• April 1, 2016

April Fools! Six Images of Mistakes Gone Right

Jessie Wender

This post about photographic happy accidents was originally published on April 1, 2015. We’re resurfacing it in honor of April Fools’ Day. Has a mistake ever turned into one of your favorite pictures? If so, we’d love to see! Send them to us at proof@natgeo.com

April 1 can be a day full of surprises. Inspired by this idea of the unexpected I asked six National Geographic photographers to share a favorite image of theirs that was the result of something unplanned—a mistake gone right or a perfect moment captured by being in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time. Here are the stories and images they shared, some genuinely surprising and funny, others beautiful and moving. Expect the unexpected.


Teton National Park, Wyoming, November 2014.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, November 2014
Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James

I love photos that are happy mistakes. I can pass them off as deliberate, thought out, and examples of my photographic prowess (if I wasn’t stupid enough to write about them being mistakes). This photo is a happy mistake. It’s from a camera trap I set up on a dead elk to shoot images of wolves. A magpie flew onto the camera with some elk jerky while a bald eagle figured out what bit of the elk to tackle next. This is one of tens of thousands of images of ravens, magpies, and bald eagles that triggered the camera as they interrupted an infrared beam over the elk—alas, no wolves did. We wildlife photographers have so little control over our subjects that, to be honest, pretty much everything we do is a mistake. This is one of those rare mistakes when a few stars aligned to create a bizarre composition and present an interesting story—unless I’m much mistaken! —Charlie Hamilton James

Picture of a parasitic wasp laying eggs on the abdomen of a spider
A parasitic wasp (Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga) lays its egg on the abdomen of a spider (Leucauge argyra).
Photograph by Anand Varma

When I started my “Mindsuckers” parasite story, I wanted to photograph all of my subjects exactly the same way. I would leave the host organism in silhouette and only light up the parasite. I succeeded in sticking with this narrow visual approach for the first three parasites, but when I got to this spider I ran into a problem. When I tried to backlight it I discovered that the spider’s legs were actually translucent. At first I was frustrated because the colors distracted from the parasite I was trying to highlight. My editor, Todd James, had to convince me to expand my visual approach and embrace the surprising beauty of the spider’s legs. —Anand Varma

Picture of a joshua tree
Joshua tree, 1990
Photograph by Len Jenshel

I was in Joshua Tree National Park, and I pulled in next to the largest Joshua tree in the entire park. It was predawn, pitch-black, and I was going to make a picture with star trails behind this beautiful tree. After a few minutes of scouting, I decided that the shot wasn’t going to work, so I got back in my car and started to pull away. But as I looked in my rearview mirror, I saw the red glow of my taillights on the tree and gasped. When I hit the brakes, it made the tree look even more strange and beautiful. I set up my camera, and when the sky had the right kind of glow, I made a two-minute exposure of this Joshua tree, bathed in the car’s taillights. —Len Jenshel

Picture of stray dogs in Angola
Kuito, Angola, 2000
Photograph by Ami Vitale

In 2000, I was covering a very difficult story about Africa’s longest civil war, happening in Angola, that the world had seemingly forgotten about. The war was already into its 26th year of brutal fighting, which had displaced over four million people and spawned a humanitarian crisis. It was a deeply depressing story, and the first time I had ever witnessed this kind of brutality. One morning I went out early into the quiet streets of Kuito and found two puppies roaming. They stopped, sat down like this for just a split second, looked at me, and were off again. I was shooting film at the time so didn’t know I had this frame until a few days later when I was able to process it. Seeing this image brought a little smile and became a reminder to keep looking for the joyful moments in the middle of the darkest places. Because the people I met certainly still laughed despite the unspeakable violence around them. —Ami Vitale

Picture of frozen ballet shoes
New York City, March 2015
Photograph by Alison Wright

I was out running on the crowded streets of New York City when this subtle peach color in slushy snow caught my eye. I stopped and realized it was a pair of ballet shoes fully frozen and embedded in the ice. People were hustling past me with quizzical looks as to why I’d stopped to photograph a seemingly obscure block of dirty ice, but once I got home I thought it really was quite a pretty picture. As a photographer, no matter what I’m doing I always have my eyes open for those sublime images that are unwittingly waiting to unfold before me. —Alison Wright

Picture of a dog barking out of the window of a trucj=k
Salmon, Idaho, July 1992
Photograph by Joel Sartore

