Posts By Brad Moore


On the road. On assignment. Sounds romantic, right? Well I’m here to tell you — it is, actually! But probably not the way you think.

And probably only if you are a photographic nutcase like me. And since this is Scott Kelby’s blog I’m pretty sure that you are, in fact, a nutcase like me too! So it will be a pleasure to do a little bit of preaching to the choir, and I’m honored to get the chance to do it here.

I thought long and hard about what might be of interest, and went back over recent stories I’ve shot for National Geographic (I’ve been working for the magazine for more than 25 years now.) Somehow I kept coming back to one moment which seemed to boil down the whole experience of shooting a recent story. And I thought I’d take you along on the journey.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis

That moment came as I was driving down I-70, somewhere west of Kansas City. Already I had driven over 3,000 miles on this mega-jaunt in pursuit of a story. I was looking out the windshield for clear skies, but the weather app on my iPhone was giving me bad news. Chicago, my destination tonight, was socked in. No way that I was going to shoot the nighttime aerial of the city I had planned for that night. But maybe the cloud cover over the whole midwest would make something interesting in St. Louis. So I diverted. I made the decision: I’d drive to St. Louis instead of Chicago and take my chances.

That moment of decision has come to symbolize for me what I love about shooting stories. One way or another, I have the freedom to go wherever the pictures were. That’s my job, chasing great pictures.

In many ways taking chances to get great pictures was exactly what this story on light pollution was all about. It was an obscure story about an obscure subject. Most people I told about it had no idea what I was talking about. But then I’d remind them how they used to be able to see the Milky Way before all the city lights got so bright, and they’d nod and tell me some tale about how they remembered seeing the stars on grandpa’s farm when they were kids. Exactly! They didn’t know it, but they were experts on the subject of light pollution. It was my job to make that all graphically real.

And which was why I was taking my chances driving to St. Louis that night. I was looking for places where I could see and photograph the effects of our ever-growing, world-wide hunger to light up the night. I had taken a chance telling National Geographic I could make interesting pictures out of this story. I’d convinced them it was an important story in my initial proposal but I’m not sure everyone really believed the pictures would really sing. And actually, neither was I. But it’s a lot like performing in the circus: if you don’t go out on the tightrope, nobody cheers.

I did have a secret weapon, however: I’d decided that I would drive everywhere for the shoot. The logistics had been driving me crazy. How could I arrange flights to all these locations, never being sure what the weather would do, how to adjust when I screwed up the first night of a shoot and had to go back? Finally, it came to me that I’d be shooting at night (no duh!) and so I’d have all day to drive. I could shoot a few hours from sundown until midnight. Get six hours of sleep and then drive for a good 10-12 hours the next day if I had to in order to get to the next location. Every night I’d be in one of two kinds of places: in a city which had light pollution and I’d photograph that, or in the countryside where I had dark skies, and I’d photograph that. Brilliant. In thirty days I could cover the whole United States, from coast to coast. And I did.

So that night, I got lucky. Pulling in to St. Louis by 5:00 pm I got a couple hours nap before heading out to the nearby Gateway Arch. Wonder of wonders, the heavy overcast that had quashed my shoot in Chicago that night put a layer of clouds just above the top of the arch. Sodium vapor lighting from the city streets turned the clouds a weird salmon color, and incredibly, the spotlights on the arch cast arch-shaped shadows on the the clouds, something like the Batman spotlight calling the caped crusader, straight out of the comic books. I shot it every way I could think of, and most of it looked pretty good. The wide angle shots created a sinister face look and the telephoto shots (like this one that we used in the magazine) were just abstract and intriguing. With five second exposures on my Nikon D3 the sky just glowed. And I went to sleep that night thinking I’d done something I never expected to do.

But that was halfway through the shoot.

Back to the beginning, driving west to Las Vegas:

The Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas

I had planned to start the whole shoot with something I was pretty sure would work: the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.


