How to Become a Wildlife Photographer

By TACP Staff on August 07, 2019

Wildlife photographers are professionals who are highly-skilled at and knowledgeable in taking photographs and navigating the natural terrain where animals live their lives in the wild. These specialized professionals must have a working knowledge of the animals they may encounter, as well as the habitat where they will work.

1. Getting Started in Wildlife Photography

Learn the Basics of Photography

Sweeping nature shots, gorgeous panoramas of giraffes grazing on tall trees, jaguars stalking its prey in the rain forest, and wild goats clinging to Himalayan cliff sides are all made possible through the talents and expertise of wildlife photographers. Great photos that appear in magazines, online and on TV aren’t just snapped by random passers-by on their cellphones but are rather the results of years of training in wildlife photography.

A successful wildlife photographer will have a natural flair for composition and a fluid command of the camera. But, turning those skills into beautiful shots that individuals are willing to pay for, requires a whole new level of mastery. You must understand the concepts involved, learn to build and maintain an ever-more-impressive portfolio, attain industry connections, and make time for continuing education.

Depending on an individual’s current level of expertise, he or she may choose to begin a wildlife photography career with formal photography training; either in a university setting or through a community college or arts institute. Online courses and apprenticeships are also possibilities. While in school, students have access to other types of classes, like zoology or animal behavior, which may help a prospective photographer better understand animal behavior. Obtaining this added knowledge may also make it easier to catch animals in their natural environments.

Moreover, aspiring photographers must develop the skills involved in shooting objects in motion. Blur photography is very different from taking pictures of people – who will willingly pose – and objects, which are stationary. While you can certainly take pictures of animals resting or sleeping, it’s more common to see them in action: pouncing on prey, running across fields or swimming amongst coral reefs. Capturing these moments with clarity requires a high degree of skill. As your abilities develop, you should start to incorporate blur photography, which is accomplished by slowing down the shutter speed.  This is an indispensable skill if you plan to photograph animals in the wild.

2. Develop Fundamental Photography Skills

Get Comfortable Working Outdoors

Wildlife photography, like other types of photography, is an art. Like any art, it relies heavily on technique and practice. Sure, some level of innate talent is involved, but research into success and mastery has repeatedly proven that knowledge and consistent application are much more important than natural qualities.

Courses are readily available at two-year and four-year colleges, universities and private art schools. Training is also available through certificate programs. And, as with any chosen field, programs in photography vary. Certificate programs offer a basic background in photography. Associate degree programs combine general education courses with electives in nature or wildlife photography.  At this level, a few courses available may include, color and black and white photography, two- and three-dimensional imaging, and digital editing.

If you decide to go on and earn a bachelor’s degree in photography, you may be able to attend a photography school that offers a concentration in wildlife photography. A bachelor’s program builds on what was learned previously and may include coursework in lighting and landscape options, media law and ethics, and portfolio marketing and management. A master’s degree usually takes an additional two years to complete, but often offer the flexibility to choose wildlife photography as a specialty. The coursework is extensive, but with a little hard work, a thesis project, and independent study options, graduates are well on their way to securing a career in this amazing field. Regardless, prior to choosing a school, decide on career goals, and look for a program that matches your needs.

The basic set of skills you’ll learn include developing an ability to control for different lighting conditions, adjusting shutter speeds and aperture to adapt to different animals and situations, and a basic knowledge of Photoshop and other software programs like Affinity PhotoPixlr, and Acorn that allow you to adjust and edit your photos to bring them to life.

However, it isn’t only technical skills you’ll want to develop to be successful in this career. Wildlife photographers are often in the wild, which means you must have a basic set of skills to enable you to thrive during long, harsh, chilly, and hot expeditions. “Survival skills” might include the ability to communicate with native inhabitants, pack your gear and personal belongings securely and effectively, and to be patient while waiting for conditions to improve and animals to appear.

From there, you will build your portfolio, which requires an understanding of client’s needs. In some cases, you may build different portfolios for different clients – for example, individual collectors or magazines versus wildlife preservation organizations. At this point, it is wise to acquire some business smarts so that you can market your work effectively and for a fair price.  Researching the market, and keeping tabs on trends is imperative.

Helpful Links

3. Build a Portfolio & Market Yourself

Learn the Business Side of Photography

Becoming successful in the wildlife photography field depends on a few factors: your ability to take great shots, a stellar portfolio with dozens of spectacular shots, and a list of people who can help you achieve success.

There are a few people who can help. Magazines and websites specializing in photography may pay you for beautiful shots, as will wildlife and conservation organizations. In some cases, you may be kept on a retainer or even become a member of the staff. The best way to build these connections is to send emails with proof of your work or links to your website, and query the appropriate individuals.

Private clients may also be interested in your work. These are, of course, more difficult to find, as most collectors handpick the work they sponsor rather than advertising their needs. As such, you must make those people come to you. That means a fabulous website and a fabulous portfolio, and featuring your photos on social profiles, like Shutterstock, iStock, and BigStock that buy photos and showcase them on their sites for purchase. Be warned, however, it is very hard to make a living this way.

You can also reach out to bloggers, freelance journalists, or documentarians who might have need of still shots. And, while video requires a different set of skills, having knowledge in this area may also help land a job or gain a new client.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Wildlife Photographers

Related Links