It is interesting to note how often my conversations with young, aspiring photographers begin with questions about the gear I use. I understand why: gear is tangible – you can hold it in your hands and immediately see the benefit it provides or the perspective it might unlock out in the field. No piece of gear, however, will ever be the most important tool in my kit, regardless of how cutting edge or expensive. Instead, it is my approach to capturing images that determines my success.
In my youth, I remember watching photographers around me take the same picture over and over all day long, walking away from their shoots with a hundred copies of one, maybe two, compositions to choose between. I was guilty of this, too. Eventually, my desire to develop as an artist motivated me to evolve a strategy for getting out of my safe zone and seeing the world in a new light. The technique I landed on allowed me to walk away from any shoot using any combination of cameras and lenses with powerful images in my pocket. It is the same method I used at National Geographic for nearly two decades and that I continue to use today as we patrol the front lines of conservation aboard the SeaLegacy 1.
Because it had slowly developed out of instinct over years of shooting, I struggled to articulate my approach when asked about it – it was just something I felt. Only when named, did it finally become something I could teach others: the 20/60/20 Rule. I wrote about the 20/60/20 Rule several years ago in Photographing Wild: an e-book intended to impart the lessons of my experience to future photographers. I would like to share that chapter with you today in the hopes it will help you the same way it continues to help me every time I pick up a camera.
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I want to make compelling photographs. When someone looks at a photograph and thinks, "Wow, that is really sharp, or technically perfect," then it is not a powerful photograph: it is a good photograph. When someone looks at an image, and it beats them over the head, grabbing them by the heart and completely pulling them in, that's a powerful photograph. They're not analyzing it, they're experiencing it by having an emotional connection, and they don't even know why. The power of photography is making that connection with the viewer.
Throughout this book, I refer to the left brain and the right brain. The left brain is more logical and analytical: it deals with sequences, math, language, and facts. The right brain is more creative and imaginative, predisposed to holistic thinking, intuition, and rhythm. It is good to know this because it can help you analyze yourself. Are you more right-brained and emotional, or more left-brained and analytical? You need both, but at the right time and circumstance. This is one of the reasons I use what I've termed the 20/60/20 Rule – it helps me delegate.
For example, I want to find a way to force myself to be more artistic when I'm shooting – to push myself to be a little edgier, take higher risks, and come back with those gems. I only shoot five to ten images each year that I am deeply proud of, and it is my constant mission to go after those images. I hold myself to creating images that are artistic – they have to be powerful, they have to be beautiful, and they have to tell a story. That's where the 20/60/20 Rule comes in.
When I'm shooting, I want to give my editor something that National Geographic will be guaranteed to publish. So if I see a bear coming out of the forest, I make sure it is sharp, make sure it is in focus, and do the best job I can on the composition, light, and mood. That's the first 20%. But if it is sharp and in focus, it is still only a good image, and I don't want good: I want great. So I go to the 60%.
This biggest chunk of time is where I sit and push my own artistic ability and technical skills as a photographer – this is how I force myself to come back with something truly special. Once I've got that, and I am really happy with what I'm creating, then I'll say, "Let's try something different. Let's do a five-second exposure, just to see what happens." This is the last 20% of the 20/60/20 Rule, and it is there for my growth as a photographer.
I once made an 18-second exposure of a diver at night, handheld, with an underwater camera while getting hammered by strong currents, and that photograph is one of my favorites from the assignment. I would never have gotten there, however, if I'd allowed my left brain to say, "Well, it is probably not going to be sharp – this is probably not going to work." I would never have said, "What the hell, let's try it!" At the end of the day, I love to say, "Let's just try something!" The images made during that last 20% are often not publishable, but I always learn something, and by shooting that way, I'm always growing as a photographer.
That is my own personal school of growth, and that growth always expands my toolset and gives me the skills I need to pull off another image at another time that will get published. That will be the difference between an image that is merely good and one that is powerful.
The image on the cover of my book, Polar Obsession, is a great example of this. I was working in the high Canadian Arctic, and we had been looking for polar bears for a long time. A few had come by camp, so I got some distance shots with my 600mm, but that angle just wasn't working – it wasn't special. They looked like ID photographs. I was making tight shots, sharp shots, and some detail shots, but I was trying to shoot the whole scene. Those were all in the first 20%, and they were good but uninspiring. That's when I started pursuing the next 60%. The story in this scene had to do with the disappearance of the sea ice that polar bears need in order to hunt and survive. I knew I needed to wait for the bear to go to sea, so I followed him out in the water. I found him on the ice, I photographed him for a long time, and he got used to me. I was out on the water in a tiny boat, shooting pictures of the bear with my wide-angle lens while he was swimming around, just getting those safe, obvious shots.
Then I got into the last 20%, intentionally playing with the more artistic elements, looking for reflections, and making beautiful surface shots by playing with scale to make the bear look small in a large ocean. The palette on the surface was stunning, and I suddenly realized that the reverse must be happening in the water. It was a calm night, and I imagined all the reflections of this bear on the underside of the surface of the glassy water, so I took my camera below the thin blue line and started to shoot as the bear dove, casting his reflection against the surface. I couldn't get my face underwater, but I kept going wider and wider until I was using my widest lens to finally take in the whole scene. I pressed the trigger and hoped for something magical. I was shooting film at the time, so there was no way to know where the images were heading or whether I was getting anything at all, so I took that risk, and it paid off.
I was speaking at an event recently, and two women in the audience were trying to dissect how I made the image, theorizing that I must have created it in Photoshop because it was impossible to make such a photograph with a camera alone. I see that as a huge compliment. When an image is so artistic, creative, and beautiful that you are sucked in by wonder and question what you're looking at, that's when I know I've done my job. That image would never have happened if I hadn't pushed myself beyond the 60% and into the last 20%.
To adopt this rule as your own, step out of your comfort zone. Shoot the potentially boring, safe image, make it sharp, get through the first 20% as quickly as you can, and get into that second 60%. As my original mentor, Flip Nicklin, used to tell me, "A sharp and well-exposed image is just the beginning and not the end." How do you get to that 60%? Start taking more chances. Make that animal as small as you can within the scene to give it scale. Or zoom in on the detail of its eye, try to incorporate some motion into the image, maybe try a half-second exposure. The idea is to lose yourself in the creativity of your right brain. By pushing your own artistic envelope, you'll tell a story with every creative tool in your toolbox.