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So You Want To Be A Professional Wildlife Photographer?

Part One

© Michael Furtman

There is little doubt that the maturation of digital photography has fueled the growth of wildlife photography. Never in the history of cameras have so many people been afield with equipment sophisticated enough to capture professional quality images. I suspect that the recently ended economic “boom times” also fueled that growth. I routinely see amateurs afield with equipment once relegated only to professionals. Some have an array of lenses and bodies that make my own stash of gear look anemic by comparison. 

Wildlife photography is fun. It is addictive. And as these newcomers to the field start to accumulate some excellent images, they also begin to wonder how to see their work in print. 

I teach photography. I also have a well visited website. Consequently I get a fair number of students whose goal is to become professionals, and get numerous emails from others who are seeking advice on how to break into the field. 

Although I’m not going to share with you all the advice I provide my paying students, I thought I’d give you a brief outline of how the system works, including some do’s and don’ts. 

Getting Your Work In Front of Buyers 

Most wildlife photos aren’t sold as prints, but are sold to publications (magazines), book publishers, calendar companies and advertising firms. There are no shortcuts in getting your work in front of these clients. You must find out who the art directors are, you must find out how they like work submitted to them, and you must follow those guidelines carefully. You must treat them as professionals, and in return, demand to be treated as a professional. Building these kinds of business contacts can take years. Taking photos is easy by comparison. 

You can also contract with a “real” stock photo agency to represent your work. By “real” stock agency, I mean one that values your work, adheres to industry standards for pricing, and treat you and other photographers with professional respect. These agencies, though, are VERY difficult to get into unless you already have a very large library of images, and you're well established in the industry.

Such agencies will examine your files, select the ones they think they can sell, and put them into their system. These agencies are sort of a “one-stop-shopping” location for art directors. They can search the database for the images needed, without contacting multiple photographers.

Stock agencies may demand exclusive rights to your images. That means that they, and they alone, can sell them for you. Under such an arrangement, you may not sell those same images on your own. Other agencies are more flexible. All agencies take a share of the sale – usually about fifty percent. While this seems high, stock agencies are often much better at selling your images than you will be, and also tend to demand top dollar for images. In other words, your fifty percent may be pretty close to what you would have negotiated on your own, and any reasonable sale is better than no sale. Your agency has access to editors and art directors that you may never gain. 

And, of course, you can do both simultaneously. You can sell your images on your own, and also have some of your images at a stock agency. This is the way I operate. 

Pricing Your Images 

Most magazines will have a set rate for the images they purchase, often based on how large the image runs. A full page pays more than a half page, a half page more than a quarter, etc. I don’t quite understand how this system came about, since the image is the same no matter the size, but that’s just the way it works. A few of my clients have a flat rate for photos, no matter the size. Magazines buy non-exlcusive, one-time rights. That means that they get to use your photo one time, and you are also free to sell it elsewhere. However, you will ruin your relationship with the magazine if they see that same photo in a competitor’s publication any time near the publication of their own. 

There is little room for negotiation with magazines. You know their rates going into the transaction, so if you don’t think they are adequate, then don’t submit images to them. Larger publishers generally pay better rates than small ones. National magazines better than regional magazines. Regional better than local. You get the idea. 

There often is room for negotiation with book publishers and certainly with advertising firms. How you price your work is sometimes subjective. How big is the publisher? How many copies of the book will be printed? What kind of ad is the photo going to appear in? Print? Billboard? Truck or bus wrap? For how long do they want the use of the photo? Do they want exclusive rights (they and they alone can use that photo for the duration of the contract), or non-exlcusive rights (they can use the photo, but you can also sell it elsewhere). All of these factors need to be taken into consideration.  


Some of the agencies to stay away from -- the largest and most popular - are Shutterstock, iStockPhoto, and Adobe Stock, athough there are others. What they all have in common is that they are not true photo agencies, but simply aggregators of images. They charge a fee to publishers for access to your (and many other's) images, but pay the photographer as little as 25 cents per sale.      

The marketplace has been flooded by free and cheap photos by amateurs whose only desire is to see their name in print. Aided by the internet, unscrupulous “stock agencies” have duped many people into virtually giving them their best images, which they sell for a pittance. Most of these images are only “OK”, often good enough for small publishers who don’t really give a damn about quality anyway. Some images, though, are very good, and could demand a fair price. However, that’s not how this system works. You upload images, these agencies stockpile them, buyers subscribe to download images, the agencies make the money, and they send you chump change. 

These images have almost destroyed the calendar business as a means of income for professional photographers, and are eating into the advertising and magazine markets.

Royalty free stock agencies virtually give away photographer’s work, and pay them peanuts, and the whole system is set up to make money for the agency and the agency alone. They count on you being uniformed that a real stock agency may have sold your photo to an advertising firm for $500, and sent you $250! They count on you being a chump. And fortunately for them, there are thousands and thousands of chumps out there, willing to upload their best images and give them away. You can almost hear the owner’s of these companies rubbing their hands together with glee. As W.C. Fields once said, “Never give a sucker an even break, or smarten up a chump.” He’d be so proud of these agencies and their contributors! But you're NOT a chump!! You worked hard for that great image. Don't let them dupe you into giving it away.

For instance, if iWhorePictures sells an image to a magazine for ten bucks, and gives you fifty cents, you have just missed out (or stolen from another photographer) perhaps as much as a couple HUNDRED dollars. Sure, small magazines my have paid only fifty bucks for that image, but depending upon the size at which the image ran, and the size of the publication (by circulation), it might possibly have been as much as a thousand! But whether it is fifty dollars or a thousand, the point is that both are substantially more than what the royalty free stock agency would give you. By contributing to this charade, you enrich the few, while robbing from the working photographers of the world. 

If you want to be a professional photographer – part-time, full-time, whatever – then treat the business as a business. Demand respect for your time and effort, and demand respect for the time and effort of those other photographers against whom you compete! When you give your work away for little or no pay, you insult yourself and your competitors. 

Sure, there’s a time to donate a photo or two. Every professional photographer has a non-profit or other worthy cause to which they donate work or time. But we both know that’s not what I’m talking about.  

Amateur vs. Professional

I frequently run into wildlife photographers with top of the line gear who do it as a hobby or sideline. They're dentists, or corporate executives, or whatever. They can and do take photos as nice as mine. So what's the difference between a professional and an amateur?

Becoming a pro isn’t so much about what gear you own, or whether you have another job and do photography on the side. Being a pro is about the quality of your work and the knowledge that ANY work, well done, has value, and should be rewarded commensurately. While the price you get for an image may be based in part on the publisher’s ability to pay (size matters!), always, always, always get something reasonable for your image. Set a minimum price for your work. Maybe it’s $125. Maybe you’ll bend that a little if the magazine is one you’d like to work with, or is a start-up short on funds. But if they offer you nothing, or an amount so paltry as to not buy a pizza and a six pack, walk away. With your head up.  

Because that’s what a real professional would do.

And for goodness sake, if you personally don't NEED the money, and giving your photos away to these whore agencies merely feeds your ego, please think about what you're doing to those working photographers who do need the income. A hundred bucks may be peanuts to you. It might be a much needed new pair of shoes to others.

If you find that you still need to give your work away, please do it in your profession, not mine.


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