Getting A Story Made at National Geographic

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.

There Are 14 Comments On This Article.

  1. This article just freaked me out ! Just gone as freelance photographer in the last year, would love to be able to shoot for a magazine such as NG, and the chap in charge of Photography is my name sake ! Weird

    • @David Griffin, Thats a great big Omen, better get something together FAST. (I wonder if they got a photo editor name Ignakowski…WOW

  2. The only step that was left out: how to actually get a hold of Mr. Griffin… I’ve got my brand new portfolio printed, my tent packed, and am planning a Washington DC NG doorstep camping trip right now!

  3. I’ve subscribed to National Geographic for 30 years (since I was 7) and always wondered about just how this process is accomplished. Since science pays most the bills, I am just an amateur photographer, but have always worked to examine just how the wonderful photographs in National Geographic were made.

    Thank you.

  4. There’s a great video called at close range about Joel Sartore that shows the process, it’s pretty intense. I’ve always figured NG was they ask you to shoot you don’t ask them, they probably get dumped upon with promos like a normal photo editor can probably not imagine and most of it is probably from people who have no business shooting for them. I think pretty much every kid who every picked up a camera has dreamed of shooting for them I know I have. Of course now after being a pro for 10 or so years I’ve never sent them a promo piece. In case Mr. Griffin checks back on these post I’m doug@dougphoto.com :)

  5. Impressive and interesting! Far different than the typical magazine shoot where you get the call, wheel and deal for a bit, toss some ideas around, do the shoot, submit the invoice and its done in a few days, then move on to the next job.

    Obviously this requires atypical amounts of dedication, passion and of course talent.

    Now I’m curious about the financing of it too. The shoots can last for weeks in some cases? And the intense editing and presentation development…

  6. Thanks for posting this! Publishing a story with National Geographic is a dream I hope to one day fulfill – clearly I’m a long way from this accomplishment. Great to hear a little bit about how the process plays out though!

  7. rajiv rao

    your post here is great. clearly explains the fantastic photo-journey that NG is. I’m interested in shooting for NG. infact, it would be awesome.
    am an executive CD with ogilvy, mumbai and shoot because i enjoy it. before setting out a story idea should i send you some of my work. it would be great if i get some response first. thanks a lot.