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What Does It Take to Be a Wildlife Photographer?

Last updated on Sep 8, 2021 by [email protected]

Being a professional wildlife photographer entails a lot of hard work. Travelling to exotic locations, purchasing extensive gear, and investing all of your precious time. What does it really take to become a wildlife photographer?

Wildlife photographers and action photographers have the most intensive job. To be a professional you need to know exactly how to get perfect focus and shots in very little time. In that way, wildlife photography is a skill that you can develop and improve over time.

This means that to be a professional, you will need to practice. Contrary to other genres of photography, you cannot control when your circumstances will align to produce a good shot. In wildlife photography, nature dictates everything, even in a closed environment, like a zoo.

Child feeding deer through a fence

Wild animals are not the safest subject either, and you might have a hard time communicating with them. A respect for animals is necessary for wildlife photographers. A big part of the job entails loving the animals you see enough to document them.

One of the most fantastic publications for wildlife photography is National Geographic. Many of the photographers for the magazine aren’t just photographers — they’re scientists, or biologists that have dedicated much of their lives to studying specific animals. So, National Geographic magazine is a great place to look for inspiration for photography and for what respectful relationships with wild animals looks like. 

Here is a basic list of what the guide will cover. What will it take for you to become a professional photographer?

  • Animal photographer skills and competencies
  • The duties and responsibilities of a wildlife photographer
  • Tips for becoming a wildlife photographer

If the skill level required of wildlife photographers seems daunting, don’t fret! This great tutorial can get you started with some classes. After that, you just need to practice. 

Animal Photographer Skills and Competencies

In this section, we are going to look at three main topics. Each of these points will help you to become a better wildlife photographer. You need to understand these fundamentals in order to be a successful professional animal photographer.

  • How can you improve your photography skills?
  • What are some skills necessary for photographing animals?
  • What instincts does a good wildlife photographer have?

Improving Your Photography Skill Set

As I mentioned above, there are specific skills you will need as a wildlife photographer. The main skills you will need involve technical and physical ability.

Technical ability refers to your ability to use the tools you have at your disposal. You might be able to afford a top of the line camera body and incredibly expensive lenses. Or, your budget might limit you to slower bodies and lenses. Either way, you can learn to work with your equipment to get the best possible photos.

The first part of technical ability is learning how to properly focus your shots. To get a crisp, clear image, you’ll need to have mastered focusing on your camera. While higher-end camera features can greatly assist your focusing abilities, there are some ways you can quickly improve your focusing game without fancy equipment.

To improve your focus ability, learn how to preset your focus. If you are waiting for a bird out of view to fly into frame, focus your camera in the space where you think it will fly. That way, when the bird flies into your frame, you can snap focus to it more easily.

Yellow-lighted photo of brown bird on a thin branch

You’ll also need to learn how the focusing system works on your specific setup. Can you lock and track focus? If so, learn when that method works for you and when it would be better to use a single focus point.

Equally as important as mastering focus is understanding how to manipulate exposure. The exposure triangle, often depicted in a diagram form, allows you to keep your photo well exposed while also maintaining varied settings. For many animal subjects, you might need a shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second or greater, depending on how quickly they move.

But how can you achieve that shutter speed without underexposing your image? ISO makes images brighter as it increases. Aperture makes images darker as it goes up in number.

Knowing how these technical aspects interact and what your settings should be requires practice. 

Through practicing, you’ll learn that you can freeze a person in motion at 1/300th of a second. You might also learn that you can’t freeze a person’s motion at that shutter speed while they’re running. Now think of how much faster a gazelle is than a person running! You’ll learn in the field that what works for capturing some animals won’t work for others.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of research. If you know you want to photograph hummingbirds on your next trip, you can lookup both how fast a hummingbird flaps its wings, and how fast your shutter speed needs to be to capture them. Accrue knowledge before a shoot, not during or after.

selective focus photo of four green humming birds with red flowers

Knowing what you need to do in the field makes it so that you don’t have to learn to use your camera. If you’re a great landscape photographer, you don’t want to be fiddling like you used to on a tripod when you’re out in the field with a rare wild animal.

