TGC Professor on a Mission to Capture Species before Extinction

joel sartore's work for the photo ark gains worldwide attention

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Joel Sartore leads Photo Ark, a project to document 15,000 species in captivity, BuzzFeed reported. Many of these species are endangered, so Sartore’s mission is to capture them in photographs before they’re gone forever. Here’s what he says makes great pictures.

Overview of photographer's camera bag
National Geographic Photographer Joel Sartore is the founder of the Photo Ark, his groundbreaking effort to document endangered species by photographing them. Photo by / Shutterstock

According to BuzzFeed, Photo Ark is alive and well, thanks in no small part to a Great Courses instructor. “Joel Sartore, a photographer based in Lincoln, Nebraska, has worked with National Geographic for over 30 years, and has led the Photo Ark for the past 15 years. The mission of the Photo Ark is to document the 15,000 species that are in captivity, many of which are on the edge of extinction. Sartore recently photographed his 10,000th species, a small cat known as a güiña that is native to Chile.”

Sartore taught a lecture series for The Great Courses called Fundamentals of Photography. Here are some of his thoughts about how to make a classic photo.

Iconic Photography

What does it mean for a picture to be “iconic?” According to Sartore, truly great pictures are “images that capture a moment, convey an emotion, and mean something to you and those you love.”

“Great pictures can be found anywhere,” Sartore said. “They do not have to come from an exotic location. It could be a picture on your sidewalk of your dog; it could be a monkey with a funny haircut at your local zoo; it could be my own feet or your own feet covered in mosquitoes.”

Sartore said that iconic pictures are all around us, and that they surround us every day. It’s not about fancy equipment or faraway places. The real trick is to look, see them, and think.

“I got started at National Geographic because I took pictures of the things that interested me—mainly the goofy, or the weird, or the inspiring,” Sartore said. “The kind of pictures I liked to take, National Geographic liked also; so I’m fortunate there. Seeing the surprising things drives what I do to this day.”

Three Things

Sartore stressed the importance of simply seeing things the right way in order to capture an exemplary photo.

“This is what we need: three things,” he said. “A great picture consists of great light, good composition, and something interesting. Having said all that, know that two out of three things can be enough. A good photographer is always are of these three things—light, composition, and subject—even if one or two are iffy.”

In order to get practice, Sartore recommended starting off taking pictures of your family, friends, and home. He said they should be the best pictures you ever take because you have 24-hour-a-day access to your subjects.

“What else can you shoot?” he asked. “All hours of the day, when the light is magic, when it pours into different rooms, in different ways and in different places, you are going to be with your family and friends at all times. Have a camera with you; take advantage of that.”

Can taking great pictures be so simple? There’s only one way to find out.

Joel Sartore contributed to this article. Sartore is a professional photographer and a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine. He was recently named a National Geographic Fellow for the ground-breaking work of his project called the Photo Ark.