“If you can surprise the judge, or make them wonder how you produced that image, that is something that will sit with the judge ... and it will help your image go to the next level. Surprise us. That's important.” ~ Jeff Mauritzen
(Transcripts available below)
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Heidi Higgins: Hello there, I'm Heidi Higgins and you are listening to K12 On Learning. It's not every day I get to visit with renowned photographer, Jeff Mauritzen. His images have appeared in hundreds of publications, including over a dozen National Geographic books, several National Geographic Traveler magazine articles, including the UK and Korea, several Lonely Planet guidelines, BBC travel, Washingtonian magazine, Virginia tourism, and numerous other publications. Jeff has joined us because he is one of the judges for the Stride National Photography contest, which is open now. The contest is open to any student, any age from any school in the United States. This year, there's no theme, simply the invitation to capture the beauty, the challenge, the people or anything that appeals to your eye.
Even though we're using our voices to discuss your skills today, Jeff, I would like our audience to open their minds and envision your amazing photographic work. I will be including your website, so listeners can see some of the masterpiece you have created in our show notes today. We invited you here because you will be one of the judges in the Stride National Photography Competition, that's open right now. Also, you have a profession that many of us dream of, as we pull out our phones out of our pockets and try to capture moments in our lives where all picture takers, but only few of us become photographers. And as it is a great art, you're at the top of that skill level. Your work for national geographic brings beauty and reality of the world to us. So, Jeff, will you share a little of your background and tell us when it was that you first became interested in photography?
Jeff Mauritzen: Oh, well, thanks for having me, Heidi. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm excited to be back. I think this is the third year I've been part of the contest, in terms of judging it. So it's always wonderful to see all the great submissions we get. With regards to photography, I've been a professional photographer now for 17 years, which is hard to believe that it's been that long. And I still find that even though I've been in business of photography for 17 years, I still learn. I learn constantly every year and I'm constantly trying to make my images, my storytelling better. So with regards to when I actually got started or interested in photography, it was when I was a kid. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, so it was old Kodak cameras that were you'd get it Kmart and I'd have antique cameras that I used to just kind of hold. They were cameras that were passed down through the family.
So they weren't usable, but I just liked holding them and looking through them. What drew me to photography I think is, initially I liked capturing images that captured the moment, could have been a family occasion or hanging out with my friends when I was little. And I liked the idea of being able to go back in an image. And when looking at the image, you're able to be transported almost magically back to that moment in time. Whereas my memory, I probably would've forgotten that day if I hadn't taken an image of it.
And so eventually, that led me into the interest of outdoors and taking photographs of nature, wildlife, beautiful landscapes. And thankfully, I was able to turn it into a profession, where I get paid to do it. I think the goal of anyone really is to get paid, to do something you love is they say, "You don't work a day in your life", but that's not true. But I think I work harder more for myself than if I was to work for somebody else. It's my name, it's my reputation on the line. So I'm always trying to be the best I can, no matter what I'm shooting or photographing.
Heidi Higgins: I love this beginning of yours, where you had that Kodak cameras and the old ones that were handed down. It has always been a great art and some of those cameras are collectible today. Do you still have some?
Jeff Mauritzen: Yeah, I have some antique cameras and I have my original camera that this is just a Canon T50. And it was the first camera I ever paid for with my own money. I bought it on something called The Paper Shop, which was like a paper classified. Kids probably don't know what those are, but it was almost like a Craigslist, if you will, for the old days. And you could actually adjust the aperture, which none of the Kodak cameras, it was just kind of, you pointed at what you wanted to photograph and you press the button. This one, at least allowed you to change the aperture. And so, I'm thankful that I still have this camera.
Heidi Higgins: Currently, you get to travel the world with your work. What is an experience you can share where your job was overwhelmingly amazing?
