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BTS Nat Geo….Crop, or No Crop?

Mar 11

In In The Field, Jobs at 4:32am

Another in a continuing set of blogs, parsing out a current National Geographic story on UAVs published in the March issue.

The way it was shot….

The way it ran…

When I tell some folks, who might be just starting to shoot jobs for money, that a client like Nat Geo sees every frame I shoot, they tend to blanche a bit. Every frame? Like, even the ones you don’t retouch?

Yep, good bad or indifferent, every frame goes to the magazine. Was like that in film days, and remains true now. (I say this as being a general rule of engagement with the yellow border gang, without knowing if some isolated photogs out there have a special arrangement with them. That could be possible.) But, for the workaday shooter in the employ of the magazine, you shoot it and ship it.

Which means of course the raw file. No PhotoShop, no retouching. The pix drop out of the camera onto a hard drive and thence into a FedEx package and onto 17th and M in DC. Most of your images are in fact like a stone you drop down a well. There’s a long period of silence, then a distant splash as they vanish from sight forever. Sometimes though, quite wonderfully, they don’t just drop unceremoniously out of the camera. Some actually strut outta your picture machine like a Vegas showgirl in full plumage, resplendent in seductive stilettos and fishnets, and all so sparkly and spangly they utterly bedazzle the bespectacled editors at the Geographic, who, I suspect, are a group who don’t get out much. They win their audition in stylish fashion, and thus gain entry, in all their colorful glory, onto the pages of the magazine. That happens to a rare few, actually.

But honestly, “dropping out of the camera” is a good description for most of your efforts. Thud! Mine in particular often bear a rough similarity to a bunch of rapid fire rabbit turds. There’s a bunch of them, they smell bad, and they get left behind.

They get left behind for good reasons, of course. The astute picture editors at Geographic are a pretty visually jaded bunch, having had many wonderfully stirring images pass their eyeballs. I can only imagine what goes through their heads as they plow through a take.  (“Christ, another beautiful sunset. What was this asshole thinking?”)  They seek only those images which impart difference and information in a truly distinctive way. If it’s just plain pretty, it generally closes out of town.

I thought I might have had one of those rare, meritorious, worthy of ink images with the frame atop the blog. It features one of the ” 50 best inventions of the year,” the Nano hummingbird, which flies and hovers just like a hummingbird and bears a video camera onboard. It is in the class of mini UAVs that are currently being experimented with and developed. The inventor, Matt Keenan, of AeroVironment, is a pretty brilliant guy, so, I thought, let’s get him with the machine. That was harder than you might expect.

Here’s the basics. It’s a programmed double exposure on a D3X. In brief, it’s got two small flash exposures, operating on different channels, during each exposure, a pair of LED lights attached to the bird (my suggestion), and a focus shift in between those exposures. First exposure was at a fast shutter speed. Second exposure was on bulb.

First exposure: A channel one deal, with a 24″ softbox on the Matt’s face, and then various hard flash splashed around the warehouse room to establish some sort of depth and context. These have various gels, and there is an ungelled flash rimming him. Shutter speed, 1/250 of a second. Didn’t want any cracks or slivers of light in the big room to bleed into the photograph. For the subject, he simply has to stand there, and look at the camera, UAV controller in hand.

Second exposure: On the same piece of, uh, film. Change channels on the commander to two. Two speed lights rigged to light the little birdie off to camera right. A main and a backlight. The hummingbird, LEDs alight, takes off from the inventor’s feet, and flies in its herky jerky way over to semi-hover in front of the camera lens. Focus has been shifted from the human to the bird. Click. Camera processes double exposure. Check LCD. Re-do. Digital definitely facilitated this. If I had to shoot this on film, I’d still be there. Each flight was between 5 to 10 seconds, and the LEDs carve a pattern in the blackness.

Here’s Cali and Drew in position for lighting purposes, with Drew doing his best hummingbird imitation.

Of course, the hummingbird we worked with was a singular prototype, so we were lucky to get a picture at all, and the thing didn’t break. And, being a prototype, its flight path, as you can see above, was on the unpredictable side. (It has evidently made great strides since this time in terms of endurance and precision of flight.) And of course, yours truly just flat out missed it a couple of times, as it buzzed its way past my ear.

But we got the deal done, and shipped it, un-retouched to the mag. It ran, as I hoped it would, but only as, really, the second exposure. In the published version, the focus is on the bird, not the inventor. Which is okay by me. Once you surrender a picture to a magazine, it is under their purview, not yours.

