During the Cold War, the magazine committed itself to presenting a balanced view of the physical and human geography of nations beyond the Iron Curtain. The magazine printed articles on Berlin, de-occupied Austria, the Soviet Union, and Communist China that deliberately downplayed politics to focus on culture. In its coverage of the Space Race, National Geographic focused on the scientific achievement while largely avoiding reference to the race's connection to nuclear arms buildup. There were also many articles in the 1930s, 40s and 50s about the individual states and their resources, along with supplement maps of each state. Many of these articles were written by longtime staff such as Frederick Simpich. There were also articles about biology and science topics.
In later years articles became outspoken on issues such as environmental issues, deforestation, chemical pollution, global warming, and endangered species. Series of articles were included focusing on the history and varied uses of specific products such as a single metal, gem, food crop, or agricultural product, or an archaeological discovery. Occasionally an entire month's issue would be devoted to a single country, past civilization, a natural resource whose future is endangered, or other theme. In recent decades, the National Geographic Society has unveiled other magazines with different focuses. Whereas in the past, the magazine featured lengthy expositions, recent issues have shorter articles.
In addition to being well known for articles about scenery, history, and the most distant corners of the world, the magazine has been recognized for its book-like quality and its standard of photography. It was during the tenure of Society President Alexander Graham Bell and editor Gilbert H. Grosvenor (GHG) that the significance of illustration was first emphasized, in spite of criticism from some of the Board of Managers who considered the many illustrations an indicator of an “unscientific” conception of geography. By 1910, photographs had become the magazine’s trademark and Grosvenor was constantly on the search for "dynamical pictures" as Graham Bell called them, particularly those that provided a sense of motion in a still image. In 1915, GHG began building the group of staff photographers and providing them with advanced tools including the latest darkroom.
The magazine began to feature some pages of color photography in the early 1930s, when this technology was still in its early development. During the mid-1930s, Luis Marden (1913–2003), a writer and photographer for National Geographic, convinced the magazine to allow its photographers to use the so-called "miniature" 35 mm Leica cameras loaded with Kodachrome film over bulkier cameras with heavy glass plates that required the use of tripods. In 1959, the magazine started publishing small photographs on its covers, later becoming larger photographs. National Geographic photography quickly shifted to digital photography for both its printed magazine and its website. In subsequent years, the cover, while keeping its yellow border, shed its oak leaf trim and bare table of contents, to allow for a full page photograph taken for one of the month's articles. Issues of National Geographic are often kept by subscribers for years and re-sold at thrift stores as collectibles. The standard for photography has remained high over the subsequent decades and the magazine is still illustrated with some of the highest-quality photojournalism in the world. In 2006, National Geographic began an international photography competition with over eighteen countries participating.
In conservative Muslim countries like Iran and Malaysia, photographs featuring topless or scantily clad members of primitive tribal societies are often blacked out; buyers and subscribers often complain that this practice decreases the artistic value of the photographs for which National Geographic is world-renowned.