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How to Become a Wildlife Photographer (Step-by-Step Guide)

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female photographer taking photos during winter

Photography has always been a fascinating subject and an intriguing way to make a living. In the field of photography, there are a wide variety of genres, including wedding, food, abstract, and portraiture. However, one of the industry’s most interesting, exciting, and demanding genres is wildlife photography. 

Wildlife photographers are a different breed, willing to go to extremes to get the perfect shot. They brave arctic cold, desert heat, and the perils of diving below the unforgiving waves to pursue their work and passion. There are many sub-genres in wildlife photography, opening up a world of possibilities to shoot something you find particularly fascinating.

If you want to become a wildlife photographer, this article is for you. In it, we’ll examine the steps you need to take to make it happen and some of the pitfalls to avoid.

shutter camera divider 2 How to Become a Wildlife Photographer (Step-by-Step Guide)

1. Prepare for Success

One of the best methods to prepare yourself to become a wildlife photographer is to enroll in a photography school and get a degree,but it requires a significant investment of time and money).

Another method is to ask a wildlife photographer to be your mentor. If you have a true passion for the career, finding someone in the industry who can guide you would be incredibly helpful. It might take some time and effort, but that’s what passion is all about; pursuing something even if it’s not easy.  At the very least, taking an online course or watching Youtube videos on how to photograph nature can be helpful.

One thing to note is that while learning to be an excellent photographer is necessary, so is learning about the natural world. Taking courses in wildlife biology can go far toward enhancing your career and helping you discover the wildlife you enjoy photographing most. 

photographer takes photo of the glacial lake
Image Credit: Kimson Doan, Unsplash

2. Purchase the Right Photography Gear

Once you’re sure that wildlife photography is a career you want to pursue, you need to invest in the proper cameras, equipment, and gear. Be aware that high-quality digital and DSLR cameras will typically cost between $400-$1500, and top-tier cameras can easily reach $4000.

Depending on the type of wildlife photography you decide to shoot, you’ll also need several lenses. Different wildlife species require special lenses, including macro-photography of insects, photographing wildlife on the Arctic tundra, or underwater photos of whales and sea life. Lastly, you’ll need gear, including bags for your cameras and lenses, tripods, folding stools, shelters, and software to edit your raw photos.

3. Start Shooting Wildlife Locally

While it’s true that wildlife photographers travel the world in search of the perfect photograph, travel can be expensive. That’s especially true if you haven’t yet been hired as a full-time or freelance photographer by an organization like National Geographic (which could take several years to happen, if ever).

For this reason, taking wildlife photos where you live, or close by, is a better way to get started. No matter where you live, the wild world is all around you. Local parks are a great place to start, as are small nature preserves and animal rescue organizations.. If you live near a national park, that’s perfect, but even a wooded trail near your home can be a treasure trove of wildlife photo opportunities.

photographer in the Canyonlands National Park
Image Credit: Brady Stoeltzing, Unsplash

4. Shoot as Often as Possible

The best way to improve your skill to practice, then practice, and then practice more. With today’s digital cameras, the only cost is your time, as you don’t need to invest in photo film. The more you shoot, the more you will learn about composition, shutter speed, and which lens to choose in every situation.

Experts suggest shooting photographs every day and keeping your camera and gear with you at all times in case an opportunity presents itself. The more photos you shoot, the closer you’ll be to becoming a paid wildlife photographer making a living from your craft.

5. Continue Taking Classes and Learning from Experts

In many industries continuing education is a requirement. Why? Because industries and technology change and new methods are discovered. While it’s not a requirement in the wildlife photography industry, new techniques are devlopled often. For these reasons, it’s imperative you keep learning, taking classes, and watching videos.

Even the best wildlife photographers will tell you that they learn new things all the time, and you should do the same. After taking a course or class, the diploma or certification you get may help you land a job as a full-time or freelance nature photographer. 

male photographer using canon dslr
Image Credit: Samuel Rios, Unsplash

6. Learn Survival Skills

Photographing wildlife can often take you to extreme places with challenging landscapes and wild creatures. The African plains, for example, can be deadly hot, and many of the animals there are just as deadly. Underwater wildlife photography presents its own unique dangers, as does taking photos of grizzly bears, venomous snakes, lions, or spiders.

Even without the dangers of wild animals, the natural world poses some grave risks, including cold, heat, lightning, rain, insects, and more. Learning how to survive in many different situations is essential, in the off-chance that something goes wrong and you’re left to fend for yourself. Having the right survival gear is also crucial to ensure that you can survive any situation that might arise in the field.

7. Due Diligence and Research are Essential

If you ask wildlife photographers where they spend most of their time, and they will tell you that it’s not in the field but in front of the computer doing research. The reason? Most photographers have to pay for their trips and don’t want to waste their time and money on an assignment that gets them little or no sellable photos.

For example, let’s say you’re planning a trip to Peru to photograph Humboldt penguins. Knowing in which part they reside (the southern coast near Paracas), how to reach them (by boat, about 2 miles offshore), and when they mate (mostly in April, August, and September) is essential. If you don’t, you might waste an entire trip and come back with few, if any, fantastic photos.

a photographer taking picture at the landscape
Image Credit: lukasbieri, Pixabay

8. Build a Portfolio of your Best Photographs

To start making an income with wildlife photography, you need proof that you have the skills to do it well. That means putting together a portfolio of your best shots, typically online, to show to prospective clients. Experts recommend using your very best photos and as wide a range of subjects as possible. That way, you don’t limit yourself or self-exclude from prospective clients. 

The easiest and fastest way to create and build a portfolio today is by making a website and hosting your photos there. That will make your work easy to share and help you build your credibility. However, it also helps to use social media accounts including Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.

9. Apply for Wildlife Photography Jobs

The most talented wildlife photographers search for positions at magazines, websites, or with other clients who will pay them to produce fantastic wildlife photos. As an amateur looking to go pro, you need to do the same (albeit with a more concerted effort). In addition to your portfolio, it’s also a good idea to create a professional resume with your credentials, degrees, certifications, etc. 

Once you have both, start applying anywhere and everywhere you can. There are many online job boards and magazines, organizations, and more posting open jobs that need to be filled.. Also, beware of scam jobs that seem too good to be true.

Animal Photographer
Image Credit: nidan, Pixabay

10. Sell Your Photos Online via a Stock Photo Website

This last step can help you pay the bills while you wait to be hired as a full-time or freelance photographer. There are several stock photo websites where you can sell your photos to customers. Commissions vary, and the more photos you have, the more you will earn. Some of the top stock photo websites include:

  • Shutterstock
  • Getty Images
  • Stock Adobe
  • Etsy
  • Alamy
  • Stocksy

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Final Thoughts

Becoming a wildlife photographer can be a life-changing event and lead you down a career path that will take you all over our amazing world. It’s adventurous and exciting, but the work and effort you’ll need to become successful can be enormous. However, the best wildlife photographer wouldn’t trade their life for any other. The beauty, magnificence, , compassion, and grace many wild creatures display are genuinely awe-inspiring. We hope today’s guide on how to become a wildlife photographer has opened your eyes and given you the information you need to embark on a career in this amazing field. Best of luck, and keep those fantastic photographs coming! 

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Featured Image Credit: Jakob Owens, Unsplash

About the Author Greg Iacono

Greg Iacono is a self-taught writer and former chiropractor who, ironically, retired early due to back problems. He now spends his time writing scintillating content on a wide variety of subjects. Greg is also a well-known video script writer known for his ability to take a complex subject and make it accessible for the layperson.