Working Photographer looks at the turbulent world of editorial photography through the eyes of someone been working at it for forty years -- and hopes to stay active for a lot longer. A quarter of a century at National Geographic has taught me to stay nimble and keep growing. That's what this blog is about.
Don't get me wrong. Shooting aerials is great fun, even if I make it sound like hard work.
It's a new world when you get up there. Textbook geology (dry as dust in the classroom) leaps to fascinating life. Intricate patterns of human life reveal themselves magically. And the borders and boundaries of our world lay out plainly before our eyes. I never get tired of it. For all of the precautions and caveats of my previous post on shooting aerials, let me make this clear: it's worth it.
Not all the time, not for every situation, and most of all, not without reason. I'm not one for taking pictures just because they look nice. I'm a believer in working pictures.
And in Cornwall, where I shot this picture out on the ancient lands of the Penwith peninsula, I had a job to do. I needed to show two things. First the ancient patterns of the Celtic fields, laid out with the "hedges" so common in the Cornish landscape. A hedge is (to us) a dry stone fence that comes – over the centuries – to be covered with wildflowers. Some of them are two thousand years old and are protected by British law as part of the national heritage.
Second I wanted to show how the farms lay close by the sea, bounded by the rugged Cornish coast where high cliffs protect snug little beaches unknown to all but the locals. And in a magazine layout (this was for National Geographic Traveler) I need to do it all in one picture. There's not time or space to spread this little narrative over several pictures as you might do in a slide show. No, it needs to be quick and simple.
This situation was pretty much made for an aerial photograph. I was lucky enough to find a plane down at the Lands End aerodrome and within fifteen minutes of popping into the air I saw the picture I needed. I could have spent days looking for the right vantage point (and never have found it.) So even on a cost basis, this was a bargain.
And with this picture in hand I could concentrate on other important pictures, like looking for the perfect pub (and the perfect pint.)
Thanks to an alert from Jed (in New Zealand, I believe) I hear that the good folks at Carina Software are making the Sky Voyager app for the iPhone available FREE! All in honor of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's landing on the moon. Nice idea and a great gesture. Get it quick. It's just for July 20.
Or, you could just wait until July 21 and pay them for a nice piece of software and feel good about it. Either way it's something to feel good about. Thanks Carina Software.
I got an email from Penglaz the other day. Penglaz is the horse in this picture, in case you didn't know.
Actually it wasn't from Penglaz himself. It was from Mrs. Penglaz, his wife. (Not their actual names, of course. Penglaz is a Celtic Obby 'Oss and his actual identity is something of a state secret down in Penzance, Cornwall where I shot this picture.)
Mrs. Penglaz had been trying to find me ever since I shot this picture for National Geographic as part of our coverage of the Celtic Realm. The horse skull is a truly ancient Celtic symbol of rebirth and the Obby 'Oss is equally ancient. Up the coast at Padstow the Oss comes out on May Day as he has for, perhaps, 1500 years. A living piece of antiquity in the here and now.
Photographing Penglaz that night was no piece of cake. It was midnight when he stormed out of the darkness to run amok through the Golowan Festival band and those assembled to parade through the streets of Penzance. It was dark. So I had to adopt several procedures that I hoped would work.
Regarding yesterday's post on my National Geographic Wall Walk today: Success! By all accounts we came through with flying colors. When I can, when it won't violate any confidentiality with National Geographic, I'll let you know the nature of the story and when it will appear in the magazine.
Thanks to all who sent their wishes for my good luck. Something worked!
Tomorrow I have a Wall Walk for National Geographic. Forgive me for bringing this bit of shop talk to you but the timing seemed to make it appropriate. And since this bit of editorial procedure is unique to the National Geographic Magazine, permit me to explain.
A Wall Walk is the ultimate moment in the history of a story shot for National Geographic. (If you saw the Nightline piece on our coverage of the Columbia River some years ago you'll know what I'm talking about.)