Jeff Mauritzen: As far as amazing, it's amazing quite regularly. I teach photography for National Geographic expeditions, they send me all over the world. One of my favorite places to travel to, and that I've been fortunate to travel to on multiple occasions is Antarctica. It is absolutely spectacular. And we go down there in their summer, which is our winter, the wildlife, the landscapes, the light is just very beautiful and very other worldly. There are many places you can travel around the world and it will remind you of somewhere else you've been. When you go to Antarctica, it doesn't remind you of anywhere else. It is its own unique, special place.
And so the ability to go down there and see these incredible icebergs that, these tabular icebergs that are just massive and they're sculpted by the wind and the waves of the ocean and they look like art forms. We sail past them and sometimes you catch it and the light is just perfect or it had this image. The moon was setting and it's setting right over the iceberg as we're sailing past it. And it was just at 2:00 in the morning, believe it or not, because it doesn't get dark when we were down there and the light was just spectacular. And it's one of those moments that will sit with me for the rest of my days, I'm sure.
Heidi Higgins: That sounds beautiful and breathtaking. It must be fun to go back and discover. Do you look immediately what you've taken to see if it's spectacular as you might suppose?
Jeff Mauritzen: Yeah, not always immediately, but I tend to go back through and I'll immediately go through and I'll find the best images. And then I'll also find the worst images and get rid of the worst images. And I think the ability to go and review your work is great digitally versus, we talked about using the old film cameras. I'd like looking for the mistakes to figure out how to avoid them in the future. So I think that's an important process for any amateur or professional photographer is to review and see what you did and what you did wrong too.
Heidi Higgins: So you're looking with a critical eye. Is that the first thing you teach young photographers or what's the very first thing?
Jeff Mauritzen: Oh, that's a good question. Yeah, critical thinking at your own work is definitely important. And I think a lot of times I find the age doesn't really matter so much because there are young photographers who are old. Those that are interested in photography and getting it into it later in their life. So it's important to get an honest review of your work and having portfolio reviews or asking somebody other than let's say, your mom or your dad, because it's very easy for them to say, "Oh you did a great job. That's a great... Those are great images". It's more important to get the feedback into find out, "I really think this is a good image, but is it a good image?" It's important to get somebody who has a critical eye that can look at that and help you hone your skill and figure out how to take your images from good to great, because it's very easy to make a good image nowadays. It's very hard to make a great image.
Heidi Higgins: I like that statement. Is equipment going to be key still in photography or can anyone now with some of the modern technology take photographs?
Jeff Mauritzen: So equipment definitely does matter. Obviously, at the end of the day, it's the same thing, if you talk about guitars, right? If I give you a good guitar or a great guitar, if you don't know how to play the guitar, it's not going to matter. You're not going to perform and produce A Rock Ballet or a masterpiece on that guitar. The camera is the same way, it really comes down to first being person who can think compositionally and then to think also scientifically or more methodically about how to get the aperture and the shutter speed and the ISO and all those kind of pieces right. And then, it's combining the art and the science I think to produce the great image. Equipment is helpful when you are at the professional level and let's say you need to push your ISO, your film speed at the old days would be, you need to push it to a very high level because it's dark or something like that, you need more light capability with your camera.
That would matter more, if you have to deliver the image to the client and you didn't want to deal with a lot of digital noise, which is what could happen if you're using a piece of equipment that is more amateur than professional, if that makes sense. So equipment can help you get sharper images and less noisy images, but compositionally, it's not going to help you have a better image. With regards to smartphone photography, they don't have the reach that professional and mirrorless cameras do, they don't have telephoto yet. They're getting better and they're offering more choices beyond just wide angle and just kind of a standard 50 millimeter view, let's say. They have portrait mode, which is nice. They don't quite have the reach yet, if you're interested in using your telephoto lens or your zoom lens for compositions, so there are still limitations. They are very good, but I think there's the equipment still lends itself or the tips the balance in favor of a mirrorless or a professional camera, that DSLR.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you, that's very good to know.
Jeff Mauritzen: Sure.
