Today, I realized with surprise that only a couple of posts have dealt with photography in nonfiction children’s books. Especially for books beyond grades 3 or 4, photography plays a huge role in both the effectiveness and success of a book. How does an author get the photos he or she needs?
In some cases, publishers do the work. With my “American Heroes” biographies and my book Pocket Babies, for instance, I have been fortunate to work with publishers that do a wonderful job at photo research. Taking my own photos, however, has been pivotal to the some of my most successful books. And yet, I do not consider myself a professional photographer. How does that work?
Well, the answer is that back in 1994, I bought a camera system that is smarter than I am. Before that time, I tried to take professional-grade photos using a manual 35-mm Olympus system. Just couldn’t do it. Even though I spent a great deal of time trying, the photos always came out slightly out-of-focus or with the wrong metering. Today’s cameras are so good, though, that they solve most of these issues. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m home-free.
Most books require a few specialized shots that someone like myself just cannot get. So a key for me is recognizing the kinds of photos I can take myself. I limit myself, for example, to subjects that are close and holding still. Fortunately, that includes 90% of most photos I ever need for a book, from plants and landscapes to insects and people. Another big key is using a tripod. Even on a well-lit, still day, a tripod is almost essential for getting that crispness that I must have to make a picture publishable.
For the other photos I need, I just plan on obtaining those elsewhere. People I am interviewing for my books often have these available. For my new book Science Warriors: The Battle Against Invasive Species, I was able to obtain some key close-up—and gruesome—photos of flies emerging from an ant’s head from a scientist who works with this system. For my book The Prairie Builders, the refuge I featured had a number of historical photos in their collection I could use.
While part of me dreads getting photos together for a book, a larger part really enjoys the process. Documenting a research trip with photos actually helps me a lot with the writing process. And you just can’t beat being right in a place taking the pictures you need. BTW, I use a Canon system with a macro lens, a wide-angle lens, and a zoom 50-300 mm. And don’t faint now—I still shoot film! That will surely change with the next big photo book, but for now, it’s all worked remarkably well—and enriched my entire writing process.