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Nat Geo photographer Catherine Karnow (left) and Annie Fitzsimmons explored Dublin and San Francisco together. Find out what Annie learned from Catherine along the way. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow/Jane Blair)

Five Lessons From a Nat Geo Photographer

If you think traveling with a National Geographic photographer is a dream project–like I did when I heard I’d be working with Catherine Karnow in Dublin and San Francisco–I am here to tell you that it most definitely is. Not only did I learn a lot, I made a new friend–one I hope to see and work with again around the world.

Upon meeting Catherine, it was immediately clear that she was as obsessed as I am with ensuring that the recommendations she makes and the stories she tells are as authentic and accurate as possible. For every place that we chose to cover as we traveled, there were several others that didn’t make the cut.

Catherine may not realize how much of an impact she made on how I approach my own work. I kept scribbling notes while we were together because I wanted to remember how her singular brand of travel photojournalism took shape.

Here are a few things I learned from Catherine in the hopes that you, too, can benefit from her vision and experience as you explore and document the world:

1. Be a good host. Think of the best parties you’ve ever been to, and they probably have one thing in common: a fantastic host. One who welcomes you, makes you feel comfortable, knows what you need before you ask.

As time went on, it occurred to me that Catherine was just like this. Whether it was five minutes or an hour, she made her subject feel like the most special person in the world. When good hosts are tired, or find themselves stuck in tedious conversations, they don’t show it. We were running on very little sleep on our trip, but I made a point to channel Catherine’s gracious personality. After all, you never know when that magical moment in travel will happen.

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Liliah Beldner, a student at the San Francisco Ballet School practices her grand jeté at the top of the Lyon Street steps in Pacific Heights. The steps are a favorite place for locals to exercise and enjoy the view of the marina, the bay, and the Tiburon Peninsula. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

2. There’s no time to be timid. Whereas I might hang back and observe, trying to fit what I’m seeing into the story I’m writing in my head, Catherine taught me to jump into the scene without fear. “Photographers always feel like we’re going to miss something,” she told me. “A photogenic moment can disappear in a second and we have to move forward before the situation evaporates.”

When we shot the Lyon Street steps in San Francisco, we noticed an adorable group of girls in leotards and wondered what they were up to. Then, when we saw them snapping selfies, Catherine boldly strode over to inquire. Turns out they were celebrating the end of the school year, and in a hurry. But Catherine endeared herself to the dancers quickly and managed to capture beautiful photographs of them stretching and leaping into the air.

3. A “wow” view does not always make a “wow” photograph. As we explored one of Catherine’s favorite hiking trails–the Matt Davis Trail on Mount Tamalpais–in Marin County, where she lives, we came upon a beautiful panorama of Stinson Beach. “Wow! What a view,” I said as I took out my smartphone to snap a picture. Catherine’s response was something I’ll always remember: “It is beautiful, but a ‘wow’ view is not always a ‘wow’ photograph.”

“I often like to have something interesting going on in the foreground; I’m not just shooting the view,” she went on. “If you have something in the foreground, the viewer feels like they can just reach out and touch it.” This is exactly what she did when she photographed the dancers on the Lyon Street steps, which gave the entire shot context.

She also emphasized the importance of light when it comes to achieving a truly ‘wow’ shot. “An exquisite dusk always makes a cityscape absolutely magical,” she said.

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Dusk illuminates the lights of downtown San Francisco and the Bay Bridge as seen from Russian Hill. (Photograph by Catherine Karnow)

4. Presentation and manners count. When you’re asking people to allow you into personal moments, these things matter. Catherine took these seemingly simple mandates beyond saying please and thank you. I sensed at all times that she was trying to do what was right, rather than what was easy. She listened intently and gave people her full attention. She also took time to snap simple portraits, not for her work, but to send as a thank you and a token of their time together. “It is extremely important to me to give people photographs and keep the connection,” she said.

Each morning, you could tell that Catherine spent time getting ready and didn’t throw on the first crumpled thing from her closet. She inspired me step up my game, and I suspect that it gave us better access to the places and people that made our storytelling succeed.

5. All moments are building blocks. Catherine taught me that no time is wasted when scouting and finding stories to tell. In Dublin, we spent an hour shooting a swimmer in the town of Howth, and were very happy with the shot. But when we arrived in Sandycove later that day, Catherine made a beeline for an even more photogenic scene–of a group of swimmers about to ease themselves into the frigid water.

The hour we spent with the first man hadn’t been a waste. It built up our familiarity with the rhythm of the Ireland coast and allowed us to see the second moment more clearly. It was a photo from the second shoot that was the winning shot.

Annie Fitzsimmons is National Geographic Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on the Urban Insider blog, Twitter @anniefitz, and Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

Catherine Karnow is a contributing photographer at Traveler magazine known for her vibrant, emotional, and sensitive style of photographing people and places. Connect with her on Facebook and on Instagram @catherinekarnow.

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