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

@fluffyinca Pardon my curiosity, but I wanted to see what kind of photos you’ve taken already, so I took a look at your iNat profile and obsevations. I noticed your profile mentions you’re particularly interested in birds, and the number of bird observations you have definitely supports that! I just wanted to clarify that just because I said birds are common subject matter doesn’t mean you can’t still stand out if you want to photograph birds. You just have to find your own unique way to be creative with it. In any case, good luck and happy photo hunting!

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… there you have another approach: When I was your age, I was absolutely convinced to become a discoverer and biologist! I had romantic ideas about travelling to Africa and the Amazon! I was expecting the world to be interested in what I was interested. I got heavily into insects and particularly butterflies / moths. A few years later, I had the opportunity to participate in a professional biology rewsearch station in the Swiss Engadin valley. I was climbing trees to set glued insect traps and then I had to inspect them regularly. Terrible glue and killed insects, in all weather, snow, rain, wind and sun…I wasn’t impressed… a lot of routine work, and the whole thing was sponsored by the local tourist organization. They wanted to eliminate the larch budmoth, which causes yellow colored larch trees every 7 years or so, a completely natural phenomenon. My romantic impression of biology was dimmed… For my university study I then decided, not to go for biology, because as a professional biologist in Switzerland I would most likely end up with insecticides, herbicides, fungicides or animal experiments for drug testing. - Professionally, I did something completely different, but I kept my romantic biology as my hobby. And I still do to this day! - Therefore my recommendation: join someone who does professional photography and see if it is really that great a profession. Perhaps, it’s better to have another job which will provide you the money for camera equipment and overseas trips, instead! Think about it!

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Well, you are starting young so that is a great start, and plenty of time to get some momentum with your career. When photographing nature, the #1 rule is Patience. That million-dollar shot will come, you just gotta sit back and let it arrive. Plan ahead of what you want the shot to look like (zoomed in, zoomed out to incorporate landscape, etc.), but in the end, you cannot control the animal, so let the animal “make” the photo, not the other way around.

As for the camera, my humble opinion is that, no, you do not need the absolute top of the line gear. You’ll want great image quality and the ability to zoom a substantial amount, but you can afford both those features at a price less than half of that $2,000 price tag. If someone you know has had a camera a couple years and they’re upgrading, as long as they took great care of the camera then there is no reason to even necessarily buy a brand new camera (for sometimes double the price of selling “used” even if in good condition).

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My son started at age 9. He’s in his forties now and has made his living with nature photography for many years. He started with a decent but not terribly expensive camera, and pretty much taught himself. I remember him offering free slide shows to local nature groups, with photos in the back of the room, for sale. Slowly he built up his work. In his teens he worked for and was mentored by a photographer, but her work was quite different than his. Eventually he started doing small showw, then he joined a co-op gallery, then other galleries.
I’ve heard him urge young photographers to invest time, not money. And not go to school to learn, because then your art looks like everyone else’s. Find your own gift. Best of luck to you!

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That’s good advice too!
I’ve meet a couple of photographers that have commented that, after studying photography formally for one or two years, they feel “less creative” than before, I can’t say that’s something general, but what your son says reminded me that.

I just had a mental image of a thousand bathroom-mirror selfies with the toilet visible.

And that in turn brought to mind the current thread about “Observations Hiding in Other Observations,” which happens in exactly the same way: people get so focused on the subject of the photo, they forget that the camera lens is not selective – it will give equal attention to everything within its field of view.

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This is a subject that I have looked into a fair amount, and I think it is important to understand a couple of things as you consider your career.

First, let’s define the term “professional wildlife photographer.” I assume by that you mean someone who earns the majority of their income from selling their wildlife photographs.

If so, I have some bad news. The reality is that – aside from the handful of photographers who work regularly with National Geographic and a few other organizations – the career path for wildlife photography has really dried up over the last 15-20 years. You can largely blame the digital camera revolution for this. Back in the day, most wildlife photographers would earn their living by selling their photographs directly to magazines, etc. or by selling to “stock” agencies. A stock agency would sell the rights to the use of photographs to ad agencies, magazines, etc. and then pass a sizable portion of that sale on to the photographer that they represented. With the number of photographers who had the skill and equipment needed to get decent images relatively small, those photographers could command a relatively decent sale price for their images. High demand + Small Supply = higher price.

