Photojournalist Jay Dickman grew up hooked on LIFE magazine and National Geographic. Now, he's a Pulitzer Prize winner who's documented everything from the war in El Salvador to a "Stone Age" village in Papua New Guinea. He has also penned five books on his craft and founded FirstLight, a workshop series for aspiring photographers. And somehow, he found the time to share his experiences (and tips) with me.
Ignoring his dad's career advice ("Don't do it, photographers are weird"), Jay decided to pursue photography in college. He built up his portfolio at the suggestion of John Mazziotta, photo director at the Dallas Times Herald. For one season, Jay worked for an agency shooting sporting events for five dollars a game. When a Times Herald staffer unexpectedly quit, Mazziotta hired Jay, who suddenly found himself working alongside Bob Jackson, the photographer who snapped Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Today, Jay is a prolific National Geographic photographer and an Olympus Visionary — not to mention a complete enigma to the companies that insure his equipment (more on that later). Below, he shares his insights on the craft and business of photography.
Let's begin with logistics. What equipment do you use when shooting?
I use the Olympus OM-D E-M1 system. My go-to lens is the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 (equivalent to a 24-80mm), and I often carry a 9-18mm (18-36mm equivalent) for really wide images.
The best camera to have is the one that's in your hands when you need it. I always work with two cameras at once: one with a wide zoom, the other with a telephoto zoom. Unless you're shooting wildlife or sports, those two lenses can accomplish everything you need. I do think minimizing the equipment you carry maximizes the photographic potential.
What's the difference in your process when you're photographing a portrait vs. a landscape?
In some ways they're similar, as it all comes down to the moment. The landscape photographer waits for the sunray to illuminate a small forest atop a ridge; the people photographer waits for a gesture or laugh between two friends. Moment drives everything.
Landscape demands the photographer to look at the detail of the land, how the minutiae come together to create the whole. It's a study in bringing these elements together so the images convey not just a sense of place, but also the information or detail about that place.
"Here, in the high Arctic of the Canadian Archipelago, I watched as the light grew more dramatic as we maneuvered our Zodiac raft to get to the perfect spot. My cameras have to react at the exact second I press the shutter. A millisecond too late or too early and the picture doesn't exist." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 50-200mm lens/ 1/1600 SEC/ f/5.6]
Photographing people demands the ability to approach someone, domestic or international, and ask permission to enter their lives for a time. Then, you have to make that person feel comfortable, so that they go back to doing what interested you in the first place. Finally, you have to do photographic "justice" in creating an image that conveys who they are while engaging and informing your viewer. It's been proven that an audience, whether looking at National Geographic or your website, will give your image less than a half-second of attention unless you create something that grabs them by the eyeballs… then you've got them.
"Photographing this gentleman in Giza, I wanted to capture three major components of the image: the two pyramids and his profile. Using a wide lens, I was also able to capture the range of sharpness I wanted, from foreground to background." [OM-D E-30/ M.Zuiko 12-60mm lens/ 1/250 SEC/ f/8]
You also do a ton of wildlife photography. How can one best prepare for taking a shot in a split second?
I keep my cameras on at all times. I set my camera on sleep mode, and if I'm in a photo-rich environment, I'll keep lightly touching the shutter release so that it stays awake. Often — and this depends on the shooting environment — I'll use auto-ISO. This causes the camera to default to the lowest ISO, eliminating one decision I have to make in the process. I can also set my range of ISO, to a minimum and/or maximum, if needed.
Based on what I'm shooting, landscape or wildlife, I'll set my exposure mode to the preferred one for that particular situation. If I want to control motion, I'll use shutter priority. If sharpness range is what's driving my image-making, I'll use aperture priority.
"I work in all kinds of conditions, and I don't have the luxury to 'baby' my equipment. It has to work in all different types of weather I may throw at it. This particular morning, it was all about thick dust and golden light. The horses race out of their pasture heading for breakfast, and in the bone-dry Wyoming air, thick clouds of dust fill the air. The camera I use, the E-M1, is dust- and water-resistant, so I can work in all those gnarly situations." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 50-200mm lens/ 1/500 SEC/ f/5]
When shooting wildlife, I suggest photographers use the continuous or burst mode. This allows you to stay with the subject, and at the high frame rates my E-M1 offers, it lessens the chance of missing the moment. The continuous mode is also great when photographing people in low-light situations. That beautiful window light or early evening light can provide issues with slower exposure, but by using burst mode, you can improve your sharp picture average. Your first frame may have a little motion, created by pressing the shutter, but by the second, third, or fourth frame, the camera will settle down and sharpness will improve.
