Photo: seewhatmitchsee/Shutterstock

Where to Stand to Take Better Photographs

by Jeff Bartlett Nov 16, 2012
Matador staff writer Jeff Bartlett shares in-the-field lessons on how to take better photos.

IF YOU’RE A PHOTOGRAPHER for National Geographic Magazine, you become an authority figure within the photographic community and people ask you for advice. For Jim Richardson, veteran of 25 Nat Geo assignments, that advice has always been easy:

If you want to be a better photographer, stand in front of more interesting stuff.

Richardson isn’t suggesting that technique doesn’t matter; however, his point is clear. All the technical savvy and complex light setups will not improve a boring photo. Better subjects often do but they often require a lot of work to track down.

It’s a shame strong subjects — at least in relation to adventure photography — aren’t easier to find. Most of my favorite images are a result of hauling my camera further than my competition. Here are three examples where simply standing in front of interesting subjects trumped camera settings and technique:

It would be easy for me to say this image was easy to make. I asked the skier, Jerome Levesque, to wait while I got set up. I grabbed my camera, set it to aperture priority mode and dialed in f/2.8 and ISO40 to get a fast shutter speed. Then I stole an idea from ski photographer Reuben Krabbe and used my goggles to frame the shot. When Jerome skied down, I waited until he hit this pillow and hit the shutter.

By calling it easy, I would be ignoring a lot of hard work that isn’t visible. It was taken on a multi-day ski tour in the Cariboo Mountains. All six people on the trip were employed on either ski patrol or avalanche control teams. We’d honed our avalanche skills — using our avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels in mock scenarios — until they were second nature. We’d also studied the snowpack and dug enough pits to gauge the conditions and select safe slopes to ski. Because we felt the alpine was not safe, we found ourselves skiing in the trees.

This image took willpower. I sat swatting relentless mosquitoes in a sub-alpine meadow where a herd of bighorn sheep fed. I wondered if the sheep would become accustomed to my presence if I endured long enough. It took three hours, but eventually, I became an afterthought and the sheep walked within a few meters. I racked my lens out to 200mm and grabbed this shot.

Even a different perspective on a landscape can play an equal part to stronger natural light. I decided to drag my camera along on a speed hike up Old Man Mountain in Jasper National Park, despite the flat grey light that dropped from the sky.

After a two-hour climb, the light still looked dull, but the scene was epic. To create this image, I set my camera up manually — everything from shutter speed and aperture to white balance and focus. I set my stance and shot seven frames, taking care to move the camera on a single left-right axis. Once I’d retraced my steps and driven home, I used Photoshop to stitch the panorama into a single frame.

While images like the above landscape are possible to make alone, sometimes it takes a human element to add either scale or contrast to a photograph.

When my wife and I biked the Cuesta del Portezuelo in Catamarca, Argentina, we descended from an arid plateau to a sub-tropical rainforest. There were a dozen shades of green but little else, so I asked my wife to don her blue raincoat and ride ahead. A minute later, I’d stowed my gear and jumped back onto my bike to give chase.

As difficult as it is for a Canadian to admit, I love football. Forget that nonsense about it being “the beautiful game.” Nobody will ever convince me it’s more beautiful than a Canada vs. Russia Olympic ice hockey final. But I’ll agree that no sport’s fans compare in terms of dedication or emotional investment.

During the 2010 World Cup, I headed to downtown Mendoza, Argentina, moments after Diego Maradona’s team had earned its first victory. Amid the chaos, which included a roving parade setting off fireworks and smoke bombs, I watched a proud father set his daughter on his shoulders and join the crowd.

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