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Getting Started in Wildlife Photography

Learn the Basics of Photography

Sweeping nature shots, gorgeous panoramas of giraffes grazing on tall trees, jaguars stalking its prey in the rain forest, and wild goats clinging to Himalayan cliff sides are all made possible through the talents and expertise of wildlife photographers. Great photos that appear in magazines, online and on TV aren’t just snapped by random passers-by on their cellphones but are rather the results of years of training in wildlife photography.

A successful wildlife photographer will have a natural flair for composition and a fluid command of the camera. But, turning those skills into beautiful shots that individuals are willing to pay for, requires a whole new level of mastery. You must understand the concepts involved, learn to build and maintain an ever-more-impressive portfolio, attain industry connections, and make time for continuing education.

Depending on an individual’s current level of expertise, he or she may choose to begin a wildlife photography career with formal photography training; either in a university setting or through a community college or arts institute. Online courses and apprenticeships are also possibilities. While in school, students have access to other types of classes, like zoology or animal behavior, which may help a prospective photographer better understand animal behavior. Obtaining this added knowledge may also make it easier to catch animals in their natural environments.

Moreover, aspiring photographers must develop the skills involved in shooting objects in motion. Blur photography is very different from taking pictures of people – who will willingly pose – and objects, which are stationary. While you can certainly take pictures of animals resting or sleeping, it’s more common to see them in action: pouncing on prey, running across fields or swimming amongst coral reefs. Capturing these moments with clarity requires a high degree of skill. As your abilities develop, you should start to incorporate blur photography, which is accomplished by slowing down the shutter speed.  This is an indispensable skill if you plan to photograph animals in the wild.

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Develop Fundamental Photography Skills

Get Comfortable Working Outdoors

Wildlife photography, like other types of photography, is an art. Like any art, it relies heavily on technique and practice. Sure, some level of innate talent is involved, but research into success and mastery has repeatedly proven that knowledge and consistent application are much more important than natural qualities. 

Courses are readily available at two-year and four-year colleges, universities and private art schools. Training is also available through certificate programs. And, as with any chosen field, programs in photography vary. Certificate programs offer a basic background in photography. Associate degree programs combine general education courses with electives in nature or wildlife photography.  At this level, a few courses available may include, color and black and white photography, two- and three-dimensional imaging, and digital editing. 

If you decide to go on and earn a bachelor’s degree in photography, you may have the opportunity to choose a concentration in wildlife photography. A bachelor's program builds on what was learned previously and may include coursework in lighting and landscape options, media law and ethics, and portfolio marketing and management. A master's degree usually takes an additional two years to complete, but often offer the flexibility to choose wildlife photography as a specialty. The coursework is extensive, but with a little hard work, a thesis project, and independent study options, graduates are well on their way to securing a career in this amazing field. Regardless, prior to choosing a school, decide on career goals, and look for a program that matches your needs.

The basic set of skills you’ll learn include developing an ability to control for different lighting conditions, adjusting shutter speeds and aperture to adapt to different animals and situations, and a basic knowledge of Photoshop and other software programs like Affinity Photo, Pixir, and Acorn that allow you to adjust and edit your photos to bring them to life.

However, it isn't only technical skills you'll want to develop to be successful in this career. Wildlife photographers are often in the wild, which means you must have a basic set of skills to enable you to thrive during long, harsh, chilly, and hot expeditions. "Survival skills" might include the ability to communicate with native inhabitants, pack your gear and personal belongings securely and effectively, and to be patient while waiting for conditions to improve and animals to appear.

From there, you will build your portfolio, which requires an understanding of client’s needs. In some cases, you may build different portfolios for different clients – for example, individual collectors or magazines versus wildlife preservation organizations. At this point, it is wise to acquire some business smarts so that you can market your work effectively and for a fair price.  Researching the market, and keeping tabs on trends is imperative.

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Build a Portfolio & Market Yourself

Learn the Business Side of Photography

Becoming successful in the wildlife photography field depends on a few factors: your ability to take great shots, a stellar portfolio with dozens of spectacular shots, and a list of people who can help you achieve success. 

There are a few people who can help. Magazines and websites specializing in photography may pay you for beautiful shots, as will wildlife and conservation organizations. In some cases, you may be kept on a retainer or even become a member of the staff. The best way to build these connections is to send emails with proof of your work or links to your website, and query the appropriate individuals. 

Private clients may also be interested in your work. These are, of course, more difficult to find, as most collectors handpick the work they sponsor rather than advertising their needs. As such, you must make those people come to you. That means a fabulous website and a fabulous portfolio, and featuring your photos on social profiles, like Shutterstock, iStock, and BigStock that buy photos and showcase them on their sites for purchase. Be warned, however, it is very hard to make a living this way. 

You can also reach out to bloggers, freelance journalists, or documentarians who might have need of still shots. And, while video requires a different set of skills, having knowledge in this area may also help land a job or gain a new client.

Get to Know Our Experts

Paul Souders

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    WORLDFOTO
  • Where:
    Seattle, WA
  • Experience:
    30 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    Scientifantastic
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    11 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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 | IcelandMidnight 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 GeographicOutdoor 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

  • Title:
    Owner
  • Company:
    C.M. Lansche Images
  • Where:
    Oakley, UT
  • Experience:
    3 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.