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How to Become a National Geographic Photographer (Step-By-Step Guide)

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Whether you’ve just started dipping your toes in photography or have years of experience on your shoulders, working at National Geographic is a dream. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most reputable magazines that welcomes photojournalists worldwide.

Of course, it’s not easy to be a freelance photographer at National Geographic. You need to have a college degree, 5–10 years of photojournalism experience with any prestigious newspaper or magazine, and specialized skills in cultural, underwater, wildlife, geopolitics, portraiture, landscape, or aerial photography. 

The National Geographic Magazine chooses photographers on an assignment-to-assignment basis. So, your portfolio should be strong and compelling enough.

If you’re unsure about getting started, this three-step guide will make everything easier for you. So, let’s go through them.

shutter camera divider 2 How to Become a National Geographic Photographer

1. Attaining the Required Photography Skills

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Image Credit: goodluz, Shutterstock

The first thing to build up your photography background to have a stronger candidate profile. You need to have a college degree, years of experience as a photojournalist, and a specialization in a skill that catches National Geographic’s eyes. Here is the breakdown:

A College Degree

You don’t need to get a degree in photojournalism or even journalism to get in with National Geographic. However, you do require a college degree, particularly a science-focused one.

While it may sound unreal, your educational background can help you shoot videos and pictures better. For instance, many National Geographic photographers with solid science backgrounds take excellent photos of natural history compared to their counterparts.

However, your academic background may not be a significant factor in the eyes of the recruiters. So, you should enroll in photography classes and keep polishing your photography skills.

photographer infront of computer
Image Credit: Rawpixel.com, Shutterstock

Work Experience

National Geographic requires its photographers to have at least 5 years of professional work experience in photojournalism. Many well-renowned National Geographic photographers began their careers in a local magazine or newspaper at a staff position.

Therefore, before applying for National Geographic’s freelance job, you should get employed as a photographer somewhere to gain some work experience.

Specialization in a Unique Skill

Photography is a vast field. You come across several amateurs, accomplished storytellers, seasoned photographers, and gifted documentarians. So, of course, it’s just not as easy as getting a college degree or being a photographer to catch National Geographic’s attention.

Instead, you have to seek a specialization in one or two specific niches to stand out. This could be speaking multiple languages, knowing how to get the perfect lighting at any time of the day, or capturing static photos and videos while in motion.

Remember that versatility always adds extra points to your personality. The more specialized you’re in different skills, the more attractive you’ll be to the National Geographic editors.

male photographer using canon dslr
Image Credit: Samuel Rios, Unsplash

Regular Practice

Photography takes more than passion. So, to become a photographer at such a prestigious company, you need to practice and polish your photography skills every day. Take out your camera regularly and capture photos of different objects at varying times of the day.

Try to increase your camera equipment collection to ace different techniques and angles. National Geographic photographers have to use several types of cameras, so you must be comfortable handling most of them.

2. Enhancing Your Chances for Winning a National Geographic Assignment

Animal Photographer
Image Credit: nidan, Pixabay

When you’re sure your career profile is solid, you should move on to taking some brave steps to maximize your chances of working with National Geographic. Here is what you have to do next:

Get Your Work Published

Search for different publishers and send them your photography work to get it published. If you didn’t already know, National Geographic editors are constantly checking various magazines, newspapers, e-books, and online blogs to find talented photographers for the company.

The key is to get your work published continuously and in multiple places. When editors see a name appearing under every breathtaking photo, they’re more likely to contact them.

Once you publish your work, start thinking about some compelling and engaging story ideas. So, whenever an editor contacts you, you’ll be prepared to impress them with your exceptional storytelling skills.

Directly Contact a National Geographic Editor

Like every other field, you have to be known to people at National Geographic to get noticed as a photographer. The best way is to contact an editor directly and email your work.

You may not find the email addresses of the top editors publicly, so check National Geographic’s official website. Email your work to multiple editors to have a higher chance of getting noticed.

woman using computer
Image Credit: StartupStockPhotos, Pixabay

Visit the National Geographic Museum

The National Geographic headquarters in Washington DC has a museum on the first floor that allows entry to the general public. The museum consists of the history of National Geographic and features exhibitions. Thus, you can visit the museum and see what types of photos are appreciated in the exhibition to learn and enhance your skills.

