May 23, 2024

How to Become a Wildlife Photographer

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Many photographers dream of capturing wildlife images in exotic locations: cheetahs on the African savanna or polar bears in the Arctic. Chances are they started with the basics: they learned to take high quality pictures, immersed themselves in the natural world, and managed a business.

They invested time in learning how a camera works, took photography courses, and shot lots of photos to develop a professional skillset. They spent time observing animal behavior and their habitat in the natural world. And they developed revenue streams to sustain a wildlife photography career. Capturing the beauty of nature’s creatures in the wild is even more rewarding if you make money doing it.

In this article, we’ll guide you through the steps to get started in the extremely competitive field of wildlife photography. We’ll look into the skills needed, how to select camera gear, and what you should do to begin making money as you become a professional wildlife photographer.

What is Wildlife Photography?

Wildlife photography is the art of capturing images of wild animals in their natural habitat. It involves patience, skill, and an understanding of animal behavior to capture the essence of wildlife.

Photographing animals in the wild creates opportunities for authentic portrayals of their behaviors and interactions in their natural environment.

On the other hand, photographing animals in captivity presents a different set of challenges and opportunities. While it may be easier to get close-up shots of animals in controlled environments, the images lack the authenticity and raw beauty of animals in their natural habitat. In addition, captive animals exhibit a range of different behaviors due to their living conditions, which can impact the overall feel and narrative of the photographs.

Wild American bison in the snow.
An American bison on a snow-covered prairie.

What are the Types of Wildlife Photography?

Wildlife photography encompasses various types, including:

  • Mammal photography involves tracking animals to capture their interactions and behaviors.
  • Bird photography requires patience and a fast shutter speed to freeze their movement in flight.
  • Macro wildlife photography focuses on the intricate details of insects and small creatures.
  • Underwater wildlife photography requires specialized camera equipment and diving gear.
  • Landscape wildlife photography shows the animals as part of their habitat.
  • Aerial wildlife photography, done with drones, shoots animals from a lofty perspective.

What Makes a Successful Wildlife Photographer?

Wildlife photographers need a combination of technical skills, creativity, and patience to capture stunning images of animals in the wild. Start with a solid understanding of photography techniques and camera settings. Being able to balance a number of variables is essential to creating high-quality wildlife photos. Develop a keen eye for composition and lighting to create visually stunning images that evoke emotion and tell a story. We also have a full article on camera settings for wildlife photography if you’d like a review.

Successful wildlife photographers possess a combination of skills and qualities that set them apart in their field. They possess a deep understanding and appreciation for the natural world, allowing them to anticipate animal behavior and capture truly authentic moments. They exhibit patience and perseverance, often spending hours or even days waiting for the perfect shot.

Most successful wildlife photographers are dedicated to conservation efforts, using their work to raise awareness about the importance of protecting our planet’s diverse ecosystems and the creatures that inhabit them.

What Skills are Required to Become a Wildlife Photographer?

Our website, GreatBigPhotographyWorld.com offers plenty of courses and articles to help you understand your gear, develop your skills, and apply those skills in the field. In addition, stay abreast of trends and get inspired by other wildlife photographers by reading blogs and magazines such as the Journal of Wildlife Photography and PhotoWild Magazine.

Familiarize yourself with accomplished wildlife photographers. Study and appreciate the work of Suzi Eszterhas, Joel Sartore, and Paul Nicklen. You’ll find many others. By studying the works of these established photographers, you learn new techniques and gain insights into wildlife behavior. Then, strive to create your own unique style of wildlife photography.

Learn Animal Behavior and Develop Outdoor Skills

In addition to technical skills, wildlife photographers need knowledge of animal behavior and habitat to anticipate and capture unique moments. Find out everything you can to understand your target species, their behavior, and migration patterns.

Wildlife photographers work outdoors. Take the time to learn natural skills that will help you find trails and signs of animal life. Be prepared to adapt quickly to changing conditions and be willing to spend long hours in the field to get that perfect shot. Maintain good physical condition and be able to take long hikes. Pack food and water if you are out for extended periods of time.

antelope running in the wild.
Protecting its territory, a male antelope chases another male away during mating season.

Practice on Local Wildlife

Developing wildlife photography skills can begin in your backyard or a local park. You can find ducks and squirrels without having to travel very far. This is valuable practice. Concentrate on the behavior and movements of these animals.

