How do I get published in National Geographic magazine?

Nine months through his 456 day Megatransect, Mike Fay surveys the surrounding ocean of trees. A chain of rock outcrops in Minkebe Forest marked the most remote point in Fay’s journey, 45 miles from the nearest village.

When I have workshops, one of the first things I find out from the students is: do you really want this to be your career? Or do you want to be a good photographer and have a nice hobby? There’s a real distinction between taking pictures for yourself and taking pictures as a career.

One of the things that’s been frustrating is my students will say, I’ve saved up all my money, I’m going to shoot a photo story in Pakistan, or Afghanistan or South Africa or Bali. And that’s exactly how you don’t get your break at Geographic. Because then you’re competing with me, and James Nachtwey, and all the others that go to those places. 

If you say you really want my job, okay, here’s the deal. There are no more hobbies, no more fun. You can have fun doing the work, but you have to be completely obsessed with it. I think 99% of the people think that professional photography is travel and adventure, and they forget that photography is very, very hard work. You’re “on” all the time. When you go out the door to take pictures, nobody cares about any of the excuses about bad weather or logistics, or how the authorities wouldn’t let you do your job. All that matters is what the photos say, how much money the magazine spent on that time, and whether or not it’s a successful coverage. Most people don’t really want that.

If you want your story in Geographic, unfortunately, the reality is that there’s very little chance they’ll take an untried photographer’s idea. But, given that, here’s my advice: 

– Know everything that’s been in the magazine. The big mistake most people make is proposing a story that’s already been published recently.

– Don’t attach a writer to your story, and if you’re a writer, don’t attach a photographer. If you do that, you’re asking the magazine to take a chance on two new people they don’t know, instead of just one. 

– [Nick’s Take was written in 2001, NGM is 90% digital as of June 2011] Geographic is still shooting transparencies. I think technology is probably the least important thing to consider. But you do have to be able to handle transparencies to shoot for the Geographic. That’s more difficult exposurewise than color negative or digital.

– Especially if you don’t have a track record, shoot a story 75% or 90% done, and then show those pictures to the Geographic.

Where you get your break is shooting personal projects in your backyard, your home town, places you can go to repeatedly. Find something that we haven’t done, make it your own, and beat it to death. Put your blood and sweat in there. Work like that is how most new photographers come to National Geographic. It is how I got picked up — my work in caves is what opened the door for me. A lot of photographers have gotten in the door with projects there’s no way we would publish, but the director of photography was able to see that the person could really handle a story.

So take a subject that’s your own and spend four or five years on it. And if you balk at doing that, well, that’s where you weed out the pretenders.

This is an excerpt from Nick’s Take, a series of short writings about photography written by Nick. They are available – along with his wonderful images –  on his iPad App, available in the iTunes App Store.

About the author

Michael “Nick” Nichols is a wildlife journalist; his narratives are epics where the protagonists are lions, elephants, tigers, and chimps. Scientist-conservationists like Jane Goodall, J. Michael Fay, Iain Douglas-Hamilton and Craig Packer are all in featured roles. He came to the magazine with the legacy of a childhood spent in the woods of his native Alabama, reading Tarzan and John Carter of Mars adventures. Nichols became a staff photographer for National Geographic magazine in 1996 and was named Editor-at-Large for photography in 2008. From 1982 to 1995 he was a member of Magnum Photos. He lives in Sugar Hollow, VA, with his wife, artist Reba Peck.

Nick has published 27 stories with National Geographic magazine, most recently “Orphans No More” (NGM September 2011), the final chapter in his twenty-year endeavor to document the emotional intelligence of elephants. His “Redwoods: The Super Trees” (NGM October 2009) story used ground-breaking rigging and stitching techniques to create an 84-image composite of a 300-foot-tall, 1,500-year-old redwood tree. NGM will publish another tree on its pages using this technology in late 2012. Currently, Nick is on assignment in Tanzania documenting the lions of Serengeti. He is also is a Director and Founder of the annual LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, VA. Now in its 6th season, this three-day celebration of peace, love and photography includes interviews, exhibits, projections and workshops from both established and emerging photographers.

At the heart of Nick’s mission is to preserve true wildness. Whether in the redwood forests of California or the acacia plains of Kenya, it must be documented, nurtured and protected. Nick is working to create images that show what we have to gain in caring for this magnificent planet and what we have to lose.

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