Wildlife Photography Jobs: What to Expect and How to Prepare
written by: Daniel P. McGoldrick•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/18/2011
What do wildlife photography jobs entail and how would you get your foot in the door? Do you need some formal training and specific equipment to get a job? What are some good tips and advice to for contending with the challenges ahead? Let’s get you to the best answers to these important questions.
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What is Being a Wildlife Photographer all About?
Wildlife photography jobs offer the chance to immerse yourself in the splendor of nature while capturing the essence and majesty of wild animals roaming in their natural habitat. In some cases the role of a wildlife photographer might be pivotal in raising awareness about the endangered mammals of the world. So first off, you better be passionate about the outdoors and be willing to withstand all the conditions and elements of the natural world. You should be prepared to get down and dirty far away from the coddling, cobbled streets of city life. If you don’t have a passion and intense admiration for the animals you will be endeavoring to capture on film, you might want to think about some other niche in photography because the camera never lies. And you may need to be lying in the muck and mire yourself to frame the perfect shot and not spook the animal. You should be well versed in how to how to capture wildlife with these 10 tips on how to prepare. There is an awe-inspiring quality to the natural world, whether you're in an alpine setting, a coastal ecosystem, the desert, or on some massive body of water with a camera waiting for the perfect opportunity.
Although it's certainly not a universal truth, the people attracted to this usually don't have making gobs of money or attaining societal status high on their list of priorities. This is good in a way because we’ll tell you right off the bat that this niche in photography is really the hardest to make a decent living at. You could certainly have a lot more security and capital creating stunning portraits of the rather dull and predictable species roaming the planet known as humans. They actually want to have their pictures taken whereas the animals you want to photograph will be doing everything in their power to avoid it. Furthermore, getting to them is going to often take an extensive amount of travelling which isn't always covered, especially when you're freelancing. But if you’ve got the requisite unchained spirit, capturing that moment with lions, tigers and bears; oh my! When I’m out camping miles away from any road and glance across a wild river to see a bear foraging on a rustic green ridge, it’s as though nothing else back in the fabricated paradigms of civilization matters. If you’ve caught that bug then you know there’s no denying it, and you might as well have that camera on hand to try and share that feeling with an audience. So in some ways it’s very straight forward, your job will become intimately familiar with the techniques to photograph animals in the wild which covers an astoundingly diverse number of species in the places where they live.
Wildlife photography jobs necessitate having some specialized camera equipment because more often than not, you're not going to be able to get too close to the animals. So take a look at these recommendations for the best telephoto lenses for wildlife photography to see if you’ve got the right equipment. For birds, you'll need a 600mm lens to use with a camera that has the latest in auto focus technology, especially when they're in flight. Of course, you’ll need a tripod and a well-organized equipment bag that’s easy to carry in various outdoor settings. You might only have a few seconds to shoot an animal once you find them so you don’t want to be fumbling through your bag, not knowing exactly where everything is. The top 10 tips for wildlife photography including camera settings and image parameters will cover a lot more about what you need to have and know.
Wildlife photography jobs require some training usually to get your foot in the door. Besides photography training, you'll need to know a lot about animal behavior. We'll provide some links to helpful tutorials and explain how to network and prepare a portfolio to present to employers.
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What Sort of Training do You Need?
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a degree in photography but if you don’t, you can still find work if you’re good at it. What you will definitely need to know about is animal behavior. You need to know their habits, where they feed, where they roam, and when they’re most active. Study your prey very closely long before you go out to find them. Leave no trace in the wilderness and hone your skills at being invisible. Learn to stalk like a hunter and think like an animal. For instance, if you’re located in England, you should know everything explained in this British wildlife photography tutorial.
This is a popular pursuit for professionals and amateurs alike, so fortunately many communities and photography studios offer classes in it. Take in all the knowledge you can gain, but there’s no substitute to getting out there and practicing. Make use of the internet and the myriad of sources that provide tips, techniques, and the experience of established wildlife photographers working in the field. Outdoor Eyes is a good forum that you can glean a lot of information from. Take a look at this interview with the successful outdoor photographer Gary Crabbe to see how he got established.
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Getting Your Foot in the Door
You’re going to need to have a portfolio that showcases your best work catered to the type of job you’re going after. If it entails shooting a wide range of wildlife, include a diverse selection whereas if it’s more species or area specific, fill the portfolio accordingly. The proof of your ability is only as good as your portfolio. Learn how to put together a photography portfolio that will impress potential employers and clients. Just like any other job, you’ll have to network and get your portfolio and resume out anywhere and everywhere. If you’ve got any of your pictures published already, make sure potential employers know that. It’s very competitive and there are many freelancers that have been established for years that still have difficulty finding work. Look for ways to sell your work anywhere and everywhere, bazaars, farmer’s markets, and from your own website. It’s going to take tenacity, and you’ll need to get over any fears of rejection. Sometimes, you may need to work as an assistant before you make the leap.
Image courtesy of the author
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Wildlife photography jobs are not going to yield you a lot of money at first but if it's your passion, that will be secondary and fall into place as your commitment, skill, and reputation grows. We'll provide some baseline numbers for wildlife photography jobs and explain a bit about the freelance process. Whatever you do, don't give up on your dreams.
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What to Expect for Pay
Maybe we should start off this section by saying you better be in it for the love of nature, for the joy of backpacking in places like the wilderness of Montana, and the reverence of wild creatures that roam as freely as humans allow because the old adage states that if you follow your passion, the money will follow. But just like everything else in life, it’s going to take dogged determination, skill, staying power, and commitment to get where you want in this field. But if you’ve got a dream you better not end up on your death bed regretting that you didn’t go for it with every ounce of your being.
Strictly speaking from what we could gather from various sources on the Web, the average baseline salary in a wildlife photography job is about $25,000. Most wildlife photographers are freelancers, and the ones with good reputations will make considerably more. The best plan would be to remain flexible and not be afraid to expand your horizons with general outdoor photography, travel photography, and whatever else you can pick up. In the beginning, you can't really expect to rake in much more than $15,000 if you're married exclusively to wildlife photography. Plus, you'll likely have to cover your own travel expenses as well. We already mentioned the hundreds of thousands of people already competing for what work there is available.
Always be ready out there, don’t get caught in the perfect place at the perfect time with a lousy camera like I did as you’ll see from the picture of this giant bear that was foraging not more than a hundred yards from where I was standing. If I had one of the best digital cameras for wildlife photography at the time, I would have had some tremendous photos as a result. This bear was just showing off with all the various poses she struck seemingly knowing that I couldn’t adequately capture them on film. Best of luck to you, and never give up on a dream.