I was photographing near Salmon, Idaho, and was almost out of light and without a single picture to show for a very long day. Then I saw an older man on a tractor putting up hay and figured it’s this or nothing. I pulled my car off the road and walked out into the meadow. There was a bit of movement behind a hay bale, and I realized his grandson was out there too, playing hide-and-seek. At dusk, the man shut down the tractor, and he and his grandson got in his pickup truck. I walked over to ask their names, and suddenly the most ferocious blue heeler that ever ripped a face off came lunging out of the window. I was terrified! It must have showed because the grandson started laughing. I snapped a few frames, and the dog calmed down a bit. Turns out Grandpa was holding onto that dog’s back leg the whole time, otherwise I’d probably be faceless as I write this. When I asked why they’d keep a dog like that, Grandpa responded, “I don’t like salesmen much, and we don’t have many problems with them coming around.” I understood completely. —Joel Sartore

There are 62 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Marie
    April 10, 2016

    Sorry, it’s Johnny Reb that’s not thinking straight. keep up the great work guys. National Geo. is the best.

  2. marie
    April 10, 2016

    I love NGO. Johnny Deb is not thinking straight

  3. Carol Worrell
    April 1, 2016

    These photos should be next to the word serendipity in the dictionary. Thanks for making me smile. How about doing this for an assignment?:)

  4. Ewa
    April 1, 2016

    One photo always tells you more than a You-Tube-second. Thanks for sharing these wonderful moments.

  5. Jacqui
    April 1, 2016

    I cannot find anything “joyful” about the picture of two puppies on the street in Kuito. I look at the bigger picture, not at the spec of time captured on film.

    Why anyone would keep an aggressive dog….like that?
    Because our dogs protect us, they are loyal, loving and would lay down their lives for us if need be.

  6. Stan Dalton
    May 13, 2015

    Talk about synchronicity at work. Amazing one of a lifetime shots.

  7. Arwildo
    April 18, 2015

    Salmon, Idaho, July 1992.. very full story from their expression .. dogs that protect their owner, grandparents and grandchildren laughing on what is dog done 😀
    I use this photo as desktop wallpaper, thank you Joel Sartore

  8. shar
    April 14, 2015

    beautiful and unexpected moments of life well captured inside these tiny frames…great stories!! inspirational…

  9. renu
    April 12, 2015

    The last pic of the ferocious dog is awesome and quite a story there too.

  10. renu
    April 12, 2015

    The dog story is most awesome, and amazing story as well

  11. Trisha Mahoney
    April 9, 2015

    Wonderful Wonderful Wonder-filled

  12. Bonnie tabbert
    April 8, 2015

    The more mistakes you make it gives pictures character

  13. Kathy
    April 7, 2015

    Mistakes? I thought what you are seeing is what you meant to photograph. All wonderful amazing moments captured!

  14. Barry Widell
    April 3, 2015

    Great pictures …. Mistakes are somtimes the best!

  15. laura
    April 2, 2015

    The boy with the blue heeler is my cousin. I remember when this came out. So glad to see it again, I nearly forgot about it 😀

  16. amira santillán
    April 2, 2015

    Which are the mistakes? I can´t find them…..

  17. Livia Bruch
    April 2, 2015

    heterochromia, I mean… 🙂

  18. Livia Bruch
    April 2, 2015

    Great pictures, I loved all them! Thanks for sharing! by the way,Eder Roballo, you are a great watcher!!! the wonder dog has herectomia!

  19. Joyce
    April 2, 2015

    Loved the puppies! Also, the ballet slippers frozen. Such unique snapshots!

  20. Amy
    April 2, 2015

    Love your pictures and stories Joel

  21. Johnny Reb
    April 2, 2015

    Well these are OK for amateur photographers but I would have expected something better from National Geographic. Try harder guys

  22. Viral shah
    April 2, 2015

    There is always like ‘I am in search of best shot’ but cannot say what kind of great. Unexpected in anything makes that thing great.
    And all these photos are nice than with taken with vision.
    Great mistakes guys

  23. Karen Henry
    April 2, 2015

    Your photos are grand. The ballet slippers are lovely.

  24. Jarmila Gorman
    April 2, 2015

    There are no mistakes 🙂

  25. Eder Roballo
    April 2, 2015

    the dog have heterochromia….

  26. Deb Ramey
    April 2, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful stories and great pictures ! I too think the ballet slippers frozen in ice was a beautiful picture too

  27. Konfor Sidney
    April 2, 2015

    There should be a whole annual contest for this kinda thing.

  28. Marie Fishman
    April 2, 2015

    i am an armature photographer, but always taking pictures. One day I was whitewater rafting in Costa Rica when we came across a dead crocodile with dozens of vultures devouring him. I snapped the picture and everyone thinks it’s a professional photo. Right place, right time. Your work is awesome. Thanks.

