☰ Menu

National Geographic Photography Workshop & Top Tips

More Than a Snapshot

Travel and photography go hand in hand like big skies and majestic mountains. (As any Ansel Adams fan can attest.) Since the advent of smart phones, almost everyone can capture the notable moments and minutia that string together a great trip.

“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.” ~Steve McCurry

However, despite this constant digital presence, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the principles and art of photography. Learning the principles of great photography can heighten the travel experience.


Photo by Lead Shooting Instructor Myron Weirich.

National Geographic’s Narrative Approach

When we joined the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection in 2015 (as the only US charter member), we were excited to partner with other sustainability-focused lodges. But we also couldn’t wait to use this affiliation to bring the art of photography into our all-inclusive offerings. Nat Geo redefined storytelling photography in their magazine, and they always find new ways to wow us on social media.

In early 2017, award-winning photographer Jay Dickman and friends from National Geographic Expeditions came to The Ranch to train our staff on narrative photography techniques— as part of a new pilot program with the Unique Lodges of the World. Dickman has an impressive resume, including a Pulitzer Prize and 25 assignments for the National Geographic Society. We couldn’t wait to see what he would make of February at The Ranch.


Photo by Lead Shooting Instructor Myron Weirich

Over the course of the next three days, the workshop taught our guides how to harness wild beauty and Western culture into pictures that tell a story about our remote corner of the world.

“I wish that all of nature’s magnificence, the emotion of the land, the living energy of place could be photographed.” ~Annie Leibovitz

Using subjects that are part of every ranch experience, our guides – turned students – learned to tell a story of their life at The Ranch. This workshop inspired several of our guides to pursue photography as a profession, and we hope to feature these talented ranchers in future blogs. They also enjoy passing on their passion through our guided guest workshops.


Photo by IT Manager Brock Long.

At the end of the workshop, we invited local 4-H students to The Ranch to learn from a pulitzer prize-winning photographer. Dickman presented a truncated version of the workshop to the young community members and answered their questions with the intent to inspire future storrytellers to pursue the art of photography.

Narrative Photography Workshop

Our narrative photography course helps guests to differentiate a snapshot from a photogram. A snapshot generally speaks only to the people in the shot, while a photograph pulls the viewer into the moment.

“Beauty can be seen in all things, seeing and composing the beauty is what separates the snapshot from the photograph.” ~Matt Hardy

Once this distinction is established, the workshop gives guests the tools to tell their story of how they experienced our mining/ranching homestead in secluded Southwest Montana.


Photo by workshop student Heather Rue.

To support this program, we have 12 National Geographic-trained guides on staff. We offer a weekly scheduled group session, called, “Montana Photo Moments,”  that includes basic instruction, tips and tricks for working with cameras. Then, guests learn to apply techniques during a photography excursion. They can learn to capture subjects in daylight, in motion and how bring all of the elements together for the ultimate souvenir.


Photo by Activities Director Patrick Little.

These weekly classes are a great introduction, but guests can also schedule a private activity with a guide. Private sessions are customized to beginner, intermediate and advanced photographers. Guests can use their smart phones, get behind the lens of on of our Sony Alpha cameras, or bring their own equipment along with them.

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” ~Aaron Siskind

Once the basics of the class have been established, our guides use their expert knowledge of the area, the weather and the season to take guests on a photography trek. This may include the horse herd, wranglers, wildlife, landscapes, river beds, activities or interiors, but it is tailored to highlight the lesson and challenge the photographer to capture a story using what they just learned.

Lead Wrangler Mindy Avila rides her horse during a winter round-up
Rancher Mindy Avila captured by Lead Little Grizzlies Coordinator & Master Naturalist Kelsey Bruns.

After they return, the guide uploads the photos and sends the guest a link to remotely access their photography during or after their trip. We know many of these images end up on walls, instead of sitting in a camera roll, rarely accessed.

“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” ~Ansel Adams

For those who want to continue their education past the composition phase, they can opt for a second class focusing on advanced techniques. This class is also tailored to the photographer, allowing them to focus on setting up shots, photo finishing and other aspects of narrative photography.


Activities Director Patrick Little and Lead Little Grizzlies Coordinator Kelsey Bruns during the Jay Dickman workshop.

Just like learning to fly fish or identify plants, our photography classes send ripples through a guest’s future travels. They can use the skills they develop to become lifelong students of photography and capture stories as they travel the world.

We’re excited to lead even more photography expeditions this spring. In the meantime, these National Geographic top photo tips are an excellent way to start turning your snapshots into photographs as you explore the world.


National Geographic
Top 10 Tips for Photos

  1. FIND YOUR FRAMING: Find your focal point, but don’t shy away from including other elements in the picture if they are part of the story.
  2. GET FOCUSED: If your main subject isn’t in the middle of the picture, use the focus lock feature on your camera to set the focus on your subject.
  3. MOVE YOURSELF AROUND YOUR SUBJECT: Try shooting your subject from different angles to find the best perspective and to frame out anything distracting in the background.
  4. COMMUNICATE SCALE: Try including visual references (people, tools, coins, etc.) if you want to communicate scale.
  5. CHOOSE THE RIGHT SPEED: Shutter speed determines how long your camera’s shutter stays open. Use slow speeds like 1/4, 1/8, 1/15 and 1/30 for stationary objects. Use 1/1000, 1/2000 and 1/5000 for high-speed objects.
  6. FIND THE RIGHT EXPOSURE: ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. use high ISO (above 800) only when you need to photograph in dark light or cloudy days. Use low ISO in bright sunlight.
  7. SEE BEAUTY IN THE DETAILS: Close-ups of faces, colors, textures and patterns give added dimension and details to your photos.
  8. PAY ATTENTION TO LIGHTING: The light source (from the sun or other lights) should be directed on your subject. The best times to shoot photos are early morning or late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky.
  9. SHOOT MORE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED! Capturing great photos is a process of trial and error. Experiment with different angles and framing, evaluating what works and what doesn’t to hone your approach as you go.
  10. BE YOURSELF: Be sure to pick only the best photos to represent your project.



Our new photography excursions are part of our all-inclusive activities program. Twice-daily guided activities are always included in a stay. See the photography workshop page for more details about this program.