Field Notes #7: Images in National Geographic

Image Style & Content

  • Covers
    • Faithful readers can imagine the average cover image of an issue of National Geographic: vertical, centered, filling the foreground, depth of focus. However, the cover images are much more varied than readers realized. While photos are most commonly used, illustrations appear on covers as well. Some cover photos are in color, some black and white. Subjects include people, animals, nature, planets, etc. Subjects can be passive or active. Sometimes, there are even multiple images on the cover. Despite this wide variation of photo style and content, the feeling NatGeo’s cover images evoke is consistent: wonder.

  • Inside Images
    • The inside images are just as varied as the cover images, if not more. They are portraits, landscapes, nature and animal images. Most are in color, and they show active and passive subjects. Image use patterns are seen in articles within the same categories. Science articles tend to feature close-up and microimages. Images in cultural and human stories tend to include medium shots. Nature stories feature wide photos of landscapes and natural structures.

This variety of cover and inside images works well to represent not only the scope of topics covered in NatGeo, but it also represents the scope of the human and animal experience.

Use on the Page

Images vary in size, and they are almost always rectangular or square in shape. 

On the contents page, small images are used to introduce non-feature articles, while one large photo introduces the features. 

Small photos, which vary in shape, are also used on the “What’s Coming” spread. The limited use of non-square images is wise, as uncommon shapes tend to present a casual, playful identity. 

A significant portion of the page is dedicated to image use. Articles with even the smallest of images still tend to lend most of the page space to it. The use of large images creates a visual hierarchy and helps the reader get through many columns of text.

Images not only draw the eye from the headline into the story, but they also introduce the content of the articles.

Text is sometimes used on images, more so on graphics and illustrations, less so on photos in a photojournalism spread.

Type of Images & Frequency of Use

  • Photos
    • Photos are used most frequently, especially on the cover. Size, shape, orientation, and tightness vary, but photos are almost always in color. Using photos most often works well with NatGeo, because it is a magazine which documents our world. Use real, unaltered photos best presents the content and builds trust with the readership, as they are assured the image content is realistic.
  • Illustrations
    • Illustrations are used more when photos on a certain topic are sparse. For example, the main feature of the February 2020 is about the African slave trade. Photos on this topic are limited, so the cover of the issue features an illustration.
  • Graphics
    • Graphics are used regularly to present data. NatGeo is a data-heavy publication, and the use of graphics presents this information in a more digestible fashion.