Heidi Higgins: Most of us have that new technology in our pockets. And if you're talking to parents and teenagers who are interested in competing or participating in our upcoming photography contest, tell me what tips you would share to help improve the outcome of an iPhone photographer?
Jeff Mauritzen: That's a really good question. So first of all, you should think about creating something that is unique. You want to surprise the judges, you want to give us a wow. If you can surprise someone or make them wonder, "How did they produce that image?" That is something that'll sit with the judge and will help your image go to the next level. Let's say, pass the first round to the second round of judging. Surprise us, that's important. And then think about, is it technically... So you have the surprising aspect, which is a creative and a thoughtful thing that you've gone through when you capture the image and then is it technically sound? And when I say technically, is it blurry or is it sharp? Is the color balance, correct? You can adjust those things even on a smartphone, whether you're shooting with the smartphone or a camera itself, these are things you can control yourself.
Is that image sharp? That's important. And is it sharp? It might look really sharp on your smartphone, but it might not be sharp on a computer screen. And the judges are going to look at on the computer screen, where they can see the images bigger. So I would suggest that if you have an image that you took on your phone, you want to submit it to the contest. First, send it to yourself where you could... Email it to yourself, let's say at full resolution, so you can review it on a computer screen, a larger computer screen and make sure that it looks good. That it looks sharp, the color balance is correct. That would be my suggestion.
Heidi Higgins: Those are great tips. Let's talk about the kinds of jobs. Many of schools are career focused. What kinds of jobs are available in photography?
Jeff Mauritzen: Photography is, it's a hobby and a passion for a lot of people. And the transition from taking it from hobby and passion to a career can be challenging because a lot of people love to do it. So the fact that a lot of people want to do it, sometimes people will just either do it for free or they'll do it for very cheap. So you have to figure out a way to make yourself unique in what you offer and you have to figure out how to be a business person. So one of the things I think I didn't realize is that, you're a photographer nowadays, you're a business person, first. You're a photographer second, because if you can't figure out how to do the business side of it, you're not going to be in business as a photographer for very long. Most of the jobs in the photography market nowadays have to do with people. Photographing either people for portraits or photographing people at events or photographing people for photojournalism and news stories.
The idea of somebody just photographing beautiful sunsets and beautiful forests and to be able to do that by itself and not do anything else is very rare. And it's something that very few people can just live off of. So if you want to be a working photographer, you have to get comfortable with photographing people, that would be a suggestion that I would have.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you, I appreciate that. Sounds like some of these jobs require some schooling and advanced education in that business say, establish their own business and learn how to make money on such things.
Jeff Mauritzen: Yeah, absolutely. When I read books, entrepreneurial books and because if you're a photographer nowadays, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You're the website guy, you're the marketer, you're the guy that goes out and meets people and shakes hands and tries to get business. There's a lot of different hats you wear as an entrepreneur. I'll say, if you're a photographer now, as you're an entrepreneur. There are a few salaried photography jobs out there, most of them are not great paying. There are a few that are great paying, that are higher level, but most of the salaried jobs are very general and very basic and very low paying, unfortunately. My suggestion to anybody that is interested in becoming a photographer is learn the business side of it too.
Heidi Higgins: How about some of the people that you get to take on these excursions? What is their reaction? You you've talked about yours a little bit. What is their reaction to this beautiful landscape that they find themselves in?
Jeff Mauritzen: Most of the trips we go to are to very remote destinations, kind of these once in a lifetime opportunities. And so I've seen people cry, arriving at a location and just being overwhelmed with the site or the emotion of being there. For a lot of people, when we go down to Antarctica, a lot of people that's their first time, at their last continent. And it's just such a dream to get there that I think it overwhelms them, very often. Yeah, it can be amazing to watch and experience it for the first time through someone else's eyes, so I always enjoy. A lot of times we'll do photo reviews and at the end of the trip and everyone shares their images and it's always wonderful to see what everyone captures because everyone has a different take on their experience, they have a different eye.
