The Photo Editor’s Perspective: Sabine Meyer

This is an excerpt from my book Adventure Photography: Capturing the World of Outdoor Sports, which was published in early 2010. This interview was conducted in 2009 but is still very relevant for working photographers today.

Sabine Meyer is the Senior Photo Editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine, one of the top adventure magazines on the planet. I was honored to have her talk with me for this interview and share some of her insights on the adventure photography industry. She has been a photo editor since 1992, and has been with National Geographic since 1999.

Michael Clark: What qualities should a photographer have if they want to shoot for National Geographic Adventure?

Sabine Meyer: An adventure magazine caters to a lot of different readers and publishes stories every month that each have a different definition of adventure. So I tend to look into three different pools of photographers: outdoor sports photographers, photojournalists, and adventure travel photographers.

I am looking for people with a very strong visual identity, but who have a lot of [outdoor] skills and can also shoot action, lifestyle, portraits, landscapes, great moments, and details. I am also looking for people who are very enthusiastic, easy to work with, independent, problem solvers, good communicators, people who are going to be team players and who are able to deal with the set of cards they are dealt. We are looking for people who are in touch with the type of stories we write. And in some cases, it’s a story that requires very specific athletic skills—like dealing with high altitude or being able to do an Eskimo roll and kayak while shooting. The photographer needs to be geared up for that.

MC: Is it a bonus if a photographer can shoot action and high-end portraiture?

SM: Yes, I don’t just hire adventure photographers. I think in the ten years that I have been here, the definition of “adventure” photography has changed. I think that everybody out there knows that to be an adventure photographer you need to be able to shoot action, you need to be able to set up lights and do a great portrait, you need to have a little bit of a stylist’s eye, and you also need to be a little bit of a tech head and play with rigging. You also need to be a journalist so you can create a narrative and understand what the story is about. It’s not just about taking pretty pictures.

MC: Are you and your staff constantly looking for new photographers? Or is the market already saturated with plenty of talent? Where do you look for new photographers?

SM: The market is obviously saturated with photographers, period. But there are a lot of geographical pockets where there is not a lot of really good talent. There are parts of the country (the U.S.A.) where, should you want to assign a local photographer; it is really hard to find the right talent for the kind of photography we are looking for. Those regions are mostly the southeast and the center of the country. There are a plethora of great photographers on the west coast, in the Rockies, and in the northeast and northwest. We are always looking for new talent because the way the budgets are going these days, we have to hire locally. We are not in the position to say, “Who is the best for this job” no matter where the assignment is. That has always been the way we have operated.

Where do we look for photography? We get e-promos. It is up to the photographers to reach out to us. Also, we constantly look at all the different magazines that make up our world and our competition. We really look at everything and filter what works for Adventure.

MC: What is the best way for photographers to market themselves to you? Postcards? Epromos? A link to their website?

SM: These days, I definitely tend to favor epromos because I can see a photo and then click on it and go to a website. Basically, it is immediate portfolio viewing. That is more efficient than just a postcard that shows me one or two photos. I’d much rather see a website because I think that a postcard is very misleading. You might think a photographer shoots a certain way because you see one or two photos, and then you go on their website and you realize that the rest of their work is not at all what you thought it would be. So the photographer who you thought could be right for your magazine is actually not.

I think I get a much more complete sense of who a photographer is and what they shoot when I look at an e-promo and link into a website. It is immediate. And since I am staring at a computer 8 to 10 hours a day, it becomes second nature, when I am multi-tasking, to check e-promos. When I see something I like, I definitely put that photographer on my “hot” radar, or I contact the photographer if I want to see more images of a certain project.

Now, that said, I do still get a lot of postcards and once in a while if I really like one, I put it on my wall. I have this sort of ‘wall of fame’ in my office. The first thing I look for is a URL on the postcard. The postcard leads to the website.

MC: How many e-promos do you receive a week on average? Print promos?

