This art form is making a huge comeback in recent times. I’m often surprised at how this is not only a good pastime but still a highly desired profession. One part of photography that doesn’t surprise me as much as traveling and taking pictures of mother nature. As the sun sets beyond the horizon, creating that perfect shot, you become amazed and relaxed all at the same time.
That moment trapped in time, and now in the most popular magazine this side of the indies! However, that is not the reality for most wildlife or nature photographers. It’s hard work, but if you stick it out, you can have more than fun with it. Read on for a few tips.
Table of Contents
How to Get Work as a Wildlife Photographer
- Get to know your trade, take a few beginning photography classes.
- Get some good equipment, as you will need a minimum of 150-200 focal point lens, more for smaller animals.
- Know your wildlife and how to find them, as those rare shots are what pays the most.
- Familiarize yourself with the freelance business model, as most wildlife photographers are freelance workers.
- Develop a marketing plan and strategy for getting your name out there and branding yourself.
- Find a mentor, get someone who knows the trade and all the good spots to shoot.
Since the majority of photographers in this industry are freelancers, this type of entry into the market is the only way. Only after freelance work does career contracts become available to individual photographers.
If you find this to be true as well, don’t get discouraged. My career in a completely different field didn’t take off until I started freelancing. The best part of freelancing professional work is the ability to enjoy the freedom to travel and see the world.
Getting to Know Your Trade
The freelance photography trade can be a lucrative one, however, it is also highly competitive. When first starting out, having a second or main income is highly recommended. This allows you to start your freelance business without a ton of strain and gets you some good photos under your lens before making it big.
Even if you are a well-established photographer, don’t hesitate to take a class at your local college. If you can’t get some direct class time, take an online course.
Picking up a good photography book would also be helpful. Don’t be shy about being self-taught. For example, Joe Capra, a Los Angeles based photographer specializing in ultra high definition (4K – 10K) time-lapse photography, says that he learned more in the field than behind the desk.
Either way, you need to learn your trade and learn it well. Dive into your camera, learn the ins and outs, and how to edit photos after the shots. Once you learn how to take a few good shots and develop your style, learn what your audience likes.
If you don’t have an audience, now is a good time to start building your portfolio.
Get to some local craft fairs or local shops that sell photos. The ones that really stand out and do not appear as overly produced commercial photos are the types of photos you want to look for. Find out what is selling and what types of shots people tend to flock to. You must be involved in your trade to learn it.
Look at everything that you do as an opportunity to take a shot or not, meaning that if you see something that you think is nice, maybe other people will think the same thing. Remember that you’re capturing a moment in time to share with the rest of the world.
Take Some In-person or Online Workshops
You may even be able to network with other photographers in your area, just like you. This will allow you to learn how other people use different techniques to get that perfect shot or introduce yourself to some new equipment.
Browse some online marketplaces and try and see what photos are interesting to you if there is sales data on the site that is even better. Don’t be afraid to get creative in learning your trade, as learning is half of the battle.
Having additional knowledge about the wildlife you want to shoot is crucial, as you not only need to learn how to take a proper photo, but what to take a photo of and how to find it. You also don’t want to get hurt in the process or lost. You can pick up various survival books pretty much anywhere, such as Amazon or a book store.
Understand How to Get the Perfect Shot
The lighting, the hue, the positioning of the subject, all of these things must be perfect to get that perfect shot. If one thing is off, the entire shot can be ruined. The last thing you want is to spend all day hiking, find the lion’s den, and then have a huge glare from the sun in every photo!
Know your topography of the land and find out when the best time is to do your work.
Take a safari or join a hiking club in your area to get familiar with your surroundings. A lot of the time you’re going into some pretty uncomfortable situations for long periods of time. Getting to know other hikers that can give some local knowledge can not only make your trip more enjoyable but can also save your life one day.
Pick a Niche and Stick With It
Pick a niche and stick with it, at least in the beginning. If birds are your thing, then get equipment to match shooting birds. If you like mountainous regions or marine life then you’re going to look for equipment and training to match that type of niche.
It would be a mistake to try them all at once in the beginning. You can’t do them all affordably and your variety of mediocre photos may not make the cut. Once you pass the introductory and experimental phase, you can choose something else.
If you’re looking to ditch your day job to pursue wildlife photography, it’s important to realize what you’re signing up for before quitting your day job. This business is highly competitive and not everyone is a superstar.
Finding a way to differentiate yourself from the competition may take some time. Be realistic and set realistic goals for yourself, don’t think that you’re going to make it big on your first trip out. Even though there is a high barrier to entry, it was surprising to see photographers that struggled with this.
Could you make it big on your first trip out? Yes, people can get lucky. But it is not likely to happen. So, having a good stream of income in place is crucial for your creative flow and sanity.
Getting the Right Equipment
With so many different avenues to travel down here, I’m only going to cover the basic equipment you’re going to need to get started. Upgrades are always recommended where they are affordable and can be better depending on what you’re trying to do.
