How to Become a Wildlife Photographer

Photography is a dream field to get into for many. A lot of us like to take photos, and some of us are quite good at it. Then there are a few of us who are amazing. Photography is a broad field, and while wildlife photography is a niche that can be a wonderful choice for some, it is not ideal for everybody.

Wildlife photographers spend hours out in nature waiting for the perfect shot of an animal, ranging from mammals, to birds, to insects, to fish and marine life. Sometimes the conditions are not ideal, since they might have to be out camping or in harsh weather conditions, plus a lot of the time they need to shoot at night or early in the morning.

The job also requires a lot of patience, since you cannot force an animal to behave the way you would like it to look in the picture. If you are looking to take photographs of a rare species, then you can expect to be in the wild for days or weeks just tracking down the animal.

Having said all this, it can also be enormously rewarding for someone who loves nature and animals, is interested in flora and fauna, and enjoys travel. If that is you, check out the infographic below to find out more about wildlife photography:

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Paul Souders

WORLDFOTO – Owner

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Professional photography is the only “real” job I’ve ever had and the only one I ever wanted. I was the “kid with the camera” all through high school and then college, skipping classes to shoot pictures for my college paper at the University of Maryland. I ate, drank and slept photography. While still in school I got a darkroom job at a small community newspaper outside Washington, DC and was soon promoted to a staff photography position. I shot high school sports, sport news and whatever other feature and business pictures were sent my way. That’s where I learned the tools of my trade.After a few years, I quit and tried freelancing as a news photographer, buying plane tickets on my credit cards and traveling to late 1980’s hotspots like Haiti, Israel and Northern Ireland. I didn’t have the heart for hard news or the business sense to make a living at it, and wound up taking another staff job at the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. It was there, with a moose in my backyard and bald eagles flying over my morning commute, that I fell in love with wilderness and wildlife photography.

After five years, I went back out into the freelance world and have been making a living at it ever since. That’s been 20 years, and in spite of all the changes in the photography market, I’m still able to make a living at this.

My job is sort of split down the middle. If I’m in the office, I spend hours editing and processing images from the field, answering emails, sending camera gear out for repairs and thinking of where I’m going next. It’s the time I spend out in the field that can be magical. I spent six weeks this summer out on my 22-foot boat at the Arctic Circle on Hudson Bay. Those days I woke in my sleeping bag, gulped down a breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee, and set off along the edge of the ice pack, with the boat’s engines running slowly, going no faster than a walk, studying the ice with binoculars hoping to find a polar bear. When I did, and was lucky enough for the bear to come to me, I might have five or ten minutes to photograph a bear in its natural environment before they got bored and wandered off. And then back to the binoculars and more waiting and watching.

I love that I get to spend time alone in some of the most beautiful and wild places left on earth, left to my own devices. I dislike how much of my time I spend in front of my computer, editing images and applying keywords, plus all the mundane tasks like tracking down invoices, trying to find new streams of revenue and worrying about paying the bills.

I wish I’d paid more attention in school. It would have helped enormously to have buckled down and learned Spanish to help with my travels in Central and South America. I am glad that I studied journalism though and that I began my career as a newspaper photojournalist. It got me out shooting every day and learning how to pay attention to my visual surroundings, how to approach people and put them at ease. Even though I spend a lot of time in the wilderness now, those skills still come in handy all over the world.

Advice

Find your voice
Have something to say with your photographs. There’s not much call for one more photographer going out to the same old places and reproducing pictures that have already been shot over and over again. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but I really think it’s critical to being able to having a career. I’m always struggling to find new ways of showing my subjects.

Don’t quit your day job
This is a brutally competitive business and it’s very, very difficult to cobble together any sort of living at it. Having another way to pay your rent is awfully helpful.

Other knowledge is a plus
If you come into the profession with a background in botany or zoology, with a knowledge of animal behavior, you’ve got a huge leg up on the rest of us. It also helps to know the language of the places you plan on visiting, especially if you’re traveling solo like I do.