So….here’s your chance to art direct a bit. Cropped version? Uncropped version? Which do you prefer? Which tells the story better?

More tk….





59 Responses to “BTS Nat Geo….Crop, or No Crop?”

Publilius says:

on March 15, 2013 at 7:57 am

The “better” image depends on the article. Was the article about drones and UAVs? If so, the editors made the right call. If the article was about inventors, then the full frame image would be best.

Besides a double exposure is not playing by the “rules.” A bulb setting and two flashes would be fine, but trick photography is not what makes NatGeo great.

David says:

on March 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm

No … I am shocked to say this (We are talking about NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC), but I feel the “better” images is with the “human element”. These are, lest we forget, controlled by a human — somewhere, somehow.

So much so, that the military even came up with a medal for such a thing …

Drones/Humans … the complete story.

Jim Row says:

on March 19, 2013 at 12:50 am

The image doesn’t connect the man to the hummingbird. I don’t recognize him and can’t see what is in his hands. So, Nat Geo made the proper crop.

Hawkwood says:

on March 21, 2013 at 2:20 am

Umm..sorry…but BOTH are poor choices. The one with the guy is too busy – and the shadows of the window fans are dead center, and the drone’s almost at the edge. It’s too cluttered, and what the hell are the window fan shadows doing there anyway? You LIT those? :-) In the cut version, the gol-dang hummingbird/drone looks like Frankenstein’s monster, stumbling along with his arms straight out. Yikes! A zombie bird! “Hiding in plain sight” it’s not. A great concept, but it needs a reshoot. The flight pattern of the LED’s is cool though.

All photography is “trick” photography. The point is to use subtle, honest tricks. These are honest ones, I believe: they show the potential of tiny drones, and also what still needs some work. The “subtle” part still needs some work though…

Ok, do I sound cranky enough to get the job?

Joe McNally says:

on March 23, 2013 at 12:03 am

Christ you sound cranky enough to be an editor at the National Geographic….:-)

Chris Handley says:

on March 23, 2013 at 10:14 am

The way you shot it was the better shot. It makes the connection between unmanned aerial vehicle that a targett may or may not see and the “man” controlling it that absolutely will not be seen. Cropped version just shows me it flys.

Kevin says:

on March 29, 2013 at 9:06 pm

I vote for cropped for the magazine, and uncropped if it appears later, in a book or somewhere. It reminds me of Eddie Adams’ 1969 Pulitzer winning photo from Vietnam. The cropped version was the best choice at the time for news organizations, but now I feel cheated if I don’t see the entire frame, which, thankfully, is how it appears most often.

Jim Brady says:

on April 23, 2013 at 1:07 am

The uncropped photo is clearly a better composition, and it’s rightly placed here on a photography site.

However, National Geographic is a magazine. Its editors have to blend together text, photos, and infographics/diagrams/cartography in a way that will grab peoples attention and allow them to learn about the subject of the article. That introduces a few factors in favor of the crop:

- They needed space around the image to fit in text and the extra diagrams and information to explain what the image means. The photo urges you on to want to learn more, and that desire has to be satisfied. On its own, this picture gets 100% for visual impact, and about 5% for hard information about the subject.
- They wanted attention on the technology and not on its designer/controller, as that’s what the article was about.
- Politics might have come into it. There’s a lot of opposition to drones, and much of it centers on the humans operating them. Privacy concerns might often be rooted in people’s distaste at the drone operator being able to spy on them, not the drone itself. By showing the tech without the people, they’re focusing attention in a particular way. So Joe – as a Nat Geo photographer, you get to take pictures of prototype drones and astronauts in training and the latest Air Force jets. If the magazine’s editorial line shifts against the agencies involved, that access might start getting a lot harder. It’s the stress that makes them cranky up at 17th and M.

One technical thing – I’m surprised at the decision to blend the two exposures in camera, as it seems like a throwback to film days. If you’d submitted them as two separate shots then the editors could slap them together in 8 seconds in photoshop, or use the pure drone image if they wanted to. That would also make it easier to take a sheaf of images for each of the two exposures and then have the freedom to pick which two to composite (if they’d wanted to go that way), with different options for drone and for inventor + background. What’s the point in submitting a double exposure?

Edgar Cobo says:

on July 17, 2013 at 2:29 am

Thomas Alba Edison? Who´s that guy?.. nooo, no, no crop the photo and let the light bulb alone…. looks nicer….. :) .

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