Episode 12: Can you picture that? This photographer can and does

From capturing bats in flight to making it rain indoors, National Geographic staff photographer Mark Thiessen shows us how he tackles challenging assignments—usually with creativity, curiosity and a lot of fun.

Photographer Mark Thiessen on assignment covering forest fires in Seeley Lake, Montana.
Photo by Mark Thiessen

Photographer Mark Thiessen, who’s worked on staff at National Geographic for over thirty years, likens his job to a Swiss Army knife—versatile enough to tackle many kinds of assignments. Even when the subject is challenging, he approaches each assignment with a lot of curiosity and creativity, whether it’s shooting smoke jumpers who leap out of planes to fight wildfires or making “rain” in the studio to take a unique portrait of an explorer. And as a special treat, Thiessen will take us up a flight of stairs from the photo studio to show us one of his favorite hobbies: beekeeping.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music.


MARK THIESSEN (PHOTOGRAPHER): All right. Today is Wednesday, November 2nd, and I am getting into my Tyvek suit. So because bats carry diseases that we don't know about. We have to wear PPE, and we all know about PPE because of COVID.

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): That’s Mark Thiessen. He’s a staff photographer for National Geographic. A few months ago he went to Brown University to capture some unusual subjects: Egyptian fruit bats. They’re a bit hairier than your typical model, but they are adorable: light brown and maybe a little smaller than your hand, with big expressive eyes and a wingspan of up to two feet. 

Mark needs a photo of one of these bats. It’s harder than it sounds because this bat needs to be one, flying; two, with its wings spread out; and three, photographed from below. To get the shot, Mark, along with two assistants, created an elaborate setup.

THIESSEN: So I've got a camera on the ground pointing up. The bats are going to come through a window that is about eight by ten inches, and then it will fly at about three and a half feet above the ground. And then a strobe above will fire, hopefully at the right time when the wings are fully extended. And then we'll get this backlit picture. 

BRIGGS: Mark also sets up a LIDAR trigger, which will set off the camera right before the bat comes into frame. The camera then shoots 12 photos per second and, hopefully, one of them will capture the bat with its wings exposed. But even with all this tech, Mark says that it was easier said than done. 

THIESSEN: A lot of times I got their wings in the wrong position because the bats flap a lot in a short period of time. 

Other times I missed them entirely. I would have their head coming into the frame and then the next shot, their feet leaving the frame. And all I see is my bright light shining at the camera. But I'm shooting tethered to my computer so I can see the pictures as they come in. And then we just rinse and repeat.

BRIGGS: Eventually, Mark got the photo he wanted and he even captured something more spontaneous. 

THIESSEN: One of the bats kind of flew through and then it landed right on my computer. 

I got this picture of it sitting right on my keyboard looking at a picture of itself on the screen. And it is one of these Egyptian fruit bats that look like puppy dogs. They're the cutest, most adorable bats you've ever seen.

I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

Nat Geo’s photographers work all over the world, but Mark is on staff at our headquarters here in Washington D.C. A key part of his job? Being able to figure out how to shoot all types of things in all types of circumstances, like the bats you just heard about. But that’s not the only trick up Mark’s sleeve. When National Geographic needs someone who can solve problems, we put Mark Thiessen on the case.

This week: we’ll take you behind the scenes of some of Mark’s most inventive photo shoots to see all the innovation he brings to the table. Plus, Mark will tell us about one of his other hobbies: keeping bee hives on the roof of Nat Geo headquarters.

More after the break.

But first, fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Digital. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

BRIGGS: Becoming a staff photographer at Nat Geo is a pretty big deal. We only have two of them, Mark, and another talented photographer named Becky Hale. To get the job, they have to be able to do a little bit of everything. 

THIESSEN: We are problem solvers. And I kind of say, I describe myself as a Swiss army knife in a drawer full of fine cutlery. So National Geographic has very specialized photographers: ones who do underwater, some just do cold and underwater. Some do, you know, culture stories. And they just do kind of African wildlife, and a certain type of African wildlife. Some people just photograph birds like Tim Laman. 

