Nat Geo Photographer on Spain’s Basque Region

By special contributor, National Geographic Photographer, Joanna Pinneo 

Before I embark on a travel assignment I want to know what’s important to show about an area and the people who live there. I am a “people photographer” and people to me embody the spirit and personality of a place. To capture this essence however research is key!

On assignment for National Geographic Magazine to cover the Basque Country in northwest Spain and southwest France, I delved into questions such as: Who are the Basques including their personal qualities? What is unique about their geography? What are the qualities that define them as Basque?


I discovered that they honor history and their long held ability to fend off foreign invaders and keep the traditions that define them. The photograph above was taken from a balcony with a long zoom (70-200 mm f2.8) during the San Marcial festival in the town of Irun on the north coast of Spain near the French border. The festival celebrates a 16th century victory over French and German invaders and is still celebrated with great ceremony today. I also took photos walking with the parade. To be allowed to do this I had to dress up in white with a black jacket and a red beret so I would not spoil the look of the parade! They had some inexpensive black jackets for sale and I bought a beautiful red beret.

One of the pleasures of exploring the Basque country is the lush green rolling hills, farms, and small town dotted in the countryside. It is still a land of shepherds and their sheep, cheese-making and local festivals. One can leave the bustling city behind and dip into the past. Asking lots of questions helped me find out when the sheep move into the hills in the spring and come down in the fall so I was able to catch up with a farmer and his sheep. “Scene setters” are important in developing a story because they help to put the people in context and give your audience a feeling for the landscape that has shaped their lives.


Sheep farmers often spend the summer in the hills tending their sheep and their families will join them on the weekends from town. This shepherd’s hut is typical and is built of the stones from the mountains that surround it. I wanted to place the hut in context so I stood back with a long lens (70-200 mm f2.8) to show the hut set into the hillside including the rocky terrain and tree in the foreground.

4-Farmer-and-Son-NGM199511_82-3A shepherd and his young son enjoy a light moment together after lunch in front of their summer cottage. For this photograph I used an 85mm f/1.4.

The Basques are more reserved than people in other Spanish regions but once a friend, always a friend, and this farmer invited me back to see his farm. As we went into one of his barns where he had been working he went over to look out of a window and I was able to make this portrait that will always remind me of that day and his hospitality. This photograph serves as a counterpoint to the scenery and shows that he keeps to the traditional way of life. I love how the window light highlights the craggy lines in his face, yet his smile tells of a man with humor and care. His hand resting on the sill are hands used to hard work and he is holding onto a shovel with the other with which he had been working.

The Basque are proud of their strong work ethic but that does not stop them from having a good time, dancing and downing a pint or two. More research and asking a lot of questions helped me find some of the smaller local festivals. I was surprised that many of their sports competitions are related to their work like clearing a field with scythes (the most grass cut by a team wins) or lifting huge stones.


Rounding the corner into a narrow side street during a festival in Lekeitio I saw a local festival-goer tipping a porron (a glass drinking pitcher with a narrow tip found in Spain) to have a drink. I loved the strong shaft of light that was hitting him as he tilted the porron up to drink and yes, I got lucky! I did not ask him to move over to the sun and take another drink though he may have done so for my benefit anyway! There’s a phrase a veteran National Geographic photographer once told me that I never forgot, “When you get lucky be ready”.


Harvesting grapes in Europe might not be unusual to see but only the Basques produce a unique zesty and lightly bubbly white wine called Txakoli (pronounced CHAH-ko-lee) and have done for centuries. To make this photograph more compelling and intimate I poked my head up and through the vines to capture the intensity of the farmer working and harvesting his grapes.


Photographs at different times of day add a variety to your travel story and give the viewer a totally different feeling than pictures during the daytime.

For this evening image of the San Sebastian harbor I went down at dusk and set up a tripod and experimented with different shutter speeds to get the subtle movement of the waves onto the shore and out into the Bay of Biscay. San Sebastian is a stunning sophisticated city and as the NY Times reports, “To visit San Sebastián, on Spain’s northern coast, is to fall in love.” San Sebastian has secured a coveted designation as a 2016 European Capital of Culture.


One day in San Sebastian I was wandering the streets and came across this wall where kids often practice their “pelota” moves. Pelota is a sport that originated in the Basque country and is played with a ball (a pelota) which is hit against a wall (a fronton). It can be played with a racquet but one of the most popular forms is by hand without a racquet. I noticed that the light would hit the wall at the end of the day and so I returned later that afternoon. My efforts were rewarded as this boy was there practicing. The late afternoon light gave me the silhouette I was hoping for and taking a number of different images using a fast shutter speed insured a hit. This was the most successful image.


One morning while heading up into the hills to attend the earlier-mentioned scything competition I looked up and saw fog lifting up out of the pines and over a farm. I was pretty far away but again the 70-200 mm f2.8 lens served me well to frame the image with the dark trees at the bottom and the forested hillside above the farm. The light green of the fields set the farm off from the darker trees and the fog accentuates the atmosphere.

Joanna uses Canon DSLR equipment and uses a mixture of zoom and prime lenses.


Exploring the Basque Country – A Photography Travel Workshop

Joanna absolutely fell in love with the Basque region; so much so that she is going back to lead travel photography workshops this year – and you’re invited to join!

This workshop is designed for photography enthusiasts and semi-pro photographers who are interested in improving their digital photography skills; both technically and aesthetically. Ideal for those who enjoy exploring new places and learning about different cultures with cameras in-hand.

Limited to 10 people, Joanna has joined with Kukua Tours founder and Basque expert Mikel Erkiaga to lead this exclusive 8-day photographic workshop.  Join this small group, and experience lots of hands on learning, great locations and food!

Click to learn more about this amazing workshop.

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