photojournalist

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or What Pros are Doing When it Looks Like
They are Just Pointing and Clicking

You’ve probably had the experience where you locate the right spot and attempt to take the same photo as one you admire, yet the outcome is never quite the same. Or maybe you’ve stood next to a photo tour leader, and think you are taking the same photos, yet your images don’t seem to look like theirs do. Why is this? What is an experienced or professional photographer doing differently? What’s the big secret, the trick to getting those images?

It’s not impossible, it’s not luck, and it is not dependent on tricks. It’s not necessarily equipment or Photoshop skill. But rather it is a number of decisions and accumulated experience, all happening in those brief moments when a photographer sees a scene, raises their camera to their eye, frames the shot, adjusts the settings, and clicks the shutter. Here’s what the pros are doing in those moments when all you think you see them doing is pointing and clicking:

Festival de Tinajani - Smiling Woman Dancer
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

The Right Light: A photographer is always chasing the best light. Their eye is always looking for good lighting, interesting lighting, the interplay of light and shadows, silhouettes. They are always aware of the quality of light – the color, the warmth or coolness of the light. Ideally they shoot only at the best times: in the morning and evening. But that isn’t always possible, so they must seek out interesting lighting, make the best of the available light, use a flash or off-camera lighting, or work in shaded areas. If the great light is there, but the subject isn’t, they wait for a subject to come into the scene. They consider not only the lighting on the main subject but also the lighting on the background and how it might enhance or distract from the subject. They place themselves in the best position in relation to the light and the subject to ensure their subject is illuminated as they desire, they remain aware of the light/ subject relationship, and move around as necessary as it changes.

Pre-Visualizing: The photographer begins to see the composition of the image before they raise their camera to their eye. They look at the elements and decide how they want them to relate to each other in the final image. They consider how near and distant elements will relate when compressed into two dimensions. As with the lighting, they look at not only their main subject but also the background that will appear behind it. They look for strong lines, color, weight and balance of elements, symmetry or asymmetry of the elements. They consider their main subject and the environment around it and determine how much they want to include – if they want a wide shot or wish to zoom in or move in for a closer shot. They consider which point of view will best express their subject – high, low, eye-level? They determine if the image and relationships will work best in landscape or portrait orientation, and hold the camera accordingly. They scroll through their mental file of similar images they’ve taken, and consider what was and wasn’t successful and how to improve this shot.

Festival de Tinajani - Woman Dancers Practicing
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Metering: When they see that interesting or challenging light they know how to meter for it. They don’t count on their camera to know how they want the scene exposed and they don’t want to blow out their highlights, so they may use partial metering or spot metering directed at the right part of the scene to determine their exposure settings. They do this quickly and instinctively because they’ve practiced and experimented with numerous types of difficult lighting scenes, and…

Camera Settings: …they know their camera inside and out. They know which settings to change and how to change those settings. They’ve customized their buttons and menus to quickly get to the settings they use most frequently. Their eye is on the aperture, shutter speed and ISO numbers in the viewfinder, and their fingers know which dials to move to adjust them without taking the camera from their eye. They know how their camera tends to under-expose or over-expose in certain situations, and they change the exposure compensation accordingly. And they (hopefully) remember to reset these settings when they move into a different lighting or subject situation.

Aperture Priority Mode: The pros often work in aperture priority mode so that they can control their aperture and depth of field and thus establish relationships of near and distant elements, foreground and background. They blur the background to call more attention to the subject, or dramatically place just a narrow plane of the subject in focus. Or perhaps they bring everything from near to far into sharp focus. They select their depth of field based on the relationships they desire to create. They know how the lens they are using renders images at its various apertures, and perhaps use the depth of field preview button to verify.

Festival de Tinajani - Twirling Skirt
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Shutter Priority Mode: They turn their mode dial to shutter priority mode when freezing or blurring motion is key to the image. They use a high shutter speed to freeze action, or a slow one to blur or pan. They know the proper shutter speed is critical to this type of shot, and don’t let the camera choose it for them.

ISO: They check the setting that they are not controlling (the shutter speed in Aperture priority mode/ the aperture in Shutter priority mode) and adjust their ISO to bring that setting into the range they want or need. They know from experience which ISO range is appropriate for the amount of lighting they are shooting in, and change it in advance as they move between situations.

Manual Mode: They turn the mode dial to M when they have consistent lighting and a setting that they know is not going to change, or in challenging situations where both aperture and shutter speed are critical. They’ve determined their exposure by metering, and set the camera accordingly.

Auto or Program Modes: They never use these, as their lack of control scares them as much as Aperture Priority mode scares the new dSLR user.

Festival de Tinajani - Flag Dancers Posing
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Framing: As they look through the viewfinder, they frame the image based on their pre-visualization and composition decisions. They scan all parts of the frame and not just the subject, from edge to edge and each corner, from near to far, to determine if there are any unwanted elements, elements not essential to their image, or undesired relationships (i.e. the tree growing out of someone’s head.) They move slightly to the left or right, or slightly up or down to bring all the elements in the frame into the desired or most dramatic relationship.

Focusing: They manually choose their auto-focus point to ensure that the camera focuses on what they want it to focus on, not on what the camera chooses to focus on. They lock the focus setting if they need to slightly reframe or wish to hold that focus for a sequence of images. If there is going to be a dramatic shift between the framing seen while focusing and the final framing of the image, they lock the exposure setting on the final intended framing before or after locking in the focusing. They use the other auto-focus modes to capture action that moves across the scene or which is too fast for manually choosing a single point.

