Few jobs in the world are more coveted than that of a National Geographic photographer. Like visual explorers, they get to travel to some of the most obscure corners of the globe, meet far-flung populations living in ways most of us wouldn’t dream possible, and translate these mind-bending experiences onto film.
While it sounds glamorous, as most professional photographers will tell you, it’s a hard slog that puts the “labor” into “labor of love.” They cart bulky gear around in inclement weather conditions, earn the trust of people who are suspicious of their intentions, and click the shutter thousands of times over to get the perfect capture.
Beyond that, the best photographers have a sixth sense for reading people and capturing emotion. They bring photos to life with those visceral, intangible elements: the smell of a flower garden in spring, the awe of gazing, for the first time, at the mountain we intend to climb, and the caress of a tropical breeze. It’s almost as if one can feel the emotion and the ambience singing off the page.
If you’ve ever dreamt of being a travel photographer for the likes of Smithsonian Magazine or National Geographic, what follows will highlight the key skills and knowledge required to get you there.
01. Don’t be afraid to get lost
With 25 years of experience travelling across the globe as a photographer and writer for National Geographic and other publications, Robert “Bob” Caputo has published over 20 books ranging from portrait to wildlife photography.
Bob explains, “Get lost. Wander down alleys. Sit in cafés and watch life pass by. Don't eat where the tourists do, but where you see locals. Just set off down a street and see where it leads. Look around the bends, over the rises.
“Get away from the crowd. I find that if I meander away from the tourists and tourist sites, away from what is too familiar and comfortable, it's much easier to adapt to the rhythm of a place, and to be more observant.”
02. Know the publication you are pitching to
Sarah Leen is the Director of Photography for National Geographic. She began her career as a freelance photographer. Over the course of 27 years, she has published work that range from the US-Canada border to the Mexican volcano, Popocatépetl.
Here, she shares advice about pitching to high end travel magazines such as the National Geographic:
“First, know the work we are doing or have done and whether or not your idea is really appropriate for our publication. Make sure it hasn’t already been published by us in the past few years. Too many photographers send in ideas that tell me they haven’t done their research or really looked at the magazine to see what is right for us.
“Photographers should know what they are talking about and not over-promise what they can deliver. If it’s a place or idea where special access is required, can you really get that access? Is what you think is happening really happening? And of course, will it provide wonderful visuals? I want to hear proposals about places and circumstances that I am dying to see in pictures.”
03. Do your research ahead of time
Award-winning travel and editorial photographer Susan Seubert has photographed more than 30 feature stories for National Geographic Traveller. Her subjects range from Canada to the Caribbean and Texas to Thailand and beyond.
She speaks highly of research of preparation to get the best shot:
“Just as you spend hours, online, searching for the best hotels and restaurants, you should know the best spots for picture taking. It’s great to wander, but knowing the best vantage points for shooting is very important.
“In between trips, I’m constantly reading guidebooks, doing Google image searches, contacting locals for insider info—all of this is extremely important to make a good picture story. I’m always looking for hidden gems.”
04. Earn the trust of your subjects
Hailing from Germany, photojournalist Marcus Reichmann is a regular contributor to the National Geographic. Some of his other clients include Greenpeace Magazine and Leica Fotografie International (LFI).
According to Marcus, spending a lot of time is necessary to earn the trust subjects:
“For a particular story, I spent three or four years with this family, and of course, over time, you gain more trust. I couldn’t have done a picture like this on my first day. So in the very beginning, I had a lot of talks with them. And then, slowly, you start to become braver. If you ask for permission before you take a photo, you’re just drawing pictures. So you have to take small steps toward such an intimate moment like this, and I knew at that moment, it was right. I knew I could do it. They also trust me because I show them all the pictures before I publish them, and they can always say, ‘This is too intimate, I don’t want this.’”
05. Study the masters
For over 15 years, Molly Roberts worked as a photo editor and, eventually, as the chief photography editor at Smithsonian Magazine. Recently, she joined the editorial team at National Geographic Magazine, focusing her efforts especially on stories about history, archaeology and culture.
Molly explains, “I strongly feel that you can’t create your best work without having a good foundation in the history of image-making. So if you are working with landscape, you need to look at painters like Albert Bierstadt, or photographers like Carleton Watkins. You should also look at more contemporary masters like Andreas Gursky or Edward Burtynsky (…) Also, remember that it takes time—a serious investment in time to make a project masterful.”
06. Find new ways to tell old stories
Whitney Tressel is a hybrid travel photographer and photo editor who has gone on dozens of cross country road trips, traveling under her belt to document for the likes of Esquire, Budget Travel, and Hemispheres. She also teaches in National Geographic’s Student Expedition courses.
On being unique, she says, “If millions of people have been to a UNESCO world heritage site like the Grand Canyon, how are you going to record it as something unique? (…) Think outside the box. This is difficult for anybody—it’s difficult for working travel photographers to keep pushing the envelope, but some simple ways to do that is that if you find yourself standing, knees locked, arms out, elbows at 90 degrees, stoop down, get on your belly, turn your camera up to the sky, look left, look right, look behind you, get something different.”
07. Trust your intuition
Graciela Iturbide has dedicated herself to knowing the world through her camera since the early 70s. She was a student of cinema in her native Mexico City when she switched to studying photography under the mentorship of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, considered one of the founders of modern photography.
In the late 1970s she began photographing people in Mexico—first the Seri Indians in the Sonoran Desert, then the Juchitán people in Oaxaca. She embedded herself in these communities, building a level of complicity between her and her subjects.
Her approach is intuitive. Asked what inspires her as a photographer, she replies, "I am interested in what my eyes see and what my heart feels. The camera is just a pretext for knowing the world.”
08. Be authentic
National Geographic photographer Marcus Reichmann sheds light on how to take photos to the next level:
“I think as a photographer you just have to be honest. You have to take pictures of things that really, really interest you. Not just because you want to make money with it, or the industry asks for it—you really have to have an interest. And I think that’s really important for the people that are your subjects—that they feel your honesty.
“For me, it really made a big difference […] when I met people that had the same emotions about photography that I do, that were compelled to it. So find a group of people that are photography enthusiasts and that you can share your pictures with, and not just in terms of the technical side of photography but also discussing the meaning of photography. For me, the next level is when you’re not just taking a technically perfect shot, but you take a picture that can be interpreted and that is working on the emotional level. I think it’s really key to know the technical side of photography, but after that, there’s actually more—how to take a picture that actually touches people, not just by its technical perfection, but by its meaning.”
09. Tell a story with all five senses
As Whitney Tressel explains, “It’s about visually showing a sense of place. That can be literally taken as landscapes or architecture, but it can also mean the people there, or the different cultural traditions, or the different ways of life (…) I like to, in my mind, go through all five senses. Take shots that feels like you can smell what’s going on.
“Can you somehow photograph the ocean so that you can smell the salt? Maybe that means getting really close to the waves, maybe even letting some saltwater hit your lens. How would I take this photograph and have people smell it? Add that element, that second layer of conceptual senses.”
All the photographers and photo editors quoted in this article have spent decades honing and mastering their craft. Behind the shiny veneer of their CVs and the ultimate title of “National Geographic Photographer” is an omnipotent love for capturing the beauty and strangeness of the world and finding poetry in the everyday. If you possess that, and you do everything in your power to honour that, you can't lose.
Whether you are a novice with a burning desire to get started or a seasoned professional wanting to take your practice to the next level, never dismiss your lofty goals as unachievable. Creativity is like a river—it has to keep moving. Even if you are only making progress little by little, remember that nothing worthwhile comes easy, and those little steps will lead you in the direction of greatness.