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How-to's Travel Stories

On Assignment (3): Saved by the Light

Matt Bradley (mbradley)

Keywords: on_assignment, mbradley, previsualization, photojournalism, national_geographic, light, petrified_forest_national_park, guatemala, gulf_of_mexico

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


“Light is the photographer’s most important tool.”

Bob Gilka

Director of Photography, National Geographic Society, 1916 - 2013

Saved by the Light

Light — the very essence of photography. Without it, you can’t take a photograph, of course. But as most Nikonians know, not just any light will do. A great composition captured in light that’s only fair, usually ends up as only a fair picture.

Capturing Climate Change

For a challenging assignment, try photographing rocks within a colorless landscape. That’s basically what I agreed to do while working on the book, America’s Hidden Treasures, since part of my territory was in Petrified Forest National Park. It’s hard to believe this arid landscape was covered by forests in a subtropical climate 225 million years ago. Buried in what is called the Chinle Formation, petrified logs slowly became exposed from eons of weathering and erosion. I quickly realized this assignment was going to be a tough nut. Some of the logs had a little color, but the overall look was pretty underwhelming. I had no choice but to make the most of composition while counting on good light to bail me out. Unrelenting sunlight from high overhead blasted the landscape most of the day, as is typical of summer in the desert Southwest. But as the sun lowered in late afternoon, directional lighting became possible. That was particularly true when I looked up one of the parched and eroded arroyos where the sun beamed brilliant backlight. The log arrangement there suggested a vertical composition. And a 24mm wide-angle lens emphasized the logs in the foreground, providing my center of interest.


Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
National Geographic Society
Click for an enlargement


Having the sun high and harsh for most of the day allowed plenty of photographic down time for scouting and exploration. Late one afternoon, I climbed up a high ridge to discover petrified logs displayed as if they were in a museum. A horizontal format using a 105mm telephoto lens allowed the large foreground log to become the center of interest, while revealing other logs in the background.  Knowing the light might get better and that patience usually pays, I chilled as the sun sank lower. When it finally disappeared, the western horizon transformed to brilliant red, the shade of glowing embers. Once again, light came through to make the shot.


Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
National Geographic Society
Click for an enlargement



A Timeless Endeavor

A book assignment for the nonprofit organization, Heifer International, sent my wife and me to the mountains of Guatemala. While there, we met 79-year-old Francisca Sucite with whom we were privileged to spend a couple of days. One day around noon, she led us to her cooking hut where we watched her prepare fresh tortillas. She began by using a stone to grind corn into a fine paste, just as the Mayans had done more than 500 years ago. Our interpreter told us she had been repeating this same process, sometimes several times a day, since the age of eight. When Francisca started a fire to prepare lunch, the small enclosure filled with smoke. Checking the orientation, if we returned late in the afternoon to photograph her while she prepared dinner tortillas, the camera would be pointing roughly west. Being the backlight junkie that I am, if the weather held for a bright sunset, just maybe… Later that afternoon, we arrived just as Francisca was lighting her cooking fire. Once again, the hut filled with smoke. And just as I had hoped, the smoke provided a spotlight effect as rays of low afternoon sun beamed through the slatted wall.


northwestern Guatamala
Heifer International
Click for an enlargement


My exposure was based on the ambient light to give a better feel for the interior of her “kitchen,” and a bit of fill flash was used to soften shadows. I hoped to imply that grinding corn with a stone is physically demanding. So I used a shutter speed of about 1/4 of a second to blur her hands. Even with a language barrier, it obviously amused Francisca to watch me make such a fuss over her everyday work. We shared a big hug to say goodbye — no translation needed. A good time was had by all.

Looking Up Underwater

Oil platforms have changed the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico. One way is by providing artificial reef environments for fish and other marine species. Small fish attract larger fish, and big fish attract spear fishermen. While on assignment in Louisiana, I had the opportunity to photograph part of this food chain. Diving presents its own set of photographic challenges. Light levels drop significantly only a few feet below the surface. Colors disappear. For an inexperienced diver like me, there was lots to think about besides taking pictures... like how much air was left in my tank. This was my first time to dive under an oil rig, so I didn’t have a clue what to expect. When we first descended to where the fish were, around 80 feet, I had my hands (and mind) full just getting myself and my gear situated. Finally I started looking around. Visibility was poor; everything appeared dark and gloomy. Then I happened to look up. Light, color and visual interest suddenly fell into place.  The silty water allowed the rig structure above me to recede into the background, adding depth to the composition. The one thing missing was a center of interest to make my visual statement clear to viewers. A little patience took care of that, as a spear fisherman soon appeared. That moment completed the image.


Gulf of Mexico
National Geographic Society
Click for an enlargement


(6 Votes )

Originally written on June 16, 2020

Last updated on December 17, 2020