Photographer Sam Abell on The Life of a Photograph

Long-time National Geographic photographer (1970-2001), Sam Abell is a legend in the photography world. This fall, he was in Seattle teaching a photography workshop at the Art Wolf Studio. I sat in on the corresponding lecture...and kicked myself for not attending his workshop! His lecture was incredibly inspiring and despite the blackend room, I managed to capture some legible notes.

As I develop my own technique, Sam's words echo in my mind. (Compose....and wait.....) Hopefully something here will resonate with you.

Sam Abell, Photographer
Henry Art Gallery, Seattle

Sam Abell’s work is complex, thoughtful, inspiring. He is considered one of the most articulate voices in media, with a knack for great story telling.

The hallmark of Abell’s work is its micro composition. His images are composed to the smallest detail, with an emphasis on expression, detail, and setting.

The photographer life is a well covered subject, and Sam Abell aks, ”What about the life of a photo?”

Photography is about thought. “The Life of a Photograph” is where it begins—in the mind, feeling, heart & soul in the one who holds the camera in their hands.

A bit about Sam

His dad taught him how to see. His mother taught him what to see.

What would you have been if you weren’t a photographer? A teacher. In his workshops, he teaches is the art of internal framing & micro composition.

When he started taking pictures, Popular Photography had thumbnails in the back that talked about how the photographer got the shot. He studied those.

“For me, photography was freeing. Thirty years at National Geographic allowed photography to take me into life.”


“I use as little equipment as possible and a humble camera.”

His “walk around” lens is a 28mm, and the majority of his work is shot with it.

Abell doesn’t use flash—“You don’t need it.” In fact, he no longer carries a flash on assignment. Abell shoots with “borrowed light” because, as he says, it “casts a spell.”

The Scene

“Don’t look for subjects, look for the scene. What stops me is the scene.” Abell consuls, “Pay attention to your own internal aesthetic. Subjects don’t stop me, the scene does and that’s what differentiates me from my colleagues.”

In a steady and soothing voice he adds, “I think about the poetry of the scene—think about things in literary terms—light, color, heart and soul. Distil a scene or a moment. It can be charged with poetics.”

When capturing an image, “I’m thinking about what’s in the viewfinder and nothing else. You are in that little world and it’s deep…and complex.”

Thoughts on Post Production

With a hint of distain he says, “We’re in the golden age of post production.”

“Before post production, you couldn’t recompose the shot. It had to be fully finished. It couldn’t be rough and remixed. All the problems had to be solved in the viewfinder…and it gave photography intensity.”

Photography is and always will be a way to be in life. I got a 35mm as a graduation present. For me, photography meant “Andiamo!” – let’s go. It’s what gets me out the door.

When photography became computer-based, it became more about post production.

We’ve lost the spirit of being in life.

Leaving National Geographic

Abell spent 31 years as a photographer with National Geographic magazine. “I’ve always wanted my career to end with my call.” The moment came after a long, depressing year in Tokyo. Abell spent a year trying to get permission to meet with the Emperor of China. At last, he was granted a visit on the very last day. It was extremely frustrating.

When I finally got the meeting, the Emperor asked, “Are you satisfied?”

“I lied, ‘Yes, I am.’ "

When he returned from that shoot, he knew…it was time to end his career with National Geographic.

The Kremlin Shot

[This shot is one of Abell’s most famous photographs. In the lecture, he analyzed the shot and showed a number of frames taken before they settled on what has become an iconic photo.]

“This photo has long life.”

Noting several examples, he advises, “Keep taking photos—move around it. Change your position.”

This shot was taken on a day off. “But the truth in photographic life is, there are no days off.”

What gives life to a portrait?

For portraits, you have one camera. It means hanging out with people & occasionally taking pictures.

The rule of photos with people? Don’t take photos you wouldn’t take of yourself. Don’t prey on people. Build a rapport. Photography is an act of appreciation, not exploitation.

A successful portrait has three elements: setting, gesture & expression. They need equal weight and it’s almost impossible. You can’t pose a shot like that. The setting is important both in place…and light.

Look for: Gesture. Expression. Setting.

Do you need to see someone’s face to have a successful portrait? No. Hands are very expressive.

Portraits that have long lasting ability are within themselves and thoughtful--not obviously emotional.

Just looking….

A photo is like a short story where the page is about to be turned….

Photography is a solo journey. Involve your mind—verify a dedication to creating photography for the inner self. No art director. No picture editor. On your own. Your imagination. On assignment for as long as 14 months, you are alone with your thoughts.

Pay attention to what you’re looking at.

Just looking …intently. Notice the shadow. Notice that slender line that separates the horizon and the clothes line.

Just looking…at a shaft of light. Notice the painting situated both above and below the light.

Just looking…Notice the persistence of a strong horizontal line.

Getting the shot

Compose…and wait. Compose the place and wait for what occupies it. Be on a tripod, and be ready for the scene.

Look for integrity of line, space & depth. Everything is within its own space….exhibiting deep layers of time.

Bad weather makes great pictures. Compose & wait….

The photo with the longest life has emotional power. It stays in your memory…and leaves an impression. It has believability… suddenness…intimacy.

Travel Photos

There’s a long connection between photography and travel.

On a 15 week shoot in the Amazon, he didn’t take photos for the first couple days. He stayed with the aboriginals and built trust.

The result? His photos have texture and flow.

At one point, he begged the aboriginals to do a shoot in the morning or the early evening. But the hunt began at noon. The resulting photos? As the aboriginal hunters are coming home from the hunt with their kill, he used the long shadows as part of the shot.

In another example, land, sea, and sky have equal weight. What gives it life? The disappearance of the horizon.

Seeking the photo

The life of a photo begins with seeking the photo.

What stops him is often the horizontal line. He’s looking for layers, internal framing, and micro composition.

Compose & wait.

Always use a tripod. It makes a difference that adds to his composed style.

Depend on strength of the photo from the specialness of the light and the landscape that he sees.

Seek a characteristic horizontal line.

See the light, space, and graphics. Be attuned to the moment and craft in deep dimensional light.

The goal: A layered photo that is intense from top to bottom, front to back.

The life of a photo

Each photo has a life—thoughts and time evolve. He found images he didn’t even remember taking that he loves now.

Photos ask questions.

The main thing Sam looks for is layering and depth. Find a background, find a setting. Look for layers, deep composition, and micro composition.

Whether a photo is memorizeable or not, depends on whether it has a long life.


When looking at books by other photographer, he says, “I always look at the photo on the cover page.” Why? “The cover shot is almost without exception chosen by marketing.” The key: what’s the Table of Contents photo? [This photo choice gives more insight to the photographer’s own perspective (vs. marketing)]

Another interesting point Abell notes: In his own books, no photos are bled. None are cropped. And no photos go across the gutter.

The Book: Life of a Photograph

Abell’s latest book, The Life of a Photograph, covers his process….things that worked and why. It’s designed to be transparent: “The process [of getting the shot] is more important.” He draws a parallel, “Fixing the car is more fun than driving it.”

“Books have a great life. If anything has a greater life than a photo—it’s a book.” He adds, reflectively, “This book is my fullest expression.”


Further reading

Excellent write up on Sam's Master Photography Class.