Necessary Skills for Photographing Animals

Some things are inherent to photographing an animal. We will cover everything from the physical strain of holding your heavy lens to proper field behavior. 

The first thing to remember is that you’re photographing in a living world. Make sure that you are respectful of the nature around you. This might not seem like a skill you need to learn but, many beginners have failed here. Make sure you understand the terrain and how you can have the least impact on the nature around you.

Next, know how quiet you need to be. Animals, like birds, will see you move from far away. In a non-urban environment, that bird might scare easily and fly away if you’re too noisy or your movements are too rapid. 

Being able to move silently and stay still for a long time will make you a much better photographer. Patience is of the utmost importance to wildlife photographers. If you can’t dedicate yourself to a shot, you probably won’t get it. 

Lastly, keep your eyes open. Many animals use some form of natural camouflage or hide, especially with predators nearby. To catch them with your camera, you will need to see them before they escape. Keeping your eyes open, scanning and searching is a must!

Lizard in the sand

What Instincts Does a Good Wildlife Photographer Have?

With practice, you build a lot of great instincts as a wildlife photographer. Immersing yourself in nature over and over again will help you discover how to hear, smell and feel in the field.

Learning what to look out for takes a lot of time. If you are travelling with a guide, notice their intuition when it comes to discovering where animals are hiding, and aspire to that level of innate knowledge. How do they know where an animal might be, when to be quiet, and when to allow conversation?

The answer is practice. A lot of time, patience, knowledge, study, and practice. They have the advantage of hours, days, months, and years spent in the same place, learning about it.

This is why I highly suggest taking guided excursions as a wildlife photographer. This doesn’t have to mean a week-long safari on a different continent. It can be as simple as finding the closest wildlife park to you and booking a 2-hour guided tour. See how much you can learn from a little time spent with a guide.

Another set of instincts a wildlife photographer needs to have is a sense of time. Specifically, you must know when time is wasted and when time is spent with no result. The difference is understanding when you actually achieved nothing and when you learned from the achievement of nothing.

This all sounds quite abstract, but think about it. You can go out in the field and wait in a perch for birds for hours with no luck. But, if you attempt to nail focus and framing everytime, then you learned. Your time was well-spent. If you go out and don’t try to focus because you don’t think you can, then you wasted an opportunity to learn. 

Following your instincts to get the shot makes a wildlife photographer great. As you reach a higher skill level, you will be able to discern when you shouldn’t try taking a shot. Very few people actually ever get to this level; most just think they have.

The Duties and Responsibilities of a Wildlife Photographer

What duties or responsibilities does a wildlife photographer have? And, what does a wildlife photographer actually do? These are the base topics we’ll cover in this section: 

  • What do animal photographers do?
  • What are the duties and responsibilities of wildlife photographers?
  • Why should you photograph animals?

Let’s get to it!

What Is the Job of a Wildlife Photographer?

A wildlife photographer has one job, and they may do it for a variety of reasons and for a variety of clients. The job is to capture images of wildlife. These images can vary in style and subject. They may include:

  • Animals in their natural habitat
  • Invasive animals in new habitats
  • Animals stripped of their natural habitats
  • Animals eating or feeding on something
  • Images of animals in a way of life, such as hunting or fighting 
  • Environmental images of animals, showcasing both what they are and what they do
  • Artistic images of animals, often to show beauty or a specific primal emotion

So, why would someone capture photos like these?

Black rodent with red belly eating a chip

Some wildlife photographers may be doing so for editorial usage. A magazine might be featuring a specific animal in an article about emerging research, and they need an image.

Images and even videos of animals can also provide an opportunity for research. Rather than removing an animal from their natural habitat, images and video footage allow researchers to gain information from a respectful distance. 

