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Sam Abell's Master Photography Class

reviewed by Glen E. Johnson for photo.net

About Sam Abell

Sam Abell grew up in Sylvania, Ohio, and has resided in Crozet, Virginia (near Charlottesville) for 20 years. He has been with National Geographic as a staff photographer since 1970. His assignments have taken him all around the world, including such exotic destinations as the Galapagos Islands, and the Australian Outback. He learned about photography as a young boy from his father, who taught Geography and advised the high school photo club back in Sylvania.

Sam was in Dayton, Ohio on the weekend of February 8th, 1997 in conjunction with the opening of the photo exhibit entitled National Geographic: The Photographs. The exhibit will be on display at the Dayton Museum of Natural History through April 27, 1997. The exhibit is based on one of Sam's several past book projects, National Geographic: The Photographs. He is currently working on a book entitled The Photographic Life. As part of the weekend's opening activities, Sam offered a Master Class/Seminar to share his ideas on photography. The cost was $30.

Workshop Format

The workshop was divided into two primary segments. During the first segment, Sam talked about his own style of photography. A tray of slides from his work at National Geographic was used to illustrate his points. In the second part of the workshop, each of the 18 participants presented 10 examples of their own work, and Sam critiqued the work in the context of his own photographic style. Having been both photographer and editor, Sam was able to make many specific useful suggestions. The workshop was extremely valuable. Sam was very patient with the participants, he answered every question in useful detail, and he clearly loves his work. Although the workshop was only scheduled to run for 3 hours, Sam skipped his lunch and stayed with the group for nearly five hours, right up to the time of his public slide show presentation.

Comments / Tidbits

Equipment and Film

Sam observed that equipment was not the major factor in the success or failure of a photographer. He said that he could get publishable images with the old student camera that he had used at Sylvania High School as a photographer for the High School Year Book. As a professional, he started out with Nikon, moved to Leica, then to Olympus, and now to Canon. He spoke fondly of the Konica Hexar, and cameras by Contax. He said that when a professional changes from one brand to another, the consensus is that you lose a year getting used to the new system. From the comments that he made, it sounded like he missed the Olympus gear, largely because of the spot meter system in the Olympus OM series.

Sam doesn't use zooms, and he didn't mention them until someone asked explicitly about them. He has a bag full of lenses and a couple of bodies provided by the magazine. His normal "kit" is to stick a 28mm lens on one body and a 90mm lens on the other. He described the 50mm lens as "tempting," but felt that for most of his work it turned out to be either too short or two long. He said that zooms have only recently become sharp enough to suit a critical eye, and he felt that the short focal length zooms (e.g., 20 - 35mm zooms) were dangerous because it is easy to creep down below 28mm, and there is just too much distortion of perspective at these short focal lengths. He showed some example photographs with human subjects where focal lengths below 28mm gave excessive prominence to objects in the foreground (the hands, for example).

Composition is much more complex than picking a focal length. Problems that you might try to solve by zooming, generally don't get solved. He talked about micro composition, which requires the photographer to pay attention to many elements within each scene. Micro composition is based on simple ideas (outlined below), but it requires a lot more than can be accomplished by just zooming to another focal length. It is harder to do than to talk about. There was one photograph during the whole workshop that he commented could have been improved if the photographer had just been able to zoom to a slightly shorter focal length in order to capture some free space between the top element in the slide and the slide mount.


He said that he preferred the 28 to 90 range because this range sees more or less like the human observers of the scene. With longer and shorter focal length lenses, you see what the lens saw. No one else on the scene saw the same picture.

He indicated that he prefers smaller cameras. Small, light cameras are less intrusive and easier to carry around. He commented that he could be perfectly happy shooting with just two bodies and the 28mm and 90mm prime lenses. The big bag of lenses provided by the magazine isn't necessarily an advantage in the field.

On filters and flash, he is a fan of neither and doesn't use them. He commented that filters often make it look like the photograph is on steroids.

As for film, National Geographic has historically relied heavily on Kodak for film and processing, although they have recently also been using Fuji emulsions. He talked about getting his film back in the little yellow boxes, just like the rest of us. They shoot literally hundreds of rolls of transparency film on any given assignment. Several times he pointed out that most slides were disappointments. He commented that the magazine needs 6 great slides to build a story and that a driving force for the photographers is to try to capture that next great slide.