SM: We get about 25 e-promos a day, if not more. Up to, say, 200 or more per week. I probably get thirty printed promos each week.

MC: Do you have any advice on how to make promos (email and print) better and more interesting for you? Or on the flip side, are there some definite things not to do?

SM: The main important thing, especially for photographers who use Agency Access or Adbase, is to make sure that they target their clients. I do get emails from photographers that do high-end beauty or cosmetics or car advertising and they are a waste of my time. Even if I have to spend five seconds, that is too much time. I want to see things that catch my attention and are also really good photos. I think it is pointless to just send average photos to keep on someone’s radar, because I will look at it and think, “It’s not so great.” Why would I bother clicking through to this person’s website? Do your homework. Send fresh material that is relevant and build your e-promos so they load really fast.

MC: Do you ever call in a photographer’s print portfolio when considering them for an assignment? How important is a photographer’s website when it comes to assigning work?

SM: No, we don’t. I think that is something of the past. Why spend the money with Fed Ex and the liability of potentially losing that portfolio somewhere in transit? I think that may be a system that is still valid for commercial advertising work. I never call books in anymore. On a website, a photographer can have a projects link where I can look at individual projects and see 20 to 25 images, and it really gives me an idea on how this photographer would potentially cover or execute an assignment if I were to hire them. That is not something that you tend to get in a book because there are too few images.

MC: When it comes to photographer’s website, what are some of your pet peeves?

SM: Websites should be very simple, easy to navigate, and clean. The website should be pleasant to look at. I am very suspicious if there are too many gizmos and embellishments because often that distracts from the quality of the photos. I care very little about the technology. I just want to get to the photos as fast as possible. And I want to be able to navigate back and forth between the home page, the portfolios, and different projects very easily.

I personally hate it when there is an email box set up on the website. Why can’t I just use my own email client? Just give me your email address. It just seems silly to me. And also, sometimes there isn’t a phone number, which is really annoying. Some photographers don’t specify where they are located, which I can understand, but for me it is highly critical to know where a person is located. I don’t want to have to play a guessing game with their area code.

Obviously, fast loading images are critical. I also like a bit of caption information somewhere near the photos because it is the type of information I look for when I look at someone’s portfolio, especially for people who shoot projects and stories.

MC: Do you ever read photographers’ blogs?

SM: I have to say I wish I could spend more time reading photographers’ blogs, but I just do not have the time. But I do think it’s a good window into peoples’ personalities because I don’t often meet the photographers I work with.

MC: How important is it for photographers to make the effort to meet with you in person?

SM: It is pretty important. I like to meet someone face-to-face when we’ve seen a lot of their photos and bought some of their stock on a consistent basis, or when we’ve done a very small project with them. If we know this person has the right eye for us we always make efforts to meet face-to-face because it is a little personality check. Is this person going to be okay if we send them on a two-week assignment with a bunch of people they have never met? Also, because they will be representing National Geographic, we want to make sure that we are on the same wavelength.

MC: Any advice for photographers just starting out?

SM: The most important thing when you start out is to be fully committed to making the best possible photos you can. Right now, photographers should strongly think about diversifying by doing multimedia, HD video, recording sound, and taking notes for lengthy caption information. It all depends on your goals and what you aspire to do as a photographer.

MC: Any advice for those that are already well established in adventure photography?

SM: I think they need to assess if their photography is still fresh in terms of style and technical qualities. I think if your career is just not happening, working on a personal project is very important and can reinvigorate the creative juices. Try to find new ways to tell a story, like using still images to create moving content. You can never take anything for granted. The media world moves and evolves so dramatically, even in just the last few months, that no one can say, “Ok, I’ve mastered digital photography, I’m set for the next 30-years.” That isn’t going to cut it. No matter what, you just have to be in love with photography and breathe it non-stop all day long. It’s not a job. It’s a way of living.

National Geographic Adventure Magazine was killed in 2010 but still exists as an online magazine on the National Geographic website.

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