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Walking down the streets of Reykjavík (in our Transitions lenses!) with National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths. (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, National Geographic Traveler)

Ask Annie: 12 Questions for a National Geographic Photographer

For the last 10 days, I have had the very good fortune of traveling with legendary National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths. Though our expedition around Iceland been a fascinating adventure into some of the most beautiful corners of that country, the real gift of this trip was how much I learned from this illuminating woman and her subtle-yet-strong approach to photography.

So many of you who followed our travels sent in some great questions for Annie to answer, which she thoughtfully answered. I hope that all of you learn as much from her vision and decades of experience as I have.

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Shooting icebergs with Annie Griffiths in Iceland (Photo by Brian Gratwicke, National Geographic Traveler)

1. What’s been your favorite place to photograph around the globe? (Beth Annie)

Annie Griffiths: The Middle East. I had about 5 years that I worked there and it was very compelling. I love the women there; I spent a lot of time in their kitchens, caught up in this sorority of love and life.

2. Where is the most amazing landscape that you’ve ever photographed?(Giovanni Carillo)

Annie Griffiths: Maybe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (in Alaska) or Fiordland National Park in South Island, New Zealand.

3. What place do you return to continually because the photographs are so beautiful? (Gravel Beltran)

Annie Griffiths: South Dakota, namely the Badlands and the Black Hills. Namibia, too. But a lot of the places I love I don’t have the luxury of returning to so often, like Jordan.”

4. What kind of camera do you own, or would suggest to photography lovers? (Beth Annie)

Annie Griffiths: I shoot currently with a pair of Nikon D700s but I’d be happy if the  gear never changed. I’m a very low-tech person. I just like a high-quality affordable professional camera, and there are so many good ones. Most importantly, choose a camera that you’re gonna use. Some people get a big fancy camera and then don’t like taking it out. Others get a point-and-shoot and start taking lots of pictures.

What lenses did you take to Iceland? (Barbara Ferrini)

Annie Griffiths: I took a 24-70 because I work wide, a lot, especially with big landscapes. I took a 70-300 and that was just because I thought we might see some birds and wildlife. And that’s it!

5. Andrew shoots a lot with his iPhone. Do you ever use a camera phone to take and publish pictures?

  (Sara Hemenway)

Annie Griffiths: I do use a camera phone but it’s fairly recent so I haven’t really published them yet. I probably will. Mostly it’s for fun.

What software do you use?  And do you still have a darkroom at your house? What was your favorite film type? (Sara Hemenway)

Annie Griffiths: My favorite film was Kodachrome 64, and when I worked for a newspaper, Panatomic X (ASA 25). I don’t have a darkroom in my home (boohoo) but on my computer, I use Lightroom.

6. What intrigues you as a photographer in Iceland? (Charles Ma)

Annie Griffiths: I think the scale of everything. It was grand—enormous glaciers, little stark volcanic mountains and the size of the ocean, the height of the cliffs. That scale is what I think about. And that sense that it was all temporary. That things were literally bubbling beneath your feet. And there was evidence everywhere about the birth of an island. It’s also very powerful.

7. Is working for National Geographic all that we think it is? Is it really that great?

 (Alejandro J. S.)

Annie Griffiths: It’s probably greater than you think. It’s not nearly as romantic as people think it is, but it’s always stimulating. One of the great perks of working at National Geographic is that you never have a dull lunch. You’re always with people who are curious.

8. How can emerging travel/documentary photographers build a business in today’s photography industry? (From Genevieve Hathaway)

Annie Griffiths: Instead of centering your attention on where you want to publish, put your attention on who needs your work and what you can uniquely offer. Whether it’s language ability or some kind of strong connection to a place or thing, so that when the time comes, you can compete. And always have ideas and stories–basically any compelling content that will intrigue a magazine or a newspaper or any publication. If you really want to enter this very competitive world of travel photography, don’t tell me stories that have been done a million times. Make sure to keep it fresh.

9. How can you get your foot in the door and start a career in travel photography for a publication like National Geographic? (Umar Ali)

Annie Griffiths: Start locally and regionally and build up your credibility and confidence. It’s not so much about getting the foot in the door as it is about creating a body of work that’s strong enough so that when you do get your foot in the door you have something to show.

10. Any ideas for creatively composing those “I was here” shots (like a person or two in front of a big landmark)? (Marisa Green)

Annie Griffiths: Well the main thing is to not put the people in the center. Shoot very close to them so that you see them primarily, then put the landmark over their shoulder in the background. The biggest mistake people make with those pictures is they aren’t close to the people.

11. How many pictures do you shoot on average for an assignment? (Sue D)

Annie Griffiths: An, there’s no such answer. Each assignment is different, each photographer is different, but professional photographers work situations very hard, they don’t just wander in and shoot a couple pictures and get the shot.

12. . . . and so, what exactly makes a picture magazine-worthy? (Sue D)

Annie Griffiths: It’s when light and composition and moment come together to tell a story. Those three.

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Annie Griffiths shoots pictures of the Westmann Islands in Iceland (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)