Husband-and-wife photography powerhouse Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg have been shooting for the National Geographic Society for years. Recently they traveled to St. Petersburg to photograph the city for a recent Traveler feature. (Check out an extended gallery from the story here.) One of the magazine’s photo editors, Krista Rossow, caught up with the pair to get the behind-the-lens scoop.
Krista Rossow: Have you visited St. Petersburg before and, if so, what kind of changes have you noticed in the city?
Cotton Coulson and Sisse Brimberg: We have both worked in St. Petersburg many times, going back to the Soviet era. The changes have been enormous. Today, the citizens of St. Petersburg are open, friendly, confident, and smiling. The colors are brighter and the buildings are cleaner.
It was the Imperial City of Russia and now it has been restored to its glory.
KR: Here at Traveler we love interesting photos of real people doing everyday things — something you both do beautifully. Does it help that you photograph as a team? And do you have any advice for folks who want to get better at photographing people?
CC & SB: We really love engaging with people, and working together helps us break down barriers quickly. Sometimes one of us does the interview while the other takes photos.
When we are shooting candid shots of people on the streets, we don’t stand out as much as if we were working alone. People trust us more quickly, and have fewer concerns about what we’re doing.
Our simplest advice for photographing people is to force yourself to get close and make eye contact. Many new photographers rely on their zoom lens too much, so there’s a sense of distance from the subject.
If you’re using a wide-angle lens, try to get the environment in the shot to help tell the story about where and how they live.
KR: What was your most memorable meal while you were in St. Petersburg? Did you discover any restaurants you’d recommend?
CC & SB: We found a great small restaurant called Teplo, close to St. Isaac’s Cathedral and ended up eating there almost every night. Russian cuisine, home-made borscht, mushrooms from the forest, and Russian dumplings. Light and no grease, very unlike the Chicken Kiev we used to eat every night during the Soviet era. Not to mention the owner was one of the most interesting people we met.
KR: What are your favorite photos that didn’t make it into the magazine?
CC & SB: There is a shot of a woman hurrying home to avoid the rain. It was taken in the blue hour [late in the day], and she is wearing a bright orange scarf. Everyone is blurry but her.
Cotton and Sisse are frequent guest experts on National Geographic Expeditions trips and also lead photography workshops. Find out more about how you can catch up with the Denmark-based couple in person.