Photo Tips From Santa Fe

I just returned from one of National Geographic’s photo workshops in Santa Fe, and wanted to share a few tips I think could help all photographers, amateur and professional alike.

Spending a week with longtime National Geographic photographer, Joe McNally, who led the workshop, was a dream. Joe is known for his exceptional eye for color and light, and his ability to pull off any assignment — which he says makes him the go-to guy when our editors have a particularly hairy scenario in mind. Learning photo skills from him would be like taking acting lessons from Al Pacino. When you’re in the presence of greatness, some of it has to rub off, right?

The workshop group ate, slept, and breathed photography during our time in the New Mexico desert, honing our skills while a true pro critiqued our work. One day, we went out to a classic film set used mainly for westerns called Eaves Movie Ranch, worked with a few model cowboys and cowgirls, and snapped up a storm.

Here are a few things I picked up that will help you step up your game when you’re out shooting:

Tell a Story With Your Photos

Let your photograph tell a story. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)
Let your photograph tell a story. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)

When you look at the image to the right, what story comes to mind? Maybe the sheriff caught these two cowpokes causing trouble near the saloon and is advising them to get on out of town? Where your mind will take you will depend on your imagination, but the point here is that there is obviously something going on here — and the act of making sense of what that might be serves to pique the viewer’s interest. Bottom line: Your images have to speak for themselves because you won’t be around to explain why they’re interesting.

Address All Aspects of the Frame

Experiment by taking lots of photos from different perspectives. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)
Experiment by taking lots of photos from different perspectives. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)

Images have foregrounds, subjects, and backgrounds, and good photographers take all three elements into account. The biggest mistake you can make is to stand at a medium distance away from your subject and snap away at eye level. Get down on the ground, get up on a chair, move in real close, back far, far away to show scale. I shot a bunch of close ups of this cowboy against the door, but this image — where the bottle and cards are present in the foreground — is my favorite. Having something interesting in the foreground while making sure to keep critical focus on the subject makes for interesting photos. Besides helping to tell the story of the image, this technique also prevents dead space from creeping into the image. Exceptional photographs require a willingness to go to extremes.

Details are interesting if they help tell the story. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)
Details are interesting if they help tell the story. (Photograph by Jonathan Irish)

Develop an Eye for Details

When you go out to shoot, it’s a great exercise to think about creating a photo essay out of what you will be shooting. In that photo essay, you will want to show everything — from the overall scene (establishing shots) to the most minute of details (extreme close ups) and everything in between. You might think that photographing spurs or monster belt buckles would be weird, but these kinds of details provide insight into what it’s like to be a cowboy. Be sure to spend some quality time working on nothing but capturing the most telling details — the stuff that helps move your story along.

Jonathan Irish is a professional photographer and a program director at National Geographic Adventures. Follow his story on Twitter @MagnumJI and on his website,


  1. zorrowqp
    Shanghai, China
    September 12, 2013, 8:03 pm

    Great skills, helps me, a fresh starter, develop more!

  2. chirag chandgude
    pune india
    August 31, 2013, 6:07 am

    gettin to know santa fe;pictures tell thousand words……………………

  3. Danielle
    August 26, 2013, 11:27 am

    I like the idea of telling a story with your image…

  4. Pavlo
    August 12, 2013, 7:35 am

    Some good tips there for sure. But I think the cowboy shot looks too contrived, too set up. There just happens to be a cowboy, and lo and behold… a bottle of alcohol, some playing cards and casino chips splayed out perfectly. Please.

  5. Roxanne Schorbach
    Los Angeles, Calif
    August 12, 2013, 1:13 am

    Very interesting. A So California session would be of interest.

  6. Linda Derksen
    Vancouver Island, Canada
    August 9, 2013, 11:04 pm

    Excellent tips. Thank you so much. I always enjoy NG. My philosophy is, photography is inspiring and empowering, and quite often a fascinating journey into the human spirit.
    Cheers, Linda

  7. Carole Larose
    Ottawa, Ontario Canada
    August 9, 2013, 9:14 am

    Truly appreciated the tips. Would enjoy receiving more. NG photographers ROCK!

  8. John Hudson
    Roseville, CA
    August 8, 2013, 8:33 pm

    I clicked on the image in the “Photo Tips from Santa Fe” e-mail because I wanted to see the full shot of the man in the cowboy hat portrait! Where is it? Please don’t disappoint me!

  9. Ernest Raymond
    August 8, 2013, 11:18 am

    As a birder and amature photographer with a Nikkon D3100. …..Tips are very helpful especially on foreground ,background and the subject

  10. Rebecca Thompson
    August 8, 2013, 11:14 am

    Yeah, great tips.

  11. Rebecca Thompson
    August 8, 2013, 11:13 am

    Santa Fe? Naw…Montana.

  12. Stephanie Cuneo
    Los Angeles
    August 8, 2013, 10:13 am

    I found your tips to be very helpful. I, too, would be interested in a Southern California workshop.

  13. Lance Fee
    Perth, Western Australia
    August 8, 2013, 9:01 am

    Great tips, it would be good to see a section regularly devoted to developing good photo trchniques

  14. Quyen
    August 7, 2013, 1:40 pm

    Thank you for the great tips. The workshop looks great. Are there any workshops in the Southern California area?