For many people, photography is more than a hobby. It is passion. There is something about capturing that incredible moment and preserving it that speaks to them on a deep level. But if you want to make a living from wildlife photography, it’s not enough to be an avid shutterbug.
You will need a high level of skills, the right equipment, and focus on a niche that is not overexploited (competition can be fierce). And you also have to identify how those images can make you some cold hard cash.
As they say, love (in this case of both nature and photography) may make the world go around, but cold hard cash puts food on the table and pays the rent.
Let’s take a closer look at what you will need to become a success as a wildlife photographer.
What Equipment Do You Need To Become A Wildlife Photographer?
People considering wildlife photography as a career often think to themselves: “How much equipment could I possibly need? I have a great camera and a telephoto lens – I’m ready to hit the ground running!”
Tell that to a professional wildlife photographer who has just spent 3 days getting a single shot while being bitten by assorted flying insects – I bet they could use a laugh.
The fact is the equipment you will need is not limited to just the camera and lenses. There are some other purchases that you will need to make, here are only some of those:
1. A Great Set of Binoculars
Getting that perfect shot is often all about anticipation. And you can’t plan for a shot unless you know what is coming your way. You are probably going to spend hours with those binoculars glued to your face; make sure they are of great quality.
Most wildlife photographers will choose binoculars that offer between 8x and 10x magnification. Of course, many will say that their super-telephoto lens is more than sufficient. It’s not – binoculars are far superior when it comes to looking into the distance.
Monoculars are also great if you are going to be hiking to that perfect spot to get that elusive shot. They’re light and don’t take up too much space.
2. A High-Quality Headlamp
It is almost inevitable that many of the opportunities to get fabulous wildlife shots are going to be in lowlight conditions such as early in the morning, at dusk, or even at night.
There’s little point in playing the waiting game seeing your subject approaching and then spending precious minutes fumbling in the dark with your equipment.
A good headlamp frees up both hands and also is invaluable for preventing broken bones when you are active in the pitch dark. Many professional wildlife photographers prefer headlamps with an LED “night mode.” They emit red light, which does not ruin your night vision.
3. A Telephoto Lens
Yes, you are going to need one. A lens in the 400mm equivalent range should do nicely. “Equivalent” because advanced cameras have a crop factor that will provide an angle of view that’s roughly equivalent to a longer focal length lens (in 35mm terms).
4. A Bean Bag
Don’t laugh. A small bean bag is a great option for supporting the camera and lens when using a tripod just isn’t practical. They can be molded to fit just about any surface, up to and including the bottom rim of a car door window.
Look for one that is filled with buckwheat or even rice. These fillings provide the weight that is so necessary for stability.
5. A Tripod
There are certain circumstances where you are going to need a rock-steady platform, and a high-quality tripod will provide you with that platform. And chances are you are going to be shooting on uneven ground. Mother Nature abhors flat surfaces.
As mentioned previously, a lot of wildlife photography is going to happen in low-light conditions. This means using slower shutter speeds. Longer focal lengths (as when using superzooms) can mean considerably more shake than is normal.
If you are shooting at speeds of under 1/200 second, with focal lengths in and around the 400-600mm range, even the most advanced image stabilizers are going to throw their hands up in the air and wail, “I simply can’t.”
A great tripod is essential. Mount your camera before you need to, and you won’t suffer the fatigue that can accompany lifting and sometimes holding very weighty equipment.
Spend a bit extra on this vital piece of equipment and make sure that it can extend to a length that will suit your surroundings and the environment of your subject.
6. Protecting Your Long Lenses – A Camera Bag and Waterproof Cover
If you are going to be punishing your bank account by purchasing a high-quality zoom lens, then the last thing you want to do is risk it getting damaged. Sometimes straps and handles don’t do the job; most professional wildlife photographers prefer a specialized backpack.
Another essential piece of equipment that protects your precious long lenses is a waterproof long lens cover. Covers that protect both camera and lens are your best option.
