How does the National Geographic assignment process work?

National Geographic magazine assignments can take two or more years, span entire continents and involve 40,000 or more images.

The story process is the method behind the chaos, charting the course from idea to printed page.

The first step in getting a story approved is doing a one-pager. It’s a single page straight-to-the-point write-up that (a) tells why a story is important, (b) explains what will make it unique, and (c) gives justification for National Geographic spending the resources to pursue the story at this point in time. Every pitch must meet those three criteria or it won’t even get out of the gate.

I generate some of my own story ideas (stories I pitched on amphibian decline and on the endangered Attwater’s prairie-chicken got picked up), but in most cases though, I hear of a story that is being considered and I request it. While I don’t always get what I ask for, it helps to let them know that I’m interested in a particular topic. I’ve also had stories assigned to me about which I know nothing. At that point it’s good to quickly pay attention and do as much research as possible to get up to speed quickly.

The next step is to research the topic and come up with a general list of situations to photograph known as a coverage plan. The research phase is critically important.  I’m in charge of making sure I know what I need to know before going out into the field.

On each story, I’m assigned a photo editor at the magazine. Often they help me come up with ideas and make sure they’re all worth going after.

I get lots of help from scientists and experts who know the subject I’m working with, people who live in the areas I’ll be in, and people who have worked with a subject/area previously. The photo coordinators at National Geographic are also a big help when it comes to arranging visas, hunting down phone numbers and doing the several dozen other tasks that go along with putting story research together. They’re life-savers.

The way I research is to read up on a topic, find out who I need to talk with to learn more, and then make phone calls. Sometimes our line is busy all day, and in the days before unlimited calling plans I’ve had more than one $1,000 phone bill. Talking to those in the know is one of the best ways to prepare.

Once the shoot list is done, I work with my editor to put together a budget for the story. When that’s approved, we nail down travel and logistics, and I’m off to shoot.

I seldom travel with the writer.  I have on a few stories simply because it was convenient, but the writer and I have each generated our own coverage plans and we each follow them. We talk often about what we’re doing so that we don’t miss anything important. I may not photograph much of what the writer mentions in the text; NGM’s stories are designed so that the text and the pictures complement one another.  Doing this — rather than repeating subjects in writing and photographs — allows readers to get more information.

Half-way through an assignment, I go in to the Geographic’s headquarters in DC to meet with my editor and the higher-ups at the magazine to assess progress on the story. The photo editor and I put together a “half-way show” of the best pictures we’ve gotten so far. My editor and I both discuss the story’s progress with those at the meeting and they decide whether or not the story will be finished.

When the story is completed, we put together a final show — the best of the best from the whole assignment. Then, the editor and others sift through these to find the images that will be published.

On an average assignment, I’ll shoot anywhere from 20,000 – 40,000 images. Only a small number (anywhere from ten to twenty depending on the story) will be published.

On some assignments, I’ll go back for the layout process — that’s when the text and pictures are assembled in final form for the magazine. After that, I help with fact-checking, writing captions (or legends, as they’re referred to at NG), and tying up any loose ends. I know of no other magazine that so heavily involves the photographer in both the editing and layout process.

A story is usually published one year after it’s shot, and during that time I’m bound by contract to keep the details of it confidential. When the story is finally printed, it feels great to see a completed project.

I know of no other magazine besides National Geographic that works this closely with photographers, or gives them as much time in the field.