The final note on this equipment/technical stuff is that National Geographic does not digitally manipulate their images. When digital manipulation first started to show up on the commercial scene 10 to 15 years ago, someone at National Geographic apparently published a picture of the Egyptian Pyramids after digitally moving one of the pyramids. There was so much flack over this, that the magazine has not ventured into this new technology since.

Shooting / Taking Pictures

The goal is to capture an image that is so powerful that it will just have to be published. His style can be characterized as a quiet style. Early in his career at National Geographic he was criticized for this. Instead of changing his style, he worked hard to make his photographs even quieter. His theory was that, in principle, his style was OK. He just needed to do it better so that it would be clearer to the editors that his work should be published.

He commented several times that his boyhood in Sylvania, Ohio (near Toledo on the border with Michigan) had shaped his photographic vision. No matter where he is shooting, he is attracted to images that show several planes converging on a distant horizon. The great flat landscape of northern Ohio had a profound impact on the way that he sees the world.

He characterized his style as a layered style. He looks for elements that will work together to provide depth to the photograph. Two of the textbook examples that he used to illustrate these ideas were his picture of the Kremlin and his picture of some cowboys working on a calf during a roundup. The Kremlin photo was taken through a window in his hotel. A shear curtain covered the window. There were pears on the window sill. You could see the Kremlin, with St. Basil's cathedral in the background. These elements provided several layers for the photograph. To make the photograph complete, he waited until the light simultaneously fell on both St. Basil's dome, and the pears on the window sill. The final touch was a slight breeze that rustled the curtain. It is a memorable photograph.

The cowboy photograph is equally dramatic, and appeared to be harder to achieve since many of the elements were in constant motion. Sam selected the lead cowboy as his primary subject and shot him all afternoon. The photo that "worked" best was one where the cowboy and an assistant were working on a calf in the foreground. Some elements of the cowboy's face were blocked by the brim of his hat, but his lower face, with knife in his mouth, could be clearly seen. The basic background of pasture and blue sky provided a great backdrop for layers of activities. The elements are framed in such a way that they add great depth to the photo. Sam indicated that some of his colleagues feel that this particular photograph represents his very best work.

A key idea in Sam's approach is to first identify the background. With a promising background, you then wait for the light and the subject to complete the photograph. He showed a photograph of two women meeting on a street corner in a traditional Japanese village. He had gone back to that street corner for weeks waiting for just the right thing to happen. Finally, these two women came, talked, and then, as they were saying goodbye, the older one reached out and touched the garment of the younger one, presenting a timeless image that Sam was able to capture. Find the right background, wait for the right light, wait for the right subject, nail the exposure, pay attention to details of micro composition, take the picture.

Sam favors early morning and late afternoon or early evening light. He doesn't use flash. He worked in black and white for his first 15 years as a photographer, and his early color work shows this interest in near monochromatic color.

As for his interface to the camera, he tends to put the camera on automatic. He will adjust exposure with the spot meter when he feels its necessary. He tends to use a spot meter in what sounded like an unusual way. One of the photographers brought a slide of a duck on the water against a background of reeds. It was slightly over exposed. It looked like the photographer used either average or possibly "smart" metering with no compensation. Sam suggested that he would have used a spot meter, but he would have straddled the spot between the duck's back and the reeds behind the duck. It looked like he was suggesting two thirds duck, one third reeds for the ratio. When asked if it wouldn't be easier to just spot meter the duck and then open up a stop, he said that that was too complicated for him. When asked if he noticed any difference between the spot meters in different brands of cameras, he said that he missed the spot meter in the Olympus.

When asked about bracketing, he wasn't enthusiastic. He said that when you bracket, you better try to get the right exposure with the first frame. Part of this is driven by his obsession with compositional issues that can quickly change, particularly when people or animals are subjects. He said that he had gone through one of his books to identify the shots that were single frame shots, and it turned out that only a very few of the pictures that made it into the book had been the result of bracketing. Most were single frames.

Elements of micro composition appear to make or break the lasting value of captured images. A major issue is to consider the naturally occurring curves and lines in the scene. Try to be sure that there is space between related curves. He said that these open spaces drive the photograph to "infinity." He showed a picture of the last Shaker lady in New Hampshire standing on a porch with other buildings in the background. Her head was perfectly outlined by, but separated from, the buildings. His picture of a old Australian rancher, smoking his pipe on the porch, with granddaughter playing on a bed provided an opportunity to show how curves throughout the photograph worked together to present a common theme. Finish off the corners and edges. Look for opportunities for internal framing. He often referred to a photo or a group of photographs as a poem. Edgar Allan Poe's view that everything about a poem ought to reinforce the theme of the poem is especially useful in critiquing the elements of a photograph. Every element should contribute. Nothing should distract or detract.