Waiting: They wait for the right facial expression and pose, or for the subject to relax, or the moving elements to fall into place, or the peak of action and then…

Clicking the Shutter: Finally! They press the shutter, slowly and smoothly. They have their camera set for single exposure or multiple exposure based on the situation. They fire off several quick shots, or slowly take a couple to ensure they got the shot or to take variations of the image.

Festival de Tinajani - Dancer with Rope
Festival de Tinajani – Ayaviri, Peru

Reviewing: “Chimping” is the somewhat derogatory term for looking at the rear LCD screen right after taking a photo to check out the image. When pros do it, they are not looking at the picture to see what they got. They know what they got. They know what the image looks like because they studied it when they framed and took the photo. They are looking at the histogram and looking for blinking highlights to ensure they did not blow out the highlights or in any way over- or under-expose the shot. If they did, they adjust the exposure compensation, or the aperture and shutter settings, and take it again.

Working the Scene: A pro continues to work the scene, looking for different perspectives, compositions, and points of view.  They look at how relationships of subjects and objects in the scene change, even with just a slight adjustment of the camera’s position or angle.  Even if they think they may have nailed the shot, they know from experience that there may be an even better image to be found or made if they continue to study and photograph the scene.  And they don’t accept “good enough” and continue on to the next scene or shot.  They strive to capture the best image they know they are capable of, sometimes even if it involves returning to the location at a different time of day or even a different season when the light might be better.

These are some of the things an experienced photographer is thinking and doing in those brief moments between the time they pause from scanning the scene around them, raise the camera to their eye, and take the shot. It’s not because they have a pro camera with pro lenses that they got a great image. It’s not some pro secret that was passed onto them when they read the right book and gained entry the right forum. It is the sum of an alert eye, numerous conscious decisions while visualizing and framing, knowing how to adjust their equipment and use its controls, as well as sub-conscious decisions based on taking countless images, experimenting, and learning from the results both good and bad.

To read about an actual example of this process in action in the creation of a photograph, see my post Deconstructing the Shot.

When I began my work in travel, culture, and humanitarian photography I spent a great deal of time scouring websites, reading forums, checking reviews, making lists, and agonizing before I finally settled on which lenses were best for my needs and my work. So hopefully all my effort can help you save some time and assist you in your research in selecting which lenses are best for you. In addition to travel, humanitarian, and photojournalism work, much of this advice will apply to general photography as well. After you’ve learned all about lenses here, you can have a look at this other post to see what other camera gear and accessories you might want.


Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

The easy answer to the question of which lens is best for travel photography, right up front, is: an all purpose zoom that goes all the way from wide to telephoto, like an 18-200mm, or a standard zoom like a 24-105mm. See the Standard Zoom section and the One Lens For Travel sections of this post for more information about these. The more difficult answer to that question is addressed in detail by this post. The most difficult answer to this question is: it depends. It depends on you. It depends on your level, interests, and goals as a photographer. It depends on what you most enjoy taking photos of and what type of images you aim to capture. Hopefully this post will help you figure that out, and I’ll address this most complicated answer more at the end of the post.

The primary sources for me in determining which lenses to choose were looking at the websites and blogs of other photographers who do similar work, since they often list and discuss the equipment they use. The initial and most helpful source for me was Karl Grobl, since his work as a humanitarian photojournalist is closest to what I do and what I aspire to do. But some of the other ones I can recall looking at include David duChemin – (who is a travel, art, and humanitarian photographer – he seems to have moved or deleted his “Gear” page), plus Nevada Wier and Bob Krist – both dedicated travel and cultural photographers. Oh, and the books and advice of the ever-enthusiastic Rick Sammon helped out along the way. I then applied what I learned from them to my specific photographic interests, preferences, and tendencies (which can be summed up with the fact that I typically like to zoom in close). In other words, if one of them favors a 50mm prime lens but you know you prefer the versatility of zooms, then adapt what they say to your needs.

For me and many others the ideal combination is a wide angle zoom, a standard (or middle range) zoom, and a telephoto zoom. (If you are interested in just one lens for travel, have a look at the Standard Zoom section, and then also jump down to the bottom of this article for the One Lens for Travel section.) I’m going to stick to the professional level lenses and compare the Canon L lenses first, and discuss other Canon lenses in the One Lens for Travel section below. I’ll try to keep it short and simple, and let you conduct further research on the countless sites dedicated to equipment and reviews.

Click on each lens below to link to its page on Amazon.com. If you plan to purchase any of this equipment from Amazon (or other equipment, accessories, or anything else), I encourage you go to Amazon.com by clicking on the links found throughout this post, and then Amazon will give me a little something for the referral, which will help support my blog. Thanks!

If you wish to first try out a lens before buying it, click on this link to go to BorrowedLenses.com, where you can get great prices on short-term rentals of any lens as well as the latest Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies (as well as video, audio, and lighting equipment).

If you are in the UK or wish to purchase from B&H, Adorama, or direct from Canon see the information at the end of this post for those links. The lenses I chose, which work best for my needs, are indicated by (Y). I apologize to the Nikonistas out there, since all of these lenses are the Canon variety. However, Nikon typically has an equivalent lens for each of these. Just search for the same focal length and have a look at the aperture and price to determine the comparable Nikon (Nikkor) lens. For example here are some equivalents:
Canon 16-35 f/2.8L to Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8
Canon 24-70 f/2.8L to Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8
Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS to Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 VR

Check out this post to better Understand Canon Lens Notations – the significance of all the various numbers and letters in a lens name.

Wide Angle Zoom
As humanitarian photojournalist Karl Grobl says, this is the “bread and butter lens” of the photojournalist. This is used for up-close-and-personal shots, for environmental portraits or photos, and for “story-telling” images which include multiple subjects or a larger context.


Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM (Y)
pros: slightly wider on the wide end which is good for cropped sensors (7D, 60D, Rebels), larger maximum aperture (“faster”) for use in low light situations or for more dramatic depth of field
cons: high price, heavier in weight
notes: get the slim UV filter to avoid vignetting, especially if using a full frame camera like the 5D
filter: 82mm slim filter fits this lens.
notes: The above two images of this post were with this lens. This is the wide angle zoom I chose because I wanted the “faster” f/2.8 aperture to be able to use it effectively in low light situations.

EF 17-40mm f/4L USM
pros: more zoom on the far end, lighter in weight, much lower price
cons: f/4 maximum aperture not as “fast” and slightly less dramatic for shallow depth of field, not quite as wide on the wide end
filter: 77mm slim filter fits this lens.

Standard Zoom
This is a great “walk-around” all purpose lens, especially for travel or everyday photography. If you want to head out on the streets with just one lens, this is the one to take which will serve you well in most situations you encounter.


Panajachel, Guatemala

EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM (Y)
pros: larger maximum aperture (“faster”) for use in low light situations and more dramatic depth of field
cons: heavier in weight, higher price, less zoom range, no image stabilization
filter: 77mm multi-coated filter or 77mm coated filter fits this lens.
notes: a great all-purpose walk-around lens, though relatively big and heavy. I discuss using this lens, with several photo examples, in this post here.

There is a new EF 24-70 f/2.8L II USM lens plus the new EF 24-70 f/4L IS USM lens, both with the same focal length as above.  The first one just listed is an improved, lighter version of the 24-70 f/2.8L, and the second one listed adds Image Stabilization but has an f/4 maximum aperture rather than the f/2.8 maximum aperture of the other 24-70mm lenses. Adding these two new lenses into the mix makes this an even more challenging decision in the Standard Zoom category!

EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM
pros: lighter in weight, image stabilization which will help you gain 2 or 3 stops in speed vs. hand-held non IS (*see below), more zoom range, lower price
cons: f/4 maximum aperture not as “fast” and slightly less dramatic for shallow depth of field
filter: 77mm multi-coated filter or 77mm coated filter fits this lens.

* this means for example, if the proper exposure of a scene is 1/60 at f/5.6, and you want to hold on to that f/5.6 aperture for compositional reasons and not have to sacrifice your chosen depth of field for a faster shutter speed, you could capture it without blur, whereas without the image stabilization (IS) the hand held image may have been blurry.

Telephoto Zoom
This is a great lens for portraits, close ups, details, ability to zoom in and capture something far away, sports and action shots, and ability to create dramatic depth of field or blurry backgrounds. There are four versions of the Canon 70-200mm lens – either f/2.8 or f/4, each with or without image stabilization (IS). Oh wait, there are now five versions, with the recent Mark II version of the f/2.8 IS. I think with a lens this long and heavy, you need image stabilization if you are going to be hand holding it, so I will ignore the non-IS versions.


Solola Market, Guatemala

EF 70-200, f/2.8L IS USM
pros: larger maximum aperture (“faster”) for use in low light situations and more dramatic depth of field. The Mark II version of this has a closer minimum focus distance and improved optics
cons: very heavy, very large, higher price, especially the new Mark II version
filter: 77mm multi-coated filter or 77mm coated filter fits this lens.

EF 70-200, f/4L IS USM (Y)
pros: lighter weight, smaller, lower price
cons: f/4 maximum aperture not as “fast” and less dramatic for shallow depth of field
filter: 67mm multi-coated filter or 67mm coated filter fits this lens.
notes: This is the telephoto zoom I chose. I sacrificed the one-stop of aperture for the much more manageable size and weight of the f/4. And since I primarily use it outdoors, and because it has image stabilization, the f/4 aperture only really affects the extent of background blurring. There are several example photos of this lens in action in this post here and also more nice example photos in this post here.

I haven’t used each of these lenses in the field, though I have briefly tested most of them, so my decisions and my pros and cons are sometimes based on my research and from what I’ve learned from others who use them. Consider them starting points for issues you want to consider in your selections. And while there are endless discussions and comparisons regarding image quality, sharpness, sweet spots, etc. for each pair above, I will stay out of that discussion and tell you there are highly regarded professionals who use each of these, that any Canon L series lens is professional quality, that price and/ or largest maximum aperture will often indicate the one that is generally considered “better,” and that you will never regret your choice based on these concerns. Note that many L-series lenses are sealed against and dust, water and weather. Sometimes a front filter is required to complete the weather sealing, such as with the wide angle lenses. I suggest always using a clear, protective UV filter with any lens, preferably a high quality, multi-coated B+W brand filter. If you don’t want to spend that much, at least get a high quality single-coated B+W filter rather than a cheaper Tiffen filter.

When making your choices, I highly recommend going to a store with your camera and actively testing and comparing each pair. The difference in size and weight, and even feel of the lens in your hands, is often dramatic and may help you make your decision. If you are still undecided, rent one for the weekend and work with it. And don’t think that you have to immediately get three lenses in order to do your work. Karl Grobl uses just two of them in his work, and that hasn’t limited him in either humanitarian or travel work. Consider your primary needs, and buy one or two based on that, and combine them with less expensive non-L lenses for now.

If your budget or needs don’t call for L-series lenses, see the One Lens for Travel section below, or look for the closest equivalents of the above lenses in other Canon or Sigma or Tamron, etc. lenses (or in the Nikon lenses if you are over in that camp).

