National Geographic photographer Krista Rossow traveled to San Francisco to photograph the city for the National Geographic Traveler story “The Social Network.” Learn her tips for staying aware and finding undiscovered photo opportunities.
Before I head out on an assignment there is a lot of preparation. I arrange shoots at places I know I need to cover, research locations that might make for good photography, and make a rough schedule. I do this to make the best use of my limited time in a destination and to better my photographic odds. But my favorite part of actually being on assignment is allowing for chance.
I was in Mission Dolores Park one late afternoon, wrapping up photographing a family that was going to be mentioned in the San Francisco story I was working on, when someone yelled out, “Parrots!” We all did a double take as two stunning, rainbow-colored birds—macaws to be exact—swooped high overhead. I had to figure out what the story was behind those exotic birds flying wild in the middle of the city.
Under darkening skies, I scurried up the hill where the macaws had been flying, and there I met Chan, an elementary school math teacher who had trained his macaws, Rudy and Bella, to go out for a “walk” every few days. He agreed to let me know when he’d return to the park and I crossed my fingers that I’d have good light.
Two days later, on a sunny, clear afternoon, I returned to the park and was surprised to find Chan surrounded by a small entourage. Curious children and passersby had flocked around this friendly, neon-clad man and his macaws. I was impressed with his generosity of knowledge and time, answering every question and letting people pet and hold his birds.
I let the scene unfold before me and photographed the awestruck kids and Chan looking lovingly at his pets, but what I really wanted was an action shot with the city skyline in the background. I had my chance to get the shot a couple of times when the birds launched into flight, using a fast shutter speed to freeze the bodies of the birds while allowing a tinge of motion on their wings. Chan stood out nicely in his bright shirt, and I liked that his tattoos were visible, revealing more of his personality. I kept moving myself so that I could keep the park and the city skyline in the background, the goal being to make a photo about Chan and his birds while also giving a sense of place.
Before I left to shoot the next thing I had planned, I succumbed to the avian charms of Rudy and Bella and let them climb on my arms. I yelped when Rudy gave me a tiny bite. “He is flirting. That means he likes you,” Chan reassured me.
I left with the shot I wanted from a scene that I never expected to run across, but, most importantly, I left after having the opportunity to spend time with someone who turned from a stranger into a friend. You never know whom you’ll meet when you go out with your camera—or who will bite you on the arm.
Photo tip: While being prepared is essential in travel photography, always keep an eye out for unexpected moments that might lead you to unusual photographic opportunities and interesting new friends.
Krista Rossow photographed with a Nikon D800, 24-70mm lens at 24mm, at 1/800 sec., at f/8, ISO 200.