How do I get published in National Geographic?

Nick’s take was created from interviews made in 2000.

When I have workshops, one of the first things I find out from the students is: do you really want this to be your career? Or do you want to be a good photographer and have a nice hobby? There’s a real distinction between taking pictures for yourself and taking pictures as a career.

One of the things that’s been frustrating is my students will say, I’ve saved up all my money, I’m going to shoot a photo story in Pakistan, or Afghanistan or South Africa or Bali. And that’s exactly how you don’t get your break at Geographic. Because then you’re competing with me, and James Nachtwey, and all the others that go to those places.

If you say you really want my job, okay, here’s the deal. There are no more hobbies, no more fun. You can have fun doing the work, but you have to be completely obsessed with it. I think 99% of the people think that professional photography is travel and adventure, and they forget that photography is very, very hard work. You’re “on” all the time. When you go out the door to take pictures, nobody cares about any of the excuses about bad weather or logistics, or how the authorities wouldn’t let you do your job. All that matters is what the photos say, how much money the magazine spent on that time, and whether or not it’s a successful coverage. Most people don’t really want that.

If you want your story in Geographic, unfortunately, the reality is that there’s very little chance they’ll take an untried photographer’s idea. But, given that, here’s my advice:
- Know everything that’s been in the magazine. The big mistake most people make is proposing a story that’s already been published recently.
- Don’t attach a writer to your story, and if you’re a writer, don’t attach a photographer. If you do that, you’re asking the magazine to take a chance on two new people they don’t know, instead of just one.
- [Nick's Take was written in 2001, NGM is 90% digital as of June 2011] Geographic is still shooting transparencies. I think technology is probably the least important thing to consider. But you do have to be able to handle transparencies to shoot for the Geographic. That’s more difficult exposurewise than color negative or digital.
- Especially if you don’t have a track record, shoot a story 75% or 90% done, and then show those pictures to the Geographic.

Where you get your break is shooting personal projects in your backyard, your home town, places you can go to repeatedly. Find something that we haven’t done, make it your own, and beat it to death. Put your blood and sweat in there. Work like that is how most new photographers come to National Geographic. It is how I got picked up — my work in caves is what opened the door for me. A lot of photographers have gotten in the door with projects there’s no way we would publish, but the director of photography was able to see that the person could really handle a story.

So take a subject that’s your own and spend four or five years on it. And if you balk at doing that, well, that’s where you weed out the pretenders.