Where I have to kind of shape-shift and as a staff photographer be able to do lots of stuff. So I'm like a Swiss Army knife in a drawer full of fine cutlery. Now, when your boss comes over and you want to impress him, you pull out the pearl handled wine opener. You don't pull out the Swiss army knife to open the bottle of wine. 

BRIGGS: I don't know, though. I always—there's a chef, I think may have even been Alton Brown, you know, TV chef. But he was always like, You never want to have something in your kitchen that can only do one thing. Or else your drawers are just going to be full. Like, you need good multitaskers. 

THIESSEN: Yeah. And I guess that's what it is right. I guess I'm a multitasker. I'm someone who's trying to solve these visual problems that I'm presented with in a way that when the reader turns the page, they’ll go, Wow, what is that all about? And then they'll want to read about it.

BRIGGS: So I wanted to ask you a little bit too about your work photographing wildfires. So I know you got certified as a wildland firefighter. How did you get into that? Was that because of your, you know, your time in California or something else? 

THIESSEN: So, yeah, I was born and raised in Southern California, and I got started with a police scanner that I had with my paper route. My mom would drive me to Spot News, and my first published picture was when I was 14, and I'd heard on the scanner in the morning about a car that was hit by a train. So my mom and I got in our Ford Pinto, and I was too young to drive—she drove me over there. I shot some spectacular wreckages of the car. The car stalled on the tracks. The driver jumped out at the last minute. The train hits the car and you end up with a spectacular car wreck. I shot that. The train ended up a mile down the road before it could stop. And then I dropped the roll of film off at the newspaper. 

And that afternoon, right on the cover was my picture. And I just thought that was terrific, and I was hooked, and I just went for it from then on. And we had fires in Southern California. So if we had a fire and I heard on the scanner, my mom could drive me over there and drop me off before the police department blocked off the road, I could get in and take all these pictures and the firefighters didn't mind and then I would drop them off at the fire station. 

BRIGGS: Your Mom was okay with this? 

THIESSEN: Yeah, she was. Yeah. She's from Montana. She's pretty crazy. She's a great Mom. My dad just kind of was like, okay, whatever. So that was how I kind of, my initial kind of introduction to fire. And then my first job out of college full-time was at the Idaho Statesman in Boise. And Boise is, like, fire central. That's where the National Interagency Fire Center is. They're right there in the intermountain west where there's always fires burning around there. 

So I worked for that newspaper and there were some pretty dramatic fires that year I was there. And then I was here a couple of years and I was really looking for a personal project. I was looking for something that I could come back to kind of regularly, annually, and I looked at a bunch of different things. I had met some really great public information officers at the Boise National Forest, and I was talking to him about this and he's like, Well, you know, I can get you fire training and you’d get a red card and you'd be one of the only media out there with it, and you could get access to the fire line. 

I'm like, okay. So I went out there, I did a whole week of fire training, which is mostly all classroom stuff. And then that kind of helped me get access to be on a fire line and not be a concern for anyone. Now, I always would go in with a crew. And I have just developed these lifelong relationships with wildland firefighters over the years, so I can get access to lots of different places that media just doesn't get. 

Now, in California media has unfettered access to natural disasters, so that is a whole different thing, right? You can just kind of go anywhere and no, they’re not going to come in and save you if you're in a problem. No one's going to risk their life to save you if you did something stupid. But in the rest of the country, the red card really helps because you’ve got to go through the people who manage the fire and get in their good graces and have someone you know vouch for you; and then you get the access and then you can get the pictures of what it's like on the inside. 

BRIGGS: So the red card sounds like, it sounds like it's a permit, but it's something— 

THIESSEN: Yeah, a red card is a basic firefighting certification for wildland firefighting. 

BRIGGS: So does that mean, like you could go in as a firefighter as well as a photographer or—?

THIESSEN: I could, but that's a lot of work. 

Fighting fire is a lot of work. Taking pictures is a lot of work, but not nearly as hard as what these men and women on these hotshot crews do. 

BRIGGS: So how do you photograph a fire without damaging the camera or yourself, for that matter? 

