Photographer Sam Abell Talks About “The Life of a Photograph”


Pears in a windowsill, National Hotel, Moscow

From the Sam Abell book ”The Life of a Photograph”/courtesy Sam Abell

Sam Abell is an inveterate and habitual composer of scenes. “I see space, and white, and color in every situation and scene I’m in,” he says.

Regarded as one of National Geographic’s foremost photographers, he has made thousands of images while on assignment for the Society’s magazines, books, and Web site. He also teaches photography, and if there was a university devoted entirely to this, he would be its foremost and most distinguished professor.


Abell has photographed almost every scene and aspect of everyday life one could expect to come across working for National Geographic and other publications for more than thirty years, so it’s not surprising that he looks at everything as if he were composing a photograph, even when there is no camera in his hands.

More than anything else, it’s this incredible gift for composition that forms the theme of his latest book, “The Life of a Photograph” (National Geographic Books, October 2008, $40).

Many of the nearly 200 images Abell selected for the book were some of the most notable photographs he made for National Geographic. But others are from his personal collection, never been published, and they illustrate the way his mind works during the process of making a memorable photograph.

I’ve known Sam Abell and his work for the dozen years that I have worked for National Geographic, but I did not know that he composes his photographs using the full frame of what he sees through the lens. There is seldom any post-production of his images. No cropping or correcting. He thinks through all that before he releases the shutter. The result is a picture that is used full-frame.

If he really goes through life in a perpetual state of composing scenes, I asked him, what was he doing right at that very moment, while I was talking to him? “Oh, I can’t sit still until I find the right angle to look at you,” he said. “In any situation, I am studying the background, the horizon, the light, and the angle of my point of view.”


 Whale Watching, Fraser Island, Queensland

Photo from the book “The Life of a Photograph”/courtesy Sam Abell

Abell ‘s book is a lesson in photography for anyone who picks up a camera. I certainly will never see photography in quite the same way.

Much of the book presents what he calls the two-view concept, two similar images alongside one another that show how he changed the composition of a scene. “I want to put the viewer into the field with me,” he explained. “I show you that all elements in a scene can be rearranged, entirely depending on how you make the composition.”


Two views of the annual branding and castration
Ken Rosman Ranch, Utica, Montana

Photos from the book “The Life of a Photograph”/courtesy Sam Abell

Abell also talks about his technique of creating two or more images in one, combining what could be two or more separate photographs in a single image. An example of this is his cowboy image, reproduced above, and which he discusses in the accompanying video.

Video 1: Sam Abell discussing his cowboy photo by David Braun/National Geographic News

Another example is the photograph of the dolphin jumping alongside a boat – an example of what he says is composing the scene, the first layer of the image, and then allowing the subject to move into the picture, the second layer.

“In all my years of looking at raw film, ” Abell said, the dolphin photo (below) gave him his “single greatest moment of ecstasy and disbelief … I couldn’t believe it.”


Photos from the book “The Life of a Photograph”/courtesy Sam Abell

Video 2: Sam Abell discussing his dolphin photo by David Braun/National Geographic News

I asked Abell for three things that he teaches photography students.

His response:

  • Equipment does not matter. You need to learn how to compose.
  • It’s okay to record everything. Think of yourself as a diarist, photographing everything you see. (You see many examples of this in the book.)
  • Reverse your thinking and learn how to make photographs from back to front. In every situation there are always at least two pictures that can be layered into a single frame.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn