Sarah Leen, Senior Photo Editor, has been the Magazine editor most involved with this story. She has been shepherding this story since day one. Sarah was a working photographer for 26 years with over 15 stories published in NG prior to evolving  into an editorial role. So she knows whats up.

A question in comments here from Sam Harris prompted this answer from Sarah

Thanks everyone for all your incredibly intelligent and thoughtful comments. This has been not only lots of fun but a real education for us in so many ways and we at NGM truly appreciate your participation in our first effort to open up our story process to the larger photographic community.
I will try to answer some of your questions (and yes Sidney I did work with John Stanmeyer on the Malaria story we did a few years ago. Thanks for remembering that one!)

Sam, the process in general goes something like this. A new story idea comes in from a photographer, writer or someone on the staff. It gets reviewed by an Executive Team of Editors, including our fearless leader Chris Johns (see David’s interview in an earlier post.) Once the idea has been approved it goes to the story team that has a Photo Editor, a Text Editor, a Designer and maps, graphics and research staff. And of course the photographer and writer.
Then the photographer and I do more research into the idea and make a plan for how to cover it photographically and also rough out a budget. (We collaborate with the assigned writer and text editor on the overall direction of the piece from the beginning.) Then we have what we call a “pitch meeting” where the story team presents our plans to Chris and his Executive Team. At the pitch we get feedback on our plans and hopefully the greenlight to proceed. If its a yes we submit the budget, get that approved and away we go.

In the field I communicate with the photographer as needed. Some photographers like alot of communication, send in jpgs for feedback, lots of back and forth, others are lone wolves and you have to go looking for them. The photographer sends in ALL images to the Photo Editor at the completion of each trip, and in RAW form if its digital. (This can be thousands of frames.) I do look at every frame. The photographer also does their own edit which I combine with mine. We value and want their input at every stage. Its a real partnership and one of the things I most loved about working here as a photographer.

Once I have gone through all the images and have a rough edit the photographer and I will often continue to edit together using some screen sharing program to get it down even further. Sometimes we edit the whole story this way especially if they live abroad. If they are more local we bring them in to finish the edit and create what we call either the Halfway Show or the Final Show, depending on length of story, how many trips, etc.
The Shows are presented to the Executive Team and story team. If its a Halfway we discuss how we plan to continue and finish, what’s missing, etc. Also get feedback from the team and find out from the Editor if we are delivering the story he wants. If its a Final we generally proceed to layout and start the process you have just been witnessing.

The layout process is the culmination of months of effort and can be so much fun but also heartache as you have to make tough decisions about what stays or goes. And there are only so many pages to play with. Also there are different ways you could put it together and it would look good. Then we present the layout to the Editor and team. That will happen tomorrow afternoon with OBX. Chris can then approve it as is or want some changes. He may see images we left out he wants back in or a different lead or ending. I value these meetings and hope new ideas bubble up and we can make it even better than it already is.

David’s OBX is a bit unique as it’s more of a personal essay about OBX than a reportage about the Banks. Its personal yet it still reflects OBX to anyone who knows the place. I myself have waffled back and forth about what should be the lead. But I always try to make decisions from a place somewhere in the center of my body that responds almost physically to an image I like. I use my brain to keep me on track journalistically but I try trust my heart and guts about the photography.

Sorry this has been so long but I hope I have answered your questions in general. And thanks again for participating. Once Chris decides on the lead we will let you all know. Then you will just have to wait till June to see the whole story!!


We are showing you now the “next step” ..Three versions of three opening spreads. You can see just by moving things around a bit, it changes the whole mood and feel. We are not going to show you any deeper into the story, because we want to still surprise you a bit in June when the story is published.   We also need to surprise the Editor Chris Johns when he will either approve or have his own ideas on what direction we should take. There is no free lunch. These are the layout challenges of print. Picture choice and sequence needing to fit into an 18 page slot in the Magazine. Of course, simultaneous with the NatGeo Magazine publication of this essay will be an all inclusive version for your iPad.

Next week we will let you know which opening Chris chose.

I will find out when you do. Right now, I am getting on my horse and riding out of town. Down to my OBX front porch. To write the text for this piece, and to just enjoy my favorite spot on the planet.

64 Responses to “NATGEO LAYOUT ROOM…DAY 2”

  • Sarah..

    Many thanks for chiming in.. “I use my brain to keep me on track journalistically but I try trust my heart and guts about the photography.”… a woman after my own heart :)

  • Yes- Eva, Sarah …in wholehearted agreement.

    Here’s a great talk with Anders Peterson addressing this:
    “I put my brain under the pillow when I shoot” :)

  • Sarah,
    THANK YOU!!!!!

  • a civilian-mass audience

    SARAH …welcome home…!!!

    and happy MARTINL.KING day to ALLLL

    “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
    Martin Luther
    thank you…I will be out …planting an olive tree.

  • I’m new to this site but love the collection of photos and the images they stimulate in my mind. Concerning the OBX, I noticed no photos or mention of the horses of Corolla. I think there is a wonderful photo op there. Thanks again.

  • Interesting insight – not too unlike the workshop.

  • David – forgive the question: what camera(s) did you use for this assignment, in particular for the three potential lead images you showed above? I’m curious because I know you tried an M9 for a bit and I have seen you handle a DSLR before … but these don’t look like digital images to me, they look like chromes. Am I right?

  • I’m sure it never works but are there any insider cheats for getting the layout that you want picked (like pitching on a tuesday)

  • PS I would choose #3 (the crashing wave) as the lead image with #2 (fishing rod) as a close second… although the reason not to chose either of those 2 is that there are no people in the shot

  • PLG

    all digital….either Nikon D700 or Panasonic GF1…hmmm, let me think, yes all pictures you see in these layouts, all three leads were i think shot with the GF1…wave and fish shot for sure, but perhaps the surfboard shot with the Nikon…in any case, i mostly shoot with advanced amateur cameras…so that means, if one of these is the final choice, that the lead picture for NatGeo article will have been shot with a camera costing about 600 bucks..


    as you can see from Sarah’s comment , the photographers (not just me) are more involved with the story idea, the overall coverage, and the final layout as in no other publication ever ever ever…that does not mean i will get 100% exactly what i might want, mostly due to the realities of print..SPACE ALLOCATION…however, i will usually get 99.5% what i want…after all Harry, the editors have chosen my idea, given me the commission to shoot it, brought me to the office to work on it..they are working with me, collaborating, working to make it right for the readers, for the magazine, and for me…they are NOT in a adversarial mode…quite the opposite…….i would submit that is as close as one can get to perfection for publication in an international magazine…


    palimpsest……didn’t know it…love it….perfect use by you…to become perfectly used by me…thank you

  • David; Out of interest… Why did NG choose to be so open with this story, by showing images etc before publication? Surely this must be a first for them? Cheers

  • Sarah..
    Thanks for being so generous sharing your time, your descriptive narrative about the process, your insightful collaboration , professional and also emotional dynamic into it…It only reiterates your posture in both roles: as photographer and editor, and how it can reflect productive, supportive and inspirational on others. David and OBX seem to be a great example of that.Thanks again…


    thanks very much for such a detailed reply. your time, energy and perspective is greatly appreciated.
    it’s a wonderful thing that we can be scattered across this planet and yet all sit together here on burn.

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