers are for that world. At the same time you must spend all your time taking pictures so that when you finally find the right person to talk to, you have the work to back up your ideas.
A former Director of Photography at National Geographic used to say,"If we want to hire you, we already know who you are!" What he meant by that is photographing for National Geographic is not a first-timer's job. National Geographic Editors are constantly looking at magazines, books, newspapers, and online for compelling photographs and photographers that deliver those pictures again and again. Once the Editors start to see a photographers name over and over associated with good work in different media, then they might reach out to those individuals and ask if they have any good story ideas for National Geographic. Because it's not enough to just be a good photographer, to make it at National Geographic you have to have interesting stories to tell.
Q: How do I tell a story with photographs?
A: A Photo Editor's nightmare is when someone shows him a photograph and then starts to explain what's in the picture. In the worst cases of this, the photographer starts to talk about important things that are not even in the shot. In the simplest of terms a picture-telling photograph must show what the story is about. As the stories that we want to tell with pictures get more complex, it becomes harder to fit all the elements of that story into one picture. However, it is a great exercise to try making that happen. The first step to telling an interesting story with pictures is to photograph all different aspects of the story. Learn enough about your story by observing and getting to know the subject until you can decide what visual elements help tell the tale of that place or person. In the beginning an easy way to help yourself do this is to think in terms of covering the subject from different angles. Photograph from near, far away, back, front etc. Also you should vary the size of the subject in the photographic frame. Shoot the same thing with different focal length settings, reallly just play around. The key to an interesting photographic coverage is variety. Also, don't fall into the trap of including the main subject of your story in every picture. After a few photos the viewers will get the idea. Be sure to mix things up, take a lot of pictures and as you review your shots, ideas for what will become the best photos, the keepers, will start to occur to you. Kind of like warming up before a foot race, most photographers don't just stand waiting for the best scenes to appear in front of them. They work to draw their mind into the scene, hoping to photograph the telling aspects that would have gone unnoticed without conscious observation.
Q: What is the best camera that you recommend me to buy to take really AMAZING pictures?
A: Most modern cameras are capable of taking amazing photographs. But, that doesn't mean that the photos will be amazing just because you used a certain camera. Some of the most interesting pictures I have seen were taken with quite ordinary cameras. An Amazing picture is the result of the photographer connecting with a subject. Sometimes it's because the photographer knows that great light can make amazing photographs so he/she goes looking for great light in a great location. Some photographers take Amazing pictures because they are great at capturing powerful human emotions. To do this they must get close to the people they wish to photograph, both physically and emotionally. It's a great idea to have a good camera, because Amazing photographs take a great deal of work to find and it would be terrible to go to all that work only to have your camera malfunction. But, the camera does not take the picture by itself, it's just a tool that we use, the Amazing has to come from you.