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Travel Stories

On Assignment (2): Searching for the Shot

Matt Bradley (mbradley)

Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, virgin_islands, nebraska, previsualization, photojournalism, national_geographic, niobrara_river

This is the second part of a series on On Assignment.

Good fortune allowed me to work with a National Geographic photo editor who was also an avid sailor. One day he called to ask if I would like to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands to capture a scene that suggested exploring the islands via sailboat. It would be a possibility for the cover of a forthcoming book, America’s Great Hideaways. Who was I to argue? During the flight to the Caribbean, I imagined a composition using palm trees in the foreground to give a beach scene added depth and visual interest. The other elements in my imaginary composition, besides a sailboat, remained a mystery. I remembered to shoot the vertical compositions “loose,” allowing room for book title and cover design. But what I assumed would be an easy assignment turned out to be just the opposite. Finding a beach with photogenic palms near the surf’s edge proved surprisingly frustrating. At least I had good company: two gorgeous Hinkley sailboats with enthusiastic crews. After a fruitless day searching for beach locations by boat, I drove a rental car around St. John island, checking out high perspectives with a view while communicating with my models via hand-held radios.

This last picture was taken from the top of a telephone pole, holding on with one hand while trying to operate camera and walkie-talkie with the other. I knew an image on the book’s cover had to sing, and these photos wouldn’t hack it. Trying another approach, I was hoisted up the mast of one sailboat, hoping that a high camera position with a wide-angle lens might produce a better photograph. 

Then we tried some shots while coming ashore on a barren beach.


I was starting to get a hopeless feeling in the pit of my stomach. On the last day to shoot, we happened on a sliver of beach with a few good-looking coconut palms near the water’s edge, and my hopes soared. I tried several different compositions using an 18mm wide-angle lens with a polarizing filter.

Click for an enlargement


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