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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.

Evolution of a Cover

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


The sailors and their dinghy supplied the center of interest. Midday light worked fine in this case, highlighting both water and beach. The turquoise blue-green of the Caribbean and red inflatable dinghy supplied just the right touches of color. Later, I was elated to see that one of my photos had made the cut for the book cover.


Location: St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Client: National Geographic Society
Click for an enlargement


In hindsight, I realize the reason I had trouble capturing a good shot was that I lost sight of the intended visual statement — exploring the islands by sailboat. I spent way too much time focusing on boats and scenery. The distant scenes taken with a long lens were a waste of time. What was missing in most of the early compositions? People!  The word I should have kept in the back of my mind was “exploring.” In order to visually suggest that activity, along with creating an attention-grabbing cover, you need human involvement as a prominent part of the composition.

Lesson learned.

Surprised by a Letdown

I was pumped for the hike to Smith Falls, a mile or so off the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska.  After all, how many folks get to experience the highest waterfall in Nebraska? The falls seemed a cinch for inclusion in a book chapter I was shooting for National Geographic’s forthcoming, America’s Wild and Scenic Rivers. So the letdown I felt after rounding a bend in the trail and spotting the falls came as a surprise. What I first saw was a cow lying smack in the middle of the trail. 


Numerous trees had been cut and left to rot in the stream bed below the falls. Not exactly the pristine wilderness scene I had imagined. Also, very little water flowed over the falls and a high overcast concealed a previously blue sky. I tried a few half-hearted shots like this one, but knew they would only land in my editor’s round file.


Fighting the urge to pack it in, I hiked up a steep hillside to the trail’s left to see if there might be an angle from a higher vantage point. Reaching the top of the hill, I headed for a small cluster of young birch trees and was amazed by the view they revealed. 


Using the birches to frame a vertical composition with a 35mm focal length lens offered several advantages. The leaf mast of the trees blocked the sky, which would have washed-out white due to the bright overcast. And the rotting tree trunks in the stream bed were no longer in view. It had been a pain to lug my tripod on the hike, but it was key to capturing this scene. A slow shutter speed, about three seconds, enhanced the minimal water flow over the falls. An 81B filter added a touch of warmth to the color. I’d like to say this image was the result of my cleverness and creativity. But truthfully, it was sheer luck. What I did right was to not give up and keep trying.

What is the takeaway here? 

When things don’t go as expected, it’s important to be flexible, regroup and consider a fresh approach. Take time to look around. Don’t guess how a view might appear from other vantage points. Invest the effort to go see for yourself.

(5 Votes )

Originally written on May 29, 2020

Last updated on December 17, 2020