Wildlife Photography as a Career

If I was to be completely honest about encouraging people about setting out on a career in wildlife photography, I feel these days I could sum it up in two words. ‘Forget it!’ Having said that, I do not take rejection of article ideas well, I am poor at self-promotion and I am not brilliant at keeping my agents supplied with my latest images. Finally, I do not keep up to date with all of the latest camera bodies which produce superior image quality compared to the old Canon EOS 1D Mk2 I am still using for my wildlife pictures and the Canon EOS 5D Mk2 that I use for landscapes.

Gentoo Penguin

Personally, my most profitable time was when Fuji Velvia and Sensia were all the rage. Then I was making regular sales to book, magazine and calendar companies. I was also supplying a partwork with regular articles. For me, times were much better then.

Blue emperor Anax imperator male in flight

When digital came along, I was perhaps too slow to move across. At first the quality was probably not up to what publishers were demanding. Gradually the quality of images increased and the prices of camera bodies fell. I jumped when the Canon EOS 1D Mk2 came out and never regretted it.

Bottle-nosed dolphin Tursiops truncatus Moray Firth Scotland

Having said all that, yes, it is still possible to make a living at wildlife photography as numerous other photographers will tell you. If you have the abilities to write articles, keep yourself fully organised, self promote and utilise today’s social media platforms to encourage a following, profit should follow if your work is of a high enough standard. Setting up sidelines such as workshops, photographic tours, hides for hire etc will also help your photography business.

European Roller

However, I feel I should point out that it is important to have a passion for and knowledge of and respect for your subject. This will lead to better photography, more informed articles and, of course, more profit! You also need to be inventive with your image making. It is no use sitting in a public hide beside numerous other photographers and taking similar images to them and finally asking them “What species was that I just photographed?” You will have to compete with their images that will no doubt end up on a web-based agency like Alamy etc. Most of these ‘hobby’ photographers do it because they are interested in wildlife. Some will supply their images free of charge to magazines etc just to see them in print. And these are the people you are competing with.

Great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus

Another important factor is the law. In the UK, and also in many other countries, certain species are given legal protection. Knowledge of the protected species and laws of each country you intend to visit could save you thousands of pounds in fines and even confiscated camera gear.

Grizzly Bear

These are, of course, things that you cannot take out insurance against but insuring your camera gear professionally is vital! If you are robbed or you drop a telephoto lens valued at say £8000 and ruin it, can you afford to replace it immediately? Probably not! But if you have adequate insurance (including for foreign travel if you intend to go abroad) you should be in receipt of a replacement within a short space of time. Travel or household insurance will not cover your gear if you are ‘professional’. Many insurance companies have specific clauses to exclude expensive camera gear for instance.

Northern fulmar Fulmarus glacialis in flight low over the sea Iceland July 2009

I have had ‘professional’ photographers insurance ever since I began my wildlife photography and never regretted the expenditure as I have had occasion to claim! There are a handful of specialist photographer insurance companies in the UK that cater for professional photographers that include public liability cover and additional options perfect for professional photographers such as equipment cover for your camera and associated kit (including kit hire). Professional photographers insurance from Aon is great, because wildlife photography is often seasonal and they offer cover for various time periods, not just annually.

Otter Lutra lutra female and two large young Loch na Keal Mull Scotland

You also need to remember that there are now millions of images available via internet based agencies (Alamy.com alone boasts a total approaching 50 million pictures!!). As a consequence, agencies are dropping prices so that they can make sales in today’s highly competitive market place.

Rockhopper Penguin

A way to compete is to set yourself ‘projects’ such as photographing the annual life cycle of a bird or mammal species or photographing as much as you can that visits a nature reserve or even your own garden. A series of photos added to an accurate and informed article are much more likely to sell than a standalone image. Unique images also sell but they have to show behaviour or action and be technically perfect. Then you have to get them to the right publisher at the right time.

Wandering albatross Diomedia exulans in flight over sea Kaikoura New Zealand

It is a difficult but not impossible market place out there for wildlife images!


