National Geographic Traveler: Inside Secrets of Successful Travel Photography

In keeping up with my resolutions for 2006, I recently attended my first photography workshop/seminar/course this year.  “Inside Secrets of Successful Travel Photography” is part of the National Geographic Traveler Seminar Series hosted by Santa Fe Workshops in different cities around the U.S. & Canada throughout the year.  The one-day seminar was held at the Seattle Central Library and presented by renowned National Geographic photographer, Jim Richardson, and National Geographic Traveler’s Senior Photo Editor, Dan Westergren.  You can read their bios and review the topics covered during the seminar on the Santa Fe Workshops site. I enjoyed the 7–hour seminar because it allowed me to learn the habits and practices of people who have been in the business of taking pictures that others want to see.  Understanding what makes a photo great in the eyes of a professional photographer and a seasoned photo editor was educational and enlightening.  My favorite quote of the day came from Jim Richardson when he flatly stated, “You want to take better pictures?  Stand in front of more interesting stuff.”  It is very simple, very true and very difficult to do without tons of preparation.  The preparation was the piece I underestimated and now that I know its importance I will treat how I prepare for future trips to exotic and photogenic places differently.

According to the event coordinator, there were 180 people in attendance which was a higher turnout – by about 50 people – than they had ever received in any city in the history of the seminar.  She giggled, “We will definitely be coming back to Seattle.”  With this being a one-day, travel-focused, photography seminar, in Seattle, costing ~$200, the demographics of those in attendance were expectedly homogeneous.  My rough approximations of the statistical characteristics of this sub-population based on my observations and the event coordinator’s survey are as follows:

  • 60% Male
  • 40% over the age of 50
  • 20% age 18–35
  • 95% White
  • 2 Black (No, there is no %.  It was a Kenyan woman – more on how I know her nationality later – and I.)
  • Equally split among:
    • “Amateurs looking to take better pictures”
    • “Amateurs wanting to sell a few pictures”
    • “Serious photography professionals looking to get into the business”

Here is my list of highlights and lowlights of the day’s events and material:


  • Awe-inspiring photo slideshows which did an excellent job illustrating the points being made during the lectures.
  • Having an experienced travel photographer explain what he carries with him on his photo shoots and why.
  • Having an experienced travel photographer share pointed anecdotes and lessons from the trenches that one can easily apply on their outings.
  • Jim Richardson shoots with Nikon because he likes the way the pictures look (and Nikon probably gives him free stuff for saying that).


  • The auditorium was really, really cold.  Someone missed the memo on the record-breaking low temperatures that descended on the Puget Sound region that weekend.
  • The boxed lunches were sub-mediocre.  For two C-notes they could have at least had a buffet.
  • Very little discussion or coverage of post-production or digital workflow.  (Apparently, when you get paid the big bucks for the pictures you take, you concentrate on taking the pictures and rely on the huge staff dedicated to making them ready for the masses.)
  • Many of the most intriguing and inspiring shots shown during the slideshows had been taken from aboard a small airplane, car or boat which had been commissioned at prices ranging from $350/week to $150/hour (prices courtesy of working pros).  I blow my travel photography budget just getting to the destination and having a place to sleep.  Oh, and my equipment. :ashamed:

The photos Jim Richardson talked us through were absolutely jaw-dropping which one would expect since they were all taken by an elite pantheon full- and part-time staff photographers for National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler magazines.  The only real content lowlights were due to items ancillary to the activities involved with actually taking a decent picture.  With that said, having access to airplanes, boats and automobiles should make it a lot easier to find more interesting stuff to shoot.

Out of Kenya

The boxed lunches were from Larry’s Markets in Seattle and were not very good.  The most memorable part of lunch came just as I was finishing up.  We were sitting at round tables with ten at a table.  Due to the much larger than anticipated attendance, there were fewer seats than attendees and many had to resort to eating while standing or sitting in the middle of the floor.  I was one of the lucky ones who made it to the room first since we took the escalators (the long way) rather than wait for the elevator.  At my table, five people got up to leave freeing up the next five chairs to my right.  A late-20s-to-early-30s couple was sitting to my immediate left and a three other people were sitting in the group of chairs after them.  I am casually scanning the room watching more people enter and scurry about when I spot a gentleman in his early-50s enter and begin scanning the room himself presumably to find a suitable location to enjoy his lunch.  As he starts making his way in our direction, I think to myself, “Watch this guy sit right next to me.”  I am a friendly person but I cherish my space in crowded areas in addition to being a fierce practitioner of “The Urinal Rules.”  (Guys reading this probably know exactly what I am referring to when it comes to deciding which urinal stall to pick when one or more of the others are occupied.  Ladies should find a guy to explain.)

