Over the past couple of decades, National Geographic Magazine has published an ongoing series of stories on spectacular natural areas around the world. I have had the privilege of photographing eight of these landscape stories, and hope to do many more. One of my favorites was on Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
At 72 miles long, Fraser Island has the distinction of being the largest sand island in the world. For the last 750,000 years, ocean currents from the southeast have been washing sand ashore, where it collects on volcanic bedrock. The island is a phenomenal place for a landscape photographer. There are sand dunes, of course, but there are also rainforests, eucalyptus woodlands, mangrove forests, wallum, peat swamps, and coastal heaths. If you have a special four-wheel drive vehicle with sand tires, everything is pretty accessible as long as you learn how to drive on the beach at low tide and avoid getting your vehicle stuck in deep sand.
Sand dunes are always a good photographic subject, and Fraser Island has many varieties. Along the eastern coastline are fore dunes that are 100 to 200 feet high. They are vegetated with beach spinifex and pandanus trees. On the island’s interior, the high dune ridges are between 300 to 700 feet high, and white sand mixes with darker, coffee-colored sand. There are 50 strikingly beautiful freshwater lakes in this part of the island.
The oldest deposits of sand, which have a brighter orange color, are along the western coast.
I work as an independent contractor for National Geographic, so for me an assignment starts with a one-page story proposal. The proposal should be written with a focus on the visual potential of the location. Choosing an area for a potential story is a bit of an art form in itself. There is always a balancing act between finding a location that is spectacular and renowned (and probably has been covered many times by other photographers in the past) and a place that most people have never heard of but might not have enough unique features for a Geographic story. The main deciding factor for the editors usually comes down to whether they feel there is enough “visual variety” contained is the words of the proposal. Some of my best proposals ideas have come about by talking to people in the field or seeing a place when I was working on another story. But I have also found stories just by doing some research online.
If a photographer is lucky enough to have a story approved by the editors, the next step is more research. It is up to the photographer working with a picture editor to come up with a story plan to present to the editor at a pitch meeting. People often ask me if “they” tell me what and where to photograph. There is no all-knowing “they” who tells me what to do. It is up to “me” to figure this all out.
Sometimes it is hard to keep this in mind out in the field, but a story in National Geographic comes down to about a dozen well-chosen photographs. Storytelling always begins with an opening or lead paragraph or photo. The lead photo is the most important, and sometimes the most challenging photo to achieve. The photo must be dramatic enough to capture the interest of the increasingly hard-to-astonish reader, but also contain the main essence of the story. Think of it as if you had never heard of Fraser Island and you turned the page, what do you as a reader need to see to bring you into the story. In the case of Fraser Island, the elements of “sand” and a “island had to be present. The photo we ended up using as the lead was taken on the southeastern end of the island where the sand first starts to accumulate as it is carried by the prevailing ocean currents. The landscape here is constantly changing and has sand mounds where the pioneering plants have gotten a foothold.
The next photo to consider is the “turn,” the second picture in the story. The picture selected was one of a dingo walking in the wind on a sand blow. On landscape stories, I try to get a least one really good wildlife photo of the most unique or endemic animal associated with the place. With Fraser Island, the choice was easy because the island is famous for having the most pure strain of dingoes. It is quite easy to see a dingo on Fraser Island since they often come around camping areas looking for a handout. However, it is much more difficult to get a more natural photo of the animal in good light. I was out photographing on a sand blow one morning at sunrise when I spotted a dingo on another dune far away. The dingo kept coming toward me following the wind and smelling for any food. My guide and fellow photographer, Peter Meyer, volunteered to race back to the jeep and get my 500mm lens so I could get this shot.
Next on the agenda is the text lead. The landscape stories usually have a short text written by a writer who also does some field work. In this case the writer visited before I did and focused on the fascinating history of Fraser Island. Sometimes an effort is made to try to match the subject of the text with the picture adjacent. However, in this case since the text was mainly about the human history, we chose a photo that showed a different type of sand formation. Each picture in the story should be advancing the reader’s knowledge about the place while keeping them interested.