Now the photography is done, the layouts have been put together and it comes down to this moment, when all the editors are assembled to see the finished product. (These layouts were traditionally printed on paper and hung on the wall in one of the layout rooms at National Geographic for all to see. Hence the name, Wall Walk.) After a word or two of nervous banter the room then falls silent and the photographer is on stage, given the task of walking the assembled throng through the visual narrative as told in the pictures. The goal is simple: convince one and all that this layout, presented to them here for the first time, is the layout that should go in the magazine. No changes, no tweaking, this is it, and here's why. (Off on the side is the nervous picture editor who has invested a good part of their life in making this whole thing work as well. For the moment they can offer moral encouragement with a meaningful glance, but little more.)
So yesterday I held forth about aerial photography and the virtues of preparation and foresight and just generally about being smart whenever you get the chance. And I held forth as if that's what I do all the time.
That was yesterday. Today it's time for confession and this is a pretty good picture to be confessing about. There I was in Scotland, just happily looking through the viewfinder of Nikon N90 (sweet camera for the era) mounted on my 80-200 f2.8 Nikkor sitting on a tripod, staring at Rusty and Tufty, two of the hulkiest Highland cattle I had ever seen. I was there photographing whisky country for Traveler and so I was in the Highlands town of Dalwhinnie, home of the eponymous whisky. Highland "coos" (as the Scots like to call them) are not exactly a profound photographic subject but I wasn't feeling particularly profound, anyway. I just couldn't think of anything better to point my camera at.
When suddenly, out of nowhere, this guy with the Mohawk hair and a leather jacket walked into my viewfinder. Never saw him coming at all. Hardly had a chance to pop my head over the camera to see if what I was seeing in the viewfinder was, in fact, real when he pulled out a loaf of white bread and started feeding Rusty and Tufty, who seemed to be well acquainted with the drill. Recovering swiftly (I try to do that when good fortune rescues me from my general incompetence) I hit the motor drive and let it run.
Just Dumb Blind Luck!
Which I will never, ever turn down. And I will always thanks the gods of fortune for shining their light on me for just a moment.
It happened again the other day. It's gotten to be predictable.
A visitor to our gallery was looking at this little ballet of the combines in western Kansas and asked how I ever got them to line up so precisely. The precision of it always seems to fascinate people and they assume that I was somehow magically able to click the shutter at just the right moment.
At such times it's always a good time for a little reality so I proceed to give them a little lesson in aerial photography. (Probably more than they want but then they shouldn't have asked.)
Actually, getting the combines to line up is no trick at all. Combines start at the edge of the field and work their way into the center. Sooner or later they are going to go past each other and just a predictably they are going to line up in just the position you see here. I didn't have to do anything.
So you've got a folder full of geotagged photos. Now what?
Heading off for a cruise with National Geographic Expeditions recently (back to the British and Irish Isles) I was facing just that issue when my friend Mark Galloway across the street at Blacksmith Coffee clued me into a very cool web site. Mark is amazingly media savvy so I asked him, "How do I get my trip photos onto some sort of map that I can put on my web page? I want to add photos as I go, I want them to show up sort of like a bread-crumb trail on the map, and I want it to look good and be simple to do."
Trippermap makes a map by looking through your Flickr photos (you set up an account and tell Trippermap where to look in Flickr) for geotagged photos. Then it creates a map for you, even adding trip lines if you designate a beginning and ending photo for your "trip." Finally it give you an html snippet which you copy and paste into your web page.
And it looks good. You can see mine at JimRichardsonPhotography.com. I was able to upload photos from the National Geographic Explorer and they would show up on my Trippermap. Then friends at home could follow along on our travels. (They like to know that we're having a good time, of course. Just thinking of them.) I wish I had done this on the round-the-world trip in January.
Mark Zeman, the guy behind Trippermap, tells me new features are coming in the next upgrade. You can do a no frills map for free, or you can do a "Premium" map for $9.75 a year. Cheap enough for me.
And this just scratches the surface of what you can do with geotagged photos. More to come.
P.S. Mark really is doing great coffee. He's in the old blacksmith shop on main street, hence the name of his coffee. It's a great story of small town entrepreneurship and you can order online. Check out Blacksmith Coffee.
"Wherever you go, there you are." Sage wisdom that I was all ready to credit to Yogi Berra (always a fairly safe thing to do when it comes to this sort of rubric) but it turns out to be sort of ancient, actually. Putative credit for this bit of intellectual flotsam goes back centuries!