With the digital camera revolution, however, the ability of even amateurs to get decent photographs has skyrocketed and everyone wants to get their work published. Put more simply, the supply of quality photographs available on the market has drastically increased. What happens when supply of a product goes up, assuming demand stays the same? Economics says that the price people are willing to pay goes down. And that is what has happened in wildlife (and many other areas of) photography. As a result, there has been the rise of the so-called “micro-stock” agencies. These agencies have hundreds of thousands of images on demand, many supplied by keen amateurs. But the return to the photographer for any individual sale of their photograph is often literally just a few dollars, if that. It is really hard now to earn a living this way. (I should note, by the way, that this has spilled over into many other areas of photography. Many newspapers have sacked their staff photographers and now rely on images supplied by “citizen journalists.”)

So what to do?

Many folks that we think of as “wildlife photographers” these days actually earn the bulk of their money in other ways. For example, maybe they run guiding or workshop trips where they get their clients to an area with wildlife and then teach them how to get great photographs of the animals. The job in that case is not about you getting a great photo. The job becomes about helping your client get a great photo. That is a big difference. It is still an honorable profession, but it may or may not be something you are interested in. Doing that type of work successfully requires you to be a people person and to enjoy teaching. Is that something you think you would enjoy?

Some wildlife photographers become Youtubers, building a successful channel about their efforts to get photographs and earning money from sponsors and ad revenue. (Ex. Morten Hilmer or Steve Mattheis) But of course, this requires learning video skills, as well as still photography, etc.

And that leads me to my final point, you may want to consider wildlife filmmaking. While difficult to get into, there is definitely still a market for professional wildlife filmmakers. Where do you think all that content from the BBC and NatGeo comes from? And there are even a small handful of college and graduate programs that train would-be filmmakers. Montana State University, for example, has a graduate program in nature and scientific filmmaking.

I am sure that there are many other paths, as well, for how you might combine your love for wildlife photography into some type of career, but I wanted to make sure you understood that when you talk about doing something “professionally” it is about a lot more than the art and skill of taking a photograph. Unfortunately, that polar bear isn’t going to pay you to take his photograph. So you have to start thinking about what path would allow you to combine your love of wildlife photography with the need to put food on the table. There are such paths available, but it requires a lot more than just knowing about f-stops and shutter speeds.

I hope this has given you something to think about.

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On that note, to understand what that would entail, I give you one of my old Facebook posts (December 1, 2016):

I went to Gri Gri Lagoon today. There is a mangrove forest there, with a cattle egret nesting colony, but I didn´t know whether there would be nests at this season. As I was walking along the edge of the colony, suddenly, I was transported into a wildlife documentary. There was a black crowned night heron, and I noticed the way it moved as it climbed the tree – almost cat-like – was it stalking a nest? It was. Before my eyes, it snatched an egret chick, by the head. But the chick was heavy and strong, and struggled free. At the end of the struggle, the chick was dangling from a branch by one foot. Of course there was a great to-do among the egrets; and the to-do attracted a yellow crowned night heron and a vulture – opportunists. The chick eventually struggled back onto the branch and perched there, but I did not see it make any attempt to climb back to the nest. And by that time, I did not see either of the two night herons.
Now, about my reference to a wildlife documentary. One of the criticisms leveled at wildlife documentaries is that they create a false impression of nature´s drama. You see a documentary, and then you go out in nature, and by comparison, it looks like there is nothing going on. You don´t see the long, tedious days the filmmakers spent, the hours of patient boredom punctuated by occasional money shots. After weeks or months, when they finally accumulate 45 minutes worth of money shots, then they send it to editing. All you see is the dramatic moments, which, for some television viewers, can lead to the belief that you could really see all that action in 45 minues out in nature. Not so. My countless hundreds of hours spent immersed in nature have made me keenly aware of just how rare it is to see what i saw today, and how lucky I am. If I had come by that spot just a couple of minutes earlier or later, all I would have seen was a bunch of white birds flapping around in the mangroves.

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