Learning from National Geographic Photographers

Mike Yamashita gave my some tips throughout my internship as a Digital Media Assistant at his home in Chester, NJ.

Tips & Advice I learned include:

  • Expose for the highlights. In film, this wasn’t the case. With film, most photographers were taught to expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights. This is no longer the case, as the medium is no longer film. Utilize the histogram when shooting and expose for the highlights of the scene. Doing so will provide more color and contrast to the image, & ultimately will produce richer, vibrant, better photos. When presenting your photos or a portfolio of images to an Art Director or otherwise, odds are that if they are older they are accustomed to seeing slide transparencies. Read more about what it means to expose for highlights, here. The 2007 article by Brian Auer discusses what it means to expose for shadows, highlights, and mid-tones, how to do so, and the benefits and consequences associated.
  • Use a flash. Apparently most NG photographers do, and Mike gave me a tip to using mine. First, as a general rule (are there any 100% rules to photography?), set the flash to -2 EV, then, bracket at your choosing. I typically bracket at 1/3 on my flash. Why do this? Using a flash at -2 EV will add just enough fill flash to pop out the colors even more and bring more light into the room. Firing at -2 EV, is effective and subtle. It will provide enough fill flash to make a difference but and does not leave your picture looking over exposed. In bracketing your flash, you may also want to put the camera in a faster drive sequence so that you have a number of images to choose from. Each frame will be a different exposure, but that is okay. I asked Mike about being consistent with exposure regarding this technique, and his opinion was that he does not prefer to be consistent. His reason for this is because he prefers a number of frames from which to choose the best lighting, mood, etc., rather than leaving the subject with a single frame you believe to be acceptable only later to find out that is is not.
  • Shooting landscapes. 99% of the time Mike handholds the camera when shooting landscapes, “every once in a while” he says a polarizer is an effective tool. They help bring out colors, contrast, and saturation, and they are not cumbersome like most filters.
  • The picture is in your mind before it is in your viewfinder.
  • Faces. You MUST show faces. Football, nightclubs – it doesn’t matter. You MUST show faces.
  • Pay very close attention to composition & framing. What do the boarders of the image look like? Are they clean and absent of distractions, or are they cluttered with puzzling and confusing information? Don’t leave a part of someone’s hand in your frame or ‘cut off” legs, feet, etc. SHOW EVERYTHING.
  • In photography, your image is ‘there’, or it isn’t – there is no in-between. You either have the shot, or you don’t.
  • Get close. Mike admitted to typically carrying 3 bodies on him; two on his shoulders, and one in his bag. Regarding the lenses he uses on his cameras, Mike keeps a 70-200mm f/2.8 on one body, and a super wide lens on the other.
  • Carry a rain-jacket, extra batteries, a pocket toolkit, a small flashlight, garbage bag (to put your equipment in when it rains), a 13″ reflector, hand sanitizer, a toothbrush and a comb.
By far, the most useful tip I’ve read regarding making better exposures is to USE THE HISTOGRAM. Importantly, this tip also comes from a National Geographic photographer, Mark Thiessen. Read more of Mark’s answers to photography questions from his July 2008 Q&A, here.

Q: How do you achieve the correct light exposure, what technique do you use in digital photography, and what kind of in-camera exposure meters do you usually use?

A: I usually use evaluative metering to achieve the best exposure. In evaluative metering, the camera divides the scene into several zones and does calculations to come up with what it thinks is the right exposure. It is well suited for most subjects, including those that are backlit. It is basically just what your eyes do when looking at something. Because it is often too bright outside to accurately view the image in the LCD monitor, I use the histogram on the camera to help judge if the meter correctly exposed the scene. The histogram is a simple graph that displays where all of the brightness levels contained in the scene are found, from the darkest to the brightest. These values are arranged across the bottom of the graph from left (darkest) to right (brightest). If I think the meter isn’t accurate, then I will use the exposure compensation setting on my camera to over- or underexpose the scene.

Perviously, I never, ever used the histogram to judge the exposure of my photographs, but since I’ve been referencing it, the histogram has made an invaluable difference. Don’t believe me? Turn on your camera and photograph whatever is around you, then reference the histogram and make adjustments until the histogram reflects pixels at the center of the graph, or what is commonly referred to as a proper exposure.
Read more about histograms, here.
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