Never mind, I have another question this morning. OK, sure, it's a truism and I'll not argue. There your are. But... how do you know? Got any data? (Pundits without data are as endangered as polar bears these days.)
Well, here's how you know. You buy this amazing little device from the folks at di-GPS and attach it to your Nikon camera via the supplied cable. Turn it on and within minutes it will find itself and start piping GPS data to each and every picture you take. Open that picture in Preview on your Mac and you can pop right over to Google Maps and see exactly where you were. There you are, with data to prove it.
Knowing where your photo was taken is incredibly useful and valuable. You can see one use by going over to my web site, JimRichardsonPhotography.com, where I have a map of geotagged photos from my latest cruise of the British and Irish Isles. But I'll write further about that later. Right now just be aware that this is about the easiest way to get that data into your pictures that I have found. There are other solutions but they all have some limitations. For instance, by various means you can carry around a GPS device that will track your location during your daily wanderings, then marry its location data with the time you took your picture later when you download. It adds another step to the process and is fraught with ways to screw things up, in my book.
And there are other on-camera GPS units, but they have serious shortcomings, too. The trick is that the GPS unit needs to be up-and-running, to know where it is, when you turn on the camera. Most GPS units power down when your camera meter turns itself off. Then you are going to be somewhere when you see a picture to take and you are not going to want to wait five minutes while your on-camera GPS looks around for satellites. Really, it can take that long. One answer to that is to set your Nikon to the GPS option which, essentially, tells your meter NOT to turn itself off. That's a real battery drainer.
The di-GPS has another answer. The camera meter can turn off but the di-GPS unit stays on, constantly updating its location like any well behaved GPS unit. Then when you turn on your camera or simply press the shutter release halfway to wake it up the GPS link is reestablished in less than a second. It does drain batter power some and you'll find you'll need an extra battery at hand on a long day. But it is a very, very good compromise and I find it quite workable.
If you are a Canon user you'll have noticed that I sort of jumped right over that little issue up at the beginning. That's because the Canon cameras don't have the necessary slot to plug the GPS unit into. (Sorry, I didn't do it.) There is a work-around but you won't like it. You buy the appropriate Canon WFT Wireless Transmitter for your camera and then you will have the necessary connection. This will only cost you upwards of $750 (I said you wouldn't like it.) You might just want to buy a Nikon D5000 (with provided kit lens) for the same money and be done with it, but I doubt that's what you'll want to do. ( If I were you I'd be calling up Chuck Westfall and asking him when Canon is going to get their act together. They do most everything else right.)
Of course you don't have to do the GPS unit at all. You can just go into Flickr or some other geotagging program and manually locate your photos on a satellite photo. But telling your photos where they were taken is not quite the same as having your photos tell you where they were taken. Not as accurate, either. (And really, will you remember where you were five years from now when some stock agency asks where this photo was taken?)
One last point. There's another, very simple, way to get geotagged photos: just shoot them on you iPhone. Any picture you take on a second generation, GPS equipped iPhone is automatically geotagged. Nice.
Hot on the heals of my post yesterday about SkyVoyager for the iPhone came news via David Brommer, a good friend at B&H Photo in New York that the Big Apple has a cosmic alignment of its own: Manhattanhenge. Honestly! I'm not making this up.
On Sunday, July 12 the setting sun will align, once more, with the New York City grid pattern, creating myriad chances to photograph the golden rays cascading down the canyons. Go here for details. Or go to Wikipedia. There is actually a Manhattanhenge entry.
If you are a fan of the fantastic you could probably find some occult meaning in the coincidence of this alignment with the date of July 12 which is, of course, the day Bill Cosby was born and the very same day that Belgium recognized the Soviet Union in 1935! Very strange!
If, on the other hand, you are sitting at home in Alliance, Nebraska and just can't make it to New York that day, then I would just head out to Carhenge in the Corn Field north of town and make do with communing with the Plymouths, the Hornets, and the Cadillacs. No cosmic allignments there on July 12 that I know of, but if you sit in the middle of the circle and think for a while I'm sure you'll come up with something.