Connect With National Geographic Photographers

Freelance photographers who work or have previously worked at National Geographic know the likes and dislikes of the editors and influential personalities that can connect you with editors. Therefore, network with these photographers and stay associated with them for as long as possible.

The good thing is that Nat Geo photographers also organize seminars throughout the country. So, you can attend these events, listen to your favorite photographers, and introduce yourself to them after the talk.

The bottom line is to connect with people not just to get hired but to build long-term relationships with professionals who will continue guiding you throughout your journey.

young photographers in the studio
Image Credit: Stock-Asso, Shutterstock

Send Your Work Consistently

Editors receive thousands of aspiring photos every day. To make your way out of this pile, you need to be consistent in sending your best work to the company. However, remember that there is a very thin line between being determined and annoying.

If you keep trying to talk to the professionals at National Geographic, they may see you as a pain, making it entirely impossible for you to land the job.

3. Take Advantage of Photography Opportunities

man using super telephoto lens
Image Credit: Tanes Ngamsom, Shutterstock

National Geographic offers excellent photography opportunities at different times of the year. These are the best chances to showcase your photography skills before the editors and possibly get hired.

Here are some excellent opportunities that you should keep an eye on:

National Geographic’s Photography Internship

If you’re in college, you can be a photography intern at National Geographic. However, unfortunately, the program is very selective and only accepts one intern a year. The company hires the winner of a contest, “College Photographer of the Year,” organized at the University of Missouri.

In fact, the contest’s 73rd edition featured around 10,000 photos from students worldwide, and only one was selected. Of course, you’re in a tight spot here, so capture the best shot of your life and send it with your internship application.

“Your Shot” Membership

National Geographic’s official website allows photographers to create a “Your Shot” account to be a part of the community of photographers. All you have to do is set up your account, send or publish your best work related to any themed assignment, and get feedback from the brightest photographers in the industry.

Joining the National Geographic community helps you get noticed and be a part of an assignment. Believe it or not, you’ll be paid 500 dollars a day for working on a project.

man using laptop
Image Credit: Piqsels

National Geographic Grants

The company has a grant policy. The early-career grant provides less-experienced photographers with a chance to participate in a project. Such grants are usually funded for $5,000, which can’t exceed $10,000.

The exploration grant refers to a funding request that a veteran photographer makes in storytelling, education, research, and technology. These grants are between $10,000–$30,000.

On the other hand, a request for proposal refers to a project that an applicant pitches on a specific issue, such as human migration, distinct animal species, or any breed’s recovery. You have to be 18 years or above to apply for an early-career grant.

In addition, you can apply for a National Geographic grant even if you have applied for it before. Just don’t forget to close your previous grant. The grant program is super-competitive, so you have to go the extra mile to get noticed.

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The Bottom Line

Working at National Geographic can strengthen your resume and give your professional career a sudden boost. Your chances of becoming a National Geographic photographer are bright if you have at least 5 years of experience working as a photographer, a strong portfolio, a college degree, and specialized skills in cultural, wildlife, geopolitics, underwater, portraiture, landscape, and aerial photography.

You also need to be visible enough. Therefore, network with Nat Geo’s photographers, establish good relationships with the company’s editors, and keep polishing your skills until you get your dream job.

Featured Image Credit: Massimo Cattaneo, Shutterstock

About the Author Jeff Weishaupt

Jeff is a tech professional by day, writer, and amateur photographer by night. He's had the privilege of leading software teams for startups to the Fortune 100 over the past two decades. He currently works in the data privacy space. Jeff's amateur photography interests started in 2008 when he got his first DSLR camera, the Canon Rebel. Since then, he's taken tens of thousands of photos. His favorite handheld camera these days is his Google Pixel 6 XL. He loves taking photos of nature and his kids. In 2016, he bought his first drone, the Mavic Pro. Taking photos from the air is an amazing perspective, and he loves to take his drone while traveling.