THIESSEN: Well, you know, people ask me, you know, how do you deal with the heat? Well, by the time I'm getting really hot, I've made a mistake. You don't want to be or need to be that close to the fire. I'm going to melt before my camera does. What it's really about is building trust with the crew going in with them. They know you're red carded. You know, I did the story on Russian smokejumpers a long time ago and that was in the magazine, and I just have to mention that story even now and everyone's like, Oh, I saw that. 

I said, Yeah, that was like, when—2001 we published that story? 2002? 

It's like, that issue is dog-eared and it's on their coffee table at their base, and they've all seen it, and they’re like, You’re the guy that did that? 

And once you build that rapport and show you have fire experience with them, they don't treat you like media. They've all had bad experiences with media. And when you come in and they, you know, there's that initial “getting to know me” day. Oh, here's this guy from National Geographic. But as in lots of my assignments, you kind of have to build trust and a rapport with the people who you are going to rely on 100 percent for their cooperation for you to get any kind of decent pictures. 

BRIGGS: Well it also sounds too like meeting them where they are and understanding the complexity of the thing that they're trying to do so that, you know, you're not in the way that you are more of a, I don't know, an asset or well, not a burden.

THIESSEN:  Yes. You don't want to be a burden to them. And, you know, I'm watching their back as much as they're watching mine. And so much in fire is counterintuitive. You know, for example crazy as it sounds. There's something called holdover where a fire will burn underground all winter long and come up in the spring on a hot, dry day. 

I was in Alaska in April. We went to this fire that—I had just got there and they already had a crew in protecting some cabins along the river, and we were resupplying them. And I went in another airplane to photograph that resupply effort. And what I saw as we were maybe, I don't know, 50 miles out of Fairbanks was this most massive mushroom cloud I have ever seen. I was like, My God. Yep, that's the fire. OK. 

And we go there and that was holdover. That was caused by the fire smoldering underground through interior Alaska winter and came up on a hot, dry day— 

BRIGGS: Fires hibernate, who knew?

THIESSEN: —came alive. Fire is alive. And firefighters talk about it like it's this monster. Like it's this living being. 

The fire world is full of these kinds of counterintuitive things that once you learn and other people notice you paying attention to that stuff, then you're no longer a burden and you're just another firefighter out there. 

(Sound of wildfire)

BRIGGS: So we have to switch from fire, we're going inside now. I want to ask you about your day job. So on the fourth floor of the National Geographic office is a big photo studio where obviously you spend a lot of time taking photos. Could you describe the photo studio for me? Like, what does it look like? What's in there? 

THIESSEN:  Well, I have spent a lot of time there. I spent a lot of time since— 

BRIGGS: Who's counting?

THIESSEN: 32 years there. I’ve spent 32 years there. Yeah I have spent a lot of time there. So what we do is we photograph anything that the magazine needs or the Society needs. And so this can be an edgy portrait of an explorer that we would use in the Innovator page in the magazine. It could be marketing photos. 

It could be some sort of, like, we shot this water balloon breaking and we used a high speed strobe to capture that moment that this water balloon broke. And you don't see the water balloon, but you see the shape of the water in the exact same shape as it had that water balloon skin on it, but the skin has left it. We do all kinds of things there. And, you know, if we can get it in the door, we can take a picture of it. 

BRIGGS: So I remember some of my favorite assignments, you know, from way back in the day were the one where you photographed, like all the staff members' pets. That was one of my favorites. 

But the photo studio is down the hall from my desk, and I always know there's something interesting going on in there, but like a few weeks ago, I'm sitting at my desk and I hear water running.

(Sound of running water)

And I was like, Is there a flood? What's going on? And then I look and I see, you know, Oh, it's coming out of the utility closet. There's a hose on the floor. What is going on? And I heard you were making it rain in the photo studio. So tell me about that. Why are you making it rain inside? 

THIESSEN: Yes, we made it rain in our photo studio on the fourth floor. And we were successful at it because no one on the third floor knew that we were raining, that it was raining above them. So that's how we knew that we were making this work. 