Prime Lenses
Many photographers rave about prime lenses (lenses of a single focal length, that don’t zoom) for many reasons, including image quality, the purity and simplicity of working with them, and their large maximum apertures (as wide as f/1.2) for very dramatic compositions through use of shallow depth of field. The focal lengths I see used most often are (these are obviously Canon examples):

Canon 35mm f/2
Canon 50mm f/1.8 II (high image quality for about $100!)
Canon 50mm f/1.4 (Y) (a little more costly, but higher quality 50mm)
Canon 85mm f/1.8

Take into consideration if you have a full frame or a cropped sensor, since with a cropped sensor 7D , 60D, or 550D the field of view of the 50mm lens will be closer to an 80mm lens on a full frame 5D camera (or a 35mm film camera), so the field of view of a 35mm will be closer to a 50mm on a full frame or 35mm film camera.


San Miguel Dueñas, Guatemala

One Lens for Travel
I know a lot of people are interested in finding just one lens that is good for travel photography. As I mentioned above the best option is typically the standard, mid-range zoom. Look above for info on the Canon L-series lenses. My choice would be the EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM. For something less expensive Canon offers a couple other great options. For each of these lenses, I would highly recommend getting the optional lens hood (the hood comes with L-series lenses). It helps shade the lens to prevent unwanted lens flare (although lens flare can sometimes be used for a great effect when desired), helps protect the lens from bumps and drops, and makes you look cooler and more professional! And of course always get a good quality, coated B+W brand UV filter for protection – or at least a cheaper Tiffen filter. However, there is a significant difference in the clarity and lack of reflectiveness of a coated B+W filter vs. a standard Tiffen filter, which you can see if you look through them side by side, so those who are concerned about image quality should go with a coated, or better yet multi-coated B+W filter (designated MRC). Also, note that non-L-series lenses are not nearly as well sealed against dust, water and weather as most all of the L-series lenses are.

EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
pros: less expensive, lighter weight, image stabilization
cons: less zoom range on the telephoto end than the 18-200mm, not a constant minimum aperture like the L-series lenses (the f/3.5-5.6 means your largest aperture at the 18mm wide end will be f/3.5, while the largest aperture at the 135mm telephoto end will be a less dramatic f/5.6), not higher quality USM focusing motor, EF-S means this lens can only be used on cameras with the APS-C sensor, or non-full-frame sensors, so it can be used on all Digital Rebels, 20D-50D, and 7D, but cannot be used on a Canon 5D. However, that means it is optimized for those cameras, especially for the wide end.
Lens hood EW-73B fits this lens, and a 67mm coated filter or 67mm filter.
This is currently one option for the kit lens for the Canon EOS 60D, and is a good choice if you are debating between the kit lens or not.

EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
pros: more zoom range on the telephoto end, image stabilization, better image quality than the 18-135mm lens.
cons: more expensive, heavier weight, not a constant minimum aperture like the L-series lenses (see above lens), not higher quality USM focusing motor, EF-S for APS-C sensor cameras only (see above lens).
Lens hood EW-78D fits this lens and a 72mm coated filter or 72mm filter.
This is currently another option for the kit lens for the Canon EOS 60D, and is an excellent choice if you are debating between the kit lens or not.

EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM
This is an older lens that seems to have been replaced for the most part by the two lenses above.
pros: less expensive, image stabilization, USM means a faster, quieter auto-focusing motor and full time manual focus (which means you can override the auto-focus by turning the focus ring without having to switch the lens to MF manual focus), EF so can be used with both APS-C and full frame cameras too if you have or wish to upgrade to a 5D.
cons: not a constant minimum aperture like the L-series lenses (see above), less range on both the wide and telephoto ends.
Lens hood EW-78BII fits this lens and a 72mm coated filter or 72mm filter.

It Depends
The actual answer to the question of which lens is best for travel photography is: it depends. As I said above, it depends on you – on your level, interests, and goals as a photographer. It depends on what you most enjoy taking photos of and what type of images you aim to capture. If you are a photography novice, or just want to be able to capture all or most situations, the all purpose zoom or standard zoom might serve you best. But if you wish to capture more of a certain type of photo that you like, photos that match your specific visual ideas and preferences, you need to reconsider. Do you like sweeping vistas and all encompassing environmental portraits? Do you typically want to capture the entire scene in your shots? Then perhaps a wide angle zoom will work better for you than a standard zoom. Certainly, you will be limited and not able to frame certain shots the way you might want, but you will capture more of the types of images you like, and might simply have to move in closer than usual to get some the other images. Do you like extreme close-ups of people’s faces with dramatically blurry backgrounds, architectural details on buildings, the look of compressed perspective? Then a telephoto zoom rather than a standard zoom will help you capture more of those images you like. Sure, you will not be able to get the wide angle view of spaces, but you might succeed in capturing many more of the dramatic photos you like. Or perhaps you best work like a classic photojournalist and want to capture scenes and portraits more closely to how you see them. Then a single prime lens like a 50mm or 85mm might be the one lens that is perfect for you.

The Best Lens for the Canon 60D
A lot of people ask, “Which is the best lens for the Canon 60D, (or the 7D, or the 550D/T2i or the 5D)?” There isn’t a specific lens that is best for a specific camera. I hope you’ve already learned that from reading this post! A lens will perform exactly the same on each of those cameras or any other camera with an APS-C size sensor. The effective focal lengths will be different with a full frame sensor dSLR, such as the Canon 5D, but they will still be wide angle zooms, medium zooms, etc. The best lens for your camera is the one that is best for you, your work, and the types of photos you take. That being said, the kit lens that Canon has paired up with the 60D, the EF-S 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS is an excellent choice for an all-purpose everyday and travel lens. See the EOS 60D with the kit lens on Amazon here.