Other elements to micro composition include the advice to avoid collisions between background and subject elements. Maintain some space behind heads so that the subject's head/face will stand out. Small changes in camera position are critical in achieving this effect. Get lower, or higher, or more to the left, or more to the right. He said that he has even paid people so that he could sit on their shoulders to get a better camera angle for some subjects. Don't let horizons or buildings cut through your subject's head. The difference between a good photograph and a great photograph may be only a relatively small change in camera position in many instances.

Sam warned against getting too excited about a subject. He used his assignment in the Galapagos Islands as an example. He and the other photographers were so excited about the subjects there, that they tended to forget about the important elements of composition, lighting, and exposure. Of the 500 or so rolls of film shot on that assignment, he felt that possibly as many as 200 had been "wasted." In addition to the tendency to forget about the rules of micro composition in the excitement of the wonderful subjects, some scenes presented significant lighting challenges too. White birds on dark rocks metered around 1/250th at f/5.6 with the standard on camera meter algorithms, but spot readings of the birds themselves were closer to 1/250th at f/22 (a 4 stop difference). Photographers argued about correct exposure, and a lot of film was blown by folks who didn't recognize the incredible ability of the dark rock to beg the lens for more light than was appropriate to properly expose the birds.

A final suggestion from the workshop is the recognition that photographic subjects change with time, and you're best chance to take a picture of a particular subject is now. While on assignment in the Australian Outback, Sam wanted to get a picture of the definitive Boab tree. He was taken to a particular tree that was reportedly on the order of 1000 years old. It took a couple of days to reach the tree. One of the photographs was exceptionally beautiful, and it has been presented in several venues, including a huge enlargement in at least one Australian Embassy. The year after the photograph was taken, the tree was struck by lightening and killed. A few years later, the last remnants of the tree were gone. Had Sam not gone out of his way to document this beautiful tree's existence, there would have been no record for posterity.

I would summarize Sam's primary theme as "learn to see, and be patient." One of the photographers in the workshop presented work that was clearly much stronger than the average. When complimented on some of his slides, his comments ran along the lines of "Thanks. I had to wait for 3 hours to get that one." Sam liked this photographer's work so well that he picked several of his slides as examples to show off at the end of the workshop.

Summary / Evaluation

I strongly recommend Sam's workshop to anyone who is interested in travel photography, street photography, photo journalism, portraits, or fine art photography. He works well with every level, from advanced professional to rank amateur. He criticizes each work in a gentle, but well reasoned, way, and at a level that is appropriate for the photographer. You will definitely learn a lot about your own work, and you will definitely gain a lot of insight as you view Sam's work and the works of the other participants.

If you want to talk about equipment, flash, filters, gadgets, and the like, this is the wrong workshop for you. If you want to learn about how to see an image, how to hunt an image, how to plan for an image, how to evaluate an image, or how to capture the timeless image, Sam's workshop represents a great opportunity. Sam stated at the outset that he wanted to be sure that you got full value for the price of the admission. He more than met this objective on February 8th in Dayton.

If you have a chance to catch the exhibit when it comes to your city, it is a beautiful collection, and well worth an afternoon at the gallery.

Copyright 1997 Glen E. Johnson

Readers' Comments

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Piaw Na , November 14, 1998; 08:15 P.M.

A collection of Sa Abell's photographs can be found in "Stay This Moment: The Photographs of Sam Abell." ISBN 0-934738-72-6, 1990, published by The Professional Photography Division of Eastman Kodak Company and Thomasson-Grant, Inc. It contains many of the photographs that Glen describes in this review, and is worth borrowing from the library to see. What amazes me about Abell's style is that his photographs are truly quiet, yet have emotional impact. This is not photojournalism as you see it in the daily papers.

Larry Miller , November 12, 2013; 03:12 P.M.

Excellent documentary about Mr. Abell Glen. I've been a big fan of his for years, mostly because he values and uses the same focal lengths that I do for my work (28mm & 90MM). I as well, am not a big fan of carrying a lot equipment. Give me an Nikon F3 and an F2 and these two lenses and I'm set. Great work Glen! 

Mary Lee Dereske , March 25, 2015; 10:22 A.M.

I saw Sam Abell speak at Santa Fe Photographic workshops this past week in an instructor presentation to the public. He is a deliberate, thoughtful presenter. Thank you for this review. I will highly consider attending one of his workshops.

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