How do I become a National Geographic photographer?
I’m asked this question more often than any other.
The short reply is “by being very persistent.” And though concise, it’s definitely true.
Here are the steps I took: I got into photography late in high school after borrowing an old Olympus camera from a friend’s father. I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and—after changing majors a couple of times and taking classes in everything from astronomy to beekeeping—majored in photojournalism. I worked at the campus paper and took pictures constantly.
My first photo job was for a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas, for six years, first as a photographer, then as their director of photography.
About halfway through that time, I met James Stanfield, one of the legends of photography at National Geographic. He graciously looked at my work and gave me a recommendation to send my portfolio to the Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
For the next two years, I sent in clips of my best work from the newspaper, usually in three-month intervals. That eventually led to a one-day assignment, followed a few months later by a nine-day assignment, and so on. I worked like crazy on those assignments—and each one since—and did everything I could to make sure the photos were stellar.
Being very “Type A” and borderline obsessive helped me a great deal in getting the Geographic to notice me. It’s almost a requirement if you want to shoot for them.
As important as dogged persistence is, you have to learn to rein it in when appropriate. There’s a fine line between being persistent and being a pain. If you come across as the latter, you’ll annoy those whose attention you seek, and your chances of getting anywhere in life are diminished. I have to work to calm myself down after I get back from an assignment, or I would drive my family crazy.
Regarding education: many of the photographers at National Geographic learned photography on their own, and come from backgrounds far removed from journalism. People like Tim Laman, Mark Moffett, and Christian Ziegler have strong backgrounds in science, which makes them excellent natural history shooters. Others bring special skills to the table in addition to photography, like Stephen Alvarez’s expertise on caves, or Paul Nicklen’s skills as a diver.
To get into National Geographic, you have to offer them something they don’t already have access to—which is a tall order. It’s not enough just to be a great photographer. You have to be a great photographer and be able to dive under sea ice, spend days in tree stands in the tropics, speak fluent Russian and know Moscow like the back of your hand, or be an absolute genius at lighting impossible situations.
To learn more about what it’s like working for National Geographic, visit The Photo Society, a site run by their contributing photographers.