And so, it's always wonderful to see what other people are capturing because as a photographer, I think I'm constantly looking through what I think is worthy of taking a picture. And sometimes I won't take the picture because just say, I don't need that picture. I've been here before or I don't seen it in better light or whatever, but just being overwhelmed sometimes, just overwhelmed with emotion and excitement and just gratefulness of seeing some of these magical destinations. I might have mentioned that it can be so overwhelming that people will actually come to tears when they see something so beautiful as Antarctica [inaudible 00:16:07] or to seed penguins in real life. A lot of people love penguins, then you step on the beach and all of a sudden you're surrounded by 50,000 penguins, it can be overwhelming. The site and the smell actually, so...
Heidi Higgins: That's funny, I suppose it's a humbling situation to be in. Are they immediately clicking to take photographs? Are they thinking? What is their first reaction?
Jeff Mauritzen: It depends, everyone is different. Some people need to sit and experience it first and some people need to, they're just at them, they feel like they immediately need to start taking photographs. And I remember the first time we went to an island called South Georgia, which is a Sub Antarctic Island. And it is home to millions of King Penguins, which are about three feet tall. And you go onto some of the beaches and they have 500,000 King Penguins that are three feet tall. And I just remember being, it's one of the places that I just was so overwhelmed when I first saw it. I didn't know where to start, it just like, how do you start... You're just so overwhelmed with the site of it, you're just like, "Where do I even begin to photograph something like this?" And then you start getting to work and finding the compositions and...
Heidi Higgins: I can't imagine the... Photography is our history, we're so grateful for the photographers of our past, who captured images of people and things and places that record the history that put words to life. And you do so much of that now, as you look at parts of the worlds that most of us just get to dream about. So thank you for your advanced work, it's beautiful.
Jeff Mauritzen: Oh, you're very kind. It's a joy to be able to share images with people and have people appreciate them, so...
Heidi Higgins: Any last advice that you would like to give to the participants specifically?
Jeff Mauritzen: Yeah, here's another thing to think about is your lens choice. And you have lens choice even on your iPhones and your smartphones. A lot of times, people opt for going very wide angle with their photographs, meaning they'll choose a wide angle over using a telephoto to compose their composition. But they can be some of the most challenging lenses to use. Telephoto lenses, help eliminate distraction from your composition. Whereas wide angle lenses tend to open up everything into the composition and it's very hard to make everything... If you allow everything into your composition, it's very hard to get an orderly composition that makes sense and that's a really great composition.
So I think if you're a young photographer going with a wide angle lens or a wide angle view of things can be quite a challenge. So think about looking through a zoomed in lens, because what happens is, when you compose an image, you're eliminating distraction, you're telling the viewer, this is important, this part of the scene is important. You're eliminating any kind of outside distractions and you're creating a composition that is beautiful to you or surprising, or it tells a story. By reducing distraction, you can clean up your image and make it more interesting and more compelling. So think about lens choice, that would be my suggestion.
Heidi Higgins: Well thank you, Jeff Mauritzen. It's wonderful to hear your advice and to understand that we're talking to an expert who has that good eye and gets to judge so many photographs coming in. I understand they're coming in by the hundreds and hundreds and we're just excited for the students to participate. Get to be able to have the opportunity to be viewed with your eye and the praise and excitement that will be coming for their work. So thank you for being a part of this.
Jeff Mauritzen: My pleasure. I'm very excited to see what we have coming in this round. So thank you for having me here. Thanks for the interview. I can't wait to see the images. So bring them on in.
Heidi Higgins: Thank you for listening to K12 On Learning, sponsored by Stride. To learn more about online public schools, powered by Stride K12, Stride career prep programs that foster lifelong learning or any of the private school or individual course offerings. Please go to stridelearning.com or k12.com. Special thanks to Tricky Studios for providing the music for us and remember to subscribe to this podcast and feel free to leave us a good review. Until next time, keep on learning.
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