The adopted son of James Arness, Craig Aurness grew up on a ranch in Southern California. In the 1970s, he apprenticed with Look magazine photographer Earl Tyson. His first assignment for National Geographic was published in 1978, and he spent the next 10 years traveling around the world, producing seven more National Geographic stories and various books. His work for the magazine received awards for Best Photograph and Best Photo of the Year in the Magazine Pictorial Division from the National Press Photographers Association.
With photographer Charles O’Rear, Aurness founded Westlight stock photo agency, one of the first to focus on the international market. Westlight was sold to Corbis in 1998.