Hear from the photo editors of National Geographic about what it takes to create some of the most memorable images appearing in the magazine.
The Pro Advantage, Part II
Posted Dec 23,2008


Last month I proffered that due to both digital capture and digital delivery of images, the playing field for great photography is being leveled. So how can a professional photographer maintain an edge?

In a word: consistency.

I honestly believe that everyone has at least one great photograph in them, and the tools available today mean that the capture and distribution of that one great image dramatically increases the chance it will be seen by a broad audience.

But to be a professional, you need to be able to make more than just one great image—you have to make them all the time. Any publication dedicating resources to the creation of original photography needs to be assured that the photographers on assignment will come back with the goods.

Each type of publication has specific visual needs. Newspapers use workhorse photographers who can produce good images on very tight deadlines. The news weeklies’ needs are similar but want work that is elevated aesthetically and can hold together over multiple pages. Monthly publications, such as National Geographic, hire photographers who specialize in long-form narrative or complex conceptualization.

If the Geographic was only looking for photographers that only create single images, the playing field of candidates would be very large indeed. But when we seek out a photographer they must prove (before they get an assignment) that they have a consistent vision and a masterful sense of narrative.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, take a look at some of the masterful coverage from the January 2009 issue. Randy Olson spent years visiting some of the most brutal locations around the globe for his coverage on Gold. Micheal Melford brings a beautiful consistency to his landscape work on Russia’s Kronotsky Reserve. Joel Sartore, who has a strong passion for endangered species, used a unifying studio approach to documenting animals who are going extinct in a story titles "Last One." And Chris Morris, who is new to the pages of NGM, brings a unique eye to covering one of the most mysterious cultures on earth: The Presidency. Each of these photographers and their many colleagues are not just natural talents, they work extremely hard and are unwavering in the desire to share their photographic passion.

There is no question that the new digital photographic tools (for capture and delivery) have spurned an increase in the number of people who hope to be great photographers. But there is a space that exists between those who “want” to be great and those who actually have the talent and unwavering drive to become so. No matter how much the field of photographers expands, the very best always seem to rise to the top and emerge. 

Posted by David Griffin | Comments (7)
Filed Under: Photography


P Hughes
Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

Chris Morris should be ashamed of himself. On page 146 of this months magazine is a picture he took of a lonely soldier guarding over Bush's abandoned golf bag. The caption says that soldier watches over the bag in case the President "wants to hit a few balls". As we all know, the President loudly declared that he gave up golf as a sacrifice for those American soldiers in harm's way. Since our President is not a liar and scoundrel, a more plausible explanation is that the golf bag lay abandoned where Bush last touched it when he pledged in October 2003 to not play golf for the troops. Indeed the abandoned golf bag is a testament to the character of this misunderestimated man. The true story behind this sentinel to sacrifice and patriotism should be immediately added to the online version of the picture, and an erratum issued in next month's issue.

david bowen
Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

/\ p hughes.. made me laugh..

i think what sets apart the am and pro markets these days is teh ability to follow a style and subject over many years.. i agree with this post whole-heartedly. it is just too easy to learn photography from a purely technical approach.. anyone can do it, just as anyone can learn to bang a drum.. practise and technique provides good images.. dedication and passion.. as well as perhaps some sacrifice.. produces a body of work.

i think the line between pro and am is becomeing clearer than ever.. now that there is no need for the lab and high expense, more people are photoing.. many 'photographers' who perhaps lacked talent are going out of business, while many am's who have never thought of it as a business are realizing their talent.. it's an exciting time.

the problem for a photographer is to settle upon and story.. a theme.. war to celebration and all the moods in between.. and then stay there for as long as they can.. cover as much as they can.. become a part of what they are showing.. and take photographs which only they can take, with the deeper understanding they achieve..

if one thing is true it is that the more you photograph a subject the easier it becomes to see the cliche before you click.

in 17 years i think i have only covered two long term stories.. i am beginning the third only now.. and that is fundamentally linked to the previous two.. an ongoing story of the slice of life i understand the best. within each story a multitude of subjects.. keeping the remit simple allows for a wider coverage.. keeping the dream simple allows for more complicated methods to capture it and keeping the style open allows the subjects to breath.
i think a long body of work from a simple idea involves an unimaginable amount of complexity.. and that is where a part of fun exists.. the how to? and why?.. yes


Peter Cleghorn
Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

Is P hughes Being sarcastic when he says: "Since our President is not a liar and scoundrel"?

Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

Excellent post, and an illuminating viewpoint about what sets a shining few above the rest in an ever-more saturated field.

As David correctly points out, there are waves of technically skilled photographers - true talent, however, is immediately obvious.

Case in point, that magnificent photograph of Air Force One through the Presidential limousine window. What an amazing capture - powerful in its simplicity. One feels at once immersed in the moment by the almost guerilla-style shot - and after the fleeting impact of the power and prestige of the position, Sartore's framing conveys an isolation that almost borders quarantine. A window into a unique experience.

A question, however:
Is it possible to explore styles and looks without comprising consistency? Can a photographer delve into gritty photojournalism and dramatic fashion photography and succeed at both? Does "consistency" become "consistency in excellence" or must a stylistic or aesthetic thread in a photographer's overall history of work be a component?

Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

David I can't agree with you more. A true, talented photographer is able to consistently produce good quality photos. I am an amateur who is kicking butt and working hard to make it to the top.

Before I became a photographer, in fact, before I was interested in photography I always bought and enjoyed National Geographic Magazines. I enjoyed them because of the true quality of work that was put into it. And that is the reputation the magazine has and needs to keep.

david bowen
Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

chris - good point.

i think as a photographer it is possible to photograph anything, and that the more practice put into your shooting the more of your own world you reveal, and that includes style and consistency.
photographing heavily, week in week out, i think a personal style becomes unavoidable.. and rather than that restricting the subject it free´s us up to photograph more subjects.

thinking of PJG´s last book, recollections..
now.. philip was famed as a war photographer from his work for vietnam inc. and about agent orange.. yet recollections is incredibly powerful.. it´s pure PJG regardless of subject matter.. the style shines through.

i guess one way of saying it is that photographing everything you see, daily, would be enough and others will decide to pigeon hole you.. music snapper.. war snapper..

it´s true that photographers rarely choose what they become known for, and all we can do is to not allow others idea´s about what we stand for to cloud our pleasure of everything we photograph.

i would rather be a photographer alone than carry the weight of a prefix like a ball and chain.

Gold Coast Photographer
Dec 23, 2008 2PM #

As a working photographer i strive to be excellent at every image i take. When I started out I felt that I sometimes lacked the consistency that has been mentioned in the article. Over time I believe that I have been able to develop a much higher level of consistency. I believe a constant desire to improve your work and strive for constant excellence will keep my work developing. I pale before the true greats that have been mentioned, Sartore etc but I`m trying !

- Advertisement -
Please note all comments are reviewed by the blog moderator before posting.