For some time now it has been my dream to become a professional nature photographer. I can think of no other career that would be as satisfying or enjoyable. With this said I certainly acknowledge that the life of a nature photographer is not a glamorous one and the career is unlikely to ever make me rich. Furthermore, breaking into the ranks of full-time nature photographers will require years of portfolio building, significant time spent in the field making no money, and most of all a lot of hard work. All of this effort guarantees nothing but offers the possibility of a rewarding career and lifestyle for years to come.
But what does it mean to be a “pro”? Does it have to be someone who makes their living only from photography? Could it involve journalism as well? And can someone be considered a “pro” even if they have a steady full-time job? These are all questions that I have asked myself a number of times. The conclusion that I have drawn is that, for me at least, becoming a “pro” means earning money from my photographs or photo-essays and having my work published on a regular basis. I fully anticipate that I will have a conventional job in my chosen field of restoration ecology, but as time goes on, I hope to build a portfolio of images and a reputation that allows me to one day pursue nature photography on a full-time basis.
Getting Started: Equipment: There is no doubt about it – nature photography requires a significant amount of gear! While exceptional images can be made from any camera, and as much as I hate it when the first thing that someone says after seeing a photo of mine is “you must have an awesome camera”, the reality is that having the right tools for the job is a necessity. Does this mean that you should go out and buy a pro digital body and 600mm lens if you want to be a nature photographer? Absolutely not! The best strategy is to buy quality equipment that meets your needs and lets you develop as a photographer. My recommendations are as follows:
Learning the Basics: Before you publish your first book it’s probably a good idea to learn and master the basics of photography such as exposure, composition and lighting. For resources on how to best accomplish this goal see my article called “Nature Photography Resources”. Another essential to becoming a professional nature photographer will be developing your skills in the digital darkroom (see article “My Digital Workflow”).
Practice, Practice, Practice…..and then Practice Some More! All the best gear in the world will not make you a good nature photographer. Similarly, you could read every book and article ever written on nature photography and still lack the skills necessary to be successful. Both equipment and knowledge are useful tools, but they alone are not enough.
Nature photography relies on being able to make split second decisions and adjustments regarding composition and exposure. These instincts, as well as the skills necessary to actually implement these settings, can only be developed by practicing shooting the subjects you are after with your gear in the field. Getting to know your camera and make changes instantaneously is essential.
Equally, if not more important, is what photographers like Freeman Patterson have called “learning to see”. In photographic terms at least, this means learning about lighting and how to exploit it, about the rules of composition and when they can be broken and also about developing a style of your own.
As you master the basics of photography it will become increasingly important to develop advanced photographic techniques such as panning with moving subjects and maintaining auto focus. If you use “big-glass” such as 500mm or 600mm lenses you will need to develop a set of skills for producing sharp images with these heavy and awkward lenses that are highly prone to camera shake.
Finally, it takes many hours of practice and patient observation of animals in the field to understand their behavior and consequently how you can get close enough to photograph them. The more time spent taking pictures out there, the better you will get at recognizing the comfort zones of the animals you wish to photograph. My personal experiences in the field have taught me so much of what I know today. A few years ago I could hardly tell the difference between a warbler and a “what-ya-ma-call-it”, but after photographing many of the birds of Ontario, and becoming more familiar with individual species and families of birds, my identification skills have significantly improved.
Displaying Your Images and Seeking Feedback: It is a great idea for any aspiring photographer is to set up a website so that more people can see your work. This is actually a pretty simple process when you have a program like Macromedia Dreamweaver to use. You can set up a basic website on your own and host it on the web using one of the many hosting services available. I use www.chihost.com and have been quite happy with their service thus far.
Another way to display your images is to participate in online forums. I have learned a great deal from the comments and feedback that other photographers have contributed on my posts. Just bylooking at these sites you can get an idea of what works and what doesn’t, and also of the variations of different photographers styles. Some of my favorite online forums include:
Diversifying: I think that it can be very beneficial for amateur nature photographers to, once they have developed a skill set and certain level of photographic knowledge, expand their horizons and shoot a variety of different subjects in different situations. For example, while attending university I was the school papers sports photographer and ran the student darkroom. Like most photographers I have also shot weddings and done portrait work. While you may not be entirely interested in such subjects branching out and shooting a different subject matter can definitely teach you new lessons and may make you a better overall photographer.
Finding a Niche: As you continue to practice your craft and develop your own style it will be increasingly important to seek out a niche or subject matter that you specialize in. This does not necessarily have to be a cognitive decision but will likely automatically be reflected in your portfolio. Being a specialist (at least to some degree) will likely be beneficial as you work towards getting published.
The time has come! You have studied and learned your craft, you have acquired
the tools that you need, you have practiced and created a portfolio of
images that you are proud of. Its time to get your work published.
Next Steps: If all goes as planned, I hope to work towards getting more articles and photos published over the next few years. I also hope to be able to get on to the call lists for some of these magazines so that if they are looking for shots of a certain species they will contact me.
Regardless of whether these first two goals happen I will continue to travel both domestically and internationally in search of exciting nature photography subjects and experiences (see my article "Nature Photography Destinations"). I also plan on working on personal projects such as my annual calendar and hopefully one day soon a book of my own. Down the road I would like to lead photo workshops to some of my favorite places in Canada and abroad.
I have always believed that if you love doing something and if you work hard and stick to it then you will find personal satisfaction and success. I feel that if I am confident and persistent and if I market myself creatively I will be able to achieve my goals. Time will tell if this is a naïve assumption or if I will be able to achieve my dream of becoming a professional nature photographer.