National Geographic Traveler magazine is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall. To commemorate this milestone, we asked 12 of our longtime photographers to select their favorite images shot on assignment for Traveler throughout the past three decades.
Today, we hear from photographer Cotton Coulson about the image above, which he shot for Traveler in 2009.
The opening double-page spread in a magazine story is the one shot I’m always striving to achieve. Its purpose is to capture the essence of a location and draw the reader right into the story. It’s also the same photo that supports the title of the story in extra large type, as well as the byline.
You never know where, when, and how these situations will surface. When out in the field, you just have to keep working from dawn to dusk, following your instincts, and eventually, at the end of your assignment, you head home, hopefully with all the photos and situations you need for a complete coverage.
Another early morning wake up, the sky is still black, it’s cold outside, and now it’s time to drive 40 minutes from my hotel to Hallstätter See, a lake in the Upper Austrian region of the Salzkammergut region, and meet with Peter Wimmer to go fishing. He’s mentioned in the story manuscript, so it makes good sense to connect with him and spend the morning with him fishing on the lake.
Whenever I shoot location photography I’m always looking for good subjects in the foreground, someone doing an activity that closely connects the reader to the story. The lake is full of fog, and the sky is still very, very dark blue. Time to test the new high-ISO sensor, 6400 perhaps might be where I have to start shooting. Aperture wide open at f/2.8—thank goodness I’ve been investing all these years in high-quality lenses.
The boat finally appears in the distance, puttering along slowly in the fog. The father, son, and friend pick me up and off we go out into the lake to catch pike, perch, and trout.
Along the way, the son is sitting in the stern of the small motorboat, quietly thinking. In the background the fog is starting to lift, and some of the city’s incandescent lights are now being turned off. In my composition I place the young man in the lower left corner of the frame, being sure to include the town of Hallstatt and the lake in the background. It looks pretty good in the viewfinder, could even become an establishing shot. I think to myself that it’s too bad the weather is so gray and foggy. They probably will never run a shot like this in the magazine. Still, it’s my kind of motif, mood, and light.
After the blue light disappears, the sky hangs low, gray, and colorless. Good for photographing people and their activities.
Months later I receive the story layout, and behold, there’s the shot! Opening spread!
Photo Tip: Shoot dark for dark. When the subject is very dark, I often underexpose the camera meter, since it’s always trying to average the scene out to approximately 18 percent gray. I use the exposure compensation dial all the time to adjust my settings.
Coming from a long history of shooting film, I also bracket my exposures 1/3 stop. When the RAW files are processed in the computer, I want the exposures to be perfect first time, without a lot of adjustments. Clearly the camera I used here had the latest high-ISO capabilities, otherwise the images would have come out blurry.
See more of Cotton Coulson’s work at KeenPress.com.