Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a National Geographic Channel photographer? What it’s like to go to far-flung locales and bring stories to light that the rest of the world hasn’t seen before? We’ve wondered just that, so we got in touch with National Geographic photographer Marcus Reichmann, who is working with Samsung to try out the NX1, a new interchangeable lens camera designed for expert photographers.
As a photojournalist, Reichmann has traveled from small-town Germany to Kashmir and Morocco and Croatia and back. We spoke about his approach to photography and asked him to share some of his secrets. Hint: it involves ‘becoming one with the camera,’ gaining your subjects’ trust, ‘stealing’ (well, not really), and ensuring you have the right gear.
HP: What are you working on now?
I have a long-term project that brings to me to the Western Sahara, which is a country underneath Morocco that is illegally occupied by Morocco. There are about 200,000 people living in refugee camps.
HP: Are there any unique challenges on this project in particular?
It’s not actually a war zone, but I can say that it’s the first time I’m in a situation like this: when you come to a camp and you have to have military and they need to escort you to places. It’s also the first time I had to deal with stuff like driving through minefields. Usually what I did before was stuff in front of my door, stuff that happened in Germany. I’ve done a lot of family stories. This is the first time I’ve been in a dangerous situation.
HP: Do you usually work by yourself -- say, for the “Forgotten Arabellion” series you’re doing -- or do you have other people helping you out and building the story with you?
That depends. Usually I go there with a writer, but as soon as you’re there, you might take different paths. Sometimes I really like to -- or I need to be -- on my own, especially when it’s about getting in touch with people and gaining their trust. Often that takes a lot of time; you have to spend a lot of time with people drinking and talking before you even take a picture. So I like to be by myself during that time.
HP: I’d like to talk a bit more about gaining trust. For example, in your series, "A Place To Be," you have a photo of the family in bed in early morning. How do you capture such intimate moments? How did you build that relationship and not feel like an intruder?
I think as a photographer you just have to be honest. You have to take pictures of things that really, really interest you. Not just because you want to make money with it, or the industry asks for it -- you really have to have an interest. And I think that’s really important for the people that are your subjects -- that they feel your honesty. You also have to spend a lot of time. For that particular story, I spent three or four years with this family, and of course, over time, you gain more trust. I couldn’t have done a picture like this on my first day. So in the very beginning, I had a lot of talks with them. And then, slowly, you start to become more brave. f you ask for permission before you take a photo, you’re just drawing pictures. So you have to take small steps toward such an intimate moment like this, and I knew at that moment, it was right. I knew I could do it. They also trust me because I show them all the pictures before I publish them, and they can always say, ‘This is too intimate, I don’t want this.’
HP: That’s nice to know. I think you can see that in the pictures, that they trusted you. There was an honesty in the pictures, and what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. On a similar note, how do you photograph someone who isn’t used to being photographed? How do you deal with that? Let’s say you’re doing a portrait.
I try different approaches. I know how inconvenient it can be to be in front of a camera. Actually, I hate it! One thing is that you have to be quick, because it’s not going to get better, the longer you take to capture this picture. You have to know your camera. You cannot start to meter the light while the guy is there, or to play with the autofocus or play with different lights. You need to have a plan. Also, try to be a nice guy! No, be a nice guy.
Another trick I have is, sometimes I use really old cameras … like, really big stuff. For the people being photographed, it’s something more extraordinary. I’m not doing this every time, but it sometimes helps to take a few pictures with analog. And then they ask why I still use it, and often this breaks the ice.
HP: But you work mostly in digital, right?
I would say 90 percent of the pictures that I do -- editorials, or stories I plan to publish -- I shoot them in digital. It’s just much more convenient and cameras are much faster, the resolution is much higher, the detail is better. There are 1,000 things that digital cameras can do better than analog cameras.
HP: Let’s talk about gear. What are your essentials when you travel?
When I travel, it depends. Right now I’m using the Samsung NX1, with the 16-50mm F2-2.8 S ED OIS lens and 50-150 mm ED OIS S lens. I try not to take too much gear with me. I usually have a monopod, two cameras and three to five lenses. No more.
HP: Is there anything you think the Samsung NX1 was particularly good for? Taking portraits? Outdoor shots?
It’s an all-around camera. It’s definitely good for reportage, like I do, because it’s really small, it has a super-fast auto focus, the image quality is amazing and the usability is amazing. Reportage photography situations often change in a split second, and you need to have a different setting on your camera to deal with this -- because you go from outdoors to indoors, or something is happening really quickly and you need to change from single photo to continuous photo, or you need to change your ISO settings really quick. That’s something that I can do blind with this camera. It also has a useful feature called the “i function” button on the lens. When you press this button, in the finder you can see all these settings and can change them really quickly without putting the camera down. It’s good for everything. I think it’s especially good for people who travel, or do reportage, or people who work in low-light conditions.
HP: Do you find yourself using that camera in other settings?
I’ve been using it a lot lately, especially because the usability is so great. You can tell the designers put a lot of thought into how photographers work with their camera. It’s very natural. You don’t have to read the manual to work with the camera -- I really, really love that. And if you get used to that, it’s hard to go back to a different system.
HP: What do you think a big mistake intermediate photographers make when they buy gear?
