National Geographic Photography: What You Need to Know

National Geographic has been in circulation since 1888 and has become the worldwide symbol of dramatic and story photography. The profound images that come out in the magazine leave lasting imprints in the minds of its readers.

Many of the magazine’s photographs, especially the covers, became prized possessions and global symbols, like the photo of a young Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, that came out in 1985. Considered one of the most powerful portraits to ever grace the magazine’s cover, Steve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl has become an iconic image. For a photographer, this is like winning the mega jackpot lottery or the Nobel Prize; because, no matter how many photos you take, the goal is to always leave a high impressing mark.

National Geographic Photography

What made McCurry’s photo land the National Geographic cover? What did he have to do? What does it take to become a respected photographer for the magazine? What qualities do National Geographic photographers possess? There are no specific answers to these questions, but there are some things that you need to know before you decide to become a National Geographic photographer and create lasting images like McCurry’s.

The most important things you need to know

National Geographic has many photographers with different specialties. There are documentary photographers who, for instance, specialize in deep underwater photography and there are some whose expertise lies in landscape photography. If there is one thing that all these photographers possess, it is persistency. But that’s getting ahead and skipping to the end. Let’s begin by breaking down what you need to do first:

  • First things first: You need to familiarize yourself with the magazine. From page-to-page, from one story to another. This will give you an idea of what photos to take and what stories to work on.
  • If you want to apply as a photographer, stick to that. Don’t try to juggle two things at the same time by becoming a writer and photographer.
  • You need to have something to show the people at National Geographic. Come up with a project or story and make sure that it is 75 to 90% done when you present it to them. Choose a story that you haven’t done yet. Furthermore, be sure that National Geographic hasn’t covered that story yet. Go a little out-of-the-box and create something that you never imagined you’d do someday. And don’t rush things. Take time to shoot, and shoot well!
  • If getting into National Geographic is the end-all and be-all of your life as a photographer, be sure that you’re ready to do absolutely anything to take photos. You should be willing to dive in iced water or explore unknown caves. You should be ready to make the impossible work.
  • You do not necessarily have to enroll in a photography class or school. Many of Geographic’s photographers are self-taught. Majority of them also didn’t take up journalism in college. The secret is to highlight what your specialty or expertise is (like sports or rock climbing, for example) and integrate this into your photography.


It is also important that you possess the following characteristics:

  1. Intellect

    You need to understand the stories you shoot. A good photographer knows that intellect is needed in order to shape a good story. An intelligent photographer, on the other hand, has a good grasp of what makes a story work and which photographs are needed to tell the story. You should also be able to work independently, when there is a need to.

  2. Maturity

    Photography deals a lot with individuals of different backgrounds and personalities. A mature photographer knows how to approach difficult situations, especially when it comes to convincing people to become a part of his or her photographic masterpiece. A mature photographer can work well with others, particularly with the editorial team.

    Lastly, a mature photographer knows that he or she cannot control all the elements involved in the process of producing his or her photos.

  3. Passion

    In everything you do, passion has to be involved. A photographer has to care for his subjects in order to come up with good results. If your heart is not into it, you won’t be able to tell the story you intend to convey.

  4. Persistence

    A persistent photographer knows the value of hard work. He also possesses the right amount of drive to accomplish tasks and assignments. National Geographic is not just your neighborhood magazine; it is one of the world’s best. You cannot afford to be lax when working for a highly esteemed publication.

Some other things you need to know

Here are some facts about National Geographic that you need to know before you decide to become one of their photographers.

  • Most of the photographers on call at National Geographic are freelancers.
  • National Geographic favors photographers who can shoot pictures that show compelling narratives, profound images and interesting subjects.
  • National Geographic photographers do not just shoot any subject; they shoot picture stories. Great photos are not the priority of the publication. Even if your photo looks good, if it does not tell a story, it won’t be published.
  • National Geographic does not allow altering of images using any software. The publication features real stories, so it does not publish works of fiction.

Becoming a National Geographic photographer takes a lot of work – hard work! You don’t just take photos, submit it to them and expect to be called back the next day. Aside from the right photographic skills, you also have to have the attitude needed for someone who will constantly be on the lookout for interesting stories to tell through pictures. As mentioned earlier, you should be willing to think and do something that’s out of the ordinary.

Before trying out your luck with National Geographic, you should first build and establish your portfolio. Get your photos published in respected newspapers and magazines. Spread your work online, too. And choose your specialty early on so you can train yourself to shoot in that niche. You can be an actor shooting events that unfold behind-the-scene or a traveler who shoots undiscovered caves in places you go to. Focus on something you’re good at or something you love; something that people will find worth their time and attention.

Lastly, never stop practicing for it is the only way for you to improve your craft – including the dramatic way of telling picture stories that National Geographic is known for.

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