For related posts, check out other entries in the Lenses Category, the Humanitarian Photography category, and my posts about Fixed vs. Variable Aperture Lenses and Choosing a Lens beyond the Kit Lens, as well as my discussion and recommendations for gear for travel photography.

Purchasing: As I mentioned above, if you plan to purchase any of this equipment, I encourage you to do so by clicking on the links of each of the lenses listed above, which will take you to that page on Amazon.com. Or go directly to Amazon using this link or click on the Amazon logo below. If you purchase through these links, Amazon will give me a little something for the referral, which will help support my blog. Thanks, I appreciate your support!
Amazon.com

If you are in the UK, you can click here for the UK Amazon referral link. If you are in another country, click on one of my Amazon links, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click on your country for your local Amazon.

For those interested in purchasing from B&H Photo, Adorama, or direct from Canon, please click on their logos on the Gear page. Thanks!

Renting Lenses: If you wish to first try out a lens before buying it, click on this link to go to BorrowedLenses.com, where you can get great prices on short-term rentals of any lens as well as the latest Canon and Nikon dSLR bodies (as well as video, audio, and lighting equipment).

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In 2007, legendary war photographer James Nachtwey won the TED prize in honor of his life’s work documenting conflicts and social issues around the globe. In addition to awarding him $100,000, the prize also allowed him to make a wish that the TED fellows would assist him in fulfilling. His wish was to photograph an issue that had been under-documented and under-reported in the media: tuberculosis – a preventable, treatable, and curable disease that millions worldwide continue to suffer from. He is particularly concerned about mutations of the disease, MDR-TB (multi drug resistant) and XDR-TB (extremely drug resistant) which are considerably more difficult and more expensive to treat.

Last week I viewed the results of this project – an exhibit of his photos at 401 Projects gallery in New York City (open until March 25, 2010).  The large black and white prints tell a powerful and dramatic story, and it was incredible to see how Nachtwey uses every photographic tool at his disposal to make such compelling images.  The photos can be viewed on the XDRTB.org website, which also contains more information about the issue and the ongoing campaign against the disease.  After you look through the photos and just try to digest the story, I encourage you to go back and study why they are so powerful beyond simply the subject matter.  They are often photos of patients in bed or in treatment, but he has made them so much more.

Look at how he:

-uses composition, point of view, and light and shadow to strengthen and accentuate the essential subject.

-draws your attention to the subject he wishes to focus on, yet provides layers of information in the image that encourage further viewing and closer inspection.

-makes use of the element of time and captures a very specific moment, gesture, or emotion.

-uses basic compositional techniques of balance, scale, and line to create cohesive images.

I could go on, but as you can see, this is a wonderful opportunity to study how Nachtwey is using the most basic elements of photographic composition and design – ones that we have all learned about in photography books and classes and which we all have at our disposal to make our images stronger and more successful.

On the flip side, I ran across this blog post which challenges his use of traditional photo-journalistic conventions and visual language.  It is interesting to read and consider as well as you look at the photos.

Canon has some new rebates that are perfectly made for any aspiring photojournalist needing to buy equipment.  Several lenses have rebates, including the 16-35 f/2.8L II – the current version of the “bread and butter” lens for any photojournalist, the popular 24-70mm f/2.8L midrange zoom, as well as 85mmL, 50mmL and 100mm primes.  Speedlites included too.  If you buy a 5D body at the same time, the rebates double!  There are other rebates with the 7D, either alone or in combination with various lenses.

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.)

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), “a professional society that promotes the highest standards in visual journalism,” has a code of ethics that all members are required to endorse. Whether or not you are a member, I think that they are excellent guidelines for any photographer working in the field, documenting people and humanitarian situations.


Campo Nuevo, Jalapa, Guatemala

While they appear to be common sense principles, they need to be listed and occasionally reviewed because they are sometimes challenging. For example, the first one is “Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.” As anyone using high-speed continuous shooting mode knows, a facial expression can change in a split second, and the difference in the resulting images can be dramatic. They may tell completely different stories or give opposing impressions of the subject. There are many other examples of how composition, point of view, and time can change the perceived reality of an image. Which representation is most accurate? The photographer must act as an editor and decide based on all they know about the subject and the situation.


San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

The third one is equaling challenging. It reads, in part, “Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.” Of course a humanitarian photographer in the field doesn’t want to turn the subject into a stereotype, but in many ways they are working against a lifetime of education and image viewing. As I discussed in my previous “Exotic vs. Real” post, those in the developed world grow up learning to see the developing world and its people as exotic and colorful, but this is often far from the reality. A photographer cannot simply decide to portray a subject without bias and preconceived ideas, but he or she must dedicate themself to learning as much as they can about the subject, their life, culture, and situation. Cultural biases are so deeply embedded one often does not even realize they are there and simply assumes all other humans think and feel the same way. For example, in a classroom when a student gives the wrong answer, a teacher often asks another student to correct them and give the right answer. In certain cultures this action is deeply offensive and insulting, and would never be done by a teacher. It is impossible to know and understand how those in another culture think – expats living a foreign country for years will verify this. But one must make the effort to learn as much as they can about the cultures they work in, and to recognize the multitude of biases they carry with them.


San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala

The third standard also says “Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects.” In addition to the numerous layers of meaning and importance this has as an ethical guideline, this is also an excellent compositional guideline. Show the context of the subject and the environment around them. This is why photojournalists often work with a wide angle lens such as a 16-35mm. By doing this, the photograph gives a more complete story of the subject, and it often makes for a more interesting composition.


