Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 30, 2010

Getting Small

bare tree Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2992 (640x477)

Taking great travel photos? Why, it’s easy: go to the Grand Canyon or to Rome or to the Serengeti; point camera at great rock formation or ancient monument or vast herd of wildebeest; shoot incredible scene; send photo to friends; receive glowing praise.

But National Geographic will never call. Why is that?

This week has been particularly photo-intensive here under western skies with images we captured during last week’s trip to New Mexico. Since the purpose of the trip was not just for tourism, but to spend some time investigating in greater depth things we’ve seen before, and to consider how to report and write about them, I had time to ponder the what I know about photography.

I’ve been lucky to work with some excellent photographers in my career. They know a thousand things about making photos that I’ll never learn. I’ve stood next to them and taken photos of the same thing they were shooting and, darn, mine is a throwaway and theirs is a prizewinner. Professional equipment makes part of the difference. But I could buy professional golf gear and it won’t compensate for the differential between professional and amateur. Skill is the true differentiator.

Pictures Require Time

Another thing required for making great photos is TIME. So far as I know, most of the great photographers don’t hop off the tour bus, point the camera at the Acropolis, snap off a shot and mail it to the photo editor for instant publication (war correspondents might be an exception). This investment of time means sacrifice, because while you’re studying those gnarled trees, poking around that ancient palazzo looking at the bricks, or establishing contact with strangers to get them to let you close enough to take a compelling photo, you’re missing the next stop on your agenda, the 1 o’clock tour of the ancient catacombs or your train to the next city. Getting the angle, composing the shot, checking the lighting, the exposure, the depth of field you want, time, time, time is ticking away.

You have to stop the car or get off the bus, get out the gear, trek back a couple of miles and find some angle that no other living photographer has found, at a time that the light is just right. The problem is that you don’t know if there IS a great angle no other photographer has found until you go to look. If you find it, great. If not, there’s a reason no other photographer has already shot it: it’s not there. Back to the car. Drive on.

Look at the Picture

In addition to the value of taking the time to get the shot right, I’ve learned other lessons from the pros I’ve worked with. One important lesson is to look closely in that viewfinder or video monitor. I mean, LOOK at what you are shooting. Question whether the things you want to be in the photo are what you are seeing. If you want to see a tree, fill the frame with the tree. If you want to see the person, zoom in so that you don’t see the stop sign and the trash can by the curb and the ugly building over on the right. You’re not making a picture of trash cans or buildings, you’re photographing a person. Just as fine artists like a Chardin or Cezanne understood, photographers know that what you leave out of the picture is just as important as what you leave in. Leaving out the unwanted things is nearly as important as putting in the things you want.

I’ll take a moment here to pay homage to the late Guy Phillips, who was the cinemetographer I worked with when I started in the business. Guy did not show up for work every day to play the part of the avuncular, wise mentor in the business of making pictures, but when he did feel like teaching you something, it was a thing worth knowing. He had covered Eisenhower’s international travel in the early 1950s, and he worked at CBS with people like Edward R. Murrow. Guy knew his stuff. The first lesson I learned from him was when I said we were ready to roll on some interview shoot, and Guy pointed to something on the monitor that wasn’t right. He didn’t want to say anything that might make our interview subject self-conscious. The way Guy looked at me told me what he wanted me to remember: look at the darned monitor and pay attention.

He also taught me that composing can mean getting extremely close. On last week’s trip, with time to focus on taking a few nice shots, I tried, as I always do, to apply some of what I’ve learned from those cats.

Here’s a rock.

Pedernal lichen Brad Nixon 3035 (640x480)

It’s a nice rock. I thought this rock was interesting, and I left out the slope of the mountain and the ponderosa pine trees and everything around. But, now, here’s the same rock, even closer.

Pedernal lichen Brad Nixon 3037 (640x480)

The colored lichen are what’s genuinely interesting. Looking at the photo, I wish I had gotten even tighter. I didn’t follow my own advice. I didn’t LOOK CRITICALLY at what I was shooting.

The camera is a stupid instrument, and requires a lot of cajoling to create the photo that we really want. The reason we’re so careless with photos is that our own optical gear — the combination of the human brain and eye — is indescribably powerful. You can walk on a forest trail through beautiful trees and bush, and you’ll remember the texture of the bark on the trees or the way water in a stream glinted in sunlight. Although our eyes can’t zoom in like a camera can, our minds focus our attention while recording myriad details. Accomplishing the same feat with a camera is not always simple.

Here’s one more pair of wide and tight compositon from Chaco Canyon. First, a view with Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva in the canyon, in the foreground. Beyond it, across the canyon, is the impressive ruin of Pueblo Bonito, and another ruin, Pueblo Alto, on the horizon.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2964 (640x625)

It’s a pretty good photo: a nice memento of a memorable hike that lets me show you what Chaco Canyon looks like, to convey some of my enthusiasm for the place. Here’s a close-up portion of that scene from another vantage.

Casa Rinconada Brad Nixon 3009 (640x480)

That the wall of Casa Rinconada. While this photo doesn’t illustrate what Casa Rinconada looks like, it is a glimpse of something that is omnipresent in one’s mind when one is on the scene courtesy of our impressive eye-brain combo: an awareness that real, living people quarried these stones, carried them to this spot, then split and broke them into shapes, slathered them with mud mortar and set them skilfully in place. The wider shot shows you what the place looks like, but the closeup gives you a recollection of what it felt like.

It’s just like writing, in the end. If only I could select the precise words to put you in that spot, so that we could, for one moment, share what it’s like to be there.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. Really like that top one with the barren trees and streaking clouds. Has a Caspar David Friedrich German Romantism about it.


  2. Heck, some of my best shots have been through a bug splattered windshield or a half way rolled down side window.


  3. It’s the close-up of the wall, for me. Wow.


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