As a National Geographic photographer, I often focus on animals that are out of the spotlight. It could be a rare stream fish, a tiny plant or even an insect. I choose things that are in trouble, often at the hand of man, in order to help them out; my photos are often the only national attention these things will ever get. So, I’m really on a mission to let the world know about “the least among us” before it’s too late.

A couple years ago, I did a story for NGM on the Endangered Species Act. From that came a book called Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species. While all the images in the book have a story behind them, two stand out in particular.

The first concerns our only federally endangered fly. What good is a fly, you ask? If you eat fruits and vegetables, and have heard that bees are in steep decline these days, you would know the answer already: flies are very important pollinators. Besides, if we’re pushing even flies to extinction, what does that say about the health of everything else we share the planet with? When we save endangered species, we’re actually saving ourselves.

Logistically, this fly picture was quite hard to get. The animal is quite rare. In fact, it took 4 1/2 months just to get a federal permit for a biologist to catch one so I could photograph it. Once we got our permit, I waited for the call that some had been spotted on one of the last vacant lots where they live in southern California and then drove a mobile studio from my home in Nebraska all the way out to Los Angeles. We were allowed to catch only one, by the way, so if it got away during the shoot, too bad. Neither the biologist nor I slept a wink the night before. Despite our nervousness, we got our fly pictures.

The second image that stands out for me is of an animal that’d I’d known of and wanted to meet since I was a little boy; the California condor.

I’d read about the condor back in the 1970’s while in grade school. The largest flying bird in North America, it hovered close to extinction for decades. At its lowest, it numbered fewer that 20 individuals. It was the ultimate endangered species.

Through captive breeding, biologists have now pulled this bird back from the brink. Though still quite rare, today it numbers more than 300 individuals, with many flying free again in California and the Desert Southwest. Talk about life and death, this was high drama indeed.

Getting access to such a high-profile species wasn’t easy though. I’d been doing studio portraits at dozens of zoos around the country for many years when I got a call from a friend at the Phoenix Zoo. Seems a condor had flown into the Navajo Bridge and had broken its wrist, meaning it would be unable to fly again and would either be kept as a breeder or an educational bird. It was being kept in a recovery pen there for a few weeks with its broken wing wrapped, so if I could get there, the zoo folks said I could photograph it. I went right away.

I set up a couple of softboxes and a piece of black velvet in the back of its pen and spent about 20 minutes with him. The bird was enormous and ancient looking. During the shoot, the condor looked this way and that, confident, not scared, and not really that interested in me or the camera in my hands. But he did give me one moment, a few seconds where he looked into the camera lens and stared intensely. Perhaps he simply saw his reflection, but that look, and the fact the bird had a beautifully-colored head that’s really unusual, made this one of the most popular photos in Rare.

For me, the opportunity to photograph the bird was both a thrill and a great life experience — I’d finally gotten an audience with the most famous of all endangered species, the bird that I’d been thinking about literally since childhood. It doesn’t get any better than that.

You can see more of Joel’s work at, follow him on Twitter, find him on Facebook, and keep up with him on his blog. Signed copies of Joel’s book, Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species, are available here or by calling 402-474-1006.

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Scott Kelby Guest Blogs

[Note from Brad: This is the first in a series of guest blogs from National Geographic photographers. Check back over the coming weeks for more stories about shooting for the prestigious publication!]

Crossing the Yellow Border

Kudos to Brad and Scott for devoting blog space to a series of posts by National Geographic shooters.

I’ve been shooting for “the yellow magazine” since 1987, and that land beyond the yellow border is indeed a wonderful, and strange, place. It contains and defines the entire realm of shooting experiences—impossible odds, magnificent occurrences, unprecedented access, nearly unbelievable bad fortune, outright danger, the exhilaration of the hard won chrome or file captured, and the devastation of bad days, or even weeks in the field.

The Palomar Telescope fires a laser 60 miles into the heavens.

