Answers for the Most
Frequently Asked Questions

What types of film do National Geographic photographers use?

Nearly all use 35mm transparency film, such as Fuji Provia 100, Fuji Velvia 50, Kodachrome 64, and Kodachrome 200. Brand and type are up to the photographer, but most use three or four different emulsions, depending on the situation. They also use small amounts of other 35mm transparency emulsions as well as some 35mm color negative and larger format films. In 1995 they shot 32,000 rolls of film on magazine assignments.


What types of cameras do they use?

It’s up to the photographers, and their most popular choices are Canon and Nikon 35mm SLRs and the Leica M6 range finder.


What type of visual aesthetics is the magazine seeking?

We strive for a blend of style and content. Our photographers are experienced journalists with singular, well-developed photographic styles who use both color and composition in a unique manner.


How long is an average assignment?

Coverage for a single magazine article can run from four weeks to more than sixteen. Some last even longer. Longer assignments are usually split into two or three trips, perhaps in different seasons.


How much film is shot on an assignment?

The number of rolls (usually 36 exposures each) ranges from 300 or 400 to more than 1000 for complex stories. While this seems high, you must remember that professional photographers “sketch” with the camera, much like writers probe with questions to get at the essential information. They explore subjects visually by shooting many sides of a subject in many ways. It is usually the combination of enough time in the field and enough film exposed that provides the depth that has become the hallmark of our coverages.


How do I develop a photographic style?

Style comes with time and is a difficult thing to force. The tendency at first is to copy a well-known photographer (witness how many young photographers are trying to shoot like Eugene Richards or Mary Ellen Mark), but you must move beyond emulation and develop your own strengths. Be aware of the literal nature of your images and strive to go beyond them in an aesthetic sense, but avoid mere self-indulgence.


Any advice for a photographer wanting to enter the profession?

Desire and drive count, but professional photography is a competitive business, and for every successful photographer there are dozens looking for work. Training can only help to fine-tune a natural “eye,” and although a prospective photographer may have a true passion for the art and craft, if he lacks that eye no amount of training or desire can compensate. Many people must be content to be advanced amateurs rather than professionals.


How can I learn more about National Geographic photography?

Three books will be helpful: National Geographic: The Photographs, published in 1994, describes how our photographers work and explains the role of photography at the Society. It is available from the Society as well as in bookstores. The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery, by C.D.B. Bryan, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1987, offers a general history of the National Geographic Society. Odyssey, The Art of Photography at National Geographic, by Jane Livingston, Thomasson-Grant, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1988, is the catalog for the Society’s centennial photographic exhibit. You should also look at an article titled “Reel to Real” in the August 1995 issue of National Geographic.


How does National Geographic magazine differ from news magazines?

We cannot compete with weekly news magazines in speed. What we try to bring to news coverage is depth. For example, when a major earthquake hits, Time, Newsweek, and others may be first to describe the scene, but we will augment that basic information by explaining the scientific reasons for the event and by showing the effects such natural disasters have on both the people and the ecology of the area. We will examine how it has altered people’s lives and changed the social and economic future of the region.


Can I go on assignment with a Geographic photographer?

We cannot offer that experience. Our photographers are journalists who need to work with minimum disruption. They allow their subjects to go about their daily lives, and thus make photographs of real situations. Observers of any kind—whether government officials, public relations people, or guests—tend to compromise that fragile compact between photographer and subject.

However, the National Geographic Society does offer special photography travel expeditions where travelers can improve their photography skills under the guidance of National Geographic photographers.


How does the magazine put a photographic story together?

Once a story is approved, the photographer meets with the illustrations editor to plan the coverage and the budget, which must be approved by the Editor of the magazine. The photographer ships film from the field to Washington for processing and editing by the illustrations editor, who contacts the photographer after each shipment to discuss the images.

Midway through the coverage the photographer comes to Washington and works with the illustrations editor to assemble a tray of the best photographs to date. Senior staff from the photographic, illustrations, and layout divisions offer comments and suggestions, and the photographer returns to the field. When coverage is complete he returns to prepare a final edit with the illustrations editor, to present to the Editor of the magazine. Upon his approval, a layout is produced.


What backgrounds do your photographers have?

All have college degrees but in a variety of disciplines. Most did not major in photography, although all took photography courses. The most common majors were journalism, anthropology, sociology or psychology, fine arts, and natural or life sciences. Several have master’s degrees, and one of our contract photographers has a Ph.D. Normally our freelance photographers have at least five to ten years’ experience with other publications before coming to us, some as photojournalists from newspapers or magazines. Others arrive from specializations such as wildlife, underwater, or aerial photography.


How do photographers ship their film?

Mostly by air express. The film is put into the original film can and packed securely to prevent damage from impact and moisture. The rolls are numbered in sequence as they were shot. When a fairly large amount of film is shipped, a photographer will often divide the film into two shipments—even-numbered rolls in one shipment, odd in another. This way if one shipment is lost or damaged at least every other roll will survive. A photographer usually notifies headquarters when a shipment is made and provides the air bill number: If the shipment does not arrive when expected, it’s easier to trace it successfully if the process is initiated immediately.


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