What do people need to know about photographing wild animals?
Don't try to pet bears. Actually, one of the greatest components of photographing wild animals is patience. Photographing wildlife shares a lot in common with flying: hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. You sit and wait minutes, hours, or days for that incredible animal photo op, and when it happens, it happens all at once.
"I loved the texture on the water drops on this King Penguin emerging from the water in Gold Harbour. I didn't want to include the face as we are drawn to eyes in photographs — I wanted the emphasis to be on the texture." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 50-200mm lens/ 1/640 SEC/ f/3.2]
Be ready the moment you hang your camera around your neck. In my photo workshops, I try to emphasize to students that the moment is now. Photographic opportunities have no real start or end time; they are available to us at any moment.
What's the craziest thing you've had to do to mentally and physically prepare for a shoot? What advice can you offer on challenging your limitations for the sake of the perfect shot?
One of the toughest experiences I've had was preparing myself to photograph the war in El Salvador, back in the early 80s. Thinking you're prepared to see the horror of war, and to photograph in situations that are beyond your control, is very intimidating. No matter how prepared you think you are, you're never ready the first time you see another human killed in front of you. To work in that environment really challenges the core of your humanity.
Every photographer wants not only that perfect shot, but the shot that can make a difference. Still photography is hugely important to us, as it accommodates the process by which we recall memory. We think in terms of still images, not in the linear process of video or moving film. The core of great photography is creating a narrative, in either a single image or as part of a story. Work on bringing together elements that convey the story to your audience.
"This is the famous Tony Redhouse of Tucson, Arizona, a traditional Native American practitioner and consultant to Native American communities. Working in lower light, the photographer is often required to increase the ISO to get a better shutter speed or f-stop. Here, I was shooting at a high ISO, exposing for the background while my wife/sometime assistant shone a low-power flashlight on Tony's face. My camera was capturing the color and exposure of the background (which was very deep blue) and the light from the tungsten-bulb flashlight was painting his face with warm light." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 12-40mm lens/ 1/13 SEC/ f/2.8]
What's the longest amount of time you've sat in place to capture an image?
For nearly six hours, I stood on Arctic ice in -45 degree weather waiting for a submarine to surface through the ice. Now, just about everything was working against me: in those temperatures, batteries last for perhaps less than 25 images; I had to wear face and hand protection, which gets in the way when things start popping. When the event finally began, the gloves came off, the facemask came down, and immediately my fingers froze. The camera also froze to my nose, requiring a quick ripping off of the top layer of skin.
The challenges continue from there, though. If you take your camera inside a warming hut, the condensation on the gear is immediate and abundant. And don't think of running back outside once the condensation arrives – your gear will freeze solid. Everything you do in this environment requires careful thinking and following a regimen (and carrying a lot of Band-Aids for your nose).
How many cameras or pieces of equipment have you lost to the elements?
Well, this could be embarrassing. Where do I begin? How about the time I dropped a camera and lens out of an aircraft? Luckily, it was a fjord over which I was flying, so the only thing that got hurt was my relationship with Insurance Company Number Three. Number Two dropped me after sinking on a boat on the Amazon, losing three (camera) bodies, four lenses, a rental Widelux camera, and a great bottle of scotch. Insurance Company Number Four didn't laugh when I told them the tale of photographing a Miskito Indian village along the Gulf of Mexico. A local chief was paddling me across a swamp and in an attempt at sign language (my Miskito is lacking), the chief offered to help me out of the dugout canoe and onto a raft of slick rainforest logs. "Don't need your help, I'm a pro," I managed to convey to him just before slipping on the logs, both cameras and lenses falling into the brackish water along with me.
Olympus never knew they replaced one camera because it was fully immersed and encased in penguin/skua/seal excrement in the Antarctic. And I didn't ask that it be replaced because it quit working, nope. It was working fine, I just had a hard time putting that camera back to my eye. (I probably should have mentioned that in the letter that accompanied the camera back to the East Coast.)
"In the near Ilullissat Icefjord in Greenland, the colors of ice in the sun and the shadows create totally different visual scenarios. Here, in the foreground the ice is illuminated by the sun, while the background is several shades and colors different." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 50-200mm lens/ 1/1000 SEC/ f/7.1]
You've had the opportunity to photograph amazing, remote places, which has to be inspiring. But how can amateur photographers explore landscape photography in their own backyards?