That place, “in the field,” can be the urbane and sophisticated streets of Paris, or someplace literally so remote as to have never felt the footprint of man. It can be the ultra-sacrosanct tombs and structures of societies time has all but forgotten, or the blinking, humming computers that power our most modern technologies. The magazine’s official mission statement is “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge.” “Geography,” for the editors there, generally encompasses both physical and cultural geography. People and their places. People in relationship to the planet. The planet itself, in all of its’ magnificence, and wreckage. The earth, sea and sky, and all the organisms those elements nurture, and occasionally, punish.

Over the Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. I found that my fingers didn’t work so well trying to load a 617 Pano camera with 220 film in an open door chopper at 14,000 feet.

In short, everything. Trust me, I know this first hand. I was once given a story to do called “The Universe.” Yikes. (To my editor, I was like, “Okay, how long do I have to shoot this?”)

I was already an established “New York” shooter, with covers of Sports Illustrated, LIFE, Time, Newsweek, New York, etc., by the time I came to the attention of the yellow border gang. Strategizing to get an assignment, I turned down a go everywhere credential to the Seoul Olympiad for Sports Illustrated to honor a commitment to a week long freebie speaking tour called The Flying Short Course, sponsored by the NPPA. Sounds unbelievably stupid, right? A freelancer turning down a month of day rates to keep an obligation to do a series of free lectures.

On the face of it, yes. But the method to my madness involved being on the same touring faculty as Tom Kennedy, then DOP of Geographic. I had the opp right then and there to show my portfolio to Tom, five days in a row. I gulped, said no to SI, didn’t’ go to Seoul, and instead went off to lecture. At the end of that week of touring and talking, Tom looked at me and said, “You should come down and start shooting for us.” That was 1987. Still shooting for them. Finished my last assignment this past summer. Almost 25 years, and lots of yellow boxes, and pixels, later, I’m still out there, trying to increase and diffuse.

For a story on Global Culture, i needed a global storyteller. Who better than George Lucas? I wanted George Lucas to simply be part of the tableaux I created outside this old theater, but it didn’t quite work out that way. George is front and center, surrounded by his creations.

That longevity was not a given, to be sure. It never is in the world of freelancing, and I did my best in my first few efforts for NG to ensure my career with them would be truly short lived. I made big time screw up after big time screw up.

It was a different type of shooting, you know? I was used to the New York method. That kind of played out like this: Get a phone call from an editor at a weekly publication in Manhattan. Say yes. Never, ever be able to reach that editor on the phone again. Make all the arrangements, Go shoot the job. A week was a long time. Six pages was a big story. Get in, get out. Process film. Deliver it in a breathless rush. Not hear anything. Call three weeks later. Finally get the editor on the phone. “Oh, hi. Yeah, Joe! It is Joe, right? That story that you shot? Oh, oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, uh, it was good, we liked it. Thanks. Gotta go to a meeting.”

Have phone ring back, almost immediately. It’s a call from that very same editor you were just talking with. That editor who now all of a sudden remembers you, and realizes you are standing there, somewhere, with enough time to make a phone call and this qualifies you as a warm body with a camera, and potential availability to solve a problem the managing editor just threw on his desk like a big, steaming turd. “Hi, yeah, uh, by the way, are you busy in the next two hours?”

Hey everyone, Brad Moore here with another quick update from Las Vegas! Here are a few more shots from yesterday and today:

Photoshop Wars (sponsored by iStockphoto) are back at the Photoshop World Expo!

The newest Photoshop Guy, Pete Collins, squared off against Jeremy Cowart and got his butt kicked all over the place! (Okay, it was actually a tie, but Pete deserves all the ribbing we can give him) ;)

The B&H crew take orders and answer questions from attendees

Attendees photograph models at the Westcott booth as Westcott Top Pro Michael Green (far right) gives shooting tips

Jeremy Cowart presents during his Making A Difference With Your Camera class

Joel Grimes presents the latest techniques in The Art of Compositing

Moose Peterson gives tips on aerial photography in Taking Your Photography To The Skies

That’s it for now. I’m off to the Expo Floor to check out some cool new gear and free classes. It’s free and open to the public today, so drop by!