Find a mentor
Someone who takes an interest in your work and who can help you define what you want to shoot and what you have to say. Enter competitions, in particular the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. It’s a terrific amount of exposure and a way to get your images in front of some of the most discriminating editors in the world.

Joe Capra

Scientifantastic – Owner

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After high school, I attended film school at the University of Southern California, which is where my training began. At USC I learned the basics of film, cameras, and production. It was not until after college that I purchased my first DSLR camera. I then began traveling around to various locations shooting as much as I could. This period is when I knew I was hooked and that I wanted to continue doing this the rest of my life.I had been working a day job at a web design company in Los Angeles when I decided I wanted to use all of my vacation days up and travel to Iceland to photograph and shoot timelapse. So, I took a 17-day solo adventure to Iceland. When I returned home I began editing a video of all the timelapse I shot in Iceland, and after about 6 months of editing I released the video on Vimeo. The video is called Midnight Sun | Iceland. Midnight Sun became a huge viral success now with about 2.2 million views on Vimeo.

The Midnight Sun video is really what started my career in photography, timelapse, and film. After the video was released I got a lot of job offers to shoot on various projects. One of my main clients is Panasonic, who sent me out to Rio de Janeiro and Greenland to shoot some timelapse for them. I have also licensed a lot of footage to various companies including Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic, and many more. I have also shot for a couple TV shows. Shortly after Midnight Sun was released I started my company Scientifantastic.

Most work days are long for me, usually starting before sunrise and going well past sunset, and sometimes well into the night. These long hours do not bother me one bit as this is something I love doing. To capture great footage, you need to be out on location as much as you can and at the most photogenic times. The shooting is only half of the job, the hardest and most time consuming part is when you get back home with all this footage and now you have to organize, process, and render it. This can be tedious and time consuming depending on how much footage you have.

Advice

Practice, practice, practice
Get outside and just shoot. Try different things, experiment, and fail. You can learn a lot from failing. Once you are confident with your skills you need to start getting your work out there. The best place to start is by posting photos on all your social media sites/accounts. Social media is a very powerful tool, and the more people who see your work, the better chances you have of getting hired for a job.

Self-taught vs. formal education
You can go to a photography or film school and learn via traditional education, or you can become self-taught. Although I did go to film school, I found that the most valuable learning experiences came when I was out in the field actually shooting. I suggest grabbing a few books on the basics of photography, and then just go out and shoot as much as you can. Maybe take a couple workshops from popular photographers to push you along.

Use social media to get in
I think one of the fastest ways to get your foot in the door is to share your work on social media. Don’t share every single photo you shoot, only share your best shots. Enter photography contests online. National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, and PDN all offer great contests and assignment challenges. You may also be able to find a mentorship program where you can work alongside a professional.

Charlie Lansche

C.M. Lansche Images – Owner

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I have a BS in Commercial Recreation Management from the University of Utah. I had a career in the ski industry for 16 years, then parlayed that experience into my current career of 17 years in the financial services industry. I work full-time and shoot the images for our business during my off hours.Most days I am out the door before dawn. I have a 50 mile commute from our home in the mountains to my job in the city. I take my camera equipment with me and take ‘the long way’ to work. There are several mountain passes and river corridors that I can route through on the way to and from work. I put in a full day at work, shoot before and after, then edit images into the night. I spend about an hour a day on our social media presence. I miss dinner a lot. In addition to my contributions to the business, my wife is my partner and runs the production and sales portion of the business. She works (ie. volunteers her time) almost full-time managing orders, consignment exhibits, production, and bookkeeping.

I am passionate about being out in the beautiful terrain and open spaces. I am also absolutely intrigued with the ebb and flow of the patterns of wildlife, from the big game, to the smallest birds, their rut seasons, migration patterns and the dynamics of their relations. I am also fascinated by weather and light and how it changes and affects landscapes. I would love to be able to spend my work days doing photography, but that is not in the cards for me at this time.

My photography ‘career’ to date has been a learning curve. Part of the fascination of this business for me is the technical learning and mastering the tools to capture and create the art. My wife and I would like to know the secret to selling photography, it remains a big mystery. There are many avenues and all are very challenging.