Mike Read is a much published wildlife and landscape and he lives on the edge of the New Forest National Park. He leads wildlife photography tours for the Dorset-based company The Travelling Naturalist and later this year leads a photographic tour to the magical Falkland Islands for them. Mike also runs photography workshops in the New Forest.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Hans Ernst
    June 5, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    What a beautiful wildlife photography, some of the best i’ve ever seen.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

    • 11
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:36 am

      Glad you like the images and sorry for the delay in responding. I have been away in France leading a flower photography tour for Travelling Naturalist. Despite having been a professional photographer for many years, it is always good to get positive feedback for ones images.

  2. Avatar of Rick Keller
    2
    ) Rick Keller
    June 5, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    Mr. Read,

    Thank you for your candid and interesting essay. I enjoyed it. Your photographs are stunning! If I may quote,

    “You also need to be inventive with your image making.”

    Spoken like a true artist and professional. Of the three aspects that make a great photographer, the artistic vision reigns supreme, followed closely by the light and skill of the photographer. That’s all that matters, and that is where it all begins and ends. :-)

    Cheers!

    Rick

    • 12
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:39 am

      Thanks Rick. Glad you like the images and sorry for the delay in responding. I have been away in France leading a flower photography tour for Travelling Naturalist. I feel that there are two kinds of photographic illustration. One comes into the category of a portrait of the subject whilst the second reveals a more artistic approach. Most of the images that accompany the article I hope come into the latter category.

  3. 3
    ) Autofocus Ross
    June 6, 2014 at 12:47 am

    Mike, thank you for a thought provoking article, and accept my heartfelt congrats on the images you posted with it.

    No career is easy, and I imagined, before reading your article, that making a living out of photography was at best, very difficult, at worst, well nigh impossible. You’ve confirmed my suspicions in a very frank and specific way. All the competition out there, all the expense of equipment, travel, insurance, and possibly getting fined shooting protected species etc. makes the hobby photographer (well, this one anyway) shake his head and walk away.

    In my general approach to life, and photography, I am quite cynical. I had already made the connection that magazines and other clients will use the cheapest (good quality) image they can lay their hands on. The stock photography agencies pay photographers a pittance, and so I abandoned any idea of sharing my images in this way, out of disrespect of clients motivation, and also, out of respect for pro shooters like yourself who depend on a sale in order to survive.

    The thought of giving away your best work for free, simply to show a friend that ‘I took that image’ is quite a stupid thing to do, for, you are displacing professional work, and you, in return, are not even getting any financial compensation for doing so.

    This is why I abandoned any thought of making money out of photography some years ago. I have shot a number of weddings, mostly for associates and friends, or by recommendation, and it went well – after a lot of research beforehand I might add.

    I am more than happy to class myself as a pure amateur (hobbyist) photographer now. It doesn’t make my images inferior to ‘pro’ shooters, it just differentiates me from those like yourself, who are trying to eke out a living from it. As recently as yesterday, I was at a bay in Gower, near Swansea, and got some lovely landscape shots of sand dunes, and macro shots of barnacles, which are, and will remain, a personal pleasure. One or two may get framed and displayed here – I rotate shots by re-using frames, so my ‘wall art’ is changed every so often.

    For me, getting a well exposed, well focused shot, with a bit of compositional impact is the be-all and end-all of my photography. I am more than happy to share the images with friends, but there it stops. From the sounds of it, at least, in my case, I have made the right decision.

    Some of my other posts relate to the importance of value for money, in lenses and bodies, and this is inextricably linked to your article, in a way. What I mean by this, is that, equipment I buy and use, is bought outright, all taxes paid and non-recoverable, and I cannot depreciate the gear over time, against my earnings elsewhere. Therefore, I am guessing that (an accountant can confirm exact values) a camera or lens bought for business use, after reclaiming VAT (purchase tax) and allowing for depreciation over a few years, every £1000 spent equates to just £300 over time, with the business tax allowances.

    This is why many businesses hire, or lease equipment. Every penny spent on hire or lease is tax deductable, and represents an immediate saving of 40% average on equipment. This is why builders lease vans and equipment far more than they buy it – but so do most businesses these days. Some lease contracts allow you to continue the lease at a ‘peppercorn’ rental after the initial term has expired, while others allow you to buy the equipment for a nominal sum, again at the end of the contract.

