This is the fifth part of a series on On Assignment.
On Assignment (5): Making a Photograph
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Ansel Adams (Photographer 1902 - 1984)
When Lady Luck Smiles
A feature story on my home state of Arkansas proved to be my second assignment for National Geographic magazine. At the time, I was very new to professional photography, and I had not yet considered making it a career. Nor did I have much of a clue as to what I was doing, other than pursuing a dream while flying by the seat of my pants. In late October, while exploring the town of Eureka Springs searching for picture ideas, I kept driving by a Victorian home with a gingerbread front porch and golden maple trees in the yard. On the porch were two small jack-o-lanterns. I had the same thought every time: That’s almost a photograph. Almost. Had I taken a shot of the charming but empty front porch, my photo editor would have responded with something like: “OK, so that’s where you were... where’s the picture?” In other words, there was no compelling visual statement to share with a viewer.
Finally, I stopped and knocked on the door. That’s when I met twins, Meg and Amanda Williams. After a brief conversation with these charming young girls, the missing visual statement quickly became obvious: a portrait of two cuties holding their pet cats. I grabbed my camera bag and tripod, and headed to a corner of the porch. The twins were wearing jeans and matching dark red plaid shirts. Perfect! I asked them to sit on the porch rail and lean against a post, trying for a casual-looking pose. The cats were totally uncooperative (of course), two squirming fur balls hard to hold. But the girl’s kept their beautiful smiles as I took a number of shots.
Driving back home to Little Rock, I was pumped, thinking Meg and Amanda provided a great start to the assignment. But when I carefully reviewed the girl’s pictures… a sick feeling of disappointment hit hard. The image looked dark and the girls were not tack sharp. I knew the light on the front porch had been iffy, forcing me to use a slow shutter speed. Due to the restless cats, it had been difficult for my models to remain still. Their dark jeans and shirts only made matters worse. I felt like I was about to blow a dream assignment. So… I promptly packed my gear, hopped in the car and made the four-hour trip back to Eureka Springs. The girls and I repeated the process using the same pose, but this time I had them wear white shirts. A reflector behind the camera directed more light at my subjects. The resulting photo ran a full page in National Geographic magazine. It was the lead picture for a story entitled, “Easygoing, Hardworking Arkansas.”
Thanks to Lady Luck and a little work, my career as a freelance photographer was launched.
Camel Makes the Image
One of the great joys of serious photography, whether amateur or professional, is the continuous challenge. When arriving at a new location or promising destination, my first thought is the same every time: Where’s the photo? I take the attitude that a picture is always there, if only I have the ability to find it. Or make it.
While working on a book project for Heifer International, a remarkably tolerant camel provided a great photo opportunity at a small village in rural India. While exploring the village, I noticed a camel resting on its knees and took a few shots. But my assignment called for involving the local people. It took only a little encouragement to get a group of kids to gather around for an impromptu village portrait. I expected the camel to bolt at any moment. But to my amazement, he (or she) seemed to enjoy the attention. I quickly filled the viewfinder with camel and kids. A touch of on-camera fill flash brightened faces and put catchlights in the eyes. And how did I get all those great expressions, given the language barrier? My wife stood behind me wearing a rubber pig nose. Even the camel seemed to smile.
Risky Camera Placement
Using a slow shutter speed to convey motion is a great way to pack energy into a still photo when the situation allows. While shooting for a second summer on Canada’s South Nahanni River, I wanted to capture the excitement of tackling whitewater in a kayak. I figured if Nahanni park ranger Joe Buker (front) and writer Doug Chadwick were bold enough to shoot the rapids, I would gamble my camera’s survival. It was fastened to the kayak’s bow after “waterproofing” with a plastic bag and duct tape.
While the guys braved the fast water, I sat safe and secure on a large boulder, munching on trail mix while tripping the camera’s shutter with a remote electronic release. I wanted a shutter speed that would stop some but not all of the movement. Too slow of a shutter speed and everything would be a big blur. Too fast of a shutter speed would freeze the action, not the look I wanted. A shutter speed of about 1/15th of a second captured this photo, and the camera survived.
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