Nat Geo legend Jay Dickman shares shots, stories, and tips for shooting like a pro

One the keys to being a successful photographer is having a keen sense of adventure and wanderlust, and probably no photographer embodies the spirit better than Jay Dickman.

From the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru to Japan’s Arishiyama Bamboo Forest and the Taj Mahal in India, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer has logged more miles that many veteran airline pilots.

Dickman has been on more than 60 trips while working with travel website National Geographic Expeditions as the “National Geographic Expert,” capturing legendary, natural and cultural wonders around the world. In fact, Travel and Leisure Magazine recently included Dickman as one of the “10 fascinating people you can travel with in 2017.”

Digital Trends spoke with Dickman about spending life on the road, favorite places to shoot, his prior life shooting rock and roll legends, and why he prefers a mirrorless camera for his work.

Digital Trends: What sparked your interest in photography?

Jay Dickman: Growing up in the 1960s, magazines were a constant presence in our home, especially Life, Look, and National Geographic. I remember looking at those incredible photographic journals and being struck with the power of the still images. At the time I didn’t realize what an impact those frozen moments were having on me. We also had two copies of U.S. Camera: U.S.A. at War, which were compilations of powerful still imagery from WWII. Those various publications probably had the most impact on me as a future photographer. It was those frozen moments that shaped my future.

What are some of the biggest challenges on many of your on-location shoots?

Maintaining focus on why you are there is always paramount. Travel is miserable today, and when arriving in a foreign location, often after many hours in a plane, I usually am exhausted.

“Maintaining focus on why you are there is always paramount.”

Add to that the fact that you are gone from those you love, often for an extended period, and it’s easy to lose sight of your goal. One is expected to pretty much hit the ground in terms of working these days, as budgets are tight and time is of the essence.

Preparing for the shoot beforehand is critical. National Geographic assignments would involve preparation for the shoot; phone calls, research, logistics are all part of the assignment. When arriving in the field, I hope to be as up to speed on information about my subject. It does come down to “knowledge is power.” But the photographer also must be ready to be surprised by events and possibilities not found in the research.

Where are some of your favorite places in the world to shoot?

I love the Susan Sontag quote about travel: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Like all location/travel photographers, I’m always asked, “What’s my favorite place?” The answers range from “the next place” to “home,” both of which are true.

I think that question requires criteria: Are you asking about food, culture, geography? One of my favorite places in terms of geography are the tepuis of the Guiana Highlands of South America, especially in Venezuela. Some with an altitude as high as 9,200 feet, they are some of the oldest geologic formations on earth. And, that height is usually vertical, jutting straight up from the rainforest below.

I spent several weeks atop these, working with a Venezuelan climbing rescue team as they practiced rescue drills. I had access to a helicopter most of the time I was there, providing an incredible view of that landscape. I spent time atop five-to-six tepuis, camping all the time. My first view of Angel Falls – the tallest on Earth – was while standing on the skid of a helicopter, doors off, dangling from a strap as I shot straight down on the 3,212 feet of the falls.

What does it take to compose an incredible landscape photo?

When standing in front of an incredible place, and if others are there, I’ll often hear the question, “Don’t you ever put your camera down and enjoy the scene?” My response is that I do see the beauty of the place, and I find that my camera takes me that much more deeply into that place.

Like others viewing that scene, I’m astonished by the beauty, and I start “breaking” it down. What is drawing me into that landscape? Is it the light, is it the structure, is it the combination of all those components? I believe that the camera then forces me that much more deeply into the landscape.

Why do you prefer a mirrorless camera, specifically Micro Four Thirds, for your work?

I am one of the Olympus Visionary photographers, having been a part of that group since 2003. I strongly believe the mirrorless camera is the future equipment of the location photographer (and all photographers). I believe Olympus is going in the right direction, with the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system.

The mirrorless camera reflects one of the strongest areas of growth in photography, and going smaller is the logical way to go. The less conspicuous I can be, the easier and more effectively I can work. As technology moves forward, the quality of the MFT image is just about on par with the larger sensors [but] with the far smaller size, footprint, incredible optics, and awesome quality.

One of the beauties of the MFT system, the lenses are considerably smaller but with incredible quality. My 40-150mm f2.8 replicates the field of view of a Nikon full-frame 80-300mm, at a fraction of the weight and size.

My camera case, when I travel, fits in any overhead on flights, and carries lenses ranging from 14mm out to 840mm; my Olympus 300 f/4, with its two-to-one factor – along with the MC-14 tele-converter – provides that equivalent length at an f/5.6 aperture. I print many of my images, up to 40 inches wide, and the quality is stunning.

You are also big in the rock and roll world. How did you end up shooting iconic stars and bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Who?

It was in the late 1960s when I first started photographing rock and roll. I took my Pentax H1A 35mm camera to a concert, and I was hooked. This was before I started working for the Dallas Times Herald and I continued once I was hired as a staff photographer in 1970.

I’d photograph major bands when they came through Dallas, on my own time and the images would be published in the paper. This gave me the credentials to then approach the management for the next group, as I was legitimately shooting for a major paper.

Yep, it was a blast. I photographed many major musicians and groups: Janis Joplin, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones, Procol Harum, Alice Cooper, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Beach Boys, the Blues Brothers – the list goes on and on. The amazing thing, these photos are being sold as fine art today; my work is represented by Morrison Hotel Gallery. I sure didn’t think back then that these would be hanging on someone’s wall, framed beautifully in a signed, limited edition.

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