October 3, 2014 12:54 pm

On assignment with Stephen Alvarez in Africa

Getting up early. Crawling and climbing over slippery rocks. Getting soaked in a blowing mist. Visiting the same places again and again. Having close encounters with cheetahs and lion cubs who try to steal our bags and our Lumias. Waiting. And waiting a little bit more. That’s what it’s like being on an assignment in Africa with National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez.

Last week I followed Stephen Alvarez in Zimbabwe and Zambia, where he was photographing the Victoria Falls as part of his mission to capture the Seven Natural Wonders of the World with Lumia.

After spending six days in the field with him and asking him some of the questions you had submitted, this is what I learned about Stephen Alvarez, the photographer, and the person behind the camera lens.

Getting to know Stephen Alvarez

Stephen getting to know Sylvester, Cheetah Ambassador.

Stephen Alvarez getting to know Sylvester, the Cheetah Ambassador.

Very quickly I learned that Stephen is very focused, organized and extremely hard working when he is on an assignment. He pays close attention to what happens around him, anticipating the right moment and is always ready to fire the camera. When following him, I also had to pay attention and anticipate his movements to stay out of the picture. I failed at times.

Who are some of your favorite photographers?

Stephen: I have a lot of favorite photographers. National Geographic staffer Michael “Nick” Nichols, who is a big influence on my career. Also George Rodger, who’s an English photographer. After the Second World War he photographed in South Sudan and shot some of the most amazing images of the Dinka people I’ve ever seen. The list goes on, but what’s common about all the photographers whose work I admire is that they all capture life in certain way.

What is it like to be traveling most of the time as a part of your work and spend so much time away from home?

Stephen: Traveling is tough when you have a family. The key to that is having an understanding partner, and you frame being home through the lens of being away because you’re really happy to be home. My kids grow up often times when I’m not there, so it means when I’m home I’m really enjoying being home and being present.

What camera do you use on a day-to-day basis?

Stephen: In my normal everyday life most of my personal pictures are shot on a smartphone. And I think I’m like most people in the world in that respect. You use the camera you have on you. Currently I’m using the Lumia 930.

In the field

Sometimes finding the right spot requires going to places where others wouldn’t necessarily go. Shooting below the Rainbow Falls at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Sometimes finding the right spot requires going to places where others wouldn’t necessarily go. Shooting below the Rainbow Falls at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Every day on this assignment was different. Some days we’d go below the Victoria Falls and get soaked in a blowing mist. Some days we’d be right on the edge of the falls on the Zambia side looking down to where we had been the previous day.

Every day the light was different, the rainbows looked different, and the mist felt different. We thought we had seen it all many times and in all possible light conditions, but there was always something new, something we didn’t expect.

How much research do you do before going on an assignment like the Victoria Falls?

Stephen: I do tremendous amounts of research before I go anywhere. Preparing for Vic Falls has been a multi-month event of just getting an idea of where I should go. I have to find the right guide who can get me in front of the elephants at dawn or find the right raft guide who can row me across to the Boiling Pot to get me below the Rainbow Falls at the right time. Finding those people before I get on the ground is a lot of work.

The Lumia smartphones performing well despite the constant blowing mist at Victoria Falls.

The Lumia smartphones performing well despite the constant blowing mist at Victoria Falls.

Do you set specific goals for each day of the assignment?

Stephen: On this assignment in particular, there are different goals for the day. Even if there is a complete schedule for the entire assignment, I’m always willing to throw that schedule out and re-work it in the field. Sometimes good things are bad and bad things are good. You get to a place that’s supposed to be beautiful and it’s not. Or you find about something that’s incredible and you had no idea about it. Even if you have a schedule you have to be open for serendipity.

Wrapping it up for the day. Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe.

Wrapping it up for the day. Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe.

What do you do between and after shoots?

Stephen: In general after shooting I spend significant amount of time writing up my notes. I’ve found is that you think it was all so fantastic, the pictures are great and I will remember all of this later. You know what, you don’t because the next day is going to be fantastic too. When you’re ten days into an assignment, you can’t remember anything from the first set of pictures unless you write it down. It takes about an hour or two a day to do this, but it’s worth the time.

Browsing through photos after an early morning shoot at Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe.

Stephen Alvarez and John Burcham browsing through photos after an early morning shoot at Victoria Falls National Park, Zimbabwe.

 

What’s in Stephen’s camera bag? Lumia smartphones, an extra battery, cleaning cloth, a notebook and a pen, model releases, a head lamp, a knife, lip palm, sunscreen, chewing gum, a hat, sunglasses, an insect repellent and a bottle of water.

What’s in Stephen’s camera bag? Lumia smartphones, an extra battery, cleaning cloth, a notebook and a pen, model releases, a head lamp, a knife, lip palm, sunscreen, chewing gum, a hat, sunglasses, an insect repellent and a bottle of water.

Assignment like this is a team effort; tell me about your assistant and filmmaker John Burcham who also appears in many of your pictures?

Stephen: John is a very good friend of mine and we met on an assignment years and years ago in Arizona. John is as strong as an ox and is not scared of heights, moving water or crocodiles. He is also the most patient person I’ve ever met, and that’s great as I’m not always easy to work with because I get frustrated and moody.

This really is a team effort and I can’t imagine doing any of these assignments without him. We’re like brothers or an old married couple at this point.

John Burcham and Stephen Alvarez in Africa on their fourth Seven Natural Wonders of the World assignment.

John Burcham and Stephen Alvarez in Africa on their fourth Seven Natural Wonders of the World assignment.

Capturing the perfect shot: the highs and lows

There is something about being there to witness when it happens. Being there when the photographer captures the perfect shot. Being at the right place at the right time, with the right people. Excitement. Relief. All that hard work finally pays off.

What frustrates you and makes you moody?

Stephen: What frustrates me most is not being able to make the picture I see. It’s usually my own fault. The light is perfect and I’m standing in the wrong place. You see a picture that is happening ten feet over there and you made the wrong call, you stood in the wrong place. You just weren’t in the right place to make the picture you saw.

Stephen Alvarez shooting at the Devil’s Pool, Livingstone Island, Zambia.

Stephen Alvarez shooting at the Devil’s Pool, Livingstone Island, Zambia.

What are you doing and thinking when shooting?

Stephen: When I’m making an image I’m trying block out as many distractions as possible. I think about what’s in the picture, how is it framed, do I want elements in, or do I want them out. Because images are much more powerful around the edge, I pay really careful attention to the edges of the frame and not so much attention to what’s in the middle.

How do you know when you’ve captured THE shot?

Stephen: It’s more a feeling than anything else. The people, the light, the location all jells perfectly in the viewfinder, and you’ve managed to get the exposure right, everything is sharp and your horizon line is right. It all just comes together and you know it.

Stephen Alvarez capturing Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya - the smoke that thunders.

Stephen Alvarez capturing Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya – the smoke that thunders.

Stephen’s Victoria Falls picture gallery, shot on a Lumia 830, will be published later this fall. In the meanwhile, you can read all about the previous Seven Natural Wonders of the World assignments here, here and here.