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Casting Off and Stretching

Jim Richardson uses a trip to the Isles of Scilly to face some old photography phobias—and try on some new techniques.

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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.

It was a brisk day in the Isles of Scilly—and I had a problem.

Being in the Isles of Scilly was, thankfully, a great opportunity. The quaintly named archipelago off the southwest tip of Cornwall carries on island life and seafaring traditions along the English Channel. The Scillonians long ago gave up smuggling (not that they had a choice in the matter) for the more modern tourist trade. As luck would have it, I was there for the international gig racing championships, where hundreds of crews from around the world were competing. Gigs are wooden, oar-powered boats designed in earlier days to carry a pilot guide out to an approaching sailing ship. This was a maritime necessity on stormy shores strewn with shipwrecks.

What luck for a photographer like me. Off on a cruise of the British and Irish Isles with National Geographic Expeditions and on the second day out, I am presented with the sight of hundreds of sleek gigs dotting the shallow waters, a living legacy of the maritime saga.

Actually, that was my problem. I'd been on this trip before—on this very cruise, from the south coast of England with stops in Portsmouth and Dartmouth, up the west coast of Ireland, over to the Hebrides of Scotland and thence to Orkney and Shetland. Glorious places all, but familiar territory to me—territory that I've worked hard before. Especially the Hebrides, about which I just had a story published in the January 2010 issue of National Geographic.

How was I going to return to these now familiar places and find fresh images? Or, put another way, how could I avoid repeating myself like a broken record?

I couldn't rely on the kind of great good luck plopped in my lap in the Isles of Scilly. I wasn't going to be seeing hundreds of racing gigs everywhere I went on this trip. Certainly I'd take luck whenever I find it. However, scenes like these made it all too easy to fall back on conventional images and well-worn ways of shooting pictures that I've honed for years. I needed to stretch photographically and this was a good time to do it. After all, on this trip I could try some bizarre stuff. If I failed, so what? No picture editor was looking over my shoulder. The pictures I would take on this trip were purely for my own exploration.

With that in mind, I determined to take on some old phobias. And to concentrate on some newer techniques I'd dabbled in before but had neglected for practical reasons. I had the luxury here of not being practical.

One of these phobias had to do with overexposing the highlights in digital pictures. When I transitioned to digital photography some eight years ago I became a histogram addict. The mantra that no part of the pictures should have blown-out highlights became my orthodoxy. But then I started noticing the photographs of my friend Catherine Karnow. Catherine shot straight into the light—blown-out highlights be damned. And I liked them. So I vowed on this trip that I was going to master that technique.

As for newer techniques, I've really come to enjoy doing panoramas—sweeping landscapes stitched together out of several shots. We had published two of them in the Hebrides story, and I loved how they gathered in the grandeur of subtle landscapes. What better place to work my technique than the wild, tumultuous western shores of these Celtic lands? Already I was dreaming up images I could do on Staffa and Fair Isle.

I've been a working professional photographer for 40 years. For 25 of those years I've been a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. I'm constantly challenged by the imagery of my National Geographic colleagues. But I'm also stunned and amazed by the fresh styles of a whole new generation of photographers I see in a host of magazines and on Flickr.

Already on this trip some photographers onboard the Explorer have been asking me how I would handle certain problems. And when I suggest some off-the-wall solution they often ask, "Will that work?"

To which I find myself answering, "I dunno. Let's see!"

In the following posts I'll bring you the results and pitfalls of my explorations as we travel the seas of the British and Irish Isles.

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