This piece originally appeared in PhotoShelter’s guide Building Your Outdoor & Adventure Photography Business – for the full article download the guide here.
Elizabeth Krist, Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic, and the rest of the Nat Geo team seek photographers who have an eye for composing striking and electrifying images. But perhaps even more importantly, they want photographers who have a real curiosity about the world around them — those who aren’t afraid to delve into the intellectual and research aspects of an assignment.
To give photographers a better sense of what goes on behind the scenes at National Geographic, Elizabeth provided some insight into what type of work the magazine commissions, how photographers can pitch Nat Geo, and what you can do to get noticed.
PhotoShelter: With so much outdoor photography available, how do National Geographic editors choose what’s best for the different sections of the magazine?
Elizabeth Krist: In the front of the book (industry speak for the first few pages of the magazine), we have “Your Shot” and “Visions,” where anyone is invited to submit a photograph. Visions is usually for professional photographers, whereas Your Shot features more amateur or aspiring photographers. Photos for Visions need to be horizontal, and are almost always in color – keep in mind that the gutter will run directly down the middle. Images with authentic emotion, or that convey a sense of wonder, have an advantage.
The feature stories in the well (the center of the magazine) are almost always commissioned. About half of these stories are conceived by freelance writers and photographers, and half by our own staff. Photographers are assigned on a per-story basis from a core group of regular contributors. We’re interested in narratives over single images, and try to create photography that tells a story revealing something extraordinary.
Photographers should also look closely at our website to familiarize themselves with Daily News, Proof, and our other digital offerings.
PS: What’s the best way for a photographer to get your attention?
EK: The most important feature I look for in a photographer is dedication to long-term projects. Another major plus is having access to rare events or hidden worlds, and nowadays, expertise in multimedia as well. Photographers who happen to focus on needed specialties — like archaeology — have a better chance of attracting my attention, too. Securing a referral before you contact me, and putting that in the email’s subject line, is another good way to reach out to me.
PS: About how much stock is used in the magazine and what agencies do you find yourself ?
EK: Stock is used in the departments in the front and back of the magazine, but is used quite rarely in the print feature stories. We do of course pick up historical material occasionally. And we use stock quite a lot on our website, in Daily News, for example. I’m hesitant to mention any agencies by name, as it varies so much depending on what we’re looking for. But our first call is often to our own archive, the National Geographic Creative.
PS: Is it better to approach a magazine like National Geographic with a photo project before, during, or after the project’s completion?
EK: If we know your work, we like to hear ahead of time about projects you might be planning. But if we haven’t worked with you before, it would make it easier if you could show us your coverage in progress, so we can better understand your intentions and your style of shooting.
PS: As a photographer, can you use an image sold to National Geographic for your own portfolio?
EK: Photographers always keep copyright unless we buy out their images, which happens extremely rarely — usually only when a museum requires us to secure all rights in order to prevent images of their artifacts appearing without their permission. And even in those cases we often negotiate to allow photographers to display the images in their portfolios.
PS: Many National Geographic stories seem to be written in the field while the photographer and writer are working together. At what point does the writer become involved? How often do photographers write their own stories?
EK: It is extremely rare for one person to write and photograph a story. Occasionally a photographer will work with a writer or text editor who will help them draft long captions for a story that is more of a picture portfolio. But in most cases a writer is assigned at the outset when a photographer is assigned.
For a more extensive version of this interview, including what festivals and workshops Elizabeth recommends attending, check out our guide Building Your Outdoor & Adventure Photography Business.