Professional Insights

Professional Insights

Bill Frakes

Bill Frakes

Photojournalism/Commercial (U.S.A.)

Never satisfied: the story of a passionate photojournalist

Award-winning director and photographer, Bill Frakes has worked in all 50 states and in more than 125 countries for a wide variety of editorial and advertising clients, including Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola, Nikon, and Reebok. A staff photographer for Sports Illustrated, his editorial work has appeared in virtually every major general interest publication in the world, while his still photographs and short documentary films have been featured on hundreds of websites and most major television networks. He has taught at the Universities of Miami, Florida, and Kansas as an adjunct professor and lecturer. During the last five years, he has lectured at more than 100 universities discussing multimedia and photojournalism.

Big influences in a small town

I've always been moved by images. I grew up in western Nebraska, where we didn't have access to a lot of the same things you would in the city. I learned about the world through books and magazines. From the time I was two years old, LIFE magazine and Sports Illustrated were part of my life. Both of them were incredible photo-driven periodicals. When I was 14, I found Henri Cartier-Bresson's book, called "The Decisive Moment," in my local library and read his thoughts on photography. The second book I read in that library was by W. Eugene Smith, who remains my hero to this day. Then in 1971, I discovered a book called "Kent State: What Happened and Why," by an author named James Michener. These books mesmerized me, and helped shape the photographer that I have become.

My mother was the biggest influence on me. She was an educator and an artist. I didn't realize it as a child, but she raised me to be an artist, as well. She was constantly teaching me about shapes, textures, colors, emotions, and how to use them to communicate visually. There was nothing specifically about photography in these lessons, but she truly taught me how to see, and that's where it began. When I was 7, my grandparents lived in a small town in Nebraska and my mom and dad gave me a tiny pocket camera with two rolls of film and one pack of flash bulbs. Each disposable flash bulb could take 4 flashes each, so I could take 24 photographs but use only 12 flashes. I immediately shot all 24 frames. It was impossible for me to save any for a later time. The second frame that I ever took was of a record snowfall that Christmas Eve: 44 inches. I was fascinated by how deep the snow was and what this meant to our community. That second frame shows a man trying to dig his car out, so you could say that I began my journey as a photojournalist right then, because I wanted to preserve and record an event for history.

Getting it right

One of the greatest influences in my professional career has been Heinz Kluetmeier. No matter how big or small the assignment, he always treats each one with the same level of enthusiasm, dedication and perseverance. For example, I once saw a woman ask him to take a shot of her and her friends with the woman's small digital camera. He looked through the camera and said: "No, the light isn't good." The woman said: "It's fine, just push the button," but instead, Heinz sent an assistant to his truck two or three times to get various pieces of lighting equipment. At last, when he was satisfied, he took a few shots, handed the camera back and we walked off. If you were a commercial client, you would pay around 25,000 dollars to have him do something like that, but that was not what was important to Heinz. What was important was taking a good shot. He wanted to get it right. I try to emulate that in everything I do.

The power and responsibility of photojournalism

I'm a photojournalist, pure and simple. Whether it's a sporting event or an advertising assignment, I'm always a photojournalist. That's my background and my passion. When I cover athletic events, I may be trying to incorporate my own artistic sense or make a statement about the sport, but I also need to do the reportage. I need to show the outcome. I need to show what is important and why it's important. Of course I want to make the big picture of the big play, but I'm also trying to tell the complete story.

These stories can have profound and unpredictable effects. For example, around 30 years ago, I was working and studying at the University of Kansas. One day I was driving through a small nearby town and I saw a man on the side of the road with the most incredible weather-beaten face. It was such a wonderful face that I needed to take a picture of him and his ancient truck, so I stopped and approached him. He told me he was a famer and while we were talking, a little girl ran up to him. He picked her up and held her while we spoke. The contrast between their faces was so striking: she was clean and smooth, while his face was all cracks and wrinkles, like a topographical map of the badlands. I thought that the girl was surely his granddaughter, but it was his daughter: he was only 49 years old. I was struck by how hard his life must have been. The photograph I took ran on the front page of the newspaper I worked for.