    None of these things is available to a pure hobby photographer, so this is why I campaign for Nikon (and others) to give us the equipment which is (in many respects) as good as the top end gear, but at prices which normal families can afford – ie, comparable to hobbies, such as golf, fishing etc.

    Sorry to hear pro work is so difficult, I guess with the inception of digital, allowing amateurs to shoot dozens of shots without worry about cost, it was inevitable that they would encroach far more on pro shooters than in the past. Back in the 70’s very few amateurs would shoot a whole roll of 36 exposure film in order to get just one shot – whereas, today, they can, if they want, shoot hundreds!

    Thanks for the salutory tale Mike, I am sure you’ve made a few would be pro photographers stop and think. A good thing, people need to be grounded in such a difficult career path.

    Ross

    • 13
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:46 am

      Hi Ross Glad you like the images and sorry for the delay in responding. I have been away in France leading a flower photography tour for Travelling Naturalist.
      I must confess that I admire your ability to do wedding photography even as a hobbyist as you call yourself. I would get far to frustrated with people who wouldn’t stand in the right place and I might even be tempted to tell them to go somewhere else (in no uncertain terms!). However, I have an overriding interest in and commitment to photographing wildlife and beautiful landscapes.
      With agencies having such huge stocks of images, I am sure many photographers are finding it more and more difficult as a profession. I think you have taken the right course of action for you but it may differ for somebody else. Keep clicking and enjoying. Mike

  4. 4
    ) Muhammad Omer
    June 6, 2014 at 2:10 am

    Hello Mike,
    Can your workshops be joined and benefitted from online?

    • 14
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:48 am

      Dear Muhammad
      Even though I haven’t updated the available dates on my web site, you can join my workshops which can be run on any convenient day. These workshops though are restricted to landscape and detail photography within the New Forest, Hampshire, England. Hope this helps. Mike

  5. Avatar of Mike Banks
    5
    ) Mike Banks
    June 6, 2014 at 6:38 am

    I guess it is redundant to say I loved the examples you offered here and admire your patience and dedication to an art form that at the very least requires hours of work to make any money with.

    I followed a different path and selected to make my way into scientific and research photography as well as forensic criminalist photography. No, we in this field will never be known as a Mike Reed, Joe McNalley or any of the well known photographers who endeavor to make a living in what I call…”public craft and art photography”. We are satisfied to know that in our own field we become known and work all the time. Very much like the character actor we all know but can never remember his/her name.

    I still work in this field and at 69 years of age travel regularly here in the US and abroad to photograph experimental surgeries, as well as producing photographs for medical prosthetic manufacturers. Everyday in my studio I receive gross specimens from pathologists because their staff photographers were unable to give them what they needed for publication or teaching and that is a reward both financially and for my ego.

    In the field of Medical and Criminalist Forensic Photography we are a small but tight knit community of specialists who understand in most cases we will never even receive photo credit for our work but then we are also paid well for what we do and the additional education we needed to have for this field.

    In my own time I do chase after photographs like the ones you display in this article and the best hang in my home in my personal gallery. My floral photographs make their way into hotel rooms and bathrooms as I also work with a number of interior designers who use my work…again with no recognition, but pay for the photos directly. I don’t work with agents nor do I display my work on line or use any social media. (Too many stories of stolen work from websites which I was a victim of myself several years ago).

    It is good for all the Photography Life community when a professional photographer like yourself comes here to share with us your work and experience in an honest and forthright manor. Thank you for your time and effort, I know we all appreciate your contribution.

    • 15
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:53 am

      Dear Mike
      Thanks for your kind comments. Your work with interior designers and with hotels sounds like a good idea but I am not sure that the same situation would arise in the UK. However, I guess it is something I should investigate……
      Regards
      Mike

      • Avatar of Mike Banks
        22
        ) Mike Banks
        June 25, 2014 at 8:36 am

        Mike, please don’t investigate it too thoroughly, two of my interior designers are in the UK. LOL

