What it takes to create enduring images

For National Geographic photographer Brent Stirton, patience, persistence, and a touch of perfectionism are key.

Photograph by Brent Stirton, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Tuareg nomads drive a camel caravan laden with salt tablets.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Nat Geo Image Collection

When people hear I work at NatGeo, I often get asked some version of: “How can I become a National Geographic photographer?” This is an incredibly galling question for a NatGeo writer. But I get it. Many of these people have romantic visions of exploring the far ends of the planet with a Nikon slung over a shoulder. For the few who seem to want the hard truth, I tell them about the time I was on assignment in Mali with Brent Stirton, and we were taking turns throwing up in an airport bathroom.

We arrived at Bamako’s airport before dawn to catch a flight to Timbuktu, the legendary Saharan outpost, and found the dilapidated terminal dark and empty. The previous night we’d eaten some dodgy curry and were both feeling queasy. A security guard took mercy and let us in to use the loo, and we sprawled out on the cracked linoleum floor, facing a tiny duty free shop, sweating through our clothes, riding the waves of nausea.

Taped to the window of the shop was a tattered perfume ad. It was the classic sort of overproduced image that dominates the pages of fashion magazines. I’ve long forgotten the brand, but I remember the image of a young woman haloed in a strange aqua light. Her golden hair floated out of the frame, and her eyes held an expression that simultaneously could be interpreted as innocence or longing, maybe a hint of laughter.

Brent stared at the image and proceeded to name the photographer, the year it was taken, the model, as well as the Russian hockey player she was dating at the time. He excused himself to go puke and when he got back recited the technical details that created the strange light and the floating hair, and the way the photographer had highlighted the delicate curves of the model’s face. “It’s not a bad pic, Pete,” he said at last. “He’s done better.”

By then I already knew Brent was consumed by photography. On a previous trip, we had traveled with a band of Tuareg rebels in a remote corner of the Sahara. Day after scorching day, we had squeezed our sand-encrusted bodies into a rattletrap pickup truck and passed endless hours traversing the colossal dunes that make up the Great Sand Seas in the heart of the desert. (See the 50 best photographs National Geographic published so far this year.)

It was the kind of trip where you tell each other your life stories. The deeper into the desert we went, the more personal the stories got. Brent described his childhood in South Africa, getting his start covering apartheid protests, and hanging around the famous Bang Bang Club photographers, trying to pick up tips on getting good pics and not getting killed.

The conversations always returned to photography. Brent absorbed absolutely everything he could find about the art and science of capturing light with his camera. He obsessed over recording fractions of seconds of life, each a digital time capsule. He’d studied monographs, devoured industry rags, and doggedly paged through stacks of magazines, memorizing thousands of images—which is how he’d developed the Rain Man trick he’d performed with the perfume ad.

At dusk, the rebels would make camp under a stand of acacia, and Brent would quietly photograph their routine. He’s a six-foot-four grizzly bear of a man, but behind his camera, he’d conjure an eerie stillness that seemed to render him invisible to his subjects, the whirring of his shutter the only giveaway. (Watch this photographer's journey to working for National Geographic.)

Later, while charging his cameras on the truck battery, he’d flick through the images. Over his shoulder, I’d watch our day whir by, frame by frame—the pink hue of the dunes at dawn, the young men winding soiled turbans around their soft faces, a herder watering his camels, the men playing guitar beneath an ocean of stars. Brent lingered over this last image. “Not a bad pic, Pete,” he said. “But I can do better.”

Readers, is there a photographer who has inspired you? Let us know at justwondering@natgeo.com.