Behind the lens with National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson
For this week’s Behind the Lens story, we talk with Jim Richardson, a photographer for National Geographic magazine who lives in Lindsborg. His most recent story about the soil beneath our feet titled “Our Good Earth” appears on the cover of National Geographic.
Q: How did you get started in photography?
A: I started at Kansas State University after a career as a hobbyist when I was growing up on the farm. I started working for student publications when I was a senior. From there I went into a summer internship with the Topeka Capital-Journal with Rich Clarkson, who many of your Lawrence folks will know. I stayed there for 11 years working with the Capital-Journal before moving to Denver. I basically had a good, long newspaper background in photography.
Q: When you travel on assignment overseas, what do you typically take?
A: Probably not as much as I used to. I’ll have one camera bag that I carry on the plane that would have enough stuff in it so that I could get the job done in case nothing else shows up. And then I have another case of equipment that I check and a tripod in my checked luggage. I’ll have an extra (camera) body or two, several other specialty lenses, a bunch of small flashes, remotes, a variety of things that, depending on the assignment, would help me get the job done if I ran into any really special situations.
Q: Do you take an assistant?
A: No I don’t. There are photographers who work almost exclusively with assistants. Most of my work is done pretty much lone eagle.
Q: Describe your typical workflow from the time you plan your photographic coverage to the time it appears in the magazine.
A: Probably 60 to 75 percent of all stories that I shoot for National Geographic begin with a story proposal that I write. … This lays out editorially what we think the story ought to be, why it’s important, and why it would be interesting for readers of National Geographic. If that is approved, and it goes through a fairly arduous approval process, then I would be assigned as the photographer. A writer would be assigned and we would both then construct a plan for coverage. I plan what the photos are going to be. The writer plans what the text is going to be. Anybody else who is going to be involved, say the cartography or illustration departments, would get involved in that stage, too, and we would have a big meeting back in Washington to lay out all our plans and make sure everyone is on the same page.
Then the photography begins. And depending on the assignment and the schedule, I could be done with the assignment in three months, or it might be a year and a half before I was done with the photography. I wouldn’t be out in the field all that time. A typical assignment might involve 12 weeks of photography in the field spread out. Say if we needed different seasons, or, for instance on the soil story, if you have Northern and Southern hemisphere things, you’d have to be juggling when the crops were going to be growing in different areas, when various events were going to be available. With the soil story that is in the magazine this month, I think I went to seven foreign countries and about 20 U.S. states. So, there is a fair amount of juggling involved in getting around to all of those things and at the right times.
Generally, we think that photography has to be done six months prior to publication. … We would edit all those pictures, which could be a lot. For a major story like this it could be anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 pictures. We edit those down to between 60-80 to show the editor. Assuming that everyone is okay with what we have done, we would then go to the layout process, which takes about a week in Washington working with the art director. We present the layouts again to the editor as well as the rest of the editors, about 15 folks, in what we call the wall walk, where we have the layouts on the wall all mocked up and show them what we are proposing to include in the coverage and why. Then most important is to have the narrative all laid out properly so that it makes sense and is a strong package, the visual narrative is strong, and it works. And that not only is it interesting, it is informative.