San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

The fourth guideline has been a subject of discussion in the media in response to the images being shown from the earthquake in Haiti. “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.” Images of dead and unclothed bodies have been prominently shown in newspapers and websites, and have offended some viewers. The Public Editor of the New York Times gave an excellent response and defense to this controversy in this article. One of his responses, which I have often read from other photographers and have experienced myself, is that the subjects very often want the photos to be taken and to be seen. They want their story told, and they themselves have no method or channels for effectively telling their important story.

As far as treating subjects with respect and dignity, nearly all humanitarian photographers, including myself, speak these words in some form on their website. But what do they really mean, in the field? For me it means treating the subject with respect and dignity both in the interactions with them, and in the representations of them in the images. As I’ve written about before, it starts with not entering into a situation with the camera to your face, immediately snapping shots. The photographer should first introduce themself, talk with the subject, or communicate as best a possible. They should explain what they are doing and why. And even before that, as mentioned above, it means educating oneself in advance about the people and culture. It means trying to understand the situation from the subject’s point of view, and then striving to capture that visually. There are an infinite number of visual realities that can be taken of a subject and a situation, but it means capturing and presenting the one that both tells the story and celebrates the subject.


Campo Nuevo, Jalapa, Guatemala

The final NPPA ethical guideline that I will address here is the fifth one, “While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.” There is a difference between photojournalism for the media and humanitarian photography for a client. A humanitarian photographer may be posing a subject in order to get a portrait or to show a certain component of a project. But that does not mean the humanitarian photographer cannot follow this guideline as well. I believe that in many situations, an unaltered, uninfluenced shot will make a more natural, and thus much stronger image. In my work I have found that it is often easy to disappear into a situation, and become the fly on the wall. While subjects may initially strut and pose for the camera, or begin to act self-consciously, if you just stay in place, and let a minute or two pass, they will begin to ignore you and forget you are there taking photos.


Open Windows, San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala

I encourage you to have a look at the other guidelines I have not discussed here and think about how they apply to your work. Please leave a comment, ask a question. Let me know what has been helpful, and what you’d like to read more about.

For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.)

In my previous post about starting out as a humanitarian photographer, I discussed how to go about creating, planning, and executing your own self-assignments, in order to gain experience in the field and begin to develop a portfolio of work. In this post I’d like to discuss some resources that can help you develop in a different way. An important part of being a humanitarian photographer is understanding what humanitarian aid organizations aim to do, the issues they address, and the people and populations they work with.

young girl, Duenas
San Miguel Duenas, Guatemala photo by dojoklo

A great place to get a broad view of the important humanitarian issues in developing countries is the TED website, which presents a ongoing series of “riveting talks by remarkable people.” Each one I’ve watched has been interesting and enlightening, and they are worth searching through to find the topics that most interest you. Here are a few of my favorites that relate to humanitarian work:

Start with Hans Rosling’s “Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen.” Through his innovative, visual, and dramatic use of statistics, he begins to tear apart myths and preconceptions about the developing world. His other lectures on poverty, AIDS, and Asia are equally as interesting and worthwhile.

Bill Gate’s lecture on “Mosquitos, Malaria, and Education” gained notoriety in the media with his tactic of releasing of mosquitoes into the audience. Through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, he is focusing his money, attention, and shrewd business sense to tackling some of the largest and most important humanitarian issues of today.

Paul Collier’s lecture on the “Bottom Billion” addresses the ways we can, and must, close the gap between the rich and poor.

Wade Davis is an anthropologist and ethnobiologist who has spent his career studying indigenous cultures. I highly recommend reading his books, including Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. In it he celebrates and speaks to the importance of the fascinatingly diverse ways cultures have chosen to exist on this planet. In addition, the book contains stunning photos Davis has taken on his adventures around the globe. Some of these thoughts and photos are part of his lecture on “Endangered Cultures.”

There are many other lectures on these types of issues, so be sure to check out the links and suggested lectures after watching the ones I’ve listed. There are other lectures that aren’t directly related to humanitarian topics which are however very interesting and may help to expand your thinking.

Malcolm Gladwell is always helpful in shifting the way one thinks about things, and his talk on “Spaghetti Sauce” is very entertaining.

Robert Sapolsky, who spends a lot of time studying primates, has interesting and surprising insights into what does, and doesn’t make humans unique.

VS Ramachandran’s talks on the brain, including “The Neurons That Shaped Civilization” are also quite fascinating.

And finally, I can’t leave you without a photography related lecture. James Nachtwey’s “Searing Photos of War” will be an eye-opening and inspiring presentation for any aspiring photojournalist.

I have to warn you, watching one lecture typically leads to another, and they are quite addictive.

For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.

Check out LensFlare35.com for a great interview and narrated slideshow with humanitarian photographer Karl Grobl.  He discusses how he started out, his experiences traveling and working in developing countries, and the stories behind some of his favorite photos.

Sorry, the webpage with the interview seems to be gone.  Here are some other interviews with Karl:

http://www.peachpit.com/podcasts/episode.aspx?e=f7840b74-d863-43ed-ac49-f4e1dc34da35

http://www.hebervega.com


Solola Market, Guatemala                      photo by dojoklo
190mm, f/4, subject distance 10m (image cropped)

For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.

(For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category which includes post such as choosing your camera and lenses, as well as the follow up to this post, After the Self-Assignment.)

