I'm National Geographic Photographer Mark Thiessen, And This Is How I Work

In their latest issue, National Geographic showed readers how smokejumpers fight wildfires in the Alaskan forest, with images by photographer Mark Thiessen. Firefighting photos is a specialty for Mark; he’s been doing it for 25 years, and shooting for NatGeo for 29. We talked to him about his first published news photo, his favourite photography gear, and his hack for sleeping on the road.


Location: Washington, DC Current gig: Photographer for National Geographic Current computer: MacBook Pro Current mobile device: iPhone 7 One word that best describes how you work: Persistent

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I began in photography when I was 14 years old and I had a paper route in Southern California. With the money I earned from my paper route I bought camera equipment and a police and fire radio scanner. I could hear the fire department being dispatched to potential newsworthy events.

One summer morning I heard about a car struck by a train. I said, “Mum, let’s go!” I was too young to drive so we hopped into our Ford Pinto and off we went. The car had stalled on the tracks and the driver jumped out at the last minute and was ok. I shot the spectacular car wreckage and dropped the film off at the local paper.

That afternoon as usual a big stack of papers were dropped off on my front porch to wrap in rubber bands and deliver on my bike. Right there on the cover was my photo, and I delivered every copy of the newspaper with pride.

A smokejumper wearing a mounted camera parachutes into the Alaskan forest, in a featured image from the May 2019 issue of National Geographic. (Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic)

Take us through a recent work day.

My workday varies if I’m in the field or back at Headquarters in Washington, DC. If I’m in town I’m up at 4:30 a.m., at the gym by 5 a.m., home by 6 a.m., at work by 7:30 a.m. and begin shooting or with meetings. I run our photo studio, which keeps me hopping with various shoots for NG Magazine and other parts of National Geographic.

What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

Storm Radar is a handy weather app that shows the radar from the last 2 hours and what the models predict for the next 6 hours. It’s invaluable when shooting outside. I also love TPE (The Photographer’s Ephemeris). It shows the path of the sun and moon at any given date/time for your location. It’s handy when planning a shot to see where the sun/moon will set and rise.

What’s your workspace setup like?

In our photo studio at headquarters (DC) I normally shoot with a Canon 5D Mk IV or SR tethered to a Mac Pro. I shoot to Capture One so I can see it on the big screen.

A huge advantage of this setup is I can use Canon’s Live View, which lets me see live video from the camera on the computer monitor, and I can adjust objects and lighting and see the results without having to take a picture. Capture One even lets me adjust camera settings, a handy feature when the camera is mounted 3.05m high looking down on the set. I use the same setup when shooting artefacts in the field but I tether to a MacBook Pro.

Mark on the Alaskan smokejumper shoot.

What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?

Sometimes I’m in a situation where I need quick feedback from my photo editor back at headquarters. I’ll use my iPhone to take a picture of the image on the camera’s LCD screen, then send it. It’s redundant taking a picture of a picture, but it works quite well in the right situation.

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.

When I’m flying from DC to fires on the West Coast I don’t want to bring more than I have to. And I’m often sleeping in my rented SUV. So I leave the sleeping pad at home and stop by a Costco when I land and purchase a dog bed. They are cheap, plush, and comfortable enough for a good night’s rest.

Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?

Our photo editors at National Geographic are top notch. It’s important for a photographer to have fresh eyes on their story coverage and the photo editor for the story provides that. They will tell you exactly what they think. That’s what I want, honest feedback.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

My calendar is everything. It keeps track of all my shoot locations and contact info related to that shoot. Often the photo editor and I will share a document in the cloud to keep track of the progress of different shoots related to a story.

Mark in the studio.

How do you recharge or take a break?

I’m usually at the gym right when they open at 5 a.m. I’m a morning person by nature and that’s when it’s MY time. I can listen to music and zone out as I work out. Such a great way to start the day.

What’s your favourite side project?

Four years ago I became a beekeeper. I manage four hives on the roof of National Geographic along with a few of my own in the suburbs. I find it extremely rewarding.

People expect I have all these awesome pictures of honeybees but I don’t. I want to focus on being a great beekeeper and not be distracted by photography.

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It’s about understanding why people on opposite ends of the political spectrum feel the way they do. You will understand why you hold the moral beliefs you do and why others disagree with you.

Can you share a music playlist you’ve made, for working or elsewhere?

My guilty pleasure is 60s and 70s poppy music like Abba and the Archies. I’m embarrassed to share this playlist with you: Mark’s Gym Pop.

Mark and team in the studio.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

An airtanker pilot who fights fires. A downtown heavy lift crane operator.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Whatever you do, do it the best you can.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

How to find things that fall between the car seat and the centre console.


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