Field notes on images: National Geographic

If there’s one thing people know about National Geographic, it’s the photography, particularly the iconic covers such as this one:

Photos dominate most of the pages of any given National Geographic. Some trends seen across images and issues:

All images are extremely high quality and there aren’t any effects, really, that distract from the natural colors and subjects in the photos. For example, there are no obvious lighting or color distortions like exaggerated lighting, colored screens overlaid on images, etc. If anything, the photos are edited to have higher intensity of color and natural light. The images look as realistically beautiful as possible, which clearly works to the photo journalistic nature of National Geographic.

Composition of the photos are fairly classical, there’s not a lot of experimentation, but that fits National Geographic’s branding of classic, timeless beautiful documentation of the natural world.

The emphasis on pages are clearly on the photos — everything else is usually in black and white which immediately draws the reader’s attention to the photo and not the text.

There are very few “editorial” photos — most of the photography is all based in natural settings. The few editorial photos tend to be in the front of book or for stories that are a compilation/comparison of like objects.

There seems to be an equal amount of photography of humans and photography of animals. Both humans and animals are captured both in still and active settings, which seems to reflect the idea of looking at all aspects of life.

There’s a wide variety of photos in all issues, from wide to medium to tight shots, but the ones that receive a spread tend to be wide shots that do not place as much prominence on people but on the natural landscape. These spread photos are also simplistic in nature — they tend to have one focal super strong focal point that’s stunning, captivating and alluring.

There are a few pages that are just text, but most spreads usually have a photo, always placed along one of the edges of the page (there are very few “floating” photos).

Photos are mostly horizontal and rectangular — there are few photos in other shapes like triangles, circles, etc. This again, keeps all emphasis on the subject of the photo and doesn’t allow the reader to get distracted.

Because most of the photos are full-bleed images, there is type on the page, particularly captions, headlines and decks. However, as mentioned in previous field notes the typography chosen for these texts is fairly simple and classical — they seem to fit more of a functional rather than an aesthetic purpose, and again that’s to keep emphasis on the photography in the magazine.

Photos are rarely superimposed on each other, which allows each photo to get its own attention and doesn’t allow readers the opportunity to get distracted. Pretty much every story has multiple photos accompanying it, which makes the feature stories so long because many of these photos are full spread, full bleed photos.

In the case of illustrations and graphics, these tend to be as realistic as possible and are not particularly “cartoony-y” or “cute,” but rather simple and functional. Illustrations are usually used for graphics and stories that are large spread comparing different aspects of something, like these bird motifs in the March 2018 issue.

Because National Geographic places so much emphasis on its photography, a reader can clearly get the sense of how important each photo is. There’s a sense that the reader is seeing each photo for a reason, that it was hand-picked to accompany this story and receive this presentation. It’s the photography that makes National Geographic — which has been publishing stories about the natural world for years and years — timeless and special each issue.

All images from the March 2018 issue.