Monday, March 23, 2015

The Imposter

  Jim Richardson, National Geographic Photographer. Photo from www.nationalgeographic.com

As I walked into the Kansas Department of Agriculture building on Kansas Ag Day, I felt like an imposter. A few weeks before, I had gotten an email, inviting me to a workshop with Jim Richardson, a photographer for National Geographic. They were only accepting 20 reservations. By the time I saw it in my inbox on my phone screen, 14 of the slots had already been filled. 

I knew I didn't have time to be my usual indecisive self, so I filled out the form on my iPhone and I clicked submit. My spot was reserved! But then the doubt started creeping in. "What possessed me to think I should take a spot from some "real" photographer?" When I got the official "You're in!" email from the Department of Ag, it said to bring my camera. And then my stomach really started to churn.

All the way to Manhattan, I worried about having to dig my camera out of my purse and reveal that I use a point and shoot camera. Yep, they had invited the most amateur of amateurs to get advice from a National Geographic photographer.

But, thankfully, they didn't frisk me at the door and toss me out on my ear before the presentation ever began. And while I will likely never be able to use many of the tips Richardson gave, I'm still glad I went. 

Like me, Richardson grew up in rural Kansas. Like me, he has a degree from K-State and worked on The Collegian while a student, he in photography and me in editorial. But, unlike me, he has a portfolio of breathtaking photos from around the world. I just do my best to tell the story of our Kansas farm and family through commentary and camera clicks on this blog.

The workshop group was diverse. There were a few professional photographers. Another works with 4-H photographers. There was one other blogger. One worked for K-State Extension. Some worked for organizations like Kansas Wheat, The High Plains Journal and Kansas! magazine. Some incorporate photography into their corporate jobs.

When Richardson talked about the essential items in his camera bag, the professional photographers were nodding. That part may have flown over my head. But as he talked about telling stories through photography, it resonated with me and everyone else in the room.

"If I am ever known for any quote on photography, I'd say this:  Stand in front of more interesting stuff," Richardson told us at the workshop. "Research does matter. Doing your homework is the fastest way to make you a better photographer." 

Before he travels to Orkney or Stonehenge or some other far-flung spot, he Googles those places and looks at the photographs that come up. 

"I see what's been shot before. I see the standard shots. And I don't do that. I want the image that keeps the reader turning the page for the rest of the story."

He tries the shot from different angles until he has a unique perspective. Sometimes that means putting a camera up on a pole. Sometimes, it means lying on the ground and shooting up. Sometimes, it means hiring an airplane for an hour or two (If you are able to do that, Richardson recommends hiring a flight instructor with a high-wing Cessna. Not just any plane will do because you have to be able to shoot the scene without getting the airplane in the frame.) 

Other advice:
  • Look for geometric patterns in the scene for interest.
  • Look at light. A couple of flashlights focused on the scene can provide a focal point. (I imagined asking Randy and Jake to stop what they were doing to hold flashlights to illuminate a photo. I don't think I'll hold my breath, but I'm still trying to figure out how I could do it on my own.)
  • Shoot lots of frames. Somewhere in all of those camera clicks is the right photo. (He shoots 30,000 to 40,000 frames for each National Geographic story.) As Randy says, he's glad for my move to digital photography. Developing film on all the frames I shoot would cost prohibitive - not to mention storing all the finished photos!
  • Make connections with the people you're photographing. He says he follows the advice of photographer Dave Harvey who says, "I go someplace. I make a life for myself. Then I photograph my life." 
I may not be photographing Easter Island or Scotland like Richardson. But I am photographing my life. So I guess I'll keep doing that - even if it is with just a measly point and shoot camera.
For more on Jim Richardson's photography, check out his website. He lives in Lindsborg, Kansas, and has the Small World gallery there.

The Kansas Department of Agriculture has a photo contest each summer. Watch their Facebook page for details, which should be available soon. 


  1. Kim, I'm so glad you got some useful information from the workshop. You do such a good job of telling ag's story through your photos & blog!

    1. Thanks, Marsha, for your kind words!

  2. Congrats! Some of the best pictures are from a phone or small camera. It'd be nice to have a fancy camera with big bolt on lens. But how practical would that be on a day to day adventure working on a ranch? On the back of a horse? Or in the alley? Lol! I have a hard enough time with just my small camera.
    You do tell a real story, with very beautiful photos.

    1. Thanks, Cheri! Yes, I have a nice Nikon camera that I can carry easily and it works well for getting quality shots - if I take enough to be able to pick and choose.I am never happy with my cell phone photos though.