One of the things veteran National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson often discusses is the value of returning to a place or subject that you have photographed before—to capture a different perspective, develop a deeper relationship with it, and ultimately come away with stronger photographs.
Travel assignment schedules are extremely tight and often it is not possible to do a retake. This is part of the excitement and challenge of being a travel photographer—you get air-dropped into situations you are completely unfamiliar with and your need to come away with a great shot in a matter of hours, sometimes minutes. But you don’t always succeed, and an “almost” shoot can haunt you for the rest of your assignment and even longer. That’s when you need to call up your editor and ask for another chance.
On my recent assignment in Florida, one of my tasks was to photograph the manatees of Crystal River, which is the only place in the state where it is legal to swim with these beautiful creatures. The first time around, we hired Captain Broderick, the best private tour guide in the area, and I brought three water housings and all my underwater gear. I spent four hours in the water, trying to get close to the manatees. Trying to get a good POV shot that showed a snorkeler watching the manatees.
But several factors were conspiring against me. The water was cloudy from both people and manatees kicking up sand, it took me a while to figure out the proper approach to the animals, and when the light finally got good, I couldn’t change my ISO to adjust. There wasn’t time to swim ashore, pull the camera out of the housing, reset it, and get back to the scene. So I just worked with what I had and got some shots that, while compositionally beautiful, were simply not sharp enough to make the cut.
As I continued along with my assignment, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I hadn’t nailed the shot that I had believed was going to be the easiest one of the entire trip. If I just had one more chance, I thought, I could get something good. I called up Dan Westergren, the director of photography at Traveler, left a message, and we played phone-and-text tag for a couple of days before connecting. Finally, on the last day of the assignment, he called me from an airport somewhere between D.C. and L.A. and I gave him a quick roundup of the trip. “The only thing I’m not happy with is the manatee shoot,” I told him, and before I could beg for another chance, he offered me an extra day to go back to Crystal River, provided I kept the budget low, and take another crack at it.
I signed up for a group tour that started at 6 a.m. the next morning, and drove to Crystal River to catch a few hours of sleep. On the tour the next morning, I had less than an hour to shoot. But the pictures turned out great this time.. Even though I had never had any interest in photographing manatees before this trip, I’m now determined to go back to Crystal River one day and try again.
See more photos by Chris Bickford on Instagram at @chrisbickford.