Behind the scenes on Paolo Verzone's National Geographic cover shoot

An ancient Torah scroll on parchment, photographed by Paolo Verzone with a Canon EOS 5DS R.
For his cover shot for National Geographic, photographer Paolo Verzone had to bring an ancient Torah scroll to life with atmospheric lighting, with absolutely no retouching allowed afterwards. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 4 secs, f/11 and ISO160. © Paolo Verzone/National Geographic

Thousands of photographers dream about having just one shot published in National Geographic Magazine, let alone securing the cover image. Canon Ambassador Paolo Verzone, whose 30-year career spans editorial and commercial work as well as his own personal projects, recently had the pleasure of seeing one of his images grace the cover of the illustrious publication.

A documentary photographer based in Paris and Barcelona, Paolo has been a member of Agence VU since 2003 and won awards at World Press Photo in 2000, 2009 and 2015. Here he tells the story behind his cover shot.

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"I had been commissioned by National Geographic to shoot a cover story on the search for ancient religious texts," says Paolo. "The whole project included portraits, landscapes and images taken in museums and laboratories, shot in three countries – Israel, the UK and the USA. It added up to around 20 to 25 days of work, which is normal for a Nat Geo cover story.

"One section of the commission involved shooting at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, Florida. It's a Bible-related theme park that includes performers and people dressed as Biblical figures. But within the theme park is the Van Kampen Collection, which is the most important collection of Bibles in the US, apart from the one held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC."

The cover of the English language National Geographic Magazine featuring Paolo Verzone's photo of an ancient Torah scroll.
The challenge was to light the ancient books and scrolls in a way that brought them to life, taking account of the characteristics of the materials, while keeping the text legible. © Paolo Verzone/National Geographic
The cover of the French language edition of National Geographic Magazine features white-gloved hands holding an ancient bound Bible.
The French language edition of the magazine used a different cover image, from the same shoot, to the English edition. © Paolo Verzone/National Geographic
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Bringing ancient books to life

"I was asked to photograph several of these valuable texts, but it was extremely important not just to produce a copy of them," he recalls. "I had to find a way to bring these ancient books to life. I knew I would have to light them as if I was lighting a portrait – to forget they were physical objects and regard them almost as people.

"I had to light the texts carefully, because materials like leather, parchment or papyrus catch the light in different ways. The other issue, when shooting for National Geographic, is that absolutely no retouching of images is allowed. So, the pictures have to be completely free from elements such as light reflections when shooting through glass."

Different photographs were used on international editions of the magazine. The shot on the English language edition showed a Torah scroll which is several hundred years old. "I had to create a light that would bring it alive, but one that was not so dramatic that I would lose the text," says Paolo. "It was a delicate balance to find, and I lit it with a mixture of torch light, daylight and flash."

Paolo Verzone stands in the desert in the Middle East with a reflector and a Canon EOS 5DS R on a tripod.
Paolo's National Geographic assignment included landscape photography on location in the Middle East. © Paolo Verzone

High resolution on the Canon EOS 5DS R

Paolo's cover shot was taken with his Canon EOS 5DS R. "The 50.6-megapixel resolution made it perfect for this job," he says. "Using that camera, I was super-comfortable that I wouldn't lose details in the highlights or shadows. I took images of the Torah scroll at different depths of field to give National Geographic's editors the choice of what they wanted to use. The cover shot was taken using settings of 4 secs at f/11 and ISO160.

"I used the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, which I think is a masterpiece of a lens," Paolo adds. "It has a wonderful sharpness, and when you set your focus on a certain place it never fails. Some of the sacred texts had to be shot very quickly and I didn't have the time to check the images on the back of the camera, but I knew I could rely on the lens to perform perfectly.

"I was very happy with the way my images were used, both on the cover and inside the magazine," Paolo concludes. "Working for National Geographic is fantastic because there is permanent contact with your editor. Halfway through the work you show the editorial team what you've done and you get feedback on how they feel about it, what's missing and exactly how to proceed with it. At the end you do a final screening with about 45 people looking at your work. It's a continuous discussion process throughout, and I love working in this way."

Written by David Clark

Paolo Verzone's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

The contents of Paolo Verzone's photo kitbag, including a Canon EOS 5DS R.


Canon EOS 5DS R

Designed to deliver the ultimate in DSLR image quality, with 50.6-megapixel resolution and a low-pass cancellation filter that maximises sharpness. "The 50.6-megapixel resolution made it perfect for this job," Paolo says.


Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM

The combination of the groundbreaking Hybrid IS, f/2.8 aperture and fast USM autofocusing system makes this a truly exceptional lens for close-up work, even hand-held. "A masterpiece of a lens, with a wonderful sharpness," Paolo says.

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