How to Become a Humanitarian Photographer

As with many other photography specialties, there is no set course to becoming a humanitarian photographer. You must make your own path by determining your goals, piecing together the advice and experiences of others, and following your intuition. You can go to school and study photojournalism, you can create your own self-designed curriculum of classes, workshops, and experience, you can intern with an experienced photographer, or you can just strike out into the real world and learn it on your own. Starting out as a humanitarian photographer, or any type of photographer for that matter, involves learning about so many diverse areas beyond the art of making images and the skills of using a camera, a flash, and Photoshop (all of which are full time undertakings in themselves). There is also much to learn about business, copyright, marketing, branding, finances, insurance, client relations…the list goes on and on. But I’d like to go into detail about one important and practical aspect of starting out: the self-assignment.


San Francisco, Peru

In order to discover if travel or humanitarian photography is what you really want to dedicate yourself to, it is vital to get out there and really try it out. Travel to a foreign country, get out in the field, and spend days working at it, as if you were on a real assignment. One can think about it from the comfort of home, drooling over the beautiful photos of those you admire, and imagining the excitement of traveling in exotic places. But you may find that working in the field, spending weeks away from friends, family and soft toilet paper, and suffering days of intestinal distress is not all you hoped for. As any working photographer will tell you, it’s hard. Immensely gratifying and often fun, but none the less hard. I encourage anyone not to invest too much time, thought, and money into this dream until they have undertaken this important test.

Planning and executing a self assignment is challenging, but entirely do-able and realistic for anyone who is dedicated to the idea. Even if you have a full time job and aren’t making that much money, it can be done. Don’t quit your job yet to dive head first into self-employment, but use your vacation time to test the waters.


Cusco, Peru

Money: The first challenge is always money. You have to save up money for the gear, for the time away from work, and for the trip. This is done the old-fashioned way – by scrimping and saving. You’ve read it many times before, and it sometimes seems unrealistic, but it works. Save money anywhere you can – stop eating out, bring your lunch to work, cancel cable, cancel Netflix, get your books and movies from the library, stop buying stuff, use the right ATM and stop paying fees, scour the Internet for the best price on the gear you need. It may take longer than you want, it may even take a year or two, but it works. Remember, each restaurant meal you skip here equals three equivalent restaurant meals in a developing country – or better yet, it equals a week’s worth of groceries when you travel. The recession has already given everyone a head-start into living and thinking more economically, you just have to be dedicated to it a bit more and a lot longer. Also, once you begin traveling to developing countries and seeing how people find great joy in life yet live with so few possessions, your new economic lifestyle will seem that much more appropriate. I’m not just saying all these things because I’ve read them or because they sound like they will work. I’ve done them, all. Also look to Ami Vitale for inspiration. She worked long and hard and saved, then headed off and launched her career exactly this way (see the How You Finance Your Stories video at the bottom of this page: http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0301/av_intro.html). Look into counties that aren’t very expensive to fly to. For someone in the USA, that means look to South and Central America. Depending on the time of year, there are incredibly cheap deals. For example, I recently saw $84 tickets to Guatemala on a major airline. Yes, $84 each way! That’s cheaper than flying home for Christmas. Granted, it is a redeye with a long layover, but it gets you there. Be flexible and use Kayak.com to find the best prices.


Taquile Island on Lake Titicaca, Peru

Gear: You might not yet be able to afford the latest and greatest professional gear. In fact, until you are sure you really want to do this, you probably don’t want to invest in a 5D Mark III and 2 or 3 L-series lenses. Every photo forum you follow, pixel peeper you talk to, and gear review you read is going to convince you that you need the most current, top of the line gear. But you don’t. I do recommend using a dSLR and not just a point and shoot, so something like a Canon Rebel T5i / 700D and a versatile zoom lens like the Canon 18-200mm (or the Nikon equivalent) offers more than enough quality and range to start off with if you can’t afford more. On my first self-assignment all I had was an outdated, 8 megapixel Rebel XT and a single, 28-105mm lens. It didn’t prevent me from getting the shots I wanted, they’ve been exhibited, won awards, been honored by the United Nations, been used on travel guide and textbook covers, and no one has ever told me that the quality of the photos is unacceptable. (And remember that no one, outside the photo world, will ever even think to ask you what camera you used or which lens you chose.) Sometimes, with that early gear, I wasn’t able to zoom as much as I wanted for travel shots, or get wide enough for the close-ups of humanitarian work, so that is why the 18-200mm or 18-135mm (which weren’t available until more recently) would be a pretty ideal single lens solution now. (The secret fact is, I even have a couple great photos in my portfolio, a photo on a travel guidebook cover, and won a dSLR camera using an Olympus SP-320, 7 megapixel point and shoot.) Don’t go overboard with bags and accessories. Get a simple holster bag, like an M-Rock Yellowstone or whichever one fits your body and lens, or a LowePro or Tamrac bag or backpack, a couple filters (UV and polarizing), a lens pen and cloth, a rocket blower, extra batteries and memory cards, and then stop looking. You don’t need anything else. I promise. (Well, also your laptop computer, external hard drive, and some type of insurance coverage for it all. And maybe a Pac Safe 55 to secure it. And perhaps an external flash if you will be working inside. Hey, no one said this was cheap!) For insurance, look into your home-owner’s or renter’s insurance to see if it will cover it, or look at NANPA’s coverage or the discussion here. (If you happen to join NANPA to get their insurance, be sure to mention my name as a referrer, and I get $20 NANPA Bucks and save on my next renewal!) To sum it up, as culture photographer Craig Ferguson stated in a recent interview, “You don’t need to have the most expensive gear or even the newest. A plane ticket and enough money for 3 months living coupled with an entry level body and a 50mm lens will get you further than the latest pro-level body and no time or money to use it.” I discuss additional photography gear and accessories that are useful for working in the field in this post.