There may be equipment that “Photo Joe” says you need to go into the spooky mountains and get that shot of the sunset, but there is no possible way for anyone to know exactly what is required at all times.
Starting things off with something that shouldn’t surprise anyone (and if you are, welcome to YPA!), a camera. You will need a decent camera, but it doesn’t have to be the fastest thing out there. You just need something that can handle lens extenders. This is so that you can buy different focal lenses to get some good shots in the future.
A camera like this will probably run around $500 for a decent DSLR camera. This camera should be a long-term investment in your new venture so although you don’t need the fastest on the market, you should get a decent autofocus speed or AF for short.
One thing that is important, however, is that when picking a camera, you need to have at least a minimum of 150mm – 200mm focal point. The camera itself doesn’t need this, but it does need the capability via accessories. This is the angle at which you can gather the shot. So to simplify, this is roughly around 4 times the length of a normal subject for a clear focus.
Various Types of Lenses
Pick up a good telephoto lens; this is good for a long lens is 50mm – 600mm. This allows you to safely get the shots you need without getting too close. A 50mm lens simply will not be a safe lens when out in the field. So Getting the ranged lens covers your minimum requirements of 150mm – 200mm. You can get a focal point as high as you want, but most people agree that a 600mm lens is perfect for those long-distance shots.
A long lens bag is something that all of the professionals agree on. This equipment isn’t cheap though, but the last thing you want to find is that your long lens is cracked, or that it got extremely dirty right before that big shot.
You are going to want to grab a sports cover or rain cover for your camera, the last thing you need is for it to start raining on your camera. And a poncho for yourself, depending on where you are.
You are also going to need a tripod to put the camera on for stability in getting the shot. Finding a good tripod is crucial as your going to be moving around a lot, and a tripod steadies the camera for a still shot.
Shuttermuse recommends a Gimbal, claiming that it really makes things easier for him with anything 400mm or more. A Gimbal allows you to track the movement of your subject while stationary and still keep a still shot. Having played around with one, I can say that this is some good advice. In fact, most professionals recommend this type of camera support. It can be an essential tool in some niche situations.
Gear camo is essential that you will need when going out and searching for wildlife, the last thing you need is a shiny black object spooking your subject causing you to miss your shot. So pack some essential hides for yourself.
You’re going to need some food, and camping equipment to get you through your journey. Think of the following list as a starter kit:
- Protein bars
- Waterproof boots
- A good hunting knife
- Solar cell phone charger
- Water filter straw
- A flashlight or headlamp
- A topography map
Again, that was just a list of essential gear for a trip. If you are staying overnight, you are going to need more camping gear.
You are going to need a computer and good photo editing software. A laptop is recommended so that you can edit on the go and upload from a hotspot. This will save you the most time, but any computer, desktop or laptop, will do.
Some optional but useful equipment includes the following:
- A vehicle mount
- A ground pod
- Beanbag for your vehicle
- Panning clamp
- Camera trap
- Extra memory cards
- Any niche specific equipment, like underwater cameras for marine photography
Know Your Wildlife and How to Find Them
This plays more into the niche you picked. For example, you don’t want to go out in December looking for quail and find out they are only in your area in mid-summer. You have to do your wildlife research, as well as your field research. Know what you’re planning on shooting, where to find it, and the best time to do so.
You also want to know what to expect from the environment and what you’re walking into. The local weather can change drastically in mountainous areas, so maybe December might be a better time for a marine dive instead of a deer hunt.
Be aware of the local wildlife and your surroundings, so you do not attract local predators to you. Be sure you know what to do and what not to do in a survival situation. For example, it is illegal to feed wildlife in California as it will attract deer, which in turn attracts mountain lions.
Mountain lions take up half of the California wildlife habitat and go where the deer are; you want to be aware of those little facts so that if you’re photographing a pretty whitetail, you may want to look around for a mountain lion stalking its prey before putting your eye to the lens.
You may also want to plan out your year, create a wildlife calendar to determine what animals are good to photograph in what seasons in your area. This can help with assuring that you can find the wildlife in their natural habitat as well as have the opportunity to photograph them.
Familiarize Yourself With the Freelance Business Model
Freelancing is more of an art form than many of you realize, especially compared to a traditional business model. To simplify the concept, you work independently and contractually in a specified area of expertise. This could be anything from writing articles to a lawyer working pro bono on a case.
What it means to the independent photographer is more in comparison to an artist freelancing their paintings, or portraits. You would acquire the work by selling your completed work first, and then through networking, you can pick up specific jobs or contracts.
You have to be strategic in picking a freelance business model. A spray and pray type of approach may create a race to the bottom scenario. If you are a perfectionist, you may find it to be quite a lengthy process to produce quality work. This plays into how you are going to position and market yourself as a freelance wildlife photographer.