Squirrels are everywhere. And they challenge wildlife photographers. They’re small, quick, and unpredictable. Ducks in flight are another challenge and a great way to hone your skills.

I’m fortunate to live in coastal South Carolina, where there is an abundance of wildlife. Along the beaches, I find pelicans, gulls, sandpipers, and other birds. I see the occasional dolphin. Further inland, around the lakes and rivers, I can find egrets, herons, eagles, and many other birds. Also, I see alligators and snakes. I don’t photograph snakes, but I have plenty of other subjects. All of that is within a half-hour drive. The point is to find wildlife that’s close by and start shooting.

male mallard.
A male mallard duck in a public park is an opportunity to practice photography skills.

Wear Sturdy Clothing and Protective Gear

Wildlife photographers require a variety of protective gear and equipment to ensure their safety. This includes sturdy hiking boots to navigate rough terrain, waterproof clothing to protect against the elements, and insect repellent to ward off bugs and mosquitoes.

Also, wildlife photographers often invest in camouflage clothing and gear to blend in with their surroundings and not disturb the animals. Other essentials for wildlife photographers include sunscreen to protect against harmful UV rays, a first aid kit for emergencies, and a sturdy backpack to carry their equipment.

It is crucial for wildlife photographers to be well-prepared and equipped with the necessary gear to ensure a successful and safe photography expedition.

Be Safe

Successful wildlife photographers prioritize safety. Take necessary precautions while you’re in the wild. Research the animals you intend to photograph and understand their behavior. Know when the mating season occurs, especially for larger animals like bears, alligators, and elephants. Some species get very aggressive during that time. An American woman was killed in Africa when an elephant charged. It was mating season for elephants.

Maintain a safe distance and avoid any potential harm. Be aware of their surroundings, and carry essential safety equipment such as first aid kits and bear spray. Follow guidelines or regulations set by local authorities or wildlife conservation organizations.

Personally, I don’t venture very far into the wilderness if I’m alone. Also, I don’t wade into water, although many photographers go in chest-deep. And I make sure my wife knows where I’m going. I carry a cell phone. Be prepared and cautious. Minimize risks and enjoy your passion for capturing stunning wildlife moments.

Dolphins.
Dolphins playing in the surf require a good eye and quick reflexes.

Practice ethical nature photography, including habitat preservation and respect for private property. Refrain from baiting or disturbing animals, and ensure minimal impact by leaving nothing but footprints.

By following ethical principles, photographers contribute to the conservation of wildlife and their natural habitat and help protect and preserve the beauty of wildlife for future generations to enjoy.

Upgrade Your Gear

A quality camera is important for any genre of photography. Not all of us can afford the most expensive gear, so we look for a happy medium between performance and cost. Factors such as sensor size, autofocus capabilities, frame rate, and durability are high priority. Find one that offers the features you need without draining your bank account.

We have a good feature article on the best cameras for wildlife photography that you might review. If you don’t have the resources to upgrade your camera, make the best of what you have. You can work on composition skills, shutter speed, and animal tracking know-how with any camera.

Lenses are a Critical

Wildlife photography often involves long-distance shooting. So the telephoto lens a popular choice. These lenses allow photographers to capture sharp and detailed wildlife images, without disturbing the animals. A focal length of at least 200mm brings distant subjects closer, allowing for sharp and stunning wildlife photos, without disturbing the animals.

Another important factor to consider when selecting lenses for wildlife photography is aperture size. A wide aperture lets in more light, which is essential when shooting in low-light conditions or capturing fast-moving subjects. In addition, a lens with a wide aperture helps to create a beautiful bokeh effect, making the subject pop against a soft background.

Also, factors such as weight, image stabilization, and weather-sealing should be considered to ensure optimal performance in outdoor environments.

Sony DSLR camera.
Sony camera with a telephoto lens that is suitable for photographing wildlife.

Develop Photo Editing Skills

Editing wildlife photographs with post-production software such as Lightroom, Photoshop, and other similar tools is an essential step in enhancing the beauty and impact of raw images. These software programs offer a wide range of powerful editing tools that allow photographers to bring out the best in their images. 

