Monday, September 10, 2012

The Travel Assignment

Photo by Laura Burns
I have many hobbies, occupations, things I do outside of my daily job. Photography is one of them. For me to call myself a Photographer sounds to me odd and strange and perhaps self aggrandizing. I mean if you ask me about f-stop, my eyes start to glaze and I go, “uh”. If you then ask me the details of my lenses, I will say “um” and look at my camera looking kinda dumb. It isn’t that I can’t figure all that out, it just I just haven’t had time to sit down to learn and apply the terminology. I’d probably take better pictures if I did. What I can do is play with the buttons on my camera and frame it and make it look pretty.

But then, if you ask my husband, I need to add something in front of that “Photographer” moniker. You see, awhile back I did a photo show at the awesome independent bookstore, Constellation Books. You can see some of the photographs I used in the show on my Flickr Page. My good friend, Lauretta Nagle, the store owner, sold several of my pictures. In addition, NASA has used one of my pictures for a poster to promote their social media sites and another picture has been used on’s Cosmic Log. For the latter items, I got photo credit, but no compensation.

If you add all this together, my husband feels I should call myself a “Professional Photographer”. I prefer to call myself someone who likes to take pictures, is pretty decent at it, and sometimes people like to buy those photos or use them in high publicity things. Does that work?

In an effort to ever improve my photography skills, I had the extraordinary pleasure of attending the National Geographic Traveler Photography Seminar: The Travel Assignment at the National Geographic Headquarters in DC.

Our excellent seminar hosts were Dan Westergren and Jim Richardson. They set out telling us that “photography is the language of travel” and to help us to create photographs that better tell a story showing us many fantastic examples.

What amazed me about the seminar, is how much planning and time goes into planning for  the pictures. Some of the photographers have researched over a year before going on location to find that perfect shot. Then, when they get there, they find a great location, then wait. Wait for something interesting to happen. Wait for the light. Wait for just the right shot.

Now they may take hundreds of pictures to get that one shot, but there is still a lot of planning going on. This is not the average tourist’s view of travel. Which is why there are so many snapshots, and fewer photographs.

Going along with this, you need to build a relationship with those you are trying to photograph. You aren’t going to have as much luck if you get a big lens and hang out in the corner and try an photograph people. Get to know the people, try to understand them and what they are going through. Try the food. Get a haircut. Experience the culture. Then once you know something about them, fade into the background and take their picture. It takes practice.

Without giving you a long series of photos, it is hard for me to explain some of the concepts they were explaining to us. One of the big ideas was to capture the sense of place with the photograph. Try to tell a story, or have the viewer ask questions. To try to explain a bit, I have included a picture of mine from Manchu Pichu, Peru I took earlier this year. While this picture doesn’t really show the classic view of the site, I hope that it gives you a feel for Peru.

There were so many other great tips. I have so many notes on portraiture, lighting, what to pack and also importantly what to do in the “real world”. Not everyone has time to research a project for a year and then spend a week at one site finding the right angles. One really cool idea they had was that when you go on a trip, give yourself an assignment. It gives you a focus and gives you a talking point when you approach people.

One of the more interesting aspects of the seminar was when Dan Westergren discussed which of Jim Richardson’s photos were chosen to compliment Jim’s story “A Scottish Obsession.” Jim wasn’t always happy with  which ones were included in print version of the National Geographic Traveler magazine, but there were editorial reasons why each decision was made.  Of note, if you read the iPad version of National Geographic Traveler, you get more pictures and content

Since the Seminar was partially sponsored by Acura, we got a couple of extra perks. We got to take home the hefty book Simply Beautiful Photographs by Annie Griffiths (signed by the seminar leaders) and published by National Greographic. Acura and National Geographic are sponsoring a contest for those of us in the seminar. We have about a month to craft a picture featuring an Acura car in an interesting way, using the lessons from the seminar.

The prize is a $500 gift certificate to a top restaurant.

Does anyone have an Acura I can borrow?