Some of my photos on covers:
So You Want To Be A Professional Wildlife Photographer?
I am constantly amazed by the number of people who contact me from around the world asking advice about how to become a professional wildlife photographer. It must seem like an awfully attractive profession!
It is an attractive profession. But it isn’t an easy one. In addition to the advice I gave in Part One, I’d like to expand my comments a bit to answer some of the more recent inquiries I’ve received. Let’s start with a checklist of those things that are essential to generating income from your photography.
First, you must have the skills to capture good images. Notice I said good. You do not have to be the world’s best photographer to make a living at it, but your images must at least meet professional standards – properly exposed, sharp, and nicely composed. Take some time to compare your images to those you see in print. Go to the library or a newsstand and page through the magazines that carry the types of images you hope to sell. Are your images as good as those? If not, you have some work to do. You may need to hire an instructor, attend a school that teaches photography, or learn to perfect your skills by reading, and then practicing what you read. There are no shortcuts. You must master your camera.
Notice I said to compare your images to those you see in print. Why? Because comparing your images to someone on Flickr means nothing. You need to see what the art directors of those magazines actually PURCHASE. Every magazine is different. Every art director has his or her own preferences. The best judge of your work will always be these photo editors. Just because your friends compliment your photos doesn’t mean they’re good. Just because you get “Likes” on Facebook doesn’t mean you’re ready to jump into the marketplace. Be brutally honest in your critique of your work. You have to be, because the photo editors at ad agencies and magazines are going to be even more critical.
By studying what is actually published, you’ll get a real feel for what the market demands. For instance, most amateurs, even really good ones, think the only good wildlife photograph is one in which the critter fills the frame. While these photos are saleable for ID type shots – such as in bird book – by studying what editors buy, you’ll often notice that they do not want tightly shot photos. They like to have space around the subject, often to insert text or graphics. Many a sale has been lost because the image was shot TOO tightly. This is just one example of the kind of thing you can learn by actually studying images in print.
This is an example of leaving space in the image so that the art director can insert text.
A word here on cropping. Do not crop your images. The photographs you see in magazines were shot pretty much the way you see them. Editors don’t go into the middle of an image and crop out the bird. They may crop an image ten or twenty percent to fit the space on the page, or they may enlarge it the same amount. But the point is, “cropping” takes place in the camera – you shoot the photo the way you want it to look – you compose it in-camera. If you want a full frame shot of the animal, you shoot it that way. If you want it as part of the surroundings, you shoot it that way.
Second, you need good equipment. The camera body does not have to be a professional one. Even the entry level dSLRs are capable of taking professional images. But you do need high quality lenses, and those are often expensive. A wildlife photographer needs at least a 400mm lens to make a living. As I’ve stated in my lens reviews elsewhere on this website, you simply cannot get professional results without buying professional lenses. Every craftsman knows you need good tools. Photography is no different. Your lens is the most important piece of equipment you will own. What good is spending hours outdoors, days traveling to a location, and the money spent to do this, if the images are not as sharp as your competitors? You are far better off spending your money on a quality lens (and that means Canon or Nikon pro lenses) and photographing in your back yard.
Third, you must photograph nearly every day. You should go nowhere without your gear. You must amass a library of quality images, each and every one suitable for publication. You must have a library that contains thousands of species of plants, insects, birds, reptiles and animals – and the photographs of the landscapes and habitats they live in. While I am not a “landscape” photographer per se, I do sell many landscape-type images each year. These are not “art” landscapes, but images of wildlife habitat because many articles in magazines deal with conservation of species, and they want to show where these animals live.
Gathering this large library of images takes an enormous amount of time and effort. But it is essential. The vast majority of your sales will not be to National Geographic for thousands of dollars per photo, but to smaller publications that will pay less, perhaps $75 to $150 USD per shot. In order to make a living, as you can see, you must sell many images per month. And you can’t do that if your stock library is limited to just a few subjects.
For instance, I just received a very healthy paycheck from a magazine I work with frequently. In that one issue, I had shots of Northern Hawk owls, Red Foxes, and nearly a dozen different songbird species. Many of those songbirds were very secretive forest birds that took years to collect. The owl photos all came from one winter’s work, but I spent weeks over the course of months taking them. The fox photos were also the result of one winter and spring’s concerted effort, also spanning months. Many of the images weren’t your run of the mill profile shots of these species, but shots of behavior – nesting or hunting or flying. You don’t get those kinds of images by sitting on your butt.