So this was a case of us photographing an explorer who is coming to headquarters and he studies rain reclamation in Mexico City. His name is Enrique Lomnitz, I think, if I have that pronounced right. And we thought, you know, wouldn't it be great if we could do this portrait of him like in the rain? And so, I don't know. We usually get a couple of weeks notice of this. And it was raining outside one day and I was kind of watching the rain. And I thought, you know, we could do it with a strobe where we stopped the action of the water drops, but wouldn't it be better if we just use continuous light to have the light streaks coming down?

And so we set up a sprinkler on top of this really tall ladder. We have from previous water shoots a big kiddy pool, and then we spread out all this tarp, this brown tarp material to catch the overspray. We had this long hose running on a valve to this kind of water closet that's down the hall that you saw. And so we did some tests before he showed up. So Becky's like, Look, this is your shot. You’ve got to get in there. You're going to make this guy do it. So I went in there and she shot some test shots of me. 

(Sound of water falling)

THIESSEN (To Becky Hale):  Whew, that water's wet. 


THIESSEN: That was a lot more rain that time. 

BECKY HALE (PHOTOGRAPHER): Yeah, that looks awesome. 

THIESSEN: Does it look good?

HALE: Yeah.

THIESSEN: Exposure’s alright on me?

THIESSEN (to Amy Briggs): And, you know, we we we kind of understood how the water dropped and picked a shutter speed so that the water streaks wouldn't be too long but not too short, and adjusted our lights accordingly and figured out on an angle, figured out what we wanted to put on the background, and then we felt like then we have the photo editor kind of approve this idea. They come in and take a look at everything, and then the next day Enrique comes in and we've warned him ahead of time. 

BRIGGS: Okay. That was my next question, was like, did Enrique show up and he was like, You want me to what? 

THIESSEN: Well, we had a meeting with him like a week before. Like we usually do, a Zoom meeting, and we say, Hey, we're going to probably get you wet. Is that okay? 

He's like, Oh, yeah, that's fine.

I said, Okay. So, you know, I brought in some clothes, he had some clothes, and we kind of figured out something that would look right on him. And then we put him in there and then we turned on the water. 

(At photo shoot) Here we go. Let it rain!     

(Sound of water falling)

THIESSEN: Good. good. Turn a little bit towards me. Good, good, good. Awesome. Stop! Cut the water.

HALE: Now we’re going to do closer. 

THIESSEN: Now we’re going to do closer.

(To Briggs) And usually when we do a shot like this, we do like, you know, 30 seconds and I'm shooting like crazy and 30 seconds of water dropping. And he's doing different expressions and different things—

ENRIQUE LOMNITZ (EXPLORER): I’m feeling oddly exposed here guys. 

THIESSEN (to Lomnitz): You didn't realize you're going to be on Punk'd? 

(To Briggs) And then, you know, we stop, turn off the water, take a break and look at the computer and see if we want to make any changes, see what we've got. And then, you know, we do it again and we kind of repeat that cycle, you know, as many times as we need to feel like we get enough of what we need, 

And sometimes we're shooting it loose because we need to leave room for type that will go on the side. And then other times we want to shoot it in close and tight. So, you know, we're just making sure we get all the types of pictures we need because we've set this up. 

(At photo shoot) Let her rip.

(Sound of water falling) 

THIESSEN (to Briggs): And usually, you know, it doesn't take more than a half hour of a subject's time. When a person is sitting for a photo, they, you know, anything longer than 15 minutes, they're pretty much spent if they're not used to getting their picture taken. 

BRIGGS: Even in the water though? I would imagine that would be a little bit more like the novelty might keep you a bit more engaged unless you got cold. 

THIESSEN: Well, we had the hot water on but it cooled off as it ran through the long hose and just when we were finishing up he's like, Oh, we're just getting to the warm water now. 

(Sound of water falling)

THIESSEN (at photo shoot): Stop, stop! 

BRIGGS: I’m going to let you in on a little secret: up on the roof of Nat Geo headquarters are six beehives. And I’ll let you guess who the beekeeper is.

THIESSEN (into recorder): Ok this is Mark Thiessen, and I have a recorder here. And I’m going to set it down into a hive that is crawling with bees. 

