What it's Like to Photograph the Pope: Reflections from Dave Yoder

As a contributing photographer for National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler magazines, Dave Yoder has documented stories across the globe, from the high-tech search for a lost Leonardo da Vinci painting in Florence to the discovery of a forgotten city in the jungles of Honduras. A true citizen of the world, Dave was born in Indiana, grew up in Tanzania, and currently calls Europe home. We caught up with him to chat about what motivates his photography—and that time he rubbed shoulders with the Pope.

What motivates you as a photographer?

I love the versatility of being a photographer. Depending on the situation, photography can be exciting, introspective, terrifying, exhausting—all of which make it an ultimately fulfilling experience. For me, it's also an excuse to make new friends and see places that I might not get to travel to otherwise. Whether you practice photography as a profession or as a hobby, it should always be a social, self-enriching endeavor.

How would you advise others to approach photography while traveling?

I'd encourage travelers to carry as little equipment as possible while shooting and to concentrate on seeing objects and scenes in new ways. I'd also advise them to take time between photographs to ask themselves what they really want to capture—but not at the expense of missing a moment, of course! The truth is, it doesn’t take years of practice to make a good, or even great, photograph. These days, you don’t even need a great camera! In fact, a large, obtrusive camera may distract a subject, while a cell phone camera may go unnoticed. The best photo ops are often unexpected, so I'd suggest that travelers keep a small camera with them at all times during a trip.

Tell us about your favorite National Geographic assignment.

I photographed Pope Francis and Vatican City for a National Geographic cover story that ran in the August 2015 issue. In order to gain access, I recruited the three American ambassadors residing in Rome, and spent six months taking about 68,000 pictures at the Vatican. Editing the portfolio down to about two dozen frames was as challenging as it was surreal—I often worked right beside the pontiff! But what was truly unforgettable was standing next to him as he greeted ecstatic pilgrims, or walking on the catwalk inside St. Peter’s Basilica as though I were a worker in Michelangelo’s days. It was a remarkable project.

Another favorite assignment I shot was the search for a lost Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. While the story was not widely run—the painting has not been definitively identified—it was a memorable experience.

What keeps you returning to Italy?

I have lived in Italy, on and off, for about 15 years. I love the ancient feel to the place, the wonderful food, and the passionate yet unhurried Italian personalities. It is archaic and resists change, yet still somehow feels like a frontier.

Tell us about one of your most memorable travel experiences.

Visiting the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. Standing on Stromboli was an otherworldly experience, like being on a sleeping giant that coughs up lava every fifteen minutes. And then there were the sleepy island towns, the beautiful water, and delicious seafood—it was utterly rapturous.

Practice the art of photography alongside David Yoder on a National Geographic expedition in Europe.