One of the reasons I sell as many images as I do is because I have a large library of images. My shots are good. There may be (in fact, there often are) better images “out there.” But editors come to me because they can “one stop shop” – they would rather contact a couple of photographers they know will have very good images and will be able to provide the majority of subjects they need for that issue, than have to contact dozens of different photographers, each of whom may only have one or two of the shots they need. Think about it. Do you go to one store to buy oranges, another store to buy bananas, and a third store to get apples? No. If you can make the photo editor’s life easy by providing him or her with quality work from a single source, then you will succeed.
Third, photograph everything, even common species. You’d be surprised how many of these are needed for advertising, guide books, or for magazines. Exotic species, frankly, don’t sell as well as those that are more common. And for goodness sakes, don’t shoot “rental” animals. Here in the U.S. there are plenty of places that have everything from wolves to bears to mountain lions to deer with enormous antlers that they will allow you to photograph for a fee. They have them in wild looking settings, or will move them to an attractive location for the photographer. Photographers who try to pass themselves off as “wildlife” photographers, but spend their time shooting rental animals will find it will come back to haunt them. It has ruined several photographers’ reputations when editors, or viewers, found the whole thing was staged.
FOURTH, NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY IS A BUSINESS. You must treat it as such. Most photography sales will be to editors of magazines, and they are busy people. If they need an image of a particular bird species, and email that request to you, they expect a quick response. If they don’t hear back from you, they will simply pass you over and contact someone else. They work on deadlines, and they don’t have the time to wait. This means that even if you have another job, you must frequently check your email, and be ready to respond. Being a professional photographer is more than just producing professional quality images. You must act professionally in every aspect.
While I do use a stock photo agency (Windigo Images), I sell most of my work myself. Over the years, I’ve developed contacts at many magazines and book publishers. I routinely contact them and ask what images they are looking for, or to propose photo essays. I ask that, if they have one, I be put on their “want list” which is usually an email they send out to a list of photographers with their photo needs for an upcoming magazine issue. Like any other business, it takes time to develop a list of clients. Again, there are no shortcuts.
If you don’t have time to market your images, you must find someone who will, such as a reputable stock photo agency. I've compiled a list HERE. I talked about this in Part One, but let me reiterate: do not give your images to such horrible royalty-free online stock photo agencies like iStockPhoto. They are ripping you off. They are set up only to make money for themselves, not you. And by paying aspiring amateur photographers next to nothing, yet amassing a library of these photographers' often quite good images, they are severely impacting the business of working photographers. If you value your time, if you value effort, if you have any pride in your work at all -- or admiration for the images taken by struggling working photographers -- you will not trade that for a credit-line in a magazine simply to stroke your ego, or assist the destruction of our industry, by using these scam agencies. Here's a list of those agencies.
I frequently get asked about how to find a trustworthy stock photo agency. Here in America, there are many “real” stock photo agencies, and I often suggest that those interested in working with one of them start by asking other pro photographers who they use, and how happy they are with the results. There really isn’t any other way to do this. Since many of the inquiries I get come from outside of the U.S., I’m at a loss to give sound advice. I assume, but don’t know for sure, that there are similar agencies elsewhere in the world. I would suggest to those of you who’ve written to me from Africa and Asia that you do the same – ask working photographers in your area how they market their images, and if they use a stock agency, and if they do, ask them how happy they are with the arrangement.
I should also mention that just about every professional photographer I know generates a good share of their income from sources other than photo sales to publications. They sell a few prints. They give photography lessons, or do workshops. The do assignment photography (this is when a company or publication hires you for a specific photo shoot). They write articles for magazines. You need to be versatile to be successful.
If all of this sounds a bit daunting, it is. I don’t mean to dash anyone’s dreams of earning an income from their photography. But it is a tough business, and it demands hard work. You need to pause and think hard whether or not you can invest the time and effort it demands. There will be some very lean times as you start up, and even lean times once you’re established. However, if you are able to make a living at it, you will find it very rewarding.
I think most people dream of living a life free of pain-in-the-butt bosses, free of the boredom of the daily office or factory routine, and realize that they are truly happy when out photographing nature. After a wonderful day outdoors, and while looking at their photographs that evening, they begin to wonder "can I make a living doing this?" I suspect that it is at this point, some of them have written to me for advice.
This article is my answer to that. Being in nature gives me great joy, which is why I chose many years ago to become a nature writer and photographer. If, after reading this, you think you can do all of the above, then indeed, you may be able to make a living, or at least contribute extra income, from your photography.
I’ll be rooting for you, even if you compete with me. Good luck.
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