I'm interested in becoming a professional wildlife photographer. How can I start?

I know there’s been mentions in other topics that this is a difficult job to get, but I’d like to maximize my chances. Are there photography contests I can enter, or magazines that might take my pictures? Is there any chance of success in these without a gigantic, 2,000-dollar camera? I’m currently almost 14, living in Washington state. Thanks for any advice.

8 Likes

From what I’ve heard from photographer that gets money from tours and competitions, you’d want to find a mentor photographer that will teach you both shooting and editing, you don’t need 2k$ camera, but you will need to get your own gear and it will cost more than that, as I know when they shoot for magazines they’re getting gear from them, but it probably applies to only top tier lenses, base you should have by your own, and to be noticed you have to be extraordinary. If of course you’re asking about nature photography, to photograph e.g. people it’s easier to get in profession.

3 Likes

I am by no means a professional photographer but I started talking photos when I was around your age and to this day it’s still my favourite hobby. The best advice I can give is to get out and take lots of photos of different things at different times of day but then to spend time critically looking back at your photos and asking yourself how you can make the shot better next time. The biggest thing that most people fail to realize is that it’s not about the price of the camera, or the equipment you have, it’s all about your composition. There are a plethora of online articles with great tips about technique and using different equipment but until you can compose a shot in a way that is visually appealing everything else will be useless. The other thing I would say is to never give up. If you really want to be a pro photographer, put in the effort and hard work and you can be a pro photographer. Good luck on your photographic journey!

10 Likes

I imagine art classes are a good place to start. If you are considering college, you may want to consider a school with a photo journalism course and a good art department. School can be a good way to make some contacts and connections.

I’ve met a few wildlife photographers who made money selling prints and greeting cards at craft fairs and farmers’ markets and local galleries. One artist was a teenager, but his grandfather was a professional photographer who was coaching him and lending equipment, providing local gallery introductions, etc. I bought 3 of his photos as museum wraps, and I still love them.

I think that strategy may turn out to be an expensive startup, in terms of acquiring equipment, high-end print production, stall rental, maybe commissions paid to galleries or online markets like Etsy, etc. With online sales like Etsy, at least you only need to print on demand. I would imagine the hourly wages are fairly low, especially in the beginning. If you add up all the hours in the field, photo processing, transportation to and from fairs and attending a stall (besides time needed for administration, doing accounting, taxes, etc.); then divide those hours by income, the hourly wage may be kind of low. And, after subtracting business expenses, it might not make you wealthy.

2 Likes

This artist is a pretty successful photographer in Seattle and she is nice. I met her on a cruise to Alaska a few years ago. The cruise line hired her to teach nature photography on the cruise.

https://nataliefobes.photography/about

2 Likes

On the side you have the most control over the two most important things are learning the capabilities and limitations of the gear you do have and learning how to do good post-processing.

You can take excellent photos with pretty much any gear, but you can’t take all types of photos with all types of gear. Learn what your gear can do, where its strengths are, and work with that.

You always need to have a good photo as your foundation, but the difference between a good photo and an outstanding one is often in the post-processing (eg, color correcting, dynamic range adjusting, cropping, etc). Every single photo you’ve seen in National Geographic, or any other high end nature magaing (or documentary), has a lot of post processing done on it. It’s always astounding to me how different the footage is when I see the raw images from the camera when I’m working with documentary film crews compared to the final product.

Learn post processing inside and out. This means taking your photos in RAW format as much as you can.

It does not mean making radial changes to the photo, indeed that will disqualify you from most nature photos venues, but it still does mean a lot of adjustments, teaks, etc.

After that, you have to get your images out there where people can see them. Instagram, Flickr, Smugmug, etc for the social media side. Join groups, etc.

An enormous part of nature photography is knowing the habits of your subjects well. Practice writing articles and such about them, illustrated with your photos. Try to take photos that tell a story, that tell the viewer something about the subject more than just what it looks like. Try submitting articles to local media outlets that have that sort of thing, or keep a nature blog (even if it’s private to start off with), or submit to other nature blogs.

Once you have some practice and can regularly and reliably get good photos, offer some of the mfor use to local conservation organizations, land trusts, etc, people who might have a non-commercial use for them. If they like them, then let them know that you’re available to help out and document activities, take special photos, etc.

If you do talk with conservation (etc) organizations about photography, remember many of the people in this field are already pretty good photographers and that they get flooded with requests, so don’t act like you’re doing them a favor. Establish communication far in advance, ask what you can do to help, etc.