  6. Avatar of Alpha Whiskey
    6
    ) Alpha Whiskey
    June 6, 2014 at 6:43 am

    Very interesting article and nice photos. I have often read about the difficulties of wildlife photography as a career, although I am sure it is thoroughly rewarding. I have been fortunate enough to procure earnings from photos that I have taken both in the wild and in captivity, specifically from having them on magazine covers. But I don’t imagine it is something I would pursue beyond an enjoyable hobby for many of the reasons given in this article. I also agree that making a captivating and engaging image is more important than simply photographing the animal because it is there. It has to tell some story or enable the viewer to empathise or connect with it. :)

    (the calendar at the link below is something I made for friends but some of the photos were used as covers):

    http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/FloridaWildlife

    http://alphawhiskey.slickpic.com/photoblog/post/WildlifeCalendar

    • 16
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:57 am

      You certainly have a number of images that I am envious of and can understand the use of some your images on magazine covers. Keep up the good work.
      Mike

  7. 7
    ) Patrick O'Connor
    June 6, 2014 at 7:40 am

    Great photos and especially “inventive” perspectives.

    • 17
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 4:58 am

      Hi Patrick
      Glad you like the images and sorry for the delay in responding. I have been away in France leading a flower photography tour for Travelling Naturalist. Despite having been a professional photographer for many years, it is always good to get positive feedback for ones images.
      Mike

  8. Avatar of shawn
    8
    ) shawn
    June 6, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Great set of images! Thank you so much for sharing them. Is the image of the Gentoo colony on South Georgia? South Georgia is my favourite place to take pictures.

    Much of what you write has application not just to wildlife photography, nor just to photography in general, but to anyone who wants to make a living as an artist. Painters, sculptors, writers, actors, potters, singers, goldsmiths, designers. Thank you so much for writing so clearly and giving me lots to think about.

    • 18
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 5:01 am

      Dear Shawn
      The Gentoo colony at sunrise was on Sea Lion Island in the Falklands where I just happened to be leading a photographic tour in November/December 2014 for Travelling Naturalist. Why not book on it and see how it compares to South Georgia?!!! Only joking. Pleased you liked the images and as you say making a living as any kind of artist is becoming more and more difficult.

  9. 9
    ) Quazi Ahmed Hussain
    June 6, 2014 at 7:34 pm

    I fully agree with you “Forget it”. Nature and wildlife photography cannot be a career. There are too many photographers out there and too few customers. Thus price is steadily downwards; may get lower than a 500ml bottle of water soon.

    However, although expensive, it’s a wonderful heart pleasing passion.

    • 19
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 5:02 am

      I fully agree! What could be better than accepting the challenge of photographing a difficult species and succeeding? All this and perhaps surrounded by beautiful scenery too – just great aint it!

      • 21
        ) Quazi Ahmed Hussain
        June 25, 2014 at 7:41 am

        Certainly. Again, as I said, it’s a great passion that’s sure to satisfy your heart but never the wallet.

  10. Avatar of Brian Gaschler
    10
    ) Brian Gaschler
    June 7, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks for the article, Mike! Ever read any articles/books by Susan Sontag? I find her cynical critiques of the “global glut of images” to be quite on point. And I can commiserate with you concerning my own inability to self-promote or ‘market’ myself in a way consistent with today’s social technologies. I wish being a great photographer was enough. But then, simply being great photographer has never been enough to ‘make it’ as a pro (however people define it).

    As an aside, for those wondering about photography gear insurance options in the USA, I’ve been using TCP Insurance for years now (http://www.tcpinsurance.com/). They also offer seasonal prices, but more importantly, they are really great at quickly getting replacement gear to the photographer, should water/drops/theft occur. They also cover gear while traveling internationally, in addition to laptops, digital portfolios, etc. The icing on the cake may be that they cover the photographer with liability insurance (in case one were to ‘bump’ their 70-200mm right into the bride’s nose). I know there are a few other companies in the USA that offer great packages, as well. TCP came highly recommended to me, and I must say I have been impressed with them so far.

    Thanks again, Mike!

    -Brian

    • 20
      ) Mike Read
      June 25, 2014 at 5:05 am

      Hi Brian
      I have never read anything by Susan Sontag but must do so soon. Thanks for the heads up on this. It seems like you and I could both learn from other photographers who do have the self promote ability! Good luck with the photography but most importantly of all keep enjoying it.
      Mike

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