Now fast-forward to 2010. I was sitting in my office and the phone rings. I answer and a woman asks for me. "I'm calling with an odd question for you: do you remember a man named Leroy Hatch?" I said "Sure, I remember him. I took his photograph more than 30 years ago. "Exactly," she replies, "and now he lives in the retirement home where I work. He is approaching 80 years old and he still has the photograph you took of him in his wallet." As the nurse explained, being recognized "as a person" was an intense memory for him, and reminded me of the responsibility that photographers have when they take somebody's photograph. I think that's what the really good photographers do: they try to invest their imagery with this sense of the courtesy, pride and responsibility to their subjects.

On being a photographer

In the course of my lifetime, I've probably taken close to ten million photographs, yet out of all of them, there are perhaps only ten or less that I'm absolutely satisfied with. Every other photograph could have been discarded or improved in some way: I could have moved the camera a little this way or that way, or I could have waited a second longer before shooting. Even my most highly regarded images could be improved. I wish I could shoot them all over again.
I'm not being hard on myself, and I'm not saying that they are terrible photographs. All I'm saying is that I truly enjoy studying my pictures, and analyzing them to see how they could be better. I always want to keep growing, however I think that one of the hardest things for a photographer is being able to critique yourself accurately. If you are too hard on yourself, then you stifle your growth, if you are too easy on yourself, then you won't push yourself enough to do what you need to do. I have a high tolerance for criticism.

For me, every single picture has to be personal. That's who I am, that's what's important to me. If you are just doing photography for the money or to fulfill some sort of request, you're never going to be good. If you don't feel it, eat it, breathe it, you're never going to reach the highest levels. Perhaps you can make some good photographs for a job here and there, but if you want to have a great career and make this your life, it has to be part of you. My main motivation for taking pictures is love. I know it sounds naive, but I believe the most important requirement to be a successful photographer or photojournalist is the ability to fall in love everyday. If you can fall in love everyday, then you can be a great photographer. Taking photographs is a joy for me. I love it. I'll never be worried about whether or not there will be another phone call or assignment down the road. If there isn't, I can still take photographs and share them.

A new age, with new opportunities

I think people talk about photojournalism as a dying profession because some of the great old magazines are gone. Newspaper staffs are shrinking, and the way information is presented is changing. But there is still an incredible amount of quality work being done everyday — more than ever before. This is the golden age. This is when you can do it. I don't necessarily think that photojournalism itself is changing — only the method of capturing images and disseminating them is. You can do things today that you were never able to do before. Never before in the history of photojournalism could you do the entire process from beginning to end and post it. If you don't take advantage of that, that's not the industry's fault. It's yours. The method of capturing and spreading information may be changing, but the imagery itself is not.

The multimedia equipment we use today has speed and versatility that traditional video could never give us. However, I believe the single most important and powerful method of communication remains the photograph. Not video, and not audio recording — just the photograph. Still images freeze time. They allow us to travel through a photographer's thoughts. They are universal language, and need no translation. Take, for example, Eddie Adams, the photographer who captured an iconic image during the Vietnam War of a general executing a prisoner. Countless people can visualize the image. Few people, however, know that a television crew captured the same event, as well, and even fewer can envision the footage in their mind's eye. What you envision is Eddie's photograph. With today's gear, however, I can now incorporate video and audio with strong photographs and magnify their power. The combination of audio, video and still images now allows me to relay more information — with more impact — than I could have ever imagined before. This is very important to me: the more information that I can convey to my audience, the better. I never want to leave something unsaid.

