Photo Masterclass: Joel Sartore on Going Beyond The Obvious

The National Geographic photographer in conversation with Ashima Narain.  
Baby Crying
Photo: Joel Sartore

A great photograph has three elements: good light, good composition, and an interesting moment. These elements can take a lifetime to learn. People don’t understand why photography is complicated and I say, well, a violin only has four strings, but takes a lifetime to master.

Photography is about how you think; the camera is nothing more than a box to filter the mind through. Perspective plays a key role. I approach every situation thinking how it would look from a bird’s-eye view, a worm’s-eye view, after turning around 360 degrees. This way, I see where the light looks best and determine the best position for the camera each and every time.

To me, great portraits tell you something about the people in the photo; intimacy is key. Smiling pictures can be boring as they often leave nothing to the imagination. They are expected. Why not go beyond the obvious? Why not go for a bit of mystery?

Café New Mexico Meal

Photo: Joel Sartore

Speaking of real moments, I keep a camera handy and ready to shoot all the time, in case something interesting happens. Often the best things happen in the most ordinary circumstances, like it did here at a café in New Mexico. My son Spencer is such a handful all the time that my wife doesn’t even notice anymore! He can be screaming or doing a handstand in a restaurant, and she will remain a portrait of tranquillity. I had my camera ready to go, which means plenty of room left on the card and the camera set to auto-exposure and auto-focus.

Baby Koala Queensland

Photo: Joel Sartore

Layering makes pictures interesting. This one has houses in the background, a kid on his bike, a woman kissing a baby on the driveway, and this woman cuddling four baby koalas. She is part of an adoption network that raises orphaned koalas in Queensland. Above all else, I hope her caring shows in this image, because she has given years of her life to a continuous string of baby koalas that have come through her home. Since she was standing in the shade of her front porch, I lit her with a small flash and a soft box attachment, held up and to the right, and this really helps her stand out. Flash is best when it’s off camera, and the light is softened and balanced with the rest of the image so it doesn’t look too obvious.

Alaska’s North Slope Mosquitoes

Photo: Joel Sartore

These mosquitoes are found in Alaska’s North Slope, and indicate a healthy and intact ecosystem. It’s one of the richest marshlands in the world, and yet, these insects are starved for exposed flesh in the summer. Why did I do this? Out of desperation! I hadn’t made a good picture in three days—an eternity when you’re on assignment for National Geographic—because they can’t publish my excuses for not making interesting pictures. I used soft lighting and layering to highlight the mosquitoes on my feet in this image. The picture never ran in the story, but it did go on that issue’s On Assignment page. On seeing it, the director of photography sent me a coupon for a free pedicure.

Photo: Joel Sartore

Photo: Joel Sartore

What I like about this frame is that it is a beautiful scene being ruined by a crying toddler, namely my son Cole. The light is nice because it is the end of the day. There is some layering—you can see the background for miles—but above all there is an interesting moment. Two, in fact: my embarrassed wife is covering her face with Cole’s writhing body. My son’s ridiculous little outfit is the cherry on top.

Appeared in the March 2015 issue as “Beyond the Obvious”.


    Joel Sartore is a photographer, speaker, author, teacher, and a 20-year contributor to National Geographic magazine. He also founded the Photo Ark, an archive that documents biodiversity and hopes to engage people to save our planet’s threatened inhabitants while there is still time.

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