They buy too much, and it’s confusing for them later on. You buy the camera and you buy every lens in the system: you have your macro lens and supertele lens and 35mm prime lens with 1.4 aperture. And then, you have so many options to choose from that you never know which lens is the right one. My recommendation would be to buy the camera, buy one lens -- maybe a zoom lens, 28 to 70mm -- and then work with it, and try to become one with the camera and one with the lens. In the very beginning, I was shooting with only two lenses, and even before I put the lens on I knew exactly what the picture would look like. I expected the effect this lens would have even before I looked at the picture.
Don’t play too much. If you have too many options, you play around too much, and you never find what you’re looking for.
HP: How do you build your visual vocabulary? Are there any other photographers who inspire you and allow you to ‘see’ the photo before you take it?
I think practicing is the major thing you have to do. But also try to take the least that you can: try to get along with five pictures of a portrait or 10 pictures in a portrait session. But shoot every day and try to make it better, or make it different, on the next day [compared with] the day before.
I also think it’s important to ‘steal’ from other photographers. Buy yourself photobooks, try to get a sense of other photographers: why they do things, what their approach is. And try to copy, but don’t be a copycat! Try what they tried and decide if this technique or this style of picture fits your personal needs. I like many different photographers and so many approaches. It’s hard to choose which one is yours, to find your voice and stick with it. I like Lise Sarfati, and Anders Petersen, and Daido Moriyama, and more classical photographers like Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. I think he was an amazing street photographer.
HP: Can we talk about lighting? You’re certainly not working in a studio setting. Do you have any tips for working with natural light?
Of course, it’s key to have a camera that also works in low-light conditions, to have a camera you can use in high ISO range without destroying pictures with noise. And also having fast lenses, that helps. I often use a monopod, so even in a low-light position I can have shutter speed times of 1/24 or 1/15th of a second and the position will still be sharp.
I don’t think there’s a special trick; you just have to experiment with it. It’s more of an instinct. It’s always key to know your technique. I think this is very, very important. You have to know the rules of photography, particularly the technical side of [it], before you can start to break in. Experiment with it. Maybe before you go out in the field, try [taking photographs] without people in it. Take pictures of light to be able to learn how this effect will look on a picture.
HP: What kinds of features on a camera would be conducive to low-light conditions?
The ISO range of the camera -- not just, ‘how much can I pump the ISO up?’ But, ‘how will the picture look in this high ISO range?’ I think you can pump up every camera to 3200 or 6400 ISO or even further … but does the picture really look good if you use it? That’s the question. The NX1 has an ISO range of 100-25600 (EXT 51200), which is ideal for reducing noise and highlighting image detail. Having a camera that gives you good quality in the high ISO range as far as dynamic range and sharpness and noise is key. And it opens opportunities you did not have before.
HP: Your photos are very journalistic, naturalistic. How much editing do you do after the fact, and how much is done in post-production?
I”d say on average I spend 15-20 minutes per picture, if I have decided that it will be in the story.
HP: Do you think a lot of hobbyists overdo the post-production aspect?
This is a big problem, because if you have so many options, you feel the need to use it, and often photographers overuse the effects. I think [post-production] is a good thing. If you tell people, 'I work on my pictures,' they say it’s cheating, but it’s not. We’re doing the same things that we were able to do in the darkroom, it’s just less time-consuming and much easier. Before digital photography, you had to have a really great guy in the lab to give you these effects. Now the photographer is also the guy from the laboratory. If you overuse [effects], it starts to look sterile, and you actually take away the magic of a photograph and make it less believable. This is relevant to my line of photography, which is journalism, as it can actually kill the trust of the guy who looks at your pictures. If someone thinks that something seems too good to be true, you lose him, and he’s not interested in your story anymore.
HP: Do you have any tips for someone who says, I want to be a National Geographic Channel photographer? What do you recommend? How do they take their photography to the next level?
For me, it really made a big difference […] when I met people that had the same emotions about photography that I do, that were compelled to it. So find a group of people that are photography enthusiasts and that you can share your pictures with, and not just in terms of the technical side of photography but also discussing the meaning of photography. For me, the next level is when you’re not just taking a technically perfect shot, but you take a picture that can be interpreted and that is working on the emotional level. I think it’s really key to know the technical side of photography, but after that, there’s actually more -- how to make a picture that actually touches people, not just by its technical perfection, but by its meaning.
HP: You went to school for photography in Hanover. Did you think you learned the technical side there?
I did, but it’s not that you start to study photography and then you necessarily become a better photographer because you have courses. It’s more that you meet a lot of people, whether it’s from the industry or other students that have the same passions that you do.
HP: Can you tell me about your recent trip to Croatia? [Ed: Check out the video below!]
We went to this one place that’s called Plitvička Lakes. It’s one river, and there are seven or eight steps of waterfalls that fall into each other. We actually shot right underneath one of these waterfalls. There’s this mist everywhere if you stand right underneath the waterfall. The good news is that the NX1 camera was still working after we did it! I was surprised it was still alive afterwards, because I was soaking wet; I had to change my clothes afterwards. But we took a round trip through Croatia, doing nature photography, which is not what I do every day. But it was really fun and I learned a lot about photography. The light in Croatia was amazing, and the people were amazing. Go there.
For those who want to shoot like a NGC photographer, Samsung introduces the NX1- a new premium camera designed to help expert photographers find their signature through superb image quality, a remarkably fast AF system and outstanding ease of use.