What Separates a National Geographic Photographer from the Average Shooter?

To put it another way, what separates a good photographer from a great photographer?

I’m still new to shooting for National Geographic, and as a result I’ve been constantly putting my mind to figuring out what I have to do to become a great photographer.  I’ve managed to get in the door with some big name companies but staying there is a whole story on it’s own.  A great photographer has to  constantly grow with the industry and constantly reevaluate themselves.

Fortune has smiled on me in it’s own bipolar way and I’ve taken some tough criticism from people who I would say have made it to the very top of the game.  Learning to take that criticism has transformed me into a better photographer and I think a better person.  I’ve been lucky enough to sit with photographers and editors that most people will never get to talk to, and this is what I’ve taken away from those conversati0ns.  It is a collection of things that I’ve both had to go through myself, and things I’ve learned from better photographers.

1. Kill the ego

Photography is an extension of ourselves.  We may not even realize it, but when we are showing imagery that we are proud of we are showing people how we see the world, and that’s a view that nobody else has ever had.  Every time someone sees your photography they are seeing a completely new perspective. That’s why when someone doesn’t like a particular photo it feels more like an insult than an opinion.

This first step isn’t something I learned just from photography, I learned it from my father who was one of the top sculptors in the world.  He would have the clay form of the sculpture complete, fine tuned, and ready to send off to the foundry, and more often than not he would invite a few of his contemporaries over to see the piece.  More often than not, the next thing we knew the head was chopped off, the arm twisted around, and a months worth of work had been seemingly destroyed.  The final piece when complete had unquestionably transformed from a good sculpture to a great sculpture.

Photographs don’t have the elasticity of a sculpture, once they’re taken there is little we can do to change it save for a few tweaks in photoshop.  Putting this lesson into practice as a photographer means losing the self-importance that surrounds our imagery, and being open to criticism from other photographers and editors.  It means that we are that sculpture.  Killing the ego means seeing our art for what it is and taking the advice of those who can see our work with clearer perspective.

Exception to the rule:

Of course, we don’t want to lose our individuality, our unique perspective that makes our work what it is, we want to advance it and become the best that we can be without losing our vision and our perspective.  The hard part is learning when advice is just an opinion and nothing more.  When that advice comes from someone we want to work for it’s important to give it ample consideration without losing what makes us unique.

2. Stack the odds in your favor

Vogue is never going to hire a product photographer to shoot a supermodel for their cover, and National Geographic isn’t going to send a fashion photographer to photograph killer whales.  So many people have asked me to introduce them at National Geographic but they have never shot anything that would remotely be considered for the magazine.  The first step to getting in the door at any magazine is having something to show them that they want.  I got lucky, and had just returned from shooting shark poachers on Cocos Island when I met with National Geographic.  It was easy by comparison to transition from showing them a portfolio to figuring out how we can work together.

Do you want to shoot fashion? Hire real models, professional models will make your job easier, get stylists, interesting wardrobe and unique locations where you don’t have to struggle to find a good angle.

Do you want to shoot wildlife?  Don’t waste time fumbling around the mountains, go to where the wildlife is impossible to miss! Go to Yellowstone, the Serengeti, or somewhere where you are guaranteed photos of what you are looking for, and where you’ll have time to try different shots.  Just remember, don’t be so amazed with what you are seeing that you forget to look for new interesting ways to photograph it.  (more on this in section 3)

You can't take this in L.A.

My point is, if you want amazing photographs find amazing locations.  It will make your job easier.  If you really have what it takes to push your photography to the next level, then it’s in these places that you will get your best work.  Stack the odds in your favor by giving yourself all the advantages you can.

Exception to the rule:

When I was first shooting fashion photography, I couldn’t afford the best models and locations.  I had to find places I could shoot that were close to home.  I learned to make any location work.  A corner of a building or a park just around the corner from my house had to make do.  I’m glad though that I didn’t have it easy, because now when I have a fantastic location I can really pick it apart, looking for the best possible angles just like I had to do in the beginning.

3. The harder it is, the less likely someone else has done it.

A few months ago I was on a shoot in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica.  My job was to get photos of the bull shark pups that used this river as a nursery and to photograph the ecosystem that made it ideal for them.   Countless hurdles had to be overcome just to get a usable photograph.  First I had to find the sharks, then I had to photograph them in murky brown water that was home to as many crocodiles as it was to sharks.   Photographers have been coming here to photograph the sharks since it’s discovery that the sharks were here but I didn’t want to shoot the same images as everybody else.  I wanted a photo of a shark from in the river, looking up at the rainforest to give a sense of place.  I had tried getting in the water, but the sharks seemed too afraid of me to get as close as I needed them to in the murky water, and the crocodiles were too unafraid.  I needed a way to separate myself from my camera, but still be able to get the shot.  It occurred to me that I could re-wire my underwater camera housing to allow me to use it with a remote.  The problem being that the camera would be underwater where no radio waves could reach it.  I solved this problem by creating an antenna that would float to the surface.  This is the point where most photographers say, “it’s too much work,” and stick to shooting the cruising fins from shore.