Photo contests are, in general, not a good way to go. The vast majority of them are scams where you pay a bunch of money to enter and no-one ever sees the photos. There are legitimate contests, but you have to do your homework to find them.

I know a few professional nature photographers as I often work with them as part of my conservation work. All of them are freelance, some of the videographers are proper employees, but even most of them are freelance to. All of them struggled for years to decades before being able to find regular and reliable work in the field, and even after getting to that point it’s erratic work and often they have to pick up side jobs to make ends meet (or rely on the steady jobs their partners have).

It can be done, but don’t expect for it to be a ‘job’ for a long time, so if you’re really interested in this, start early.

And yes, over time you will need to build up a pool of your own gear, and that gets expensive fast, so think carefully and deliberately about four first major purchase as that will often lock you into a particular gear path that’s difficult to break and may wind up being very limiting as your skill-set improves.

8 Likes

Welcome to the forum!

1 Like

While you can definitely take great photos with point-and-shoot or bridge cameras, as far as I know professional photographers all use either DSLR or mirrorless because of the lens quality and ability to take RAW images (which have more information and give a lot more editing options).

As others have said, editing (people usually use Lightroom but darktable is a decent free alternative) and getting your images out there on social media are important.

I would highly recommend applying for the North American Nature Photography Association’s high school or college photography programs: http://www.nanpa.org/learning/grants-and-scholarships/
Unfortunately I’m not sure if they’re happening this year but hopefully in the future.
I did the high school program a few years ago and it was amazing. You spend a week with some amazing experienced nature photographers as mentors, and with some of the most promising young photographers as fellow students. It’s perfect for making connections and getting advice, everyone was eager and open. The people leading it are career photographers so they know what the challenges are and it’s really valuable to get advice from them in person.

9 Likes

Oh, you could use your iNat journal for practice and aim for observation of the week!

5 Likes

I don’t know about how to become a professional, but at each step in taking a photo there are a lot of things to learn. The camera is one thing, but oddly, one of the least important. Lenses are also important, especially optically good lenses. There is a difference between good and excellent, and that difference is harder to discern. The main things when taking a picture are f-stop, film (ISO) speed, shutter speed, and as mentioned above, composition. The faster a film is, the more grainy it will be, so it will loose more detail on enlargement. Speed is important if you want to capture fast movements. Once you have a photo you want, then there is the whole post picture editing process, something I know little about in digital terms. I mainly just crop and adjust brightness, since most of my photos are for iNat. There are also filters for lenses, and ‘filters’ for editing (there actually are filters for film processing, but that’s a whole other thing). It’s complicated - best advice is to buy a decent camera and lens, start to take pictures and learn how to process them, and move up (or down) from there.
EDIT I grew up taking and developing B&W photos, so I’m old school. Also I was never great at composition. And as @upupa-epops says, a DSLR seems like the best camera option.

3 Likes

I know there’s a whole controversy over whether giving your photos a way is bad for your career, but I’ll point out smaller organizations (botanical gardens, etc.) are happy to receive free photos. I’m not even that good of a photographer (certainly not on my iNat obs lol) but my arboretum sold a calendar of my photography as a fundraiser, and another time printed a bunch of my photos and hung them in their museum gallery. I’ve also done photography for their social media accounts; a word of caution on that regard, the photos will wander away and end up in unexpected places—local news articles, website headers, etc—and they will not credit you.

3 Likes

I would try to collect what you consider to be your very best nature images into one album. Either one album for each year, or one for each season of the current year. And/or one album for “best ever”.

These will come in handy when you want to show your work to someone who may be able to coach you. And they will also help you by showing you whether you are improving as the years go by.

Also I would consider saving some great photos taken by others and doing your best to analyze those photos, trying to work out what makes them so special.

Bear in mind that some photographers specialize in landscape shots, other in close-ups taken in the field, and still others in studio shots where the organism is taken indoors, where the lighting etc can be manipulated for best results.

You don’t have to be fabulously good in all those different areas of expertise.

8 Likes

For things like wildlife photography I’d say the best way to improve is to just do it, and learn from your experiences (successes and failures).

A great first start is to be down with the prospect of potentially having to lug your equipment and trekking long distances in search for a particular insect that only inhabits a certain patch of tress up in the mountains, or probably having to be extremely patient and wait long periods of time to wait for a certain bird to perch on the right branch. Overall the welfare of your subjects should always be in your mind.

