What it Takes to be a National Geographic Photographer By Kent Kobersteen

Photo by Michal Mrozek

Gerd Ludwig and Kent Kobersteen had a conversation that led to this post. Kent was the Director of Photography for National Geographic magazine from 1987 to 2005.

When it was suggested that I write about what it takes to be a National Geographic photographer I was somewhat reluctant to do so.  I cannot speak for the leadership of the Magazine today.  Certainly every Director of Photography, and every Editor in Chief, has his or her own requirements and preferences. 

I began my career with the National Geographic in 1983 as a picture editor, became the deputy to the Director of Photography in 1987, and became Director of Photography in 1998.  I left the Magazine in 2005. 

Since leaving the Magazine I have kept in close touch with many photographers, and also with the worldwide photographic family.  I have continued to do workshops and give talks in Poland, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Italy, on National Geographic ships in Antarctica and the South Atlantic, and on a National Geographic Around the World by Private Jet journey.

While I cannot speak for the leadership of the Magazine today, I think there are several required attributes that are constant – they’re the same today as they were when I was Director of Photography, and earlier.

Those attributes are intellect, passion, maturity and drive.

Reading this, you may say “What about the photography?”  Of course any person under consideration must be a great photographer.  The National Geographic needs photography that is strong aesthetically and has a sophisticated use of color, photography that is poetic, journalistic, memorable, and comes from unique and intuitive seeing.  But, that’s obvious, that’s a given. 

All four of these attributes – intellect, passion, maturity, drive — ARE about the photography.

If one looks at the work on this site, and reads what the photographers have said, I think it’s obvious that each of them possess these attributes.

I worked with most of the photographers represented on The Photo Society site, and I am very proud to say that a significant number of them are people who did their first work for the Magazine when I was Director of Photography – they are my legacy, if you will. 

I always felt that my responsibility was to get the best, most appropriate photographer for a given story, and then to make it possible for that photographer to do his or her best creative work. 

Certainly who is the “best, most appropriate photographer” is a personal value judgment.  What is the “most appropriate” to one person may not be to another.

The creative part of my job as Director of Photography was to match photographer and subject, and to do everything I could within the Magazine to make it possible for that photographer to do his or her best creative work.

Often that meant returning to photographers who had a long track record with the Magazine.  They were known quantities – they knew what we needed, we knew their photography and their working methods.  Occasionally there was opportunity to work with photographers who were new to the Magazine – but always these were photographers whose experience on other publications, and reputation in the photographic community, was well known to us.

So, what does it take to be a National Geographic photographer?  As I have said, great photography, but also the photographer must possess the attributes of intellect, passion, maturity and drive.

Intellect is essential when working for the National Geographic Magazine because it is a journalistic magazine, and because – most importantly – the photographer shapes the story, and works independently of the writer, and to a great degree independent of direction from the picture editor.  The photographer must be an intelligent, ethical, informed journalist.  It is, very much, the photographer’s story.  At the end of the coverage the photographer will present the photographs to the Editor in Chief, and whether or not the story is published will depend on that presentation.

Passion is an important attribute because without caring about the subject one cannot do their best creative work.  Also, because of the amount of time a National Geographic photographer spends on a given story, without a real passion for the subject and the story, the photographs will really suffer.  Any photographer can do a good job on an assignment of a day or a week.  But when the coverage lasts for several weeks, or several months, and has tens of thousands of dollars in expenses involved, passion for the subject is essential.

Maturity is another essential attribute.  In the span of a single story a photographer may be working with slum-dwellers to a head of state.  The photographer must have the maturity – the “salesmanship”, if you will – to convince this broad spectrum of individuals to give him or her access, and to allow him or her to do their photographic work.

In addition, because the photographer is part of the entire editorial process at the Magazine – story conceptualization and planning, editing, and layout – the photographer must have the maturity to understand that he or she does not control each element in the process, and must have the maturity and diplomacy to work within the editorial structure of the Magazine.

The amount of drive – just plain hard work – necessary to accomplish a National Geographic Magazine assignment cannot be overstressed.  I have often said that I would rather have a photographer whose eye was not the best, but who worked very hard, rather than the person with the best eye in the world, and who was lazy.  I can certainly give examples of both – but I won’t.  And, in the end, I chose photographers who had both the eye and drive.

The ability to work hard is also important for the National Geographic photographer because of the huge amount of planning and logistical complications that must be dealt with in each coverage for the Magazine.  It’s not all about shooting photographs.  Any Geographic photographer will tell you that the actual photographing is an extremely small part of the job.

In addition, with today’s smaller budgets, and with the additional chores placed on the photographer by digital and web requirements of the coverage, the ability to work hard is an even more important attribute.

So, that’s the long answer to the question “What does it take to be a National Geographic photographer?”

The short answer:  Be the absolute best photographer there is for a given assignment.

It’s no different than if Manchester United is looking for a forward, or the Los Angeles Lakers are looking for a center.  Because of the place that photography plays at the National Geographic Magazine, and because of the tremendous investment in each photographic coverage, the Magazine is no different than a top sports team.  What does it take?  Be the best there is.  It’s quite simple.  The Magazine can afford nothing less, and the competition for work for the Magazine is the photographers on this site.

Again, this is all my opinion, my criteria, and my way of working from the time when I was Director of Photography. 

About the author

RANDY OLSON’s 27 National Geographic magazine projects have taken him to many countries in Africa, the Siberian Arctic, Abu Dhabi, American Samoa, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Guyana, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kamchatka, Newfoundland, Pakistan, Palmyra, Republic of Georgia, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, and the South Pacific.
National Geographic Society published a book of his work in their Masters of Photography series in January 2011. Olson was the 2003 Magazine Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition, and was also awarded POYi’s 1992 Newspaper Photographer of the Year—one of only two photographers to win in both media in the largest photojournalism contest operating continuously since World War II. While working at The Pittsburgh Press, Olson received an Alicia Patterson Fellowship to support a seven-year project documenting a family with AIDS, and a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his story on problems with Section 8 housing. He was also awarded the Nikon Sabbatical and a grant from the National Archives to save the Pictures of the Year collection.
Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson are photojournalists in the documentary tradition. Their work has taken them to 50 countries over the past 20 years. Even though they are published in LIFE, GEO, Smithsonian and other magazines, they have primarily worked on 50 projects for the National Geographic Society. They normally work individually, but have co-produced National Geographic magazine stories on northern California, American national parks, and the Alps. They photographed the southern United States for a book by Collins Publishing and have collaborated on over 70 books by various publishers.