A few years ago, a friend from Nikon handed me a new camera. "This," he said, "is something you need to see." At that time, I was doing some multimedia projects, combining still images and external audio recordings with traditional movie work. "This is going to change the way you work," my friend said, "and it's going to change the footprint of your work. The days of you carrying dedicated video equipment are numbered." The camera he showed me was the D90, and I loved it. I was now able to go back and forth between stills and video fairly seamlessly. Instead of carrying two or three cases of video gear, I was able to take extra camera bodies and more lenses. I could travel with the same amount of cases but with a wider array of equipment that could be used for multiple purposes. Another significant change was that I no longer had to go back and forth between dedicated video cameras and dedicated still cameras. The D90 was both. The timing of this was perfect for me, as I had begun to experiment with multimedia more frequently and passionately, combining stills, audio and video into a package that became much more than the sum of its parts.

I think it's an extremely exciting time to be a photographer. You have more possibilities to shoot and show your images than ever before. The system of information dissemination is evolving rapidly. You can embrace it and respond to it, or you can put your head in the sand and be terrified of it. It's invigorating and demanding, and I have much to learn. Perhaps one of the ways that I stand out is that I completely enjoy the education: I dedicate at least an hour a day, every day, to study. I want to learn about the new possibilities, so I'm constantly reading blogs, magazines and books for ways to advance. It's not a burden at all. It's a joy.

I believe that now more than ever, the world needs sincere, honest and committed storytellers. Today's multimedia tools give you the ability to share more information more rapidly and diversely than ever before. The viewers of your images are not static, either. They've been educated, they are growing and they are hungry for more information. You need to feed it to them, and multimedia is a great way to do it.

Powerful tools, passionate people

For the multimedia documentary that we shot with the D4, we wanted to not only make beautiful imagery, but also challenge both the camera and ourselves. We used every function we could use. We shot from essentially ISO 100 to over ISO 100,000. We tried all the video functions we could. This is an incredible imaging machine. I love the rapid response, and I don't simply mean how fast it can focus or how many images it can take per second. I also mean how intuitive the menus are, the ease of the video functions and the ergonomics. I love the illuminated buttons: you can use this camera in virtual darkness. The files are spectacular, and so is the audio quality. I could go on and on. It's a brilliant job.

It's important to me that I can use every NIKKOR lens I have, because I don't sell lenses. I keep them all. I have more than 120 NIKKOR lenses now, which may seem like a lot, but if you do the math, it's only 3 or 4 a year over the course of my career. These lenses are my eyes: without the ability to translate my thoughts through glass, I can't share what I'm seeing. I can feel it, sense it or explain it with words, but without quality optics, I can't accurately reproduce it for someone else. Each lens has a personality and a different set of responses. Each lens does a different job. Why would I want to give that away? It would be giving away part of my vocabulary. That's what makes NIKKOR and the Nikon F-mount special: by sticking with the same format all these years, I can return to lenses I've had for decades. This was not an easy road for Nikon. They could have abandoned the format for something else, but if they did, they would be turning their back on so many of the lenses they have made over the years, therefore abandoning me as a photographer. For example, I still own a 50mm f/1.2 lens that I bought when I was just starting my career. This lens was manufactured when I was around 5 years old, and I used it just the other day on my D4. How great is that? I'm a businessman as well as an artist, and I must merge these two sides of my personality so that I can be both creatively and financially successful. With Nikon, I have the two virtues I value above all others: strength and reliability.


One of the things that set Nikon Professional Services apart from the rest is that everyone on their staff is a photographer in their own right. They have a love for photography, and for photographers. When I call NPS with a problem, I get an answer — a solid answer, based on their experience. This level of service didn't start once I became successful, either: from the first time I bought a Nikon camera as a college student through today, I have relied on NPS for assistance, for explanations and for quality control. They've always been there for me. The sense of professionalism and love for photography within NPS is infectious. They get it. They are a perfect extension of the Nikon brand: strong, reliable and consistent.

See more from Bill by visiting his website, blog and Twitter. Open in new window.