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Over the last 15 years, I have worked as a photographer on assignment in over 60 countries, ranging from drug stories in the Horn of Africa to climbing expeditions in the Himalayas. My clients have mostly been magazines, ranging from all the National Geographic publications, to Esquire, Outside, Men's Journal, Stern, GEO and many others, plus a host of commercial clients. Seeing the world with a camera—and sometimes a pen—as a passport to open concealed doors and even hidden worlds can be a magical—often wild—ride.
While the world of assignment photography has changed in the last decade, pushing photographers like me to acquire new tools like video and audio, many of the tricks for making memorable images haven't changed.
Here are five simple tricks I recommend to students when teaching workshops, whether in Africa or in my backyard of Colorado.
Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost from Pete McBride.
Treat Your Subjects Like You Would Want to be Treated—be Friendly, Laugh, Joke
My general advice when shooting abroad is to always make conversation and be friendly before making any pictures—especially if you are shooting people up close. I never greet people with a camera lens first. I always lead with humanity, and often with a smile. Sometimes, I even ask people to take a picture with my camera, to help break the ice. Making a human connection first often leads to better photos later, whether it is with a Samburu tribesman in Kenya, or a portrait shoot in New York City. Laughter is a universal language, so I try to find common ground despite language barriers, by using humor first. If the situation is serious, then empathy and respect are critical. Below is a recent shot from India from an upcoming story I did for National Geographic Traveler. I sat with these pilgrims on the banks of the Ganges for nearly an hour, trying to communicate and make friends. Dealing with a huge language barrier, we finally connected over a cow who kept trying to drink our chai. It led to a rare moment that would not have happened if I just snapped a picture and moved on.
Know Your Equipment, Keep it Simple
First and foremost, it is always helpful to work with a simple system that you understand. I see many shooters drowning themselves with equipment, which occupies their brain more so than the subject itself does.
I often say that the best camera is the one in your hand, ready to capture a moment. For example, a point-and-shoot photo of the elusive moment is better than a missed shot on the latest and greatest camera gadget.
Obviously, certain situations call for telephoto or wider lenses, specialty lights, etc. Aside from challenging wildlife shoots, complicated lighting situations, or very tight spaces, I make 90% of all my images on one camera (currently the Nikon D800) with one lens—a Nikon 2.8 24-70mm, manual exposure and auto focus. For some, telephoto might be their preference, or a fixed wide angle prime. That's fine—just know your camera, your lens, and how you can use it best to capture a situation in a unique way. And of course, be ready.
Once, on a workshop in Botswana, teaching for Journeys Unforgettable, we came across a wild dog kill. It was a raw, bloody scene, and I had one telephoto lens out—a 200-400mm. Although we were close to the dogs, and my desire to keep switching back and forth to a wider lens was tempting, I stayed with my setup, and looked for patterns and unique animal behavior in the dogs, like symmetry in the their step.
I was afraid that if I changed lenses, something might happen, and I'd miss it. In Africa, wildlife know when there has been a kill; the baboons bark, the birds chirp, etc., so all the predators get the word quickly—and they react. As a result, a simple lens change might cause you to miss the major action. And sure enough, something happened. As the dogs scurried about their fresh food, a hungry lioness charged in at full speed across a lagoon to steal a snack. If I had been fumbling around with lens changes or messing with gear (so easy to do with all the options today), I would have missed this shot.
Find Your Own Fresh Perspective
Great advice one shooter told me years ago: "Shoot for yourself. If you are on assignment, shoot what you think an editor might like, but then shoot what your gut tells you." For me, this took years to truly sink in, and it's a very good point, whether you're shooting for someone else, or even for yourself. Basically, follow your gut. If you have a crazy idea for a photograph, go for it. Don't just shoot what you think people will like, but also what you like. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it sings. And of course, the process is rewarding fun. For me, it often involves finding ways to frame unique perspectives, which depend on where the camera is held. We see the world from the height of our eyes—say, roughly 5'5" to 6" (give or take a few inches). In order to get unique perspectives, I go out of my way to get away from that viewing plane, be it by lying in the dirt, or shooting from an aerial platform—a ladder, a roof, a plane or a helicopter (depending on the budget). In other words, get down low, get underneath, climb up high. Chasing fresh perspectives often creates mistakes, but you will get more unexpected gems as well. Here are two from my home in Colorado, from a story about livestock and water. The first is a branding scene, where I was almost lying in the dirt. That vantage point gave me the opportunity to frame the cowboy's head in the sky and also create frames within the frame—the distant cowboy framed by the chin of the one in the foreground. Black and white was a choice of personal taste for me (I like the color version too—but prefer the moodiness of the B&W).
This second shot was intended to show livestock in relation to water. I wanted something unique, as we have all seen pretty pictures of horses. Taken from a small airplane, this was shot at around 9 a.m., when the shadows were roughly the same size as the horses, creating a confusing perspective that holds people's eyes. And no, those are not horses sleeping (many do ask), just shadows. It shows how a change in camera position can make an average photo concept more compelling. Of course, we don't all have planes at our disposal, but ladders, roofs and stairs can all help create a similar angle.
Landscape: Wide or Telephoto?
With landscape photos, many people handcuff themselves by only using one lens—either wide or long, depending on their preference. I try to employ any lens that can help capture the beauty. Of course, there are different ways to do this. You can either capture the entire big scene, or you can look to patterns and details. Both can be just as effective. If you try for the former, find a scene you like, and then figure out a way to use the entire frame. Foreground is critical for this, so look for something that will either lead your eye into the frame, or something that adds extra info to the entire composition. This shot of the Maroon Bells is an example, where I used the log to both break up the empty space of the water, and also to make a common shot a bit different. (The Maroon Bells in Colorado are among the most photographed peaks in the US.) At first I kept a shallower depth of field (smaller F-stop number) to keep the log a bit out of focus. But then I decided I liked the log's detail, so I used as much depth of field as I could (larger f-stop—making a small iris for the camera, thus enabling greater focal planes).
Later that morning, I was working on capturing some of the spectacular fall foliage, and opted to use a 400mm lens to capture the patterns of light, color and Aspen tree formations. It is the exact same region, but a much different feel. However, both tell the story. Personally, I like the telephoto shot more because I think it is more unique, and it offers a different perspective (point #2).
Be Different—Be Patient—Don't Be Afraid of Low Light
I often see amateur photographers taking the same shot at the same time of day. They get up early or wait until the last glimpse of the golden hour to make their perfect shot. That is great, but sometimes they expect that golden light to be enough, as they take the same shot as everyone else does. For example, on a shoot for the Washington Post a couple years ago, I went to Monument Valley in Arizona. There is a high bluff with road access at the entrance to the park. At 6 p.m., photographers from all over the world showed up with their tripods and their wide range of gear to frame these remarkable sandstone fins called the Mittens, as they glowed in sunset hues. Above is the lovely shot that basically everyone took. And below is the scene of them making it. Not a bad shot everyone took. It is just nothing new, and a bit tired.
I made the same, but decided to stay a bit longer to see if I could do something more original. Within ten minutes of the sun's going down, I was alone on the bluff. Some people had come for just ten minutes and pushed on—which is great if your goal is to replicate a photo. But if you want to have your own look and do something a bit different—and you have the time—then patience and low light can be your friend. Once the crowd dispersed, I noticed this long line of traffic leaving the park. So I set up my shot a bit wider, and did a low light, long exposure (about 5 minutes) of what was the "rush hour" of Monument Valley. Is it a better shot than the cliché 'postcard' shot? Maybe not. But I like it, and I know I am the only one who made that image that night.
To see examples of Pete's work, check out his website.