What a great exercise. Exploring a confined area can really empower the photographer in finding photographs in common, everyday situations. Think about photographing your yard using narrative — tell a story about your own turf. You need to show your audience how and why your yard is different from theirs. Is it the tall trees, the luxurious grass, or the minimalist approach of xeriscaping? With the luxury of doing this at your own pace, utilize the light to its best potential. A misty, foggy morning can provide that ethereal look of a foreign place. Late afternoon light can provide incredible warmth and texture. Don't stop shooting when the sun goes down — think about using a tripod to capture your lot in late, late day, when the light is almost gone and the sky has turned purple. An inside light provides a pool of warmth, creating a complementary color where warm and cold light play off one another.
Add details that force your audience to see the world in a way in which they're not used to seeing. Shoot the close-up of a spider web, with its inhabitant wrapping up dinner, or the morning dew on a flower that has just bloomed. You can also capture moment — your dog bounding across the yard in hot pursuit of a tennis ball, or your child leaping into the pool. You are trying to visually explain and define what makes your place unique.
"Near the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, a Maasai stands watch over his pasture during the night. A 20-second exposure, aided by a bit of light-painting and a high ISO, enabled me to capture this image." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 9-18mm lens/ 20 Seconds @ f 2.0/ 1600ISO]
What do you think is the most underused feature on the E-M10, and in what situations can photographers make better use of this feature?
An awesome feature, which often surprises the E-M10 or E-M1 owner, is live bulb. When using it to shoot a long night exposure, the live bulb setting allows the photographer to actually watch the image build. The histogram can be viewed during the process, so you know when it's finished. How cool is that?
Do you use Photoshop? If so, how?
As in, "Wow, did you use Photoshop to add dinosaurs into the scene?" No. As a photojournalist, I have to pretty much accomplish everything during the shooting process. I cannot come back in later and remove, add to, or embellish any part of the image.
Do I use Photoshop at all? Yep. I shoot everything in RAW format, as it provides the most information the camera can capture. I use Photoshop (or Lightroom) to convert the RAW file into something that can be printed and saved.
If you're shooting in .jpeg mode and tweaking just about every photo to make them perfect, I strongly suggest you start shooting in RAW. A RAW file provides much more dynamic range information (the ability of the camera to capture light, from bright to dark), giving the photographer nearly two more stops of information.
A warning for those who may actually listen to my advice: the first time you shoot a RAW file and open it in your photo management software, you'll be cursing my name — the image will look flat and boring. This is especially noticeable if you shoot a RAW/.jpeg mix. The .jpeg is gonna look better because it's a processed photo. Think of a RAW photo as a negative that hasn't been printed yet. My co-author of Perfect Digital Photography, Jay Kinghorn, draws the analogy that a .jpeg is like a finished cake that you buy, while a RAW is the components of that cake. It needs to be put together to create the final product.
"Penguins coming out of surf on Saunders Island, Falkland Islands. The dynamic range of this sensor is great. I have sky in the background, which is brighter than the penguins, but I'm able to capture the full range of exposure here." [OM-D E-M1/ M.Zuiko 12-40mm/ 1/500 SEC/ f/9]
What's the one piece of advice you give to aspiring photographers who take your workshops?
My suggestions are always the same: learn all you can about technology, but also learn as much as you can about image-making. Look at publications for which you'd like to work and see how strong your competition is. Learn everything you can about the current technology. The more loaded and ready you are, the better chance you have of being hired for that dream assignment. Realize how this business has forever changed — it will never go back to what it was. But I believe it's still the Wild, Wild West out there, ready to be defined by those smart, capable, determined aspiring photographers.
"In Tanzania, a Hadza Hunter/Gatherer sits in a tree waiting out the midday heat." [OM-D E-M5/ M.Zuiko 9-18mm lens/ 1/250 SEC/ f/4]
What's the best question you've been asked during a workshop and how did you respond?
"Do you like your job?" My answer is that it's not a job, it's who I am. At times, I get so tired of traveling, of leaving my wife and home, that I want to quit. At that moment, I go through the same drill: I pick a camera from my bag, and feel the electricity that still runs through me… I get to do this for a living. What an amazing life I've had the good fortune to live.