Make adjustments to exposure, contrast, and color balance to ensure that the image accurately represents the vibrant hues and intricate details of the subject. Additionally, most photographers employ tools for cropping and straightening the image, removing unwanted distractions, and applying selective adjustments to specific areas of the photograph. This allows photographers to highlight the key elements of the scene and create a visually captivating composition. Other features like noise reduction, sharpening, and specific color profiles ensure an accurate representation of the subject.

lightroom develop module.
Lightroom is an excellent program for editing wildlife photographs.

Express Your Artistic Vision

When editing RAW format images in post-production software, it is important to maintain a balance between enhancing the image and preserving its natural look. The goal of the pro photographer is to bring out the essence of the subject without over-editing or altering its authenticity. This requires a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of post-processing and the software’s capabilities.

Editing wildlife photographs in post-production software also allows photographers to unleash their creativity. Beyond basic adjustments, photographers can experiment with different styles and techniques to create unique and visually striking images. For example, apply filters to photos, create dramatic black and white conversions, even composites with multiple images of various species.

wildlife animals collage.
A wildlife collage of different animals.

How Much do Professional Wildlife Photographers Make?

Wildlife photographers earn varying amounts of money per year depending on their experience, skills, and demand for their work. Income ranges from modest to substantial, with some photographers earning a six-figure income. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2022 that photographers earn around $40,000 annually. However, the BLS offered no specifics on the wildlife photography industry. It is important to note that wildlife photography is highly competitive, and success requires dedication, a strong portfolio of great photographs, and good business practices.

Consider Your Expenses

Running a wildlife photography business comes with its own set of expenses. Apart from the cost of cameras, lenses, and accessories, professional wildlife photographers incur other costs. Travel expenses, accommodations, and permits for accessing remote locations add up quickly. You may want to hire an assistant. Additionally, marketing and advertising costs, website maintenance, and insurance are expenses to consider. It is crucial for a professional wildlife photographer to carefully manage finances and ensure that earnings cover both their business expenses and personal needs.

Is Full-Time Wildlife Photography Viable?

Wildlife photography is competitive. That’s worth repeating. And while some make a good income, especially if they’ve been at it for years, some of us should consider taking it on part time. As you develop skills and build a portfolio of exceptional wildlife photos, you may generate additional income.

But you might want to keep your day job until you generate enough revenue to take on a full-time job in wildlife photography.

How to Earn Money as a Wildlife Photographer

First of all, build a portfolio of your best work. This is a fluid process. Update it regularly by adding new images and discarding older photos that you no longer consider your finest. Show a variety of animal subjects in diverse settings. If you work in black-and-white and color, make a category of each. Just ensure that your portfolio demonstrates the variety and showcases your best photography work.

Build a website. This is a starting point for many professional wildlife photographers. It’s a showcase for your work, a path to introduce yourself to the world, and a forum for feedback. If you have the money, hire a professional web developer. If that’s not in the budget, build your own on WordPress, Wix, or a number of other solutions.

Here are some revenue streams for wildlife photographers:

Sell Prints Online

Advancements in technology and the rise of e-commerce platforms give photographers a popular avenue for selling prints. You might choose a print-on-demand site, such as Art Storefronts or Pictorem. These companies handle the printing and shipping and take a percentage of each sale. You set the price. They offer high-quality prints in various sizes and formats that cater to different preferences and budgets. In addition, many provide resources to help photographers market their prints, such as social media integration, SEO optimization, and analytics to track sales. 

As an alternative, set up an e-commerce platform on your website. With Big Commerce and Shopify, you can build a custom site with secure transactions. You can also employ those platforms as your website.

Selling photography prints online offers photographers an efficient way to monetize their art and reach a global audience.

sandhill crane.
This close-up of a Sandhill Crane shows the detail of the head and neck.

Market Your Photos to Media

Jobs for wildlife photographers are rare. Getting on the staff of publications such as National Geographic is extremely difficult, so most of us are self-employed and work on a freelance basis. Understand the market and tailor your approach accordingly. Research local media outlets and national publications that focus on wildlife photography or nature-related content. Familiarize yourself with their style, preferences, and the type of photographs they feature.

Once you identify potential clients, present your work in a professional and appealing manner. Create a portfolio that showcases great photos, highlighting your unique perspective and technical skills. Categorize your portfolio by themes or species to make it easier for potential buyers to navigate. 

Personalize your proposal by addressing the specific editor or department responsible for photography. Craft a compelling pitch that highlights the relevance and uniqueness of your photographs, emphasizing how they can enhance their publication’s content.