  29. AleeWalee
    April 2, 2015

    Fantastic Pictures

  30. Jane
    April 2, 2015

    I like the background stories that comes with the pictures. It really shows how such moments can be so random and rare. Certainly makes the pictures seem much more interesting.

  31. Rochele
    April 2, 2015

    Being an Aussie, and having Blue Heelers everywhere, I can tell you that they are actually very nice dogs and not typically ready to rip your face off. But when the need arises……. chomp!!! Best working dogs in the world.

  32. Nancy Goodell
    April 1, 2015

    You know Joel we still have that Pickup, but lost Grandpa in 2009 and Nick the wonder dog in the late 90’s Philip the young boy is now a Teacher.

  33. Amanda Goodell
    April 1, 2015

    I love seeing my grandpa, brother, and Nick the Wonder Dog.

  34. Debbie Hattan
    April 1, 2015

    Thanks Joel, very enjoyable! Hope your family is well and happy!

  35. Bobbi Hatler
    April 1, 2015

    These photos are beautiful reminders of the unexpected joys in life. Thanks for sharing!

  36. Gail Schomer
    April 1, 2015

    Captured !

  37. Diego
    April 1, 2015


  38. Monica Bautista
    April 1, 2015

    i always hear from photographers that their best shots are the those that unplanned/ unstaged. Congrats to all the photographers of NG!

  39. Donna
    April 1, 2015

    anothers mistake, another’s art, photography is in eye of the beholder, as is all art

    April 1, 2015

    Hi Allison—Lovely photo! haven’t seen you since Paro-what are you doing now?

  41. Just Judy
    April 1, 2015

    I especially liked the ballet slippers in ice, and that people in general, never even noticed.

  42. aasif
    April 1, 2015

    Mr.Joel Sartore what did you understand by this “I don’t like salesmen much, and we don’t have many problems with them coming around.” actually i am missing the expressions of grandpa and kid.

  43. genserico reis
    April 1, 2015

    Belas as imagens

  44. Jason
    April 1, 2015

    I love the serendipity of accidental or chance photographs!

  45. unseeliepixie
    April 1, 2015

    OK, anyone else dying to know why the ballet slippers were encased in ice?

  46. Laura
    April 1, 2015

    as a ‘people’ photographer, you find most of the accidental shoots are the best

  47. Marye Ann Tucker
    April 1, 2015

    Even the “wrong” things are part of God’s creation and therefore have a special meaning of their own.

  48. Sam
    April 1, 2015

    Heelers, and other herding dogs, have a tendency to be very protective of their people and space. As an ACO, I’m 20 times more cautious with herding breeds than I am with those vicious (sarcasm) bully breeds!

  49. Corrina
    April 1, 2015

    The story behind the pics certainly bring them alive. Love them all but connect to the blue healer dog the most.

  50. judi COHEN
    April 1, 2015

    thanks for sharing. This is why we always have camera in hand….capturing the moment.

  51. Karen Baker Lichty
    April 1, 2015

    love me some Joel. Glad you still have your face

  52. April J.
    April 1, 2015

    I’m glad I followed my curiosity else I would have missed these wonderful photos!

  53. Tanya Dillon
    April 1, 2015

    Love these unexpected shots, but how lucky of all to find the peachy-orange ballet shoes under that light and Prussian blue ice! Those are perfect colour complements!

  54. Linda Wright
    April 1, 2015

    not all Diamonds are flawless, love these images, thank you x

  55. Kathy
    April 1, 2015

    I especially liked the ballet shoes frozen in the ice. Timeless ethereal beauty and motion arrested in ice.

  56. Bett w
    April 1, 2015

    Thank you for the super artistry and appreciation of all things on this planet. Love Granpa!!

  57. Anna Branton
    April 1, 2015

    The older gentleman from Salmon, ID is my uncle. I saw this picture in the magazine years ago by accident and have looked for a copy since then. I was so happy to see it come up on NATGEO facebook. Thank you for so many years of amazing pictures. I am honored that my family is represented. (And, yes, that dog always scared the living daylights out of me whenever we came to visit!)

  58. Matt
    April 1, 2015

    As a former dog catcher, I totally had a ptsd moment looking at cujo-the-heeler. Excellent work.

  59. Joemarie
    April 1, 2015

    Amazing moments captured…

  60. Karla Gomez
    April 1, 2015

    There’s an amazing simplicity to these images hard to explain!

  61. bpmaiti
    April 1, 2015

    un knowningly excellent

  62. Carol Sheppard
    April 1, 2015

    It’s funny that these images were probably seen by many people, yet how many captured them for the rest of us to enjoy?

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