After talking with several National Geographic photographers about shooting for the magazine I became intrigued with the process of getting a story made. The collaboration between the photo editors and photographers and then the photographers involvement in all the steps along the way is unique and important to how they make stories. More magazines should spend this kind of time with their contributors. The few times I’ve had photographer come into the office and present their images to us have been incredibly rewarding and certainly I think made the story that much better.
I asked David Griffin, National Geographic’s Director of Photography about the process of getting stories made and the rumored years it takes for a story to go from idea to printed page:
Many years is a bit of an exaggeration harping back to days past, now it is more like many months. The typical process:
1. Story proposal is accepted by editor (this can take a few days to a few weeks, depending on how much back and forth we have with the photographer honing their proposal). BTW, all proposals from photographers go through me first to determine if the idea is something I’m confident the photographer can pull off. We have a firewall to protect the photographer’s intellectual property if they are rejected.
2. Once accepted, the photographer is paired up with a photo editor and they work together to expand the proposal into a story coverage plan, including estimated budget. This is then reviewed in what is called a “story pitch” where the entire story team (photog, photo editor, writer, text editor, graphics and map staff, designer, web producer, and executive editorial team) meet with the Editor-in-Chief. If all goes well, the story is given the full green light. This can take about a month to prepare for.
3. Then it is off to the races. Stories can take many forms and lengths of field time–far too many variables to pin down an average. We usually try to do most stories in two trips so that half way through the coverage the story team can re-gather, review the photographs to-date, and make any necessary course corrections. This “Interim Projection” also gives the Editor a better handle on which issue of the magazine the story should run.
4. After the field work is complete, the photographer typically comes in to headquarters and works with the photo editor to hone the completed coverage into a “Final Projection.” Pretty much all the same folks who see the Interim, see this show. This takes about a week (although the photo editors are reviewing the photographs much sooner and at greater length then when the photographer is in the office to construct the show).
5. Then the story goes into layout and work begins on any special web features. The photographer is very much a part of that process. From our viewpoint it would be both financially and journalistically foolish to not involve directly the person who we invested our resources into for the story. The person who best knows which images capture the truth of the story is the one that was there. It may seem like a luxury, but we feel it is a part of our process that makes a tangible difference in the accuracy of the final published stories. Layout takes about a week.
6. Then it is pretty much all typical pre-press and printing process from then on out. Finalizing of design and color correction takes about a month or so, printing takes about a month, world-wide delivery about two weeks.
So from beginning to end a story can take from about six months (rare) to about a year, and in some cases–particularly with natural history coverages–a couple of years.
I’ve glossed over many details here, but these are the main milestones.