Do your homework. Wherever you go in the world, a little research ahead of time will help you bring back better pictures, says Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer who has aimed his camera everywhere from the temples of Angkor Wat to the plains of the Serengeti, from Provence, France, to Cuba, Kansas.
"You need to know two things," says Richardson, who has photographed more than 25 stories for National Geographic since the mid-1980s. "Where are the interesting pictures, and how have they already been photographed by others."
Without proper preparation you might photograph a so-so scene, not knowing about the more interesting shot just around the corner. Or if you find an interesting shot, you might end up just repeating another photographer's cliché.
Case in point: Most images of the ruins at Machu Picchu in Peru are taken from one or two vantage points, Richardson says. "It's so burned in our minds that hardly any other pictures of Machu Picchu look like Machu Picchu. The only things that vary are the clouds. If you don't know that, you think you've done something wonderful and everybody else says, ‘I've seen that before.' "
Richardson has spent a lifetime on the road, putting his own focus on the familiar and the unfamiliar. Pretty good for a Kansas farm boy whose first cameras were hand-me-downs from his father, "who always had some pretty good cameras around."
Photography was just a hobby, though, until his senior year at Kansas State University, when a job opened up at the student newspaper. "I had no journalism background," he says, "but they soon discovered I could make pictures of stuff. I got into it pretty quickly."
His work in college led to an internship and then a full-time job at the Topeka (Kansas) Capital-Journal, where he stayed 11 years before moving to the Denver Post. In 1986 he left the Post to focus on his freelance career. By then he had already photographed his first story for National Geographic, the start of a long relationship that's still going strong. He's also a photographer and contributing editor at National Geographic Traveler, writes and edits for National Geographic's photography website and leads photo expeditions and cultural workshops for National Geographic Expeditions.
"There is no official title, but by any definition I can basically say I'm a National Geographic photographer," he says.
Assignments for National Geographic rarely come out of the blue. "I would be surprised if it was more than about 20 percent of the assignments," Richardson says. "More typically, established photographers are working with editors or, like me, proposing stories or working with picture editors they've worked with before, following specific interests and areas of specialty."
Most regular photographers have areas of specialization, such as insects, conservation, the Arctic or marine photography. "New photographers to the magazine have a body of work and they've shown an area of expertise, particularly in a subject matter that National Geographic has found difficult to do. You may be a hotshot news photographer, but I wouldn't count on getting an assignment in the Middle Eastern world unless you can speak Arabic and have traveled extensively in the Middle East."
Among his specialties, Richardson counts conservation and the environment, along with some scientific issues, "for instance food safety and genetically modified foods."
Conservation stories have focused on the Flint Hills of Kansas and the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. "I approach each story independently, asking the basic question, ‘What's the most effective kind of photography to do for this?' In those two cases the most effective thing I thought was photography that holds these things up for admiration, particularly the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills suffered from the Rodney Dangerfield effect in that they got no respect."
A typical National Geographic story—if there is any such thing—might take a couple of years from inception to publication. For instance, a story focusing on the importance of soil as a human resource came out of work with Richardson's picture editor. "It was a complex story to do because of multiple locations," Richardson says. "So it took longer, and it took a lot of research. I would say it took two years from the inception of the story to seeing it in print."
A story about the contemporary Celtic world—another Richardson specialty—"was somewhat shorter, say a year and a half from the time I proposed it to publication," he says. "I had 12 weeks in the field in six different countries.
"In general, I would say you're looking at being assigned a story some months before the field work. You can look at four to 10 weeks of field time, seven-day shooting weeks, probably not being done in just one stretch. Then you would generally think of being done with photography six months before it appears in the magazine."
Working so far in advance of publication often means a photographer has to adjust the way he looks at potential pictures, Richardson says. "Because the pictures are not going to appear in the magazine for at least a year, you can't use the news value of an event to bolster the value of the picture. You have to anticipate that any picture you take must be as valid two years from now as it is today. That's the big hurdle for many people who get their foundational learning in newspapers. Pictures must be fundamental rather than passing."
Those fundamental pictures are the products of Nikon cameras. "I use the D3 and D3X a lot because of the image quality, particularly for travel photography, the high ISO and their ability to shoot amazing pictures in low light. The imagery is just stunning, down to and including pictures of the Milky Way, which, you know, is pretty low light.
"The other thing about those cameras is they're quick—not just fast motor drives, which they do have, but they're amazingly responsive... You can make the adjustments on the fly that you need to respond to changing situations. They are also blindingly quick on the shutter. There's almost no delay between the time that you think, 'I should press the shutter,' and the time that shutter goes off. For somebody who's trying to capture moments, that ephemeral quality of being quick is incredibly important.
"I carry a fairly standard array of lenses, mainly now the 16-35mm f/4 VR. The wide angle is always my workhorse lens, and this lens has excellent image quality and the kind of vibration reduction that allows me to shoot in very low light as well. It just opens up all kinds of venues to photography that would have been unthinkable even four or five years ago."
Richardson's schedule—he travels about six months a year—doesn't allow a lot of downtime. He and his wife, Kathy, also operate a small gallery in Lindsborg, Kansas, that features his photography and her jewelry.
Still, he says he tries hard to draw the line between when he's working and when he's not. That even includes his choice of cameras. "If we're on vacation I would tend to take along something like a D5000, something that's much lighter, and with the kit lens, or maybe an 18-200mm NIKKOR, because all of a sudden you have one simple little package and photography is fun and the pictures are still beautiful."
To see more of Jim's work, visit his website at http://www.jimrichardsonphotography.com/.