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Wildlife Photographer

Do you dream of a career photographing wildlife? Do you picture yourself photographing penguins in the Antarctica, elephants in Africa or polar bears in the Canadian North?

Arthur Morris of Florida has a story to tell. "A couple of weeks ago, somebody asked me for a tip to help them become a wildlife photographer," he said. "I replied, 'When I started 23 years ago, it was difficult to launch a career. Today, it's a thousand times harder.'"

Morris hesitates, and then laughs. "I lied to you," he admits. "That didn't happen two weeks ago. A wildlife photographer said that to me years ago when I asked him for a tip to get started."

Today, Morris is a successful wildlife photographer specializing in birds. His photography business employs two people and grosses almost $1 million a year.

"Don't listen to anybody who says you can't do it!" he says. "If you love what you photograph and you can make some decent pictures and you have a good brain and a ton of determination, you can do it."

However, he cautions that it isn't easy. Magazines have a limited budget for photography. Amateur photographers (those who do photography for a hobby) often give their pictures away for free, making it harder for professionals to sell their work. Many wildlife photographers struggle for about 10 years to get established.

Wildlife photographers usually get their income by selling stock photographs or by selling pictures to publishers of magazines, books, calendars and greeting cards.

In addition, many wildlife photographers earn money from other sources. These sources include writing articles or instructional material, teaching workshops and courses, guiding photography tours, or selling photographic accessories through mail order or on the Internet.

Some wildlife photographers take photos, and then create a market for their products. Morris tells about an amateur photographer who took a "crummy" picture of an eagle. He put the picture on refrigerator magnets and sold 1,000 of them to local businesses at one dollar each.

Nancy Rotenberg is a freelance nature photographer, writer, speaker and workshop leader. She points out that there is a considerable investment in equipment when you start up a wildlife photography business.

Animal photography requires the most expensive equipment. If you are photographing a moose, for example, you can't get close enough to use a small lens. You need a large, wide-angle lens that might cost $10,000.

"If you are competing with the better wildlife photographers, you need the same equipment to level the playing field," says Rotenberg.

Morris estimates that 100 Americans make a good living as full-time wildlife photographers. Another 900 are "scraping by."

Wildlife photographer John Marriott says he has a friend who shoots only wildlife and makes about $125,000 in sales per year.

Today's wildlife photographers usually pay for their own trips. "No one sponsors you, particularly in the beginning, to go where the wildlife is," says Rotenberg.

Occasionally, a publisher pays travel expenses for a commissioned assignment. That is rare, however. It is cheaper to use a local photographer rather than send someone to a distant place.

Lynda Richardson of Virginia has photographed wildlife all over the world. She sells her work to magazines like National Geographic and the Smithsonian.

Richardson is one of the few successful women in the field who does not partner with a man. She says wildlife photography can be dangerous and rugged. People have attacked lone women and stolen their expensive equipment. Some women hire bodyguards to go with them. Also, wildlife photographers are away from home and family a great deal.

Richardson and the other photographers have many tips for young people who dream of becoming a wildlife photographer. First, you must become a good photographer. Photography courses are available at schools and other locations.

Richardson advises learning a broad range of photography, including studio photography, portrait photography, sports and action photography, and even fashion photography.

Publishers want pictures that tell a story of animal behavior or of conservation efforts or of people interacting with animals. "It's not enough to take a nice picture of a deer," she says. "You have to tell a story about the deer with your photos."

The more skills you develop, the better your chances of success will be. Writing, teaching and public speaking skills are important.

And since wildlife photographers are freelancers, business skills are crucial. "A business sense is critical in photography. You have to be your own marketing agent, accountant bookkeeper, etc.," says Marriott.

To get started, Richardson suggests learning as much about wildlife as possible. Try to find a mentor. Offer to help the mentor for free in order to gain knowledge.

Read wildlife magazines. Talk to hunters and learn how to stalk animals. Contact a wildlife agency and see if you can tag along with researchers or biologists.

It's important to understand animal behaviors, animal communication and how to behave around different species. While photographing in Africa, a herd of elephants charged Richardson and her group. The charging elephants had their heads and trunks up. Richardson knew that attacking elephants put their heads down. She also knew that if anyone in the group turned and ran away, the elephants would lower their heads, attack and possibly kill the photographers.

Richardson recommends creating a personal project. Check animal calendars in your local bookstore to discover which animals are trendy. Pick one and then create your project. Take your project to publishers to show them what you can do. Richardson's personal project was about sea turtles.

Once you have some good pictures, you might apply for the North American Nature Photography Association's annual scholarship program for students. The website contains the details.

Morris says to learn as much as you can. Look at good photographs and analyze why they are good. Then go out and take pictures. "If people want to become a wildlife photographer because it seems glamorous, that's a bad reason," he comments.


North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA)
Committed to serving the field of nature photography

Nature Photographer's Network
Online resource for nature photographers of all levels

Wildlife Photography Tips
Check out these suggestions and improve your photography skills

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