Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photo Research

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

"If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of better stuff."

That's a simple mantra and I repeat it like some mystical incantation rooted in utter practicality. I share it with other photographers and I endeavor to follow my own advice. As a result, I spend a great deal of time doing photo research, looking for great locations to shoot. Put simply, I'm a better photographer when I'm standing in front of something wonderful like the Grand Canyon.

Getting to wonderful places is bread-and-butter photography. Getting there is only half of any great photograph's story. The other half is how the photographer prepared to envision the subject once in front of it.

Example: Today my mind is absorbed in the long climb up Skellig Michael, that remote crag isolated in the Atlantic off the coast of Ireland. There, Celtic monks found their solace in spiritual isolation 1,400 years ago. I have never been on Skellig Michael, though I have come close four times. Each time I was thwarted by high seas. Mentally I am preparing to be among the beehive huts in the monastery at the summit, in the mindset of ascetic hermits seeking their spiritual desert in the vast Atlantic.

In four days I'll board the National Geographic Explorer for a cruise of the British and Irish Isles, and I'll have a chance once again to ascend the slopes of Skellig Michael. I want to be ready to seize the day.

For me, this groundwork is part of photography, as essential as knowing exposure and lighting or recognizing the decisive moment. Research sounds like drudgery to many photographers, but for others digging into a subject in advance is part of the pleasure—its own reward. I'm one of those photographers.

Philosophically, photographers seem to divide along that fault line. On one side are those who desire only to be in the moment. For them, forethought only distorts perception. On the other side are the planners. These folks would never dream of going out the door without a full shoot list, or even a script. (Actually there is a third group nowadays. They just capture scenes wholesale and do all the creative work in Photoshop after the fact.)

Fortunately it doesn't have to be an either/or decision. Most National Geographic photographers I know do both: research extensively to prepare their schedule (and their minds) and then become existentially in-the-moment once on site.

Here are a few things I do to get ready for a photographic trip:

  • Create a research file for each location. For my upcoming cruise I already know where we are going day by day. So I start a file for each location and start compiling information. At the least I'll get the Wikipedia entry for every site as background.
  • Dig up photos. Just knowing what the place looks like is invaluable, so I'll hit several of the Internet photo sites like Flickr or the major stock photo sites like Corbis or Getty. Besides clueing me in to the photographic possibilities, this research can also show me what angles have already become clichés to be avoided. And I'll find angles I didn't expect from locations I hadn't imagined. Armed with these I'll be better prepared to push the expected.
  • Ransack guidebooks and photo books. Guidebooks tend to show the standard scenes but they are comprehensive. Photo books show what a devoted photographer can make of a place. Both of these help me expand my expectations.
  • Research your destination to death. Turn to online search engines to seek out-of-the-ordinary shots of your destinations. Once, when preparing for a trip to Ireland, I searched the term "Celtic priest" and the results turned up Dara Malloy on Inishmore. Dara performs Celtic weddings in a 900-year-old church. A quick phone call to Dara revealed he had a couple coming from Tokyo to be married, which resulted in a photo in National Geographic magazine.
  • Look for places and events that are seasonal and timeless. Open your mind to what might be a picture subject. Most travelers tend to think only of places, without delving deeper into culture, history, and meaning. I try to get in time with the rhythm of the place and in tune with its melody.
  • Subscribe to the local news. Once this would have been the local newspaper, but now it's likely to be a local Internet news source (through an RSS feed) that will keep me updated on local happenings. Whether I'm covering hard news or a travel story, this helps me find real connections. I'm much more responsive to local sentiments when I arrive at my destination. Recently, for example, the introduction of Sunday ferry service was a divisive issue on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides where I was shooting a story.
  • Read local-set novels and murder mysteries. What more pleasurable way of doing research than cozying up with a novel or exploring the (perhaps fictional) seamy underbelly of a place in a murder mystery? I'm a fan of the latter, and I always cast about for a good whodunit with juicy local details. For my upcoming British Isles trip I'll be reading the latest offering set in Shetland from author Ann Cleeves.
  • Find the local bulletin board. Once I arrive I often set about finding the local bulletin board. Wherever I go in the world, I can count on finding this staple of community life where local folk share everyday opportunities and offerings. Who has free puppies to give away? When will the town band be practicing on the green? Find it on a flyer. It is priceless stuff for a photographer.
  • Write your own assignment. Most important of all, I give myself an assignment. This organizational trick is a way of setting boundaries on one hand and goals on the other. Without an assignment, I'll wander aimlessly hoping to "find a picture." Likely I'll come home empty-handed. But with an assignment, I'll look steadily and with purpose. My number of "keepers" goes up dramatically because I know what I'm looking for.

Most of all I just want to be ready. If I'm ready, I can just about count on being lucky.