If you are going to be taking shots of smaller animals or ones that are especially skittish, an extender (also known as a teleconverter) is an essential piece of equipment. They provide that extra reach and are excellent for compositional variation.
So there you have it. These pieces of equipment are the bedrock of what a professional wildlife photographer will need in order to make a living.
Then we come to just how you are going to monetize those incredible shots.
What’s The Easiest Way To Make Money As A Wildlife Photographer?
In short, “easy” may not be the correct word to use. It takes dedication, an upbeat positivity, and a share of sheer stubbornness to make a living as a wildlife photographer. That said, there are some markets that bear exploring.
Selling your images as stock photos is a great way to make money from wildlife photography. And, there are several ways to go about it.
The first is microstock agencies. These agencies take your images and onsell them to newspapers, magazines, and others. Once you have submitted your images, you sit back and wait.
They will do the job 24 hours a day – and you have to sleep at some point. The royalty rates are typically pretty low, but it’s a numbers game. As your portfolio grows, so will the royalties you receive.
Then there are stock agencies. These agencies will ask you for exclusive rights to images – and therefore, the royalty rates are higher. It may be a good idea to send some images to microstock agencies and others to stick agencies – you diversify your risk and increase your reach.
Everyone has an ego – and nothing boosts that ego like winning a competition. Enter as many as you can. If you win, you can get some great prizes. They may not all be cash, but some offer excellent prizes in the form of equipment – and that will save you money.
A gallery exhibition can be time-consuming, but the cost of hiring out space may not be. There is always the opportunity to make a great sale, and it does get your name out there. Remember to negotiate.
A lot of these spaces are hurting after experiencing limited foot traffic during the coronavirus and are hungry for cash. It’s also not only about those giant prints. Diversify your offerings to include merchandise such as postcards.
How much should you be charging for your work? Start off covering your costs and making a little extra profit. As time goes on and you become more well known, you can start charging more.
Most professional photographers make their bread and butter doing photoshoots; however, for wildlife photographers, that can sometimes pose challenges. Full trips to Tanzania are not exactly waiting to be snapped up.
But keep sending out samples (ad agencies are a good start) and hope for the best. And always keep networking at functions – you’ll be surprised how often leads come from family and friends.
Another great way to monetize your skills is to give photography lessons. There are a number of academic institutions that offer photography courses, and tuition agencies also keep a register of service providers.
The opportunities will increase exponentially if you are a confident public speaker; giving lectures and talks can be a great way to build up a client base – and public speaking offers great networking opportunities.
Besides, safari operators are often in the market for speakers to orientate their clients before a big trip. Camera clubs can also provide many opportunities.
Write About It
If you are good with the written word, then you could always try and write a book or at least a paper on a specific subject or species. The market has exploded due to the increasing popularity of e-books.
Try and join some social media groups on photography and publishing. And be active with comments – also, don’t be afraid to post samples of some of your best work.
How Much Money Can You Make From Wildlife Photography?
How long is a piece of string? Some of the best wildlife photographers charge a pretty penny for their work – and it’s something that they enjoy. What better job could there be?
The amount of money that you make will depend on just how much time you are willing to put into both taking those images and marketing yourself. The key is to keep at it. Your patience will be rewarded.
Can You Make Wildlife Photography A Career?
That is literally the million-dollar question. Interest in the natural world has never been higher, and the Internet has opened up some interesting options for those who want to make wildlife photography their career.
There are numerous sites that provide new and exciting opportunities for those who have an interest in nature and are prepared to put in the hours perfecting their technique and tolerating some hardship along the way.
What is true is that, like most careers, there is inevitably a learning curve. It may be some time before your income from wildlife photography is enough to allow you to give up your day job.
The key is perseverance and a mindset that is dedicated to continual improvement. But the rewards are not only monetary.
You will be one of the lucky few who can make money from your photography and doing something that you are truly passionate about. And although money is important, that passion will sustain you even during the leanest of times.