Aerial photographs are a mainstay on most stories at the National Geographic. On the mainland across from Fraser Island, there was an airport where I hired a pilot with a Cessna airplane. The Cessna has a high wing and if you can open the window it makes for a good platform. The best model is the 210, which doesn’t have a strut, but the most common model is the 172 that has a strut but is still a workable solution. A helicopter is the best option if you own a gyro-stabilizer, but they are much more expensive and not always available.
I knew I wanted to do an aerial photograph of a unique peat land that was found in one section of the island. It is the only such example of a fen at this low of latitude and makes a striking leopard pattern when seen from above.
While I was doing this photograph, I noticed another great opportunity in an estuary nearby. At low tide the tannin-colored creek passed over sand and entered the blue-green ocean. I usually try to do aerials at sunrise or sunset, but in this case the water looked the most saturated at midday when the light penetrated through.
Besides light, the other element that makes for an exceptional landscape photograph is dramatic weather. Our world works in a fashion that the weather is predictable on most days, but there are those rare occasions where rain, wind, or lightning strike for a short or fleeting moment. While on assignment, it is not possible to know with certainty even if some memorable weather event will occur, but if you stay for more than a few weeks something interesting usually does happen. It is just up to the photographer to be looking for it and use one’s skills to make the most of nature’s display. Fraser Island is tropical, so the rain events come as downpours. On one such rainstorm, I was driving along the beach in my jeep. I rolled down the passenger window and photographed a sand formation just up from the beach. It was raining so hard the water hitting the sandy formation was bouncing back upward.
The last picture in the story to contemplate is the ender, which is very important. This is the last statement that you leave with the reader. There are a lot of clichés to avoid, such as a person walking away into the sunset, etc., Often in a landscape story, the ending photograph will have some definite mood. In this story we picked a photo taken by moonlight of Lake McKenzie, one of the most beautiful freshwater lakes on the island. Moonlight pictures are getting more common now in the digital era, but what made this one special was a planet rising above the horizon with its reflection in the blue-green water.
Finally, there are those vast majority of pictures that didn’t make the cut. On a normal National Geographic story, I take about 25,000 exposures. Those RAW images are edited down to about 50 tiff files to produce a final slide show for all the editors. Picking the very best images in layout is much more difficult. Often good pictures get left out because there is not enough space in the pages allotted, or they duplicate subject matter or with other photos in the story. One such photo from the Fraser Island story is a moonlight scene with moving clouds taken along the one section of the island where there are volcanic rocks. I believe it was seen as too similar to the other moonlight picture in the story, but it is one of my favorites.
With all of this description of lead pictures, turns, weather shots, etc., it is easy to get lost in the main goal of a successful story – to give the reader a sense of the place and make them feel good that they live on a planet with such beauty. Perhaps Ansel Adams said it best explaining his approach in the introduction of his 1938 book, Sierra Nevada, The John Muir Trail, “No attempt is made to portray the Range in the manner of catalogue; in fact, the program of the book determines that factual, informative qualities be submerged in favor of purely emotional interpretive elements.”
Recently named one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography Magazine, Essick has traveled extensively over the last two decades photographing spectacular natural areas from around the world. He is a working photojournalist, but his photographs move beyond mere documentation revealing in careful compositions the spiritual and emotional aspects of nature. The unique and sometimes surprisingly similar forms and color of divergent pristine lands provide the raw material for Essick’s art. As a counter point, Essick has also done photographs to illustrate many environmental issues, portraying both the human impact of development as well as the enduring power of the land.
Essick has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic Magazine for 25 years. At the Geographic he has produced 40 feature articles on many different topics. Some of his favorite and most rewarding stories have been on the American wilderness, the carbon cycle, global warming, and global freshwater. Recent stories include a June 2010 cover story on Greenland, a story on the Ansel Adams Wilderness in October 2011,and a story titled “When The Snows Fail” in October 2014. He is the author of two books, “Our Beautiful, Fragile World” and “The Ansel Adams Wilderness.”
He has a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri. He lives in Stone Mountain, GA with his wife, Jackie and son, Jalen.
Stone Mountain, GA 30087
View Peter’s Work at his website
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Published December 28, 2014