How do you become a National Geographic Photographer?

Examining the diversity of the group represented on thephotosociety.org (a site I created for all the National Geographic photographers) is the easiest way to answer the question, “How do I become a National Geographic photographer?” I usually answer this question by saying: “It is not easy or glamorous (see Reality Check). And this is not where you begin your career. You are competing with world-class documentary photographers and within that genre there are men and women who are the absolute best at their specialty. There are a number of specialists — underwater photographers with different skills — one works in very deep water; a couple photograph at all depths and temperatures; one dives in caves, another holds his breath under whales; and then there is a guy who just works in puddles. One photographer travels all over the world to strap a big fan on his back to shoot aerials. There is a bug guy, an archeology specialist, and a number of folks that photograph critters. There are climbers, conflict photographers, portrait photographers and landscape specialists.” Then I usually end with how amazed I am that I can survive in this crowd as a generalist… in such esteemed company.

But, a more direct answer to the question above is by Kent Kobersteen, former director of photography for National Geographic Magazine and is reprinted below:

What it Takes to be a National Geographic Photographer By Kent Kobersteen

Photo by Michal Mrozek

When it was suggested that I write about what it takes to be a National Geographic photographer I was somewhat reluctant to do so.  I cannot speak for the leadership of the Magazine today.  Certainly every Director of Photography, and every Editor in Chief, has his or her own requirements and preferences. 

I began my career with the National Geographic in 1983 as a picture editor, became the deputy to the Director of Photography in 1987, and became Director of Photography in 1998.  I left the Magazine in 2005. 

Since leaving the Magazine I have kept in close touch with many photographers, and also with the worldwide photographic family.  I have continued to do workshops and give talks in Poland, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Italy, on National Geographic ships in Antarctica and the South Atlantic, and on a National Geographic Around the World by Private Jet journey.

While I cannot speak for the leadership of the Magazine today, I think there are several required attributes that are constant – they’re the same today as they were when I was Director of Photography, and earlier.

Those attributes are intellect, passion, maturity and drive.

Reading this, you may say “What about the photography?”  Of course any person under consideration must be a great photographer.  The National Geographic needs photography that is strong aesthetically and has a sophisticated use of color, photography that is poetic, journalistic, memorable, and comes from unique and intuitive seeing.  But, that’s obvious, that’s a given. 

All four of these attributes – intellect, passion, maturity, drive — ARE about the photography.

If one looks at the work on this site, and reads what the photographers have said, I think it’s obvious that each of them possess these attributes.

I worked with most of the photographers represented on The Photo Society site, and I am very proud to say that a significant number of them are people who did their first work for the Magazine when I was Director of Photography – they are my legacy, if you will. 

I always felt that my responsibility was to get the best, most appropriate photographer for a given story, and then to make it possible for that photographer to do his or her best creative work. 

Certainly who is the “best, most appropriate photographer” is a personal value judgment.  What is the “most appropriate” to one person may not be to another.

The creative part of my job as Director of Photography was to match photographer and subject, and to do everything I could within the Magazine to make it possible for that photographer to do his or her best creative work.

Often that meant returning to photographers who had a long track record with the Magazine.  They were known quantities – they knew what we needed, we knew their photography and their working methods.  Occasionally there was opportunity to work with photographers who were new to the Magazine – but always these were photographers whose experience on other publications, and reputation in the photographic community, was well known to us.

So, what does it take to be a National Geographic photographer?  As I have said, great photography, but also the photographer must possess the attributes of intellect, passion, maturity and drive.

Intellect is essential when working for the National Geographic Magazine because it is a journalistic magazine, and because – most importantly – the photographer shapes the story, and works independently of the writer, and to a great degree independent of direction from the picture editor.  The photographer must be an intelligent, ethical, informed journalist.  It is, very much, the photographer’s story.  At the end of the coverage the photographer will present the photographs to the Editor in Chief, and whether or not the story is published will depend on that presentation.

Passion is an important attribute because without caring about the subject one cannot do their best creative work.  Also, because of the amount of time a National Geographic photographer spends on a given story, without a real passion for the subject and the story, the photographs will really suffer.  Any photographer can do a good job on an assignment of a day or a week.  But when the coverage lasts for several weeks, or several months, and has tens of thousands of dollars in expenses involved, passion for the subject is essential.

Maturity is another essential attribute.  In the span of a single story a photographer may be working with slum-dwellers to a head of state.  The photographer must have the maturity – the “salesmanship”, if you will – to convince this broad spectrum of individuals to give him or her access, and to allow him or her to do their photographic work.

In addition, because the photographer is part of the entire editorial process at the Magazine – story conceptualization and planning, editing, and layout – the photographer must have the maturity to understand that he or she does not control each element in the process, and must have the maturity and diplomacy to work within the editorial structure of the Magazine.

The amount of drive – just plain hard work – necessary to accomplish a National Geographic Magazine assignment cannot be overstressed.  I have often said that I would rather have a photographer whose eye was not the best, but who worked very hard, rather than the person with the best eye in the world, and who was lazy.  I can certainly give examples of both – but I won’t.  And, in the end, I chose photographers who had both the eye and drive.

The ability to work hard is also important for the National Geographic photographer because of the huge amount of planning and logistical complications that must be dealt with in each coverage for the Magazine.  It’s not all about shooting photographs.  Any Geographic photographer will tell you that the actual photographing is an extremely small part of the job.

In addition, with today’s smaller budgets, and with the additional chores placed on the photographer by digital and web requirements of the coverage, the ability to work hard is an even more important attribute.

So, that’s the long answer to the question “What does it take to be a National Geographic photographer?”

The short answer:  Be the absolute best photographer there is for a given assignment.

It’s no different than if Manchester United is looking for a forward, or the Los Angeles Lakers are looking for a center.  Because of the place that photography plays at the National Geographic Magazine, and because of the tremendous investment in each photographic coverage, the Magazine is no different than a top sports team.  What does it take?  Be the best there is.  It’s quite simple.  The Magazine can afford nothing less, and the competition for work for the Magazine is the photographers on this site.

Again, this is all my opinion, my criteria, and my way of working from the time when I was Director of Photography.

So… first ask yourself if you really want to do this.

Go here: thephotosociety.org/reality-check/

You can also go to these links:

Bill Allard explains how he became a National Geographic Photographer

The Tray – How long form narrative is organized for National Geographic Magazine

The best workshop (in our opinion) for becoming a National Geographic photographer – Melissa and I have been teaching this workshop for over 20 years and has many photographers and editors that work at the magazine as instructors – The Missouri Photo Workshop – started by the man that invented the word: “Photojournalism.”

The story behind a single photograph in the Omo Valley

Geekfest… A great get together for young (ish) photographers and APAD

A great workshop that we will teach again

Melissa interviewed about working for Geographic on Huff Post

NGM 50 Best Photographs iPad App with stories behind how the photographs were made

NGM Video about how the top 10 photographs were made in 2010

An interview about doing a story on GOLD around the world with Terry Gross on Fresh Air

Ira Glass inspirational video about storytelling