Some wildlife photographers simply love taking photos of animals. They may even sell their images to a variety of clients. Some images might be artistic and creative and feature heavy-handed editing. Other images might be purely editorial, allowing the natural beauty of the animal to shine through.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities of a Wildlife Photographer?

What should you do as a wildlife photographer, outside of actually taking photos. Well, in order to lawfully take photos in natural spaces, you’ll need to know the laws for photographing in certain areas.

While some location have incredibly strict laws, others are more relaxed. Still, it’s a good idea to obey the maximum amount of regulations, just in case. The most important thing in wildlife photography is the subject, and regulations will help you get safe shots that protect those subjects.

Sadly, some wildlife photographers stage their photos. If you want to use taxidermy, Photoshop (outside of basic editing) or anything else to produce an amazing image, go ahead. But, many would say that you have a responsibility to your audience to be transparent about how you achieved your photo. 

Chimpanzee shot through a fence at a zoo

Next comes zoos. Wildlife photographers certainly photograph at zoos, but you should be aware of the facts before you decide to do a zoo shoot. Many zoos treat their animals poorly, and it shows. The first step to taking photos in a zoo is knowing how the zoo treats their animals.

If a zoo is treating their animals properly, there is no problem in photographing there. However, once again, you should not pretend that you took a photo from a zoo in some other location. Inform the viewers of your work that the subject in the image was not wild, but in captivity at a zoo. 

Once again, wildlife photographers also have a responsibility to respect the wildlife and nature. Leave everything in the natural world as you found it. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, your job is not to interfere.

Interference with nature can do a lot of harm to both nature itself and to you as a photographer. If you’re baiting animals for images, and you hide this from your audience because of its legality and ethics, it might come out and tarnish your career.

Stick to the laws, be transparent, and communicate with your audience or clientele about your images. 

Why Should You Photograph Animals?

Wildlife is interesting and beautiful. That’s why a lot of people start photographing animals. Some photograph domesticated animals and stop there, while others move on to true wildlife photography.

If you find birds to be the most interesting or accessible subject, then photograph birds. If you’re going on a safari and want to pick up a hobby, why not try photography? There are plenty of different places and ways to get into the field!

Another reason to photograph wildlife is that it can be an incredible career. You get to spend a lot of your time in desolate places, camping and surviving off the land. It’s the dream reality for a lot of people, and it can be a job for you, too. 

But, you don’t have to make it your job if you don’t want to. Go camping or out for a simple day hike, a couple of times a year. Make it a fun trip — something you do with your kids, kind of like fishing. Instead of waiting for a fish, you’re waiting for a photo.

Two deer with large antlers in a grassy field with trees in the background

Tips for Becoming a Wildlife Photographer

Becoming a wildlife photographer takes a lot more work than just capturing the images. There are some things you can do to improve your success in the field. Before you go any further, read our initial tips on being a freelance photographer.

This is what this section of this guide will cover:

  • How can you earn money being a freelance photographer?
  • Where can you learn more about wildlife photography?
  • How do you advertise your freelance photography services?

Earning Money as a Freelance Photographer

There are many ways you can earn money as a freelance photographer, but wildlife photographers have more of a challenge. Because your animal subjects are more difficult to find, you may have a more difficult time getting images.

Once you have your photos, the first step is finding the right clients. These clients can range from national parks and zoos to wildlife magazines and journals. You can also sell your art through a company or online at places like Shutterstock and Adobe Stock.

Building Your Portfolio

Creating a photography portfolio is essential to selling your photos to clients. The difference between a wildlife portfolio and other portfolios is the quality per image. While a professional portrait photographer can build a ten image portfolio super quickly, you might not be able to do that.

To build your portfolio, make sure you are taking advantage of all opportunities. During seasons where you can shoot, shoot as much as possible. 

When structuring your portfolio, think of your target audience. Who do you want to look at your portfolio? Some wildlife photographers only shoot one species or type of animal, so think of what kinds of clients might be interested in that species. Bird photographers, for instance, are concerned with who might want or need bird images.

