Communicating Visually: Expert Tips from Photo Editor Sarah Leen at Bild


Have you ever struggled with editing your images to present in a portfolio or as a story pitch? If so, our conversation in this podcast might be of some help.

We recently had the great fortune to speak with one of the finest picture editors in the business, former National Geographic photographer, photo editor, and director of photography, Sarah Leen, who we interviewed as part of our coverage of B&H’s 50th Anniversary Bild Expo 2023.

Leen has worked all sides of the table, starting in the field with a camera in hand, then transitioning to a photo editor, and ultimately being tapped to lead National Geographic as Director of Photography in 2013—the first woman ever selected for this role.

Among the topics covered in this chat are Leen’s shift from picture maker to photo editor and how she gained the credentials to take on such a role. We make the important distinction between editing the work of others vs. a photographer editing his or her own images, emphasizing the added difficulty of disconnecting from personal experience to make objective decisions, and how the guidance of a skilled photo editor can help.

Focusing on her career trajectory, Leen explains the differences between a photo editor and the Director of Photography, which is a managerial role. And, when it comes to the recent organizational changes at National Geographic—not to mention within the industry at large—Leen clarifies that, despite ceasing newsstand sales, the magazine will still be widely available in print, yet by subscription only.

We end our chat with details about Leen’s current work as an independent photo editor and educator, her founding of the Visual Thinking Collective with three former colleagues, and the upcoming release of her latest book project Ukraine: A War Crime, featuring work by 93 photographers.

Above photograph © Sarah Leen

Guest: Sarah Leen

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Episode Timeline:

  • 1:36: Sarah Leen’s start as a photographer, her transition to a photo editing role at National Geographic, and the differences between editing one’s own work and the response of an objective photo editor.
  • 5:47: The unique editing process National Geographic uses to review every frame, and differences between editing analog slides and editing images digitally.
  • 10:09: The criteria for assigning photographers to stories at National Geographic and the ways that editors discover new photographers for assignments.
  • 12:20: The importance of versatility in presenting pictures on social media and thinking beyond single images when trying to tell stories.
  • 16:22: Leen’s advice to photographers about pitching story ideas: Short is good, knowledge is good. Think about the pitch in terms of the universal and the personal.
  • 21:42: Episode Break
  • 22:24: Leen’s elevation to National Geographic director of photography and how that position differs from that of a photo editor.
  • 25:50: Relationships between photos and text, as well as photographers and writers.
  • 30:02: Recent changes within National Geographic, as well as in the industry at large, and the decision to cease newsstand sales of the magazine to get people to subscribe instead.
  • 32:55: Photographers’ ongoing desire to have their images in print and the seduction behind publishing a book of one’s work.
  • 35:16: Leen’s latest work as an independent photo editor and educator, her founding of The Visual Thinking Collective with three former colleagues, and the upcoming release of Ukraine: A War Crime, featuring images by 93 photographers.

Guest Bio:

After becoming the first woman to receive the College Photographer of the Year award, Sarah Leen worked as a freelance photographer for National Geographic, becoming the first female Director of Photography at National Geographic magazine and Partners in 2013. In 2020, she established the Visual Thinking Collective, a community of female editors, teachers, and curators specialized in creating and managing visually driven projects. Leen believes in sharing her knowledge through mentoring, teaching photography, and photo editing workshops, while consulting and editing visual projects and books. FotoEvidence is releasing her new book, Ukraine: A War Crime in 2023.

Stay Connected:

Sarah Leen Website:

Sarah Leen Instagram:

Sarah Leen X:

Sarah Leen Facebook:

Visual Thinking Collective Website:

FotoEvidence Website and the book Ukraine: A War Crime:

Host: Allan Weitz

Senior Creative Producer: Jill Waterman

Senior Producer: Mike Weinstein

Executive Producer: Shawn C Steiner