Cover stories: Making the Viking cover

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Science  11 Nov 2016:
Vol. 354, Issue 6313, pp. 677
DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3026

Cover stories offer a look at the process behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

Although I began my journalism career as a newspaper photographer, being Science’s photo director means that I spend most of my time looking at pictures, not taking them. So I was surprised when a photo I took—with an iPhone—was selected for the cover. Here is how that happened, along with a few tips for getting better results from your camera phone.

Last summer, I had an opportunity to visit Viking sites along the Greenland coast, as part of a National Geographic travel expedition. I was accompanying my wife, Karen Kasmauski, a former National Geographic photographer who was the official photo expert for the trip. One of the highlights of the trip was a stop at Qassiarsuk on the country’s east coast; the legendary Erik the Red settled here in 982. Only scattered stones remain of the original structures, but detailed reconstructions of a church and longhouse were erected in 2000. Rain threatened on the morning I visited, filling the sky with low, dramatic clouds and muting the earthy tones of weathered wood and dark stone. A local guide jumped atop the low stone wall around the church and described the site’s history, her red jacket adding a bright note of color to the somber scene.

Photo: Bill Douthitt

Though I was shooting video, I pulled out my iPhone to take a still picture. Not everyone uses the phone’s panning function, but that is my favorite way to work with the camera. Panning takes practice—the trick is to slowly and steadily rotate your body to capture the scene, avoiding the distortion that results from camera shake. When properly done, the outcome can be dramatic, yielding horizontal landscapes that provide a strong sense of place. Panning also increases the amount of information the camera acquires, resulting in file sizes large enough for professional use. By modifying the camera controls, I carefully set the exposure to capture the stunning clouds. I took multiple pictures, each time adjusting the exposure, varying the amount of panning, and changing the horizon position. Back aboard ship, I reviewed my efforts, selecting the frame with the best combination of composition, exposure, and expression of the guide.

Bill Douthitt, Photography Managing Editor at Science

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