Some clients might not care what the birds are, so present a portfolio of your best bird images, no matter the species. Other clients might be more interested in a diversity of rare species rather than the technically perfect images. For these clients, present the images that showcase some technical talent alongside a lot of special images.

The Right Clients for Your Wildlife Photography

How do you know who to target as clients? Do some research. Find what your prospective client might want.

If your local zoo needs advertising material, shooting rare animals can help you earn a contract with them. On the other hand, a national park might be interested in a more diverse portfolio. Maybe showcasing galleries of your work from specific places would win them over.

Deer walking through tall grass with mountains and a river in the background

Professionalism is big in the wildlife photography industry. You want to present yourself as able to do the work in nature, as well as hard working and willing to put in the extra time.

Some small things can help you make a great impression. Business cards, which you can learn how to make here, often get your foot in the door, especially with a less digital audience. Showcasing a physical portfolio alongside an online one can be a great asset. 

Learning More About Wildlife Photography

Learning about the animals you photograph can really ignite your passion for wildlife photography. Knowing particular species, their anatomy and biology and their habits can actually help you take better photos. Of course, you’ll also want to learn about the photography field itself.

The best place to learn about wildlife is the internet. You can easily do research on specific animals and their location ranges with a quick search. You can also look into what wildlife lives in an area where you frequently photograph.

The internet, however, is not the most accessible thing, especially in the field. This is where notebooks and physical books come in to play. Doing research ahead of shooting is important and often necessary.

Sleeping bear

Learning About Photographing Wildlife

The best way to learn is to do. Practice makes perfect — you’ve heard that saying, and you probably know it holds true. Another popular saying is that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, and one session of wildlife photography practice doesn’t give that much time!

Try to find a professional mentor to help you gain a footing in the field. A mentor can teach you a lot of the nuances of the art. If you can get someone to take you out and practice with you, you will be able to rapidly improve and see your mistakes.

photographer crouched next to a camera on a tripod in the dark woods

That may not be feasible, depending on your location and connections. If not, consider enrolling in one of many in-person wildlife photography courses. This is especially helpful if you are a complete novice.

These courses range in quality, so see if you can find a well established program with reviews. While these programs can get rather expensive, they might boost your career more than a shiny new lens. Decide if you need additional help, or if you can get enough public information to satisfy what you want to learn.

Another great place to learn about photography is through video courses. These can be on a public domain like YouTube or through a paid site. While you might have to dig through a lot of public videos to find something noteworthy, it might pay off. 

Marketing Yourself as a Freelance Photographer

There are many ways to market yourself and your photography. As I mentioned above, target your clients with specific portfolios, and things like business cards. See what they need and be the right puzzle piece for their project.

Also, study the competition and find creative ways to differ from them. Wildlife photography is often a saturated niche, and breaking in can be hard. Maybe pick up a different photo editing technique or find a different eye-catching style. 

Stock photography sites can also help you make a name for yourself while pocketing some extra money. This guide teaches you how to sell nature images, an umbrella genre under which plenty of wildlife images fall.

Remember, too, that museum and editorial work look great in a portfolio. To get one of these jobs, you might want to look for listings for specific topics on museum and gallery sites. This could be something different, like macro insect photography for a museum. Having your work in an installation like this will give you an edge.

Make sure your website and portfolio is up to date and shows only your highest quality images. If you want to post more, use Instagram or an online blog. A blog lets clients see where you journey, what work you have done, and what projects you are working on.

A blog also doesn’t dilute your portfolio. If you show a great image in your portfolio online, it might link to a blog post about that specific trip. Then, if it has piqued interest, the client might read through and see more images of that animal.

Certainly, this leaves the client with the knowledge that you have a variety of images in your portfolio. Additionally, it allows the client to look for more of your work that suits their needs. This means clients can see what you do, but also what they can expect from different types of shoots.

I hope this guide taught you what you wanted to know about wildlife photography!

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