Inspiration from a Master Photographer

September 24, 2015

This evening, I attended a presentation by National Geographic staff photographer (retired), Sam Abell, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. His lecture, which was sponsored by Canon as part of the Shaw Photography Series was quite fascinating, as expected. Mr. Abell, whose photographs have been featured on several covers of National Geographic Magazine, not only shared a broad sample of his work, but also concise technical details about how he makes such compelling images.

A repeating theme of Abell’s presentation, with many examples, was his concept,”Compose and Wait,” which simply means to frame the image you want, and then patiently wait for the elements of the composition to align in a compelling way. Sometimes you simply wait for something interesting to happen in an otherwise pleasing composition. Although most of his work is more journalistic than my wildlife photography, I whispered to Joyce that most of my photography included composing and waiting, as Abell had described. Typically I frame a duck, butterfly, or some other animal, and then wait for something to happen — sometimes for a very long time.

The featured image of a red fox is the simplest form of Abell’s concept. Basically, I composed the shot of the animal in the tall grass and waited until it made eye contact with my lens. In wildlife photography, eye contact evokes an emotional response by most viewers, thus making the image more compelling.



In this image of a common merganser on the Mississippi River, I waited for several minutes for something, anything, to happen until finally a gust of wind brushed the bird’s tuft of head feathers against the grain. During that brief moment in time, only a second, the image I was framing became more interesting.



In this final image, I watched an American white pelican feeding for over an hour before it scooped up this large Asian carp and turned at an angle that revealed the fish’s facial expression through the gular pouch of the huge bird. The “wait” paid off.

On the way home, I reflected on Mr. Abell’s heartfelt description of his life’s work with National Geographic and the technical details of some of his most iconic images. Tomorrow morning, I plan to be sitting in a blind here on the farm, hopefully with an eastern wild turkey composed in my camera frame. As I wait for something interesting to happen, something as subtle as a unique head nod, I’ll be thinking about Mr. Abell’s mantra:  “Compose and Wait.”

Learn more about the photography of Sam Abell at his website.

Thanks for looking,


Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery and Print Information:  Here




5 comments on “Inspiration from a Master Photographer”

  1. Very interesting. Good for you to have the patience to do all the waiting to get those wonderful shots.

  2. What a wonderful post this. Whether one is a professional or a hobby photographer, these are good words to remember.

  3. I love the shot of that Beautiful Red Fox. His are so piercing. You certainly have mastered the ability to Compose and Wait concept.Keep up the good work. I hope that your camping trip provides some worthy subjects.


  4. I think this is the most beautiful image of a red fox I have ever seen. I love the soft colors around the fox. Stunningly beautiful!

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