Vincent J. Musi has been a regular contributor to National Geographic since 1993, covering subjects from the Texas Hill Country to hurricanes, volcanoes and mummies. A specialist in animal portraits, his recent work includes projects on domestication, intelligence and cognition. Musi’s work has taken him from historic Route 66 to the oldest temple on Earth in Turkey. He is also a contributor to TIME, Newsweek, Life, Fortune andThe New York Times Magazine.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer? Probably when I realized I didn’t have what it took to be a musician, my first love. I own drums and have played them my entire life but that didn’t make me a musician. I was far better at getting a camera to say what I wanted to say than a drum.
Do you remember your first published work? How did it feel to see something you created show up in print? I was a kid working for the high school yearbook and then newspapers. A very exciting time for me, I often smelled of Dektol.
How did you get your first National Geographic assignment? I sort of bluffed my way into my first full assignment for National Geographic when I claimed to have a great love for landscape photography when they needed someone in a pinch. You might say I lied.
How nervous were you going on assignment for what many consider the “Holy Grail” of photography? I was very nervous because only a fool would lie just to get an assignment. It was just going to be a matter of time before they found out I was a fraud. I hope they don’t read this.
What was the emotion of seeing your work show up on your first National Geographic cover? My wife Callie Shell was working for Time magazine and we both had our first covers during the same month. It was a very special time for us.
In your TedX talk tedxtalks.ted.com, you go into some detail about some of the challenges of shooting animals. Have you come up with a pretty good formula for shooting live subjects over the years or does each shoot present its own unique set of challenges? Every animal and every day is unique. My formula is never to forget that.
Have you ever been on an animal shoot where the subject was impossible to shoot? There’s always a picture, just not always one you want to put in front of 40 million readers. That’s what keeps me up at night.
In your animal portraits, you seem to capture so much of their personalities. How much time do you spend with the animals before shooting to make them feel comfortable? Sometimes you’ll get “there” very quickly, other times not so quickly. I just spent a week trying to get near a Raven and I don’t think he was very comfortable until he saw me packing up to leave. That said, we try never to stress out an animal for a picture, so the process to befriend them can be very exhausting. I’m never in control; they just let me think so.
How rewarding is it when you can accurately capture and portray what makes each animal special? I’ve done a lot of celebrity animals, really famous ones that do extraordinary things. It’s an incredible honor to be able to make a photograph of them that represents that quality and character.
You have an amazing gallery on your website called “Big Cats.” How much time went into setting up each of these shots? You are very kind. We spent two weeks building sets to photograph each of these cats in small enclosures they occasionally spend time in. Often that meant we couldn’t put a light where we wanted to or have the angle you might think best. None of these animals were trained or under any control of humans, they ran the show.
Does shooting subject matter like lions and tigers create an extra element of anxiety? I always work from the position that this will be my last assignment because I’ll get found out and sent home for being a fraud.
What type of animals have you found to be the most enjoyable to photograph? Sheep. There, I said it, sheep. The have phenomenal eyes.
How do the animals react to studio lighting and flashes? It’s a bit disruptive for one minute and then they don’t pay attention. The light stands and booms and grip are more of a problem.
How much work do you do in post-production to get your images perfected? For National Geographic, I submit raw files, so I don’t do any post for them other than providing a guide to color. Natgeo does very little other than toning or dust removal, that sort of thing. For commercial work, I usually rely on professional retouchers to meet a client’s needs. I do print all of my own work for exhibition.
When you aren’t shooting animals, what subject matter are you most passionate about photographing? I like stuff, things, particularly when they represent some aspect of culture. My next work might be headed into still life.
Your “Sicily Crypts” gallery is quite the departure from shooting live animals. How was the experience shooting underground and what challenges did that project present? An extraordinary time for me. I really wanted to photograph the mummies as people not objects and Natgeo supported that proposal. Of course, I was sick for 6 months after that. Came down with a respiratory infection that doctors jokingly called the “King Tut virus.”
What advice would you share with aspiring photographers coming into the industry? Don’t let guys like me ruin it for you with talk about how things used to be. Enjoy it, tear it up and repeat.
What has changed the most in the photo industry since you began? It’s gotten a lot easier to make pictures and much harder to make a living.
How do you stay passionate about photography? I’m challenged every day to create something whether it be homemade pasta or a photograph.
Why did you choose Photo Folio for your website? I’ve always gravitated to the best tool for the job. Working with APF was an easy decision and I’ve never looked back.
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