If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then the thanks must go to the oddest collection of men in scientific history. Names like Niepce, Shultz, Daguerre, Hercules and Herschel. Their experiments over the past three centuries incorporated bitumen of Judea, silver, chalk, copper, iodine vapor, mercury fumes, salt and sodium thiosulfate. Ultimately, their work culminated a paradigm shift in mass communication.

Photography, as we know it, began with Joseph Nicephore Niepce and his brother Claude. Garrisoned with the French Legion’s 42nd Infantry Regiment at Sardinia, the brothers were illuminated by the notion of fixing images on a solid surface. While Marconi had his radio and Farnsworth his “image dissector,” (his original name for television) Joseph and Claude were doubly gifted. Not one person in a million knows that these two brothers also invented the world’s first internal combustion engine – for which they received an 1807 patent signed by Napoleon himself.

(All photos by Anthony C. LoBaido)

The world’s first photograph was taken by Joseph Niepce at his home in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. That photo is on display today at the University of Texas at Austin. Back in 1850, as the Industrial Revolution was heating up in Europe, working class people who couldn’t afford a painted family portrait were all to happy to pay up to $10 for a primordial photograph.

In the 21st century, the limitless opportunities to shoot, edit, transmit and develop photographs would astound the aforementioned visionary men. The film “Biloxi Blues,” based on the work of Neil Simon, explained that when a writer puts words down on paper, something magical happens. The same could be said for photography. While the written word may be mankind’s finest achievement, capturing the world on film runs a close second.

Consider the definitive Americana war photo of all time – the Marines planting the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima. That singular photo appeared on the cover of 200 major U.S. daily newspapers and told Americans: “We can win this war!” A photograph so powerful Clint Eastwood made a hit Hollywood film about it entitled “Flags of Our Fathers.”

For the most part, when this photographer displays the collection of photographs I’ve taken in more than 40 countries around the world, I hear things like “You stole them from National Geographic” (quite a compliment I suppose), or that they were the product of “luck” (which I prefer to think of as the residue of sweat, preparation, bravery and design), or merely as Pamela, a stunning blonde I met in Belize, once told me, “It’s a way to meet women.”

The truth is simply this: I would like to be recognized one day as the best photographer in the world who doesn’t know how the camera works. The person behind the camera counts to be sure. But it’s still what rests in front of the camera that matters most. You could be Ansel Adams, but taking a photo of a brick wall is merely just another brick in wall.

What are the elements that combine to produce a perfect photograph?

Light and shadow for one thing. Sunrise and sunset are always the best times to capture magical moments. In Namibia, I had to withstand 120-plus temperatures all day long to capture just one perfect shot of the world’s highest sand dunes. Angles and vectors also play a part in the equation. Framing the shot is extremely vital. If you’re working with people, you’ll want to put them at ease and act “as if the camera wasn’t there.”

Water-based photography is a genre unto its own. Be it capturing the giant sea turtles off of Ambergris Caye in Belize, or the Mayan ruins at Tulum in the Yucatan, the glare, humidity, sun, wind and other factors come into play.

And that’s another thing – if you’re going to be a real pro, you’re going to have to shoot in the freezing cold at the Korean DMZ or in the snow and high elevation of the Mount Everest Base Camp. The torrid rain of the Southeast Asian jungle, the spewing fire and sulphur of a Guatemalan volcano summit and the remote, brutal conditions of the Kalahari are all part of the “degree of difficulty.” These factors should be seen as constant companions challenging the photographer to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat. Anyone can shoot in perfect conditions; an artist creates the perfect conditions no matter what obstacles he encounters.

There are artistic shots and then there are the pure journalism shots. The journalism shots might include a Shiite Lebanese woman sitting on a bench next to Colonel Sanders at a Beirut KFC. In Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis, Miss., I photographed statues of slight angel figurines that had survived Katrina on the street closest to the Gulf of Mexico. This while drive-ins, banks and other dwellings had been broken into splinters. No one knows why the statues of angels and Jesus Christ survived Katrina in those two towns. Some consider it to be a miracle – a miracle caught on film.

Of course, there’s always going to be a certain amount of risk involved. Do you stare down an African elephant throwing a tantrum via a “mock charge”? Do you dare get up close to a lioness crossing the Chobe River during a twilight hunt? Do you approach an American bison breathing out frigid air on a cold February day? The answer is yes, yes and yes!

In this business, you’ll have to stay humble, hungry, aggressive, proactive and focused (no pun intended). While racing across Guatemala’s Lago Atitlan at sunset, you might only get off one or two shots at the perfect moment between day and night. The choppy water and the wind won’t help. But then again, all of the very best things in life don’t come easy. That’s something Joseph and Claude Niepce, and every photographer who has followed in their maverick footsteps, clearly understands.

Note: Go to LoBaido’s blog to view more of his best photos.

Previous columns:

Capturing the world on film

‘Dr. Livingstone I presume’

‘The most beautiful place on Earth’

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