(Sound of buzzing bees)

BRIGGS: So the last thing I want to ask you about is, I don't know if it's technically part of your job, but it's something you definitely do here at National Geographic. So you're a beekeeper and that you keep hives on the roof of our headquarters here. Okay, to start with, how did you get into beekeeping? 

THIESSEN: Well, so they had bees here for four years before I came involved. And, you know, I knew at some point I was going to retire and probably move back out West. And I thought, you know, I want to, I'd like to do beekeeping out there, so why not just learn now so that I have a lot of experience by the time I move out there. So I took a class with the Montgomery County Beekeeping Association. It's a seven-week class, two hours a night, once a week.

BRIGGS (narration): Not only does Mark manage all these hives, but he also gets honey from them. To do so he uses a machine called a honey extractor, which looks like a large metal drum that spins the honeycomb around really fast until all the honey just falls out. 

Here’s Mark, mid-extraction explaining the process:  

THIESSEN (into recorder): You've probably seen beehives, they live in these boxes. Inside those boxes are frames and they’re wooden frames that the bees have filled with honeycomb. If you can hear that, I'm actually uncapping this frame. So the bees put the honey in these frames of honeycomb whack, which are made out of wax that they secrete from their wax glands in their abdomen, and then they put the nectar in there and evaporate it to about 17 percent moisture, then they cap it. 

So the honey is in these little tiny hexagonal honeycomb cells, each one with a cap on it, and we score the capping. That's what I'm doing with this machine. I'm taking this frame and plunging it in and you can kind of hear that, and it's between these two rollers with little blades on them that scores the, scores the cappings. And then there's some it doesn't get, so then I use this special fork with lots of tines on it to score the wax cappings and then I put it in this extractor. 

So this extractor is about two and a half feet in diameter. It's all stainless steel. When I turn it on, it uses centrifugal force to fling the honey out of these honeycomb cells against the walls of the extractor. And then it, it drips down and then comes out the valve if the bottom into these five gallon buckets. 

THIESSEN (to Briggs): So last year, in 2021, our bees, these four colonies made 540 pounds of honey. 

BRIGGS: Oh, wow. 

THIESSEN: That's nine, five gallon buckets of honey. And all of that came through the air in the honey stomach of a bee. What amazes me about honeybees is that a honeybee colony is like a superorganism. Just like we are.

Our body is full of all these cells that have the same DNA, but they've differentiated their function. I have tongue cells and hair cells and skin cells and all these different cells in my body that do very specific things. But genetically they're all identical. And all these cells work together in me so that Mark can be Mark, so I can do this higher function of being a photographer or a beekeeper. 

BRIGGS: Or a smokejumper. 

THIESSEN: Or a smokejumper. And honeybees, it's the same way. These bees are all part of this superorganism. They each have their job to further this colony, even though none of them will be around for the long term of that colony. So the Queen will live two to three years and they'll make a new queen and the whole mission is to further this colony. So in humans, reproduction is when you make a new human. In a bee colony, reproduction isn't when you make a new bee. Reproduction in a honey bee colony is when they make a new colony.

(Sound of buzzing bees)

BRIGGS: It might not be as sweet as honey, but if you like what you hear and want to support more stories like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

Read more about Mark’s experience photographing wildfires at natgeo.com. Just search for Mark Thiessen. And you can follow him on Instagram @Thiessenphoto. Thiessen is spelled T H I E S S E N. 

Hear more of him on the Overheard episode, “An Accidental Case of the Blues,” about the discovery of the first blue pigment since Thomas Jefferson was president. 

That’s all in the show notes, right there in your podcast app. 

This week’s Overheard episode is produced by Khari Douglas.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Our photo editor is Julie Hau.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see ya next time.


Want more?

Follow Mark on Instagram at @Thiessenphoto

See what it takes to put out a wildfire in this Nat Geo article, and follow smokejumpers out of a plane in this article

Hear more of Mark on the Overheard episode “An Accidental Case of the Blues,” about the discovery of the first blue pigment since Thomas Jefferson was president. 

Also explore: 

Did you know that people steal bee hives? Find out why in the Overheard episode “Honeybee Chop Shop.” 

Want to take better photos at home? Nat Geo staff photographer Becky Hale explains how