Then you will need to be familiar with the equipment you have in your hand, and I believe this only can come from continuously taking pictures and being critical of your own work. Through this then you will know what sort of camera settings works best under certain lighting/weather conditions, to your liking.

I also find having something like keeping a blog, or an instagram page, I also helpful, so you can keep track of your progress.

8 Likes

If you’re only 14, it might be a little early to specialize, but one of the things that can help you stand apart from the crowd is finding a specific niche to focus on. Everybody does birds, flowers, and large mammals. It’d be hard to stand out if that is your chosen subject matter. High magnification close-ups on insects has been done more frequently in more recent years, but it kind of illustrates what I’m getting at: it’s a new scale, and a way of looking at them that we do not get with just our eyes. Some other ideas along the same lines are long exposure photos of bioluminescent organisms or photographing UV fluorescent species under blacklight, that sort of thing. But at 14, you have plenty of time to experiment, develop technique, and find what interests you. Also, as with any hobby, you don’t need to start with the very best, most expensive equipment. Start small and work your way up. You don’t have to start by competing with Nat Geo photographers either. By all means, enter contests when you find them, but a local gallery, if you have one, might be a good first step, or making postcard prints of your photos.

7 Likes

Think of yourself as an artist. Develop your skills and techniques, and aim to do so in a way that is unique and characteristic of yourself. Think Monet, Banksy, etc… A style or theme that makes your life’s work in its entirety have more impact than just the individual works, as it were.

And subject material… The most amazing nature photography is so because it is capturing imagery that is not readily accessible to the audience. The most iconic photos are not always highly crafted photography… Think of “earthrise” as an example… The power can be in where you find yourself… So don’t overlook the importance of getting yourself out and into as unusual environments as possible. Of looking at places differently than other people… Network at every opportunity, join groups, send out tendrils into the world as widely as you can, and some of those tendrils will find purchase into the most amazing opportunities…

3 Likes

in terms of equipment, i think i would prioritize a computer with a great monitor, decent editing software, good/fast memory cards, a cheap tripod, and maybe even some cheap portable lighting, over a great camera. i actually think it’s worth starting on a smaller, cheaper camera (with some RAW and manual control options). it should take good enough photos in most situations, and it will provide enough technical stuff to learn about when you’re just starting off. you’ll also probably be less worried about getting a cheap camera wet or dirty, which i think is important if you’re still learning how to get just the right shot. once you have more experience and understand more where you want to take your photography, then you can spend more money on better, more specialized equipment.

if you really want to be a professional in the future, i think it’s important to figure out ways to start earning money as soon as possible (now). you could start selling photos on one or more stock photo sites like Shutterstock. from that, you’ll force yourself to consistently take a lot of different photos, learn what people are buying, and you’ll see what your competitors are offering, too. there’s no shame in seeing good photo for sale and figuring out how to take a similar shot. you could also sell services like photo editing or photographic services on a service like Fiverr. that kind of thing will be a grind, but it’s a way to experiment with negotiating with clients, meeting deadlines, marketing yourself, etc. – all important skills for being a professional photographer beyond just knowing how to take and edit a photo.

when you’re older (maybe 16), i would start to look for local photographer mentors, if they exist. they don’t even have to be nature photographers initially. but any working photographer can teach you a lot about gear, technique, and the business of being a photographer. if it’ll pay the bills, there’s nothing wrong with making real money from, say, wedding gigs, to fund a future wildlife photo gig.

and then i would always just keep learning about and experimenting with technology. when i was really, really young, i remember doing several months of work for one of the major companies that used to sell photographic film back in the day. that company managed to survive the transition to digital photography fairly well, but it wasn’t always obvious that it would, and the other photographic film company hasn’t really been a player in photography since those days.

and now, there are smartphones, action cameras, 360 cameras, drones cameras, and video is so easy. in the past, you might have introduced millions of people to an organism or an ecosystem by publishing your photos in a magazine. but a decade from now, that kind of opening of minds at that kind of scale might happen via XR experiences. so if you’re going to treat nature photography as your means of putting food on the table, just make sure you’re positioning yourself to go to where the demand and technology goes in the future.

4 Likes

Update: Natalie also teaches photo processing workshops in the Seattle area. Perhaps consider attending a workshop on wildlife photography and photo processing, if that could be a possibility for you.

https://nataliefobes.photography/#/workshops/

Or, maybe, after reading and thinking about all the great advice above, formulate some good questions and ask her for an informational interview. Here are some ideas, but it may be better to develop your own, if possible:
https://www.livecareer.com/resources/interviews/questions/information-interview.

