It was such a pleasure reading all the excellent questions you submitted on my Instagram Stories several weeks ago. This inaugural Ask Me Anything focuses on advice for those considering a career in wildlife and nature photography.
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Q: What first inspired you to pursue a career in nature photography?
A: I became seriously interested in photography after realizing I was failing to communicate the important issues I was studying as a scientist with a global audience. As critically important as the data I had been gathering may have been, there was little chance it was going to help bridge the gap between my scientific community and the rest of the world. That was a goal I felt could only be achieved using the power of photography, so I set out to tell beautiful and evocative stories of our changing planet.
Q: What should I be prepared for when starting a career in photography?
A: Whenever people approach me and say, "I want to buy a camera and travel the world and take pictures like you," I always share the story of my early years to give them a realistic sense of the path ahead. I had about $60,000 saved up when I left my job as a biologist and began my journey to become an artist. I had no idea how to run a photography business, and within a year, I had spent close to $85,000 on equipment, expeditions, and film without hardly selling an image. For nearly a decade, I subsisted as a starving artist before getting a break with National Geographic. My light at the end of that long tunnel was the confidence that I could and would eventually reinvent myself if I just continued telling stories I knew were important, so I remained patient and pushed through. It was a difficult journey, but I wouldn't want it any other way – the successes in my life would never have tasted as sweet without the salt of the journey.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring nature photographers?
A: There are fantastic and timely stories, subjects, and issues all around us. Find one you are passionate about and completely immerse yourself in it. Shoot, shoot, shoot – don't stop until you have compiled a body of work you are proud of and crafted a unique narrative better than any other photographer on this planet could achieve.
Q: What skills are necessary for a career in conservation photography?
A: Great question. Traditionally, it was best to focus on growing your craft, cultivating your skills, and developing your abilities as a photographer. Those are all still important, but nowadays, you must also be somewhat of a Swiss Army Knife – learn how to shoot stills, how to edit stills, how to shoot video, how to edit video, how to mix and record audio, how to write, how to utilize social media, how to conduct an interview, etc. Once you've built up your skillset (much of which you can accomplish just with a smartphone), approach a scientific or conservation organization. The best scientists are often the worst communicators, and the diversity of your ability will be a gold mine to them. Volunteering may be a good strategy for getting your foot in the door, but they will quickly recognize your value and compensate you for it. In the meantime, there will be much you can learn from them as well.
Q: What is the best way to transition into wildlife photography as a career?
A: My advice would be to keep your day job. A lot of people buy some expensive gear, give their notice at work, announce they are a professional wildlife and nature photographer, then sit there flat broke without any means to support their passion. Not that you need to go on safari and photograph lions and elephants and tigers, it just helps to have some stability as you learn the ropes. Find time in the mornings, in the evenings, and on the weekends to photograph what is around you – local conservation issues, nearby landmarks, maybe even the neighbor's dog if you don't have immediate access to wildlife. Think of ways you can create value and start generating some income. Once your business is making more than $60 – $100,000 a year, start thinking about making photography your full-time commitment.
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Thank you so much to everyone that submitted a question, and stay tuned for AMA #2, coming soon.