Show Your Work at Arts-and-Crafts Fairs and Local Galleries

This can be a rewarding experience for photographers looking to showcase their work and connect with customers. Display your prints in a physical setting, allowing visitors to see the details and quality of the photographs up close. Photographers engage with a diverse audience and receive feedback on their work. The downside of art shows and craft fairs is that they can be time-consuming.

A local gallery offers a more permanent space to exhibit and sell photography prints, attracting art enthusiasts and collectors who are specifically interested in purchasing unique pieces for their collections.

Consider factors such as pricing, presentation, and marketing strategies to maximize the sales potential. Setting competitive prices for prints is essential. Creating an appealing display draws in potential customers. In addition, promote the event in advance through social media, word of mouth, and other marketing channels to generate interest and drive traffic to the events.

Host a Workshop or Learning Session

These events may be in person or online. They provide opportunities for participants to learn from their experiences and to network with other wildlife photographers. By running workshops and sharing knowledge, techniques, and insights, you help others develop their craft and foster a community of like-minded individuals who share a love for wildlife photography.

Lead a Nature Tour

If you have access to local wildlife, you might organize a tour showing participants how to approach and photograph animals in their natural habitat. By leading tours, you share stories and insights about the animals being photographed, enhancing the overall experience for tour participants as you position yourself as an expert.

If you’re passionate about conservation and environmental protection, use this platform to raise awareness of the importance of preserving natural habitats and protecting endangered species. Immerse the participants in the beauty of the natural world and inspire a deeper appreciation for wildlife and the need to conserve it for future generations.

closeup of an alligator.
An alligator keeps a low profile as it forages for food.

Sell Images on Stock Photo Sites

If your work is commercially viable, you may want to sell through one of many stock websites. These companies license images for publications, websites, and marketing firms. The photographer earns a commission for each image downloaded. 

These platforms provide a convenient way for wildlife photographer to reach a wider audience and earn passive income from their work. I have stock libraries on Adobe, Getty/iStock, and Shutterstock. The money is small, but it grows as my portfolio grows. Working with stock agencies is a numbers game. It takes time, but it’s worth the effort.

Enter Wildlife Photo Competitions

These events give photographers an opportunity to gain recognition for their work, network with other photographers, and win cash prizes or prestigious awards. Competing against other talented photographers pushes you to constantly improve your work.

These contests and events celebrate artistry. Also, they raise awareness about the importance of conservation and the need to protect our planet’s diverse wildlife.

Partner with Wildlife Organizations

Collaborate with wildlife organizations involved in conservation efforts. The World Wildlife FundAudubon, and The Nature Conservancy are among dozens of organizations that work to preserve wilderness and habitat and protect endangered species.

By partnering with these organizations, a wildlife photographer gains recognition and contributes to the promotion of wildlife and conservation work. These partnerships provide the professional wildlife photographer with a platform to showcase their own work and share their passion for wildlife photography while also supporting conservation endeavors.

egrets nesting in a rookery.
Egrets nesting in a wetland rookery during mating season.

Book Public Speaking Engagements

This is not for everyone, but it’s an excellent way to build your brand as you become a professional wildlife photographer. By showcasing your work and sharing your experiences in the field, you may captivate audiences and inspire them to appreciate and protect wildlife.

To book speaking engagements, start by researching conferences, seminars, and events that focus on conservation, photography, or nature. Reach out to event organizers and provide a compelling proposal that highlights your expertise and the value you bring to the audience.

When you get booked, leverage your online presence and social media platforms to promote the event. If you’re comfortable with public speaking, you may make a meaningful impact through powerful storytelling and visual narratives. 

In Closing

The journey to becoming a professional wildlife photographer encompasses honing photography skills, acquiring knowledge about animal behavior, and managing the complexity of operating a photography business. Capturing stunning wildlife photos is just the beginning. 

A professional photographer must possess a strong artistic vision and technical expertise. Understanding animal behavior is crucial to anticipate their actions and capture their true essence. Moreover, running a photography business demands effective marketing strategies, building a strong network, and proficient financial management to thrive in this competitive industry.

If you decide to pursue wildlife photography as a career or just a side gig, I hope this article helps you in your journey. If you have any experiences to share, questions, or comments, please submit them in the space below.



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