This is why I think National Geographic really stands out from the rest of the magazines, they only use the work of those who go to great lengths to get the shot.  For some it’s sitting in a hide in the jungle for a month, for others it’s building camera equipment that doesn’t exist yet.   Look at Nick Nichols, his work stands out from the rest because he’s constantly coming up with new ways to photograph old subjects.  Paul Nicklen stands out because instead of shooting daunting subjects like leopard seals from the comfort of a boat he’s in the arctic water face to face with the huge and intimidating animal.

National Geographic photographers will use any means necessary to get the shot.  Climbing, abseiling, diving, and jumaring are all standard practice, but even more ubiquitous is tenacity, and a willingness to suffer to get the shot.  It seems like a lot of work for a photograph, but I guarantee your photo will stand out.

Exception to the Rule:

There isn’t one.  Always try to shoot in a new and interesting way.  Sometimes it’s good to get some of the standard shots first just so you have something to fall back on if the creative approach fails, but you should always try to do it differently.

4. Shoot the whole story

One good photograph is going to look good in your portfolio.  Without context though you’ll be resigned to shooting stock.  Putting together a story is one of the hardest parts of being a photographer.  It’s fairly easy to get a single good frame from a photo shoot, but a single frame isn’t going to get you shooting assignments.  A good way to know if you are shooting the whole story is to pick 12 images of your subject and see if people get the point without you narrating for them.  I’m still working on this myself, and I hope I’ll keep getting better at it as my career evolves.  Some people accomplish this by just shooting as much as they can, of everything that they come across.  I like to imagine what the article is going to look like, and even draw out a sketch of the images the way I want them to end up.  That way when I see a scene that is close to what I’ve imagined for the story I know that it will work.

Exception to the rule:

Sometimes a photo is so great that it tells the whole story all by itself.  That’s why we use the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

5.  Personal Work

When I get a new client I always ask them one question to get things started, “Do you want me to shoot your artistic vision, or do you want my artistic vision?”  Most of the time it ends up being a blend of the options.  Their view with my twist.  I’ve found that this blend of visions may work well for an add campaign, but the photography isn’t the most memorable of my work.  It’s important that I have the chance to fully put my own artistic vision to the test so that I can show people what I’m really capable of.  This is where personal work comes in.  I probably shoot more of my own curious ideas than anything else.  The majority of the time though, that’s what people remember, and that’s the work that makes me stand out.  Another benefit to shooting personal projects is that I get to do what I’m passionate about, and it’s fun.  It keeps me interested in the career of photography.  I know a lot of burnt out photographers that haven’t picked up a camera for fun in years.

One of my favorite fashion photographers of all time is Helmut Newton.  His work is easily recognizable, even by those who may not know his name.  You’ve seen it, we’ve all seen it. The photograph that made him his living we may not even realize was taken by the same person, but the photographs that got him that work will be remembered till the end of time.  It’s personal projects that keep us moving forward, getting new work, and excited about our career.  To me it’s by far the most important thing that I do.

Exception to the Rule:

Don’t get so into your own work that you forget about step #1, and don’t get in so deep on a project that you don’t have time for your clients that make it possible!

I hope this gets you thinking in a new direction.  It took me a long time to go from just knowing these things to putting them into practice.  I still have a lot to learn myself (see step 1) and the day I think I’ve figured it all out is the day I need to start over.  Photography is art, and it’s impossible to quantify exactly what makes it good or bad.  There is always a general trend, or a style that prevails over another.  It’s good to adapt and to change with the ever changing market, but don’t lose what makes you unique, and definitely don’t lose what makes you love photography.


About Ben Horton
Highly influenced by his love of travel and adventure and his constant search for something new, his imagery is vibrant with fresh and creative energy. Raised in Bermuda, Ben Horton has spent the majority of his life traveling and seeking out new adventure. Ben is the recipient of the National Geographic Society’s first Young Explorer award for research on Cocos Island involving shark poaching. This led to becoming a photographer for National Geographic, and has allowed Ben to continue his passion for adventure. Follow Ben on Instagram

4 Responses to What Separates a National Geographic Photographer from the Average Shooter?

  1. Pingback: Not forgotten; never forgotten « Caroline's Photo Blog

  2. Did you do your work on sharks in Corcovado on your own accord, or were you hired to do it?

  3. Elena says:

    I love ” you can’t take this in LA ” : )) Ben, you are an extraordinary photographer! Looked through your work – speechless .. you really are fearless … Thank you for this great advice.. You’re living the dream of so many photographers .. have even 1 of my pictures published in NG is an ultimate dream!

    your student,


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