Advice

Learn the equipment
To be a good wildlife photographer one must really understand how to operate your camera and be willing to spend long hours in harsh conditions and in-climate weather. It is important to invest in high-quality telephoto glass, like a 200mm or greater zoom. Also, a wildlife photographer must expect to be very patient, yet be ready to act in a split second.

Understand your subjects
Understanding wildlife and the anticipation of their behavior is key to good wildlife photography. It is only learned by being out with wildlife, learning about the animals, and experiencing their seasons.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Wildlife Photographer?


There are no requirements to become a wildlife photographer. You do need to take amazing and sellable pictures though. How you learn to do that is up to you. So that gives you a few options.

You can be a self-taught photographer, which means learning online, through photography books, playing around with your camera, lighting, gadgets, and overall exploring on your own. It might also mean learning from someone you know or work with, who already knows what they are doing. The other obvious option is taking photography classes. This can be done to complement your self-teaching process, as a college certificate or diploma, or for a full degree from a university or college.

There are pros and cons to every path. Of course, university is very expensive and might not actually be necessary for you to become a great photographer. However, it does give you the opportunity for networking and allows you to take a minor in biology or animal behavior, which will help you in your work. On the other hand, having less structured education and more time to practice could be better for some, especially those of us who do not do as well in formal education.

If you do choose to go to a photography school, but already know you would like to specialize in wildlife photography, then take a look at the location and professors. Is there anyone there who specializes in this? Also, does the location allow you to do wildlife shoots on the weekends or in the mornings before class?

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER?

If you are looking to become a wildlife photographer, the university location is almost as important as the quality of the program, since you will need opportunity for shooting in nature. We chose our sample list of top schools with this in mind.

  • University of Arizona
    This school in Tucson, Arizona offers students a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art program with an emphasis on Photography, teaching theory as well as techniques. Students also have the choice of taking a non-emphasis program to get a more general outlook on studio arts. In-state tuition is $4,788 per year plus fees and an average of $12,551 for out-of-state.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
    Located in Richmond, Virginia, VCU is well-known for many of its programs, including photography. It offers students a well-rounded education on the subject, as well as hands-on experience through a Capstone project to be completed during graduating year. Average tuition here is $9,877 per year for in-state students and $26,736 for out-of-state.
  • California Institute of the Arts
    Offering a BFA and an MFA in Photography and Media, the California Institute of the Arts focuses their education on exploring different aspects of photography, especially when it comes to artistic expression. The school is located in Valencia, CA. Tuition here is $43,400 per year plus fees.
  • School of the Art Institute of Chicago
    Right on the Great Lakes and opening a door to the America´s midwest, SAIC offers students a BFA and an MFA in Photography. Students are taught in a progressive manner, starting with the basics and having more independent and hands-on courses in senior years. Tuition is an average of $41,430 per year plus fees.
  • Rhode Island School of Design
    This relatively small program, with about 30 undergraduates and 15 graduate students, gives a wide spectrum of photography-related education. It starts with history and theory, moves on to technical aspects, and includes seminars, portfolio projects and internship opportunities in the final years of study. Tuition is $44,284 per year for undergrads.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Wildlife photography is not the easiest industry to get into. There is a lot of competition and a lot of material that is already available, so your work has to be outstanding to become successful in the field. Patience and perseverance are the two qualities you are likely to need, and most photographers in the field recommend having a supplementary income until you are sure you are able to support yourself with photography only.

You will need to take a lot of pictures, and it will probably take some investment to create a portfolio, since you must have proper equipment in order to even get one started. You might also have to do some traveling and cover that yourself, if that is a possibility or the niche you want to get into.

Once you have a portfolio, the first steps would be to send your pictures to agencies and magazines that could be interested in them. One of the main tips from the experts in the field is to participate in competitions for wildlife photographers. Winning an award can give you a lot of visibility, as well as networking opportunities. Also, just by going to the conferences and events associated with the competition, you can tap into a great network of professionals, who can guide you on your way into the industry.

Remember to use online tools that are out there, such as having a website, a Twitter account, Facebook and Instagram, where you can create a following and feature your photos.