Friday, February 29, 2008

Guest Post Friday: What National Geographic Taught Me by Lola Akinmade

Welcome to the very first Guest Post Friday. Today Lola Akinmade is posting about attending a National Geographic Traveler seminar.

Lola Akinmade is a GIS consultant, photojournalist and travel writer who has contributed to Vagabondish, Transitions Abroad, Matador Travel, and Brave New Traveler. She can be reached at

What National Geographic Taught Me
by Lola Akinmade.

On a nippy Sunday morning, we rushed downtown to M street, following the line of Saabs, Jeeps, VW beetles, and the occasional BMW in our little '99 Dodge Neon. We were thirty minutes early yet a couple minutes late judging by the enthusiastic crowd that had filled the registration hall. We were attending one of many seminars put on by National Geographic Traveler in Washington, DC. This seminar was exploring travel photography – how photos tell stories born from a passion for travel.

With over 25 years of experience as a photographer and 45 stories for National Geographic Magazine (NGM) and Traveler (NGT) combined, Jim Richardson opened up with a mouthwatering breakfast of travel photographs and landscapes from around the globe – castles in Wales, panoramic vistas from Southwest America, unbelievable colors and rich cultures from South East Asia, and many more decadent pictures.

Joining Jim was Catherine Karnow, whose core photographic strength was being able to relate across cultures through travel portraits. Catherine boasted 15 years experience with 25 stories for both NGM and NGT. She shared colorful portraits and details from Jaipur, Vietnam, and Miami.

I wanted the meat of it all. I wanted to know what National Geographic really looked for in pictures and how I could stand out from the crowd. There were close to 400 of us in that auditorium. We were discouraged from bringing portfolios and cameras. I brought a few bookmarks which also happened to be my business card.

“What makes a picture good enough for NG is an interesting picture, not a technically perfect picture”, Jim explained to us. “With travel photography, being able to relate to people and giving them a sense of what it's like to really be there is the most important factor.”

We began to notice the common thread shared by those pictures. The vibrancy, the depth of color, and the framing of subjects began to come into light.

By using wide-angle lens, each of the travel photographs pulled us in and right into the middle of the action. Almost all of the National Geographic photographers use some form of a wide-angle lens.

Color and textures were such important elements in all the pictures we saw. “That’s why I usually shoot around dawn or dusk”, Catherine shared. “They provide the best natural lighting that set the mood and colors of your pictures”. For indoor situations, a certain ambience that warm lighting provides is unbeatable.

For the next couple of hours, Jim and Catherine shared tips from simple techniques to the common rules of photography to breaking all those rules for the right shot. “If a subject isn’t contributing to your scene, it’s distracting so take it out. Clean up the clutter!” highlighted Jim.

Questions ranged from the importance of model release forms to the best backup gear, but the one question that resonated was asked by a lady who’d recently been to Mauritius. As travel photographers we assume the role of geckos on the wall, blending into the background and observing. “What if you find yourself in a situation where you’re clearly the foreigner garnering all the attention?” she asked.

I drew on my own personal experience. By introducing myself to someone either verbally or through gestures, they’ve invited me into their world even though mine was drastically different both culturally and physically. Just smiling and emitting a positive energy went a long way. Catherine echoed this fact. “Sometimes I feel like it’s my duty to entertain people and keep the momentum going”, Catherine answered. “I need to adapt to each individual situation and feel the vibe.” In reference to the lady’s situation, she had to just wait till the commotion had died down and then she could move more stealthily through the culture.

By seminar’s end around 4pm, we were treated to more photographic desserts from Dubrovnik, Sardinia, Vietnam, and the Silk Road. In true National Geographic style, they left us wanting more.

When I got home, I weeded through a couple of my favorite shots. Based on what I’d learned, were they NG worthy? I replayed Jim’s words in my head. “A good photo is one which is interesting. A good photo takes you there. Not one which is technically perfect!”

The biggest lesson I learned from National Geographic that day was the power of intuition.

I have to keep on trusting my instincts.

(this was first published at

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Hi Lola, I'm so envious. What a great day you must have had, surrounded by amazing photographs and people with a passion for taking them.

Thanks for sharing this.

By the way, was very interested in what you wrote about 'your bookmarks are your business card. What a great idea.


laradunston said...

Lola - this is a beautifully written post as well as being interesting reading. Good stuff!

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