Sure enough, despite having four other chairs to choose from the guy walks right up and sits directly next to me.  Sure, I know I must have stood out as the only black person in the room.  Perhaps it was my bald head.  More than miffed by the unnecessary and unwarranted encroachment, I decided to hurry, finish my lunch, then leave.  “It’s kinda chilly here,” the man offers.  I grunt in agreement.  “We drove all the way here from Wenatchee and it is really cold there!” he continues.  “Do I know you?” I gesture with the furrows of my brow.  Completely misreading my expression, this guy proceeds to tell me part of his life story – the part he must have assumed I could relate to:  He’s married to a Kenyan woman.  To spare you the unabridged, 30–minute version I endured, here are the main points in the order I received them:

  1. His wife is from Kenya.
  2. He loves Kenya.
  3. He and his wife are planning to move to Kenya soon.
  4. They were just there in November.
  5. The little kids in his sister-in-law’s village had never seen a white person before.
  6. They were shy around him initially until one of them came over, rubbed his arm, then looked at his palm to see if whatever was on this strange man’s skin came off.  (The guy chortled, “I told them it didn’t come off.”)
  7. He loves Kenya.
  8. He can’t wait to move.
  9. He plans to help build a church, school and hospital in his sister-in-law’s village.
  10. Kenya is great.  I should go.

Between topics 8 and 9, the guy stood up, unbuttoned his jacket to reveal a homemade T-shirt with an ironed-on image of him feeding a young black rhino (presumably in Kenya).  This unexpected act of self-aggrandizement must have also startled the couple to my left as their casual banter abruptly stopped.  While I tried to be polite by continuing to admire his T-shirt as he described what I was seeing (as if I had never seen a rhino before), I heard rustling of sandwich wrappers over my left shoulder; the telltale signs of people in a hurry to leave.  At this point I was perturbed since he was now not only drawing attention to himself but to me as well.  I wished I could leave with the couple and I had to figure out a way to get away quick.  No more Mr. Nice Guy.  I posited, “Actually, that’s just a baby rhino.”  As if I had challenged him to a duel, he rebuffs, “Nah, that’s a big boy.”  Seeing the crestfallen effect of my words I felt no shame and countered with, “No, I’m pretty sure that’s a baby rhino.  I mean, he only comes up to your stomach.”  “That one is at least 14.  He was like 4000 pounds!” he denies.  “Uhh, where are his horns?” I parry.  He finally sat back down and begrudgingly began buttoning his jacket.  Seizing my opportunity, while he licked his wounds, I began making my sandwich wrappers make some noise too.

As I got up to leave, he picked up with topic 9 and handed me a business card in case I wanted to, “see what his organization is about and, perhaps, participate.”  It was sucka-free Sunday and I knew what he meant by “participate.”  I feigned interest long enough to put the card in my pocket then made like a southpaw and left.

My friends get a chuckle out of stories like these particularly since they seem to always happen to me.  I need to work on my angry black man scowl.

Back in the auditorium, following lunch, but just before the lecture resumed, I passed the time collecting the demographic information above.  I saw the guy from lunch sitting next to his wife, the Kenyan woman, one row back and on the opposite aisle.  He nodded knowingly and smiled.  I pointed to my shirt and did the universal signal for “It’s tiny” using my thumb and index finger in reference to his rhino.  OK, no I didn’t really do that but the thought certainly crossed my mind.

What Jim Carries

I hope I don’t get in trouble for sharing this but I thought other people might find it interesting and educational.  If I do get in trouble this section may disappear so you may want to print/save it for later.  Here is the inventory of what Jim carries on the vast majority of his photo assignments.  This section of the seminar was entitled, “The Travel Photographer’s Camera Bag.”

Nikon D70 (He actually carries 2–3 of them into the field in case of malfunctions.)

Nikon Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 DX
Nikon Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 DX
Nikon Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 DX
Nikon Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 Fish-eye
Nikon Nikkor 28mm f/1.4

Nikon SB-800 Speedlight

Rosco Cinegel filters (change the color of the light produced by the flash)
Singh-Ray Polarizer (reduce reflections and add saturation)
Singh-Ray Graduated Neutral Density filter (to darken the sky)

Nikon DR-4 Right Angle Finder (take pictures with the camera low to the ground while standing)
Billingham Hadley Camera Bag (doesn’t look like a camera bag and avoids attracting attention)

One thing that stood out to me is he swears by fixed-aperture, zoom lenses for their practicality and speed.  The speed is absolutely critical since he rarely travels with a tripod.  He also makes heavy use of the DX glass which is lightweight and optimized for the smaller sensors in Nikon’s digital SLRs.  I also shoot with the Nikon D70 with only Nikkor glass so my chest filled with conceit.  Of course, now it will extremely difficult to convince TB that I really, really need to upgrade to the Nikon D200.  I mean, come on, the D70 is only six megapixels.

Well this post got much longer than I intended but I hope you found it entertaining and informative.

One Reply to “National Geographic Traveler: Inside Secrets of Successful Travel Photography”

  1. Thanks for this information. I was thinking about attending the seminar but I would have to fly to Dallas for it and the timing of the class was not optimal. I’ll wait to see if/when it comes to the So CA area.

    I guess if I want to see great travel photography I can just openup a National Geographic magazine!

    Thanks again for this great info.

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