The sky really is the limit here. Seriously, you can go as fast and as hard at this as you are able. You can create calendars, do events, create marketing material for companies, or even try and sell your art to local news stations and papers. Send some of your work into some popular magazines. Don’t be afraid to niche here. This is where you get the benefit of rejection as you overcome challenges and find your own way.
Develop a Marketing Plan
Developing a proper marketing plan for your photography business can be challenging. I see many marketers and graphics designers that get lumped into photography or do it as part of their catch-all job, but usually not the other way around. The creative side is there. Some strategies just need to be developed and some skills need to be learned.
A lot of marketing is mainly just finding creative ways to get your information and work in front of people that need it. In the case of the freelance photographer, that information would be how good your photos are and potentially how easy you are to work with. Your photos need to serve a specific need to your client. For example, Nat Geo buys a lot of wildlife photos, mainly because they need them for their productions.
The same needs to go for you. As a freelancer, you are the brand and no one else is. Therefore, you need a lot of photos for your productions. In a highly competitive marketplace, any way to stand out is a good thing. A good differentiation strategy is crucial to your success.
Be creative in making your plan, find something that works specifically for you and tailor your skills to that specific need. Be realistic when starting out, dream big, and plan big, but have a realistic path to take to get there.
Adaptation and Creativity in Yourself
If traveling the jungles of Asia is your dream photography contract, then you need to tailor your marketing efforts to take you in that direction. You’ll need to learn skills that once again, don’t directly relate to photography, like learning the language and cultures of your desired area. Find out what types of photos people enjoy, visit the region, and gain as much knowledge as you can about that area.
Come up with a good portfolio and publish it on sites like Shutterstock, Adobe stock, PhotoShelter, etc. I would also highly recommend putting your own website together with your portfolio and link to your work.
You can also productize your work, besides the rights and files that naturally come. You can create the following:
- Framed photos
- and other cool creative things
These can be in a front-facing e-commerce store or you can pass them out to potential contacts, clients, and more. This is the really exciting part, at least to me anyway, where your hard work pays off and you get your name out there. This is arguably the biggest struggle, but everyone’s perception of the process is different.
Distributing Your Work
Create a brochure of your best photos and your contact information and send it to your local news stations, especially if the wildlife is within the community. You can also drop off some of your work with some snacks and a short, non-salesy note.
You can start by asking who buys the nature photos on staff and try to get a sit down with that person. When meeting with them, show how you can best serve them. Explain your portfolio and show your passion for your work in a way that makes it usable for them.
If this outreach fails and you get no bites, take the slower but truer route. Make contacts at other organizations that need photos for their news stations and areas. Send samples of your work or links to your portfolio. Post parts of your portfolio on social media sites, like Instagram or LinkedIn.
Don’t be shy about your work. Be proud of your work and accomplishments and learn to talk about them in a natural (pun intended) way. Talk about that black-tailed deer you shot last week, with a few photos on your phone ready to go. Carry around business cards and let informed decision-makers know what you do and how you help.
Wildlife photography may be your passion, but don’t be afraid to do a wedding here or there. If a wedding is over your head, try weather or event shots that you can sell on stock photography sites. In the meantime, make some good contacts and eventually make some good contracts. You never know who other people may know. You are as close as 3 people away from meeting the perfect client or employer. You may do a simple beach wedding and find out that the bride’s uncle is a music producer for Nat Geo. You never know.
This brings me to my next point, don’t only look for specific opportunities. That music producer for Nat Geo in the previous example could lead to an invite to a party where you meet a production supervisor. These are, of course, just a few ideas to get started.
Write your plan out. Yes, actually write out your plan and review it often, until you get a nice repeatable process. The only bad marketing plan is not having a marketing plan. Even bad marketing plans can be great for exposure.
Find a Mentor
Everybody learns from somebody else, shocking I know. Find someone to teach you or a group you can engage with. Join a Facebook group, look things up on Reddit, find a forum, and/or go to local photography events and conventions. Networking is the game in all aspects of career development, especially in hard to break into niches and industries.
Everyone had that favorite teacher in elementary school and the same would go for you if you went to film school or photography school. Can’t fulfill the time or monetary commitment just yet? There are killer online wildlife photography classes out there. These instructors are great mentors as some of them are either still active in the field or otherwise have real-life experience. The best part about having a teacher as a mentor is that you get honest and good feedback most of the time.
No local mentors? No problem. Connect with people on social media or their personal blogs. We’re a part of the global economy and people all over the world are connecting with each other. With technology the way it is today, you could have a mentor halfway across the world and still connect with them.
Wildlife photography can be fun and rewarding to get into but can be difficult to try to make it full time. Besides touching on the tested tactics of becoming a wildlife photographer from pros in the space, I also went through some of my own favorite freelancing and marketing nuggets of wisdom.
I do hope it was helpful. I overshot my planned word count by nearly 1,000 words! Let me know how to make it better for you.