Photograph by Joel Sartore
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Salmon, Idaho, July 1992.

Photograph by Joel Sartore

Six Beautiful Mistakes Caught on Camera

NatGeo photographers share the stories behind their favorite images of unplanned moments.

This post was originally published in April 2015.

April 1 can be a day full of surprises. Inspired by this idea of the unexpected I asked six National Geographic photographers to share a favorite image of theirs that was the result of something unplanned—a mistake gone right or a perfect moment captured by being in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. Here are the stories and images they shared, some genuinely surprising and funny, others beautiful and moving. Expect the unexpected.

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Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, November 2014

I love photos that are happy mistakes. I can pass them off as deliberate, thought out, and examples of my photographic prowess (if I wasn’t stupid enough to write about them being mistakes). This photo is a happy mistake. It’s from a camera trap I set up on a dead elk to shoot images of wolves. A magpie flew onto the camera with some elk jerky while a bald eagle figured out what bit of the elk to tackle next. This is one of tens of thousands of images of ravens, magpies, and bald eagles that triggered the camera as they interrupted an infrared beam over the elk—alas, no wolves did. We wildlife photographers have so little control over our subjects that, to be honest, pretty much everything we do is a mistake. This is one of those rare mistakes when a few stars aligned to create a bizarre composition and present an interesting story—unless I’m much mistaken! —Charlie Hamilton James

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A parasitic wasp (Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga) lays its egg on the abdomen of a spider (Leucauge argyra).

When I started my “Mindsuckers” parasite story, I wanted to photograph all of my subjects exactly the same way. I would leave the host organism in silhouette and only light up the parasite. I succeeded in sticking with this narrow visual approach for the first three parasites, but when I got to this spider I ran into a problem. When I tried to backlight it I discovered that the spider’s legs were actually translucent. At first I was frustrated because the colors distracted from the parasite I was trying to highlight. My editor, Todd James, had to convince me to expand my visual approach and embrace the surprising beauty of the spider’s legs. —Anand Varma

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Joshua tree, 1990

I was in Joshua Tree National Park, and I pulled in next to the largest Joshua tree in the entire park. It was predawn, pitch-black, and I was going to make a picture with star trails behind this beautiful tree. After a few minutes of scouting, I decided that the shot wasn’t going to work, so I got back in my car and started to pull away. But as I looked in my rearview mirror, I saw the red glow of my taillights on the tree and gasped. When I hit the brakes, it made the tree look even more strange and beautiful. I set up my camera, and when the sky had the right kind of glow, I made a two-minute exposure of this Joshua tree, bathed in the car’s taillights. —Len Jenshel

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Kuito, Angola, 2000

In 2000, I was covering a very difficult story about Africa’s longest civil war, happening in Angola, that the world had seemingly forgotten about. The war was already into its 26th year of brutal fighting, which had displaced over four million people and spawned a humanitarian crisis. It was a deeply depressing story, and the first time I had ever witnessed this kind of brutality. One morning I went out early into the quiet streets of Kuito and found two puppies roaming. They stopped, sat down like this for just a split second, looked at me, and were off again. I was shooting film at the time so didn’t know I had this frame until a few days later when I was able to process it. Seeing this image brought a little smile and became a reminder to keep looking for the joyful moments in the middle of the darkest places. Because the people I met certainly still laughed despite the unspeakable violence around them. —Ami Vitale

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New York City, March 2015

I was out running on the crowded streets of New York City when this subtle peach color in slushy snow caught my eye. I stopped and realized it was a pair of ballet shoes fully frozen and embedded in the ice. People were hustling past me with quizzical looks as to why I’d stopped to photograph a seemingly obscure block of dirty ice, but once I got home I thought it really was quite a pretty picture. As a photographer, no matter what I’m doing I always have my eyes open for those sublime images that are unwittingly waiting to unfold before me. —Alison Wright

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Salmon, Idaho, July 1992

I was photographing near Salmon, Idaho, and was almost out of light and without a single picture to show for a very long day. Then I saw an older man on a tractor putting up hay and figured it’s this or nothing. I pulled my car off the road and walked out into the meadow. There was a bit of movement behind a hay bale, and I realized his grandson was out there too, playing hide-and-seek. At dusk, the man shut down the tractor, and he and his grandson got in his pickup truck. I walked over to ask their names, and suddenly the most ferocious blue heeler that ever ripped a face off came lunging out of the window. I was terrified! It must have showed because the grandson started laughing. I snapped a few frames, and the dog calmed down a bit. Turns out Grandpa was holding onto that dog’s back leg the whole time, otherwise I’d probably be faceless as I write this. When I asked why they’d keep a dog like that, Grandpa responded, “I don’t like salesmen much, and we don’t have many problems with them coming around.” I understood completely. —Joel Sartore