How do I become a photographer for National Geographic?
This is the most common question that any photographer for National Geographic gets, and I think it’s because the myriad paths to becoming a successful documentary photographer are rarely spoken about. Every single photographer making photos for the Geographic goes through a complicated journey in their life and career, and it’s unique to every person. What is certain is that there is no straightforward way to get there. Most photographers at NatGeo began having expertise in other fields, such as in marine biology, environmental justice, or medicine. Many are accomplished with specialized technical skills, such as cave diving, fluency in languages like Arabic, or macro studio lighting. Other have unique abilities to deeply access worlds that the rest of us do not, such as inside the military, Arctic Indigenous communities, or the homeless. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that every photographer at the Geographic can do something that no-one else in the world can do, and present it from a unique perspective that noone else can offer.
My best advice to an aspiring National Geographic photographer is this:
- Become an expert in something that truly speaks to you, and do not just focus on photography.
- Create photographic stories/projects, not just single images, that noone else has ever seen before. That does not mean it has never been covered, but that the images show us something we have never seen.
- Expect to be a working photographer for at least several years before working for National Geographic.
- Master less common technical skills, such as strobe lighting, astrophotography, or aerial work.
- Do work that you love, and build entire photographic stories even if you have to do it on your dime. It’s very difficult to get hired to do work that you haven’t done before.
What is it like working for National Geographic?
Being a photographer for National Geographic is a dream job for many. But that doesn’t mean it is nearly as glamorous in reality as it seems, and it is not a life that suits everyone. Here are some of the less amazing things that are part of the lifestyle.
- I often have so little time on assignment or am in such remote places to eat that I end up eating terrible food. I often have to live on fast food, Spam and crackers, or on the opposite end, on whale blubber and frozen whitefish (which I love but is not for everyone).
- It is hard to stay in shape. I often do not get a chance to workout at all during assignments, and staying in shape is critical for the job. At the same time I often have to do physically demanding tasks when I’m in less good shape, such as steep hiking in 100 degree heat carrying 40# of gear, or freediving in freezing glacial lakes when I don’t have the proper wetsuit for the temperature. We also don’t get enough sleep.
- The pressure to create excellent work can be exhausting. Our editors care deeply about us, but ultimately we have to come home with amazing work every single time, regardless of the excuses.
- We rarely see home or have much of a personal life. In many years I am only home about 90 combined days in a year, and this is common among NatGeo photographers, especially early career. This can make it difficult or impossible to have a family, to keep relationships healthy, and keep your mental health in good shape.
- I don’t make that much money. The days of enormous budgets and sponsorships by Rolex are long gone. Today top working photojournalists make enough money to survive, but here in Seattle, my income is in just the 50th percentile. A big part of our payment is the enjoyment of the work we do.
- We are all freelancers. Every photographer for the Geographic is a contract freelancer. That means each assignment is potentially our last, so there’s not the sense of stability that salaried jobs can give. We buy our own health insurance and have to manage our businesses and do our own taxes. It’s not for everyone.
Here’s some of the wonderful parts of being of the job.
- I experience and see things that I never would have without being a photographer. For example, I never would have started diving, and now I routinely spend time in the kelp forest and occasionally get to play with seals underwater.
- I meet amazing people that give me deep insights into culture and life that I never would have otherwise.
- I get to educate people about issues that I care deeply about. In my case, the issues and stories of Indigenous communities, Asian American communities, the Arctic and wildlife are things that I feel a level of responsibility for, and am so happy when I can tell the stories properly. Sometimes our stories even result in policy change, and that is deeply satisfying.
- I get to go on adventures and travel regularly. This is, of course, the main thing that most people think of when they think of photography for National Geographic, and it’s true. But if it’s your only goal, there are much easier and simpler ways to go about doing it.
I love my work, and in many ways, it is what makes me who I am. But the sacrifices are real, and although we can mitigate them to some degree, they will always be there. Would I change it given the opportunity? Not a chance.