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Growing up I always wanted to be a National Geographic photographer. Their lives seemed so glamorous, filled with many thanks for their contributions to the art of photography and to journalism.
But, as with many dream jobs, they are a little bit harder to attain than you would have thought as a kid. Here we will be discussing the needed qualifications of many photographer's dream job and celebrating the winners of the 2019 National Geographic Travel Photo Contest (because let's be honest, this may be the closest these photographers ever come).
What National Geographic Says You Need
1st Place Cities and Grand Prize. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHU WEIMIN/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
Upernavikis a fishing village on a tiny island in west Greenland. Historically, Greenlandic buildings were painted different colors to indicate different functions, from red storefronts to blue fishermen’s homes—a useful distinction when the landscape is blanketed in snow. This photo was taken during my three-month, personal photo project to present life in Greenland.
The first qualification National Geographic wants you to have is between 5 and 10 years of photojournalism experience with other magazines or newspapers.
You also must have spent those 5 to 10 years perfecting one particular type of photography. Almost all of National Geographic's photographers are hired on a freelance basis, so you must be okay with only working part of the year for them.
Oh yeah, they also want you to get a degree in pretty much anything but photography.
2nd Place – Cities. PHOTOGRAPH BY JASSEN TODOROV/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
“IN THE AGE OF AVIATION”
There are four runways at San Francisco’s International Airport (SFO). This is a rare look at the approach end of runways 28 left and right. I had dreams of documenting the motion at SFO and [arranged] permission to fly directly overhead. What a windy day it was. Winds atSFO were 35-45 miles per hour, which meant a bumpy flight, and it was much harder to control the plane while photographing. The flight was challenging, but it was also so thrilling that I couldn’t sleep for several days afterward.
Dan Westergren, one of National Geographic's recurring freelance photographers, says you need to be obsessed with photography.
There's no way you can capture some of these captivating photos without being obsessed with shooting.
Westergren also suggests its all about who you know. A former boss of his at National Geographic had a catchphrase:
"If we want to hire you, we already know who you are."
3rd Place – Cities. PHOTOGRAPH BY SANDIPANI CHATTOPADHYAY/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
“STREETS OF DHAKA”
People pray on the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh during Ijtema. Bishwa Ijtemais one of the major Islamic religious gatherings which is [observed] annually in Dhaka and millions of Muslims visit [during this time]. Dedicated prayer grounds are not [large] enough to handle this huge number of people, so large numbers of people come to [Tongi], the main street of Dhaka. All the ground transportation and [pedestrian crossings] are suspended during that time.
"To make it at National Geographic, you have to have interesting stories to tell," he said.
Studying the winners of National Geographic's many contests is a good way of forming an idea about what the editors there are looking for in terms of photos that tell stories.
1st Place – Nature. PHOTOGRAPH BY TAMARA BLAZQUEZ HAIK/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
A gorgeous griffon vulture is seen soaring the skies in Monfragüe National Park in Spain. How can anyone say vultures bring bad omens when looking at such tenderness in this griffon vulture’s eyes? Vultures are important members of the environment, as they take care of recycling dead matter. Vultures are noble and majestic animals—kings of the skies. When looking at them flying, we should feel humbled and admire them.
What National Geographic Photographers Think
You have most definitely heard of Joel Sartore before, and that's because the man is a photography legend.
His advice to the question he says he is asked most often is to be persistent.
2nd Place – Nature. PHOTOGRAPH BY DANNY SEPKOWSKI/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
What happens before a wave breaks? That question has been my assignment this past year. On this particular day, I decided to shoot the sunset on the east side of Oahu, Hawaii. About 100 photographers were out in the morning, but I had the evening to myself. The textures from the trade winds [created] subtle colors from the west and blended well using my 100mm lens. I had to look into my viewfinder while this wave was breaking. Not an easy task when a wave is about to crush you.
But, you also can't necessarily capture photos like the one above only through persistence.
"Being very Type A and borderline obsessive helped me a great deal in getting Geographic to notice me," he said. "It's almost a requirement."
He acted out his obsessiveness by sending in his best work on a three-month rotation. Every three months he would send in photos until eventually he was given a single-day assignment.
3rd Place – Nature. PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT PORTELLI/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
Dusky dolphins often travel together in great numbers in the deep canyons of the Kaikoura, New Zealand in search of food. They glide through the ocean effortlessly, coming up only to breathe. Dusky dolphins are fast and will often keep pace with a speeding boat. I waited on the bow of the boat as the Dusky dolphin almost broke [through the surface]. Their elegance and streamlined bodies are built for speed and maneuverability—accentuated by the smooth, clear water of the New Zealand coastline.
"To get into National Geographic," he continues, "You have to offer them something they don't already have access to-which is a tall order."
"You have to be a great photographer and be able to dive under sea ice, spend days in tree stands in the tropics, speak fluent Russian and know Moscow like the back of your hand, or be an absolute genius at lighting impossible situations."
1st Place – People. PHOTOGRAPH BY HUAIFENG LI/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
Actors prepare for an evening opera performance in Licheng County, China. I spent the whole day with these actors from makeup to [stage]. I’m a freelance photographer, and the series “Cave Life” is a long-term project of mine. In China’s Loess Plateau, local residents dig holes in the loess layer [to create cave living spaces, known as yaodongs] and use the heat preservation properties to survive cold winters. This series mainly records the life, entertainment, belief, labor, and other [daily] scenes of the people living in the caves.
Ami Vitale, another National Geographic regular, says the job is a lot about sacrifice.
"I literally invest a ton of money myself in the beginning," she says. "Everything I make goes right back into the work."
Editor's Tip: Starting a photography business? Save money and buy quality used gear. You can save hundreds if you buy a used camera and used lenses, and apply those savings to investing in other gear. Better still, a great way to watch your bottom line is to sell or trade in your old gear that you no longer use. Doing so minimizes how much gear you have to keep track of, and if you sell or trade in your gear, you have some spare money to put towards upgrading your kit. It's a win-win!
"I've got to do a few commercial things a year in order to make the documentary work sustainable."
2nd Place – People. PHOTOGRAPH BY YOSHIKI FUJIWARA/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
This photo was taken at a public park at Choi Hung House in Hong Kong. When I visited during the afternoon, it was very crowded with many young people taking pictures and playing basketball. But when I visited at sunrise, it was quiet and a different place. [The area] is [designated] for neighborhood residents in the early morning, and there was a sacred atmosphere. I felt divinity when I saw an old man doing tai chi in the sun.
Vitale is not the only National Geographic photographer who cannot sustain herself on the paychecks from the position. Most National Geographic photographers do commercial work and speaking gigs to supplement their income.
3rd Place – People. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOSÉ ANTONIO ZAMORA/ 2019 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTO CONTEST
Every year on the feast of Saint Anthony the ceremony of the purification of animals, called Las Luminarias, is celebrated in Spain. In the province of Avila, horses and horsemen jump over bonfires in the ritual that has been maintained since the 18th century. The animals [are not hurt], and it is a ritual that is repeated every year. To make the photo, I moved from Seville to San Bartolomé de Pinares because I am very interested in photographing ancestral rites.
If You Still Feel Like This May Be the Job For You...
Listen to one of Nat Geo's most adventurous photographers talk about her insane life before you jump on board.