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Gleanings From Photographer Friends

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

Without fanfare, a package plopped on my desk recently. Inside was the new National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Travel Photography. Why am I receiving this book, I wondered. Then I flipped through the pages, saw some of my pictures and remembered: This is the book for which Traveler editor Scott Stuckey interviewed me several months ago.

Along with my own comments about travel photography, I also saw advice and photographs from photographer friends like Bob Krist, Catherine Karnow, and Macduff Everton. Each, like me, shoots for Traveler. Each makes pictures that turn me green with envy. Scott's muscular, descriptive writing made the book simply chockablock with good observations, lists, and suggestions.

I immediately set about rummaging through the entire book for advice from these travel photography masters. (Hey, everybody can pick up new ideas, and I found some.) But here is what I found most interesting: It seems that everyone who works seriously at travel photography consistently uses many of the same techniques. There's a certain comfort in knowing that others have made the same discoveries and use the same approaches.

Perhaps there are some universal truths—both about photography and people—even as the whirlwinds of change rip through our digital world. What will surprise some readers of the Ultimate Field Guide is how little of the advice and observations are about lenses, shutter speeds, and f-stops. Instead, many ideas address the art and craft of encountering the world.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Go early, stay late. That's great advice for any event, but it also applies to the time of day. Photographer Aaron Huey spoke lovingly about a recent assignment in Peru. "I arrived in the dark. I wanted to be there in the predawn light, before the sun touches skin. ... The sky then is like a giant, perfect soft box."
  • Participate in rituals. Photographer Macduff Everton related how participating in local rituals can open doors and foster understanding. In Tibet he and his wife went to Bumpari Mountain to hang prayer flags for their daughter, who was expecting a baby. "We feared something would go wrong," said Macduff. "Our participation in the Buddhist rituals made it easier for me to take pictures."
  • Approach strangers. Skulking around like a spy is no way to photograph people—or to make friends. Photographer Catherine Karnow told Scott: "It's almost always effective to smile and be nice" when approaching strangers to take their picture. Catherine's a real pro at it because she is so real in her approach. "Make the person happy," she says. "Keep them entertained. Try to have a good time with them."
  • Scout and return. Many pros get better pictures because they are not afraid go back, sometimes over and over, until they get it right. "In Bombay," Catherine said, "I returned to a cricket ground four times on a ten-day assignment." To which I say, only four times, Catherine? Let me tell you how many times I went back to the Columbia Gorge for a sunrise photo.
  • Wait for it. This is the corollary to going back. Just wait it out. Many great photographers are not so blindingly talented, just dogged. Aaron Huey described photographing a Sufi shrine in Pakistan. "I just walked around the place all day long, just waiting for the right character to arrive, for the right scene to unfold," he told Scott. Indeed. Most of the time I'm just amazingly dull until the right moment makes me look brilliant.
  • Your camera is your passport. Some photographers see their cameras as barriers between them and their subjects. But photographer David McLain spoke with experience about how his camera often opens doors. He told Scott how he found himself on the back roads of Connecticut looking for real country life. There he found a man sitting in his old truck talking to his pet calf. "In this case, my camera acted like a passport into that guy's life. He invited me to me to go along as he rounded up more of the herd. You have to roll with the situation."

Thanks to Scott Stuckey and all these photographers for letting me borrow their words so liberally. But it is their thoughts and actions I value most. It's an honor to be in their wonderful company.

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