Altos de los Mores, Peru

Researching the NGO: Figure out what type of NGO (non-governmental organization) or non-profit organization you’d like to photograph, and which countries interest you, and start doing research. Which subjects most inspire your passion for this work? Disabled children, gender equality, health, faith-based work, community development? In every developing country there are countless NGOs doing each of these types of work and more. As a professional, you might not be able to be this specific in your choices, so take advantage of your self-assignment. Do searches on the Internet, and look on idealist.org. It is hard to imagine that any small, typically struggling organization does not want free, semi-professional quality photos for their website and newsletters, so most all will be welcoming to your offer to volunteer. But it is very important that you are quite clear that your interest and intent is to photograph their work. If you sign up to be a general volunteer, you will be expected and obligated to be doing whatever work they ask of you. Do not think you can be a volunteer and also take photos on the side. You will not do a good job of either that way. Be perfectly clear with them that you are interested in primarily photographing the work they do. That doesn’t mean you can’t spend a few days as a volunteer, and by all means you should (see below), but they should not be expecting you to be a typical volunteer.


Altos de los Mores, Peru

Ask questions and find out as much as you can about the actual work they do. Don’t just trust what you read on their website, but find out exactly what they do and where they work. They may say they work in 4 different communities, but really they might only visit 3 of them once a year for a medical visit or to bring donations. They might say they have a number of different programs, but really they may only be currently focusing on one of them based on financial reasons or staff and volunteers skills. Make sure that your area of interest is really what they are doing now. Explain to them your interests, and see if meeting your goals will be possible with them. NGOs are often run by incredibly generous, helpful, kind, friendly, flexible people, and they will want to help you at your project. But they are also incredibly busy and strapped for resources, so learn to communicate and work with them on their terms. Many organizations require that you pay to be a volunteer. This may sound strange, but you have to understand that they need money in order to keep doing the work they do. Just the fact that you are working for free does not pay the salary for the NGO’s staff. But be wary, there are many placement services that make money by being a middle-man, so make arrangements directly with the NGO. If your volunteer fee includes lodging, or even food, it is often quite reasonable to pay them. However, there are also many excellent organizations which will not charge you anything. If this is the case, be sure and support them by bringing donations (books, toys, art supplies). See my Resources Page for more information on volunteering. Some organizations run restaurants and hostels, so support them by eating and staying with them. Also, if you are thinking of joining a mission type trip, like a medical mission, find one that is being organized from your area so that you can document the planning and the departure of the group at the airport.

**Update 2010-01-28** Here is a website I just discovered which attempts to link up volunteer photographers with humanitarian projects world-wide: http://photophilanthropy.org/


Cusco, Peru

Working in the Field: It seems every photographer I admire always discusses the importance of talking to and getting to know the people you are photographing. Sometimes that means just chatting with them and buying some of their wares before you start to photograph them, other times that means living among them for several days, weeks, or months. As a photographer working with an NGO, this means you should consider being a volunteer for a day, without your camera, without photographing. Yes, that is a painful experience, to see potentially great shots slip by left and right. But this sacrifice will quickly pay off when you start to work. This gives you an opportunity to learn what the organization does and how they work. It also allows you to start to get to know the people they serve, and for them to become comfortable around you. It is obvious that this approach, rather than barging in with your face behind a camera, is going to result in much more genuine photos. Also, stay out of the way of the director and the staff when they are working. Make your arrangements and ask questions before or after the workday. Be flexible to ever-changing, never scheduled situations, but also, always remind the director of what you want to be doing. She might go running off to visit one of the client’s homes or villages, and you want her to know to always grab you and take you along on those types of trips. Take advantage of your time there to do, see, and photograph as many different types of places and situations as you can. Talk to everyone you meet – other volunteers, people at restaurants and hotels. Many other people are doing volunteer work, and they may point you in the direction of a great photographic situation.


Huinchiri, Peru

Develop, learn, and practice a good workflow for saving and backing up your images every day. It is time consuming and easy to want to put off, but if you get behind there will be no catching up. I recommend using David duChemin’s global workflow as a starting point (alternate link here). Always have your camera with you, even if you think you are just being taken to the bakery for some bread and are told you’ll be back in 5 minutes. You will inevitably be taken on a two hour detour through a part of town off the beaten path, with amazing photo opportunities, during the magic hour (best evening light). Always carefully prepare and assemble your gear before you start each day, and have new batteries and memory cards accessible while you shoot. I highly recommend you always remember to “make haste slowly.” What this means is that you will often be in a hurry, but don’t rush and act in a panic during critical moments, in preparation or in shooting. Change lenses carefully and slowly, then rush back to the action. Clean the mysterious glob off your lens carefully and delicately, then get back to shooting. There are countless opportunities to damage your gear, and while it is durable, somewhat waterproof, and stray marks and dings on your tools are not something to fret over, a dropped or scratched lens is. After this, well, I don’t know what to tell you – you’re going to learn a lot. You are going to learn your camera and its settings inside and out, you are going to learn to work under pressure, always being ready, always trying to capture the fleeting shot and changing light. You are going to start to learn what works and what doesn’t as far as compositions, camera settings, perspectives, etc. You are going to begin to learn about life in a developing country. And you are going to very quickly learn if this work is truly your passion and your calling.

Please leave a comment, ask a question. Let me know what has been helpful, and what you’d like to read more about. Let me know if you have planned or undertaken a self-assignment on your way to becoming a humanitarian photographer, and how you are addressing the challenges of this endeavor.

See my follow-up post, Becoming a Humanitarian Photographer-After the Self-Assignment for the next stage of the process.

For related posts, check out other entries in the Humanitarian Photography category.