FWIW, My impression was she is quite a nice woman.

2 Likes

Hello Mara!

As a (not pro) nature photographer, I was asking the same things you do, but when I was 20. I talked with some outstanding Chilean photographers that I admire very much, and there was something that they said in common, and that I keep seeing as the years passed and I discover more nature photographers: “to take great photographs of nature, you need to know your subject.” For this example, let’s say animals, the more you know, the more you understand, research or observe, the best are your chances of obtaining a great and (in many cases) different photo versus other photographer that don’t know anything about that subject.

After that, I decided to study Environmental Biology (changing careers in college), as what I wanted to do was to photograph (and now film) wildlife, and I wanted to know them as much as I can. I also love animals, ecology and spending time doing field work, so the activities merge really well.

I’m not saying that you should study this or that, but no matter if at some point you decide another career and want to keep pushing to nature/wildlife photography, read about them, observe, study and then you’ll be able to get a little closer to it (not physically speaking, hehe).

Also as a trend I’ve noticed among some known photographers—and also checking NatGeo list of photographers profiles—that some careers come to mention very often:
biologist, veterinary, zoologist, journalist, geographer, botanist, ecologist, etc.
Then you add “and photographer/filmmaker/documentarist”.

Studying photography is important, I think it’d be great to take some courses formally (I’m self-taught), but consider if you like any of these too and you can complement very well both things :wink:

I hope this can be useful to you, happy to help with more info if I can :grin:

4 Likes

I’ve been semi-pro for many years so have been watching the profession and asking the same question to myself. There are a lot of ways to do it. You can find your own path.

What others have said about being skilled with computers and photo editing software is true. You can’t really “just” take pictures these days (until maybe after you become a top pro and have assistants and trainees). And, there is knowing about wildlife and nature—definitely needed to get any good photos that aren’t blind luck. So there is a lot more than just knowing your camera, which you absolutely need to know like it’s part of your body.

You mentioned equipment. Well, to be a pro wildlife photographer, yes, you need good equipment to get photos that people will buy. My camera was $3500, but that’s just a Canon 5Div, which is not top-of-the-line. And there is a big jump between a $2500 telephoto lens (400mm, what I have) and a $10,000 or $20,000 lens (800mm or more). Plus there are a lot of accessories that aren’t cheap. I sell a few photos, but nothing I could live off of. Then again, I don’t do photography full-time.

But anyway—you don’t need these expensive things now. Many photographers spend too much time worrying about their gear when instead they should work on their skill. You still have to be very skilled to make any use of expensive gear. Spend money instead on books about photography and nature and time on learning, like right here on iNaturalist. Take a few hundred thousand photos, process them on the computer, and learn from the experience of each one.

Like others have said, you can take decent photos with a much cheaper camera—they just won’t be that valuable to sell in general. But they can prove that you can take good photos and have skill. You can use them to build a portfolio of your best work, which could be a sort-of ticket to moving up to the pros.

One additional thing not related to anything above that can take you to the professional level is having connections. Meet people through your personality and skill, and they will likely help you with tips, insight, and knowledge about the industry (including jobs). They might even loan you quality equipment and open other doors.

All that being said, luck is a factor. The field of wildlife photography is already extremely competitive, basically like becoming a pro athlete. Most photographers interested in nature end up making money elsewhere, like in stock photography, weddings and portraits, or trying to go into business for themselves. Or they give up and do something else.

One good thing is that photography and nature can be rewarding hobbies your whole life, even if you don’t become a pro. So, go ahead, give it your best. You’ll have that skill you can use for family photos and your own life experiences that will add beauty to your life in the years to come. And there’s a wide definition of “pro” and you can decide what you want to do later. There are a lot of pros who don’t work for National Geographic or BBC Nature. Your skills built in this field can also carry over into other fields. Pursue your interest, but keep in mind you might end up somewhere else—and that’ll be okay, too!

4 Likes

One thing to think about is that there are many similar careers in the field, and that “photographer” isn’t the only option.
For example, I had a friend in high school who was a great musician—guitars, turntables, lots of other things. He was also talented as a visual artist. Anyway, when he grew up, along with doing music and art, his “day job” is as a sound crewman on documentaries. He worked on “Shark Week” as the sound operator. It is one of those jobs that doesn’t sound like much, positioning a microphone so the narrator can speak clearly, but actually takes a lot of skill.

And I am not saying that exactly is your dream job, but the point being, there are a lot of different jobs that might be interesting, other than being a photographer.

3 Likes