So you want to be a pro wildlife photographer? I get quite a regular flow of enquiries from young people wanting to get into the business. Generally I am asked ‘Can you really make a living out of this?’ A short answer is yes, but it is very difficult and certainly getting harder year by year. All the better stock agencies are flooded with wildlife images, and many of the ever increasing number of photographers are selling their pictures direct to publishers as well. It certainly is tough out there! Just being able to take a good picture is not enough – a lot of determination and a strong business sense are equally important if you are going to make it. However I believe that it is essential that young creative talent does enter the profession. Without new input and ideas the entire genre of wildlife photography could easily stagnate into a constant repetition of the old tried and trusted techniques.
The following email interview was conducted by Jennifer Thomas, a young photography and advertising student at The Atlanta College of Art. I found her questions very pertinent. Jennifer asked many of the FAQ’s relevant to how on earth a person can make wildlife photography a career. The interview was part of Jennifer’s course – she told me afterwards that she received an ‘A’. I have no doubt this was due to the quality of her questions rather than my answers!
Jennifer; What is your general background? (where did you grow up, educational
Nigel; Rather ordinary really - I grew up in the UK, was terribly bored at school
(and I have to admit rather rebellious, but this was the late sixties!), but got
as far as passing A levels. From there I did a Business Studies Diploma at a
Technical College – hardly related to what I would be doing later in
life. What I did outside of school hours was far more meaningful - from a
very early age I had a great interest in the natural world. I also had a
tremendous passion for art and read a lot. I was particularly interested in contemporary Western art and Far Eastern art - Zen ink painting and that sort of thing. I tried to paint myself - but was really not much good at it, and
fortunately was never stupid enough to try to turn it into a career!
Jennifer; What initially drew you into Wildlife Photography as a hobby, and what turned this hobby into a career (was there a particular event)?
Nigel; Photography started as a means of getting reference material for my
paintings of nature subjects. I very quickly discovered photography suited
me better - somehow I could get things to work on film, that simply did not look right canvas or paper. So about twenty years ago I gave up on painting - and got into terrible debt after buying a load of camera gear! I was still living in the UK. My first serious project was photographing badgers - very, very difficult as they are shy and nocturnal. I was working full time as a sales rep (selling biscuits - can you believe it!), but managed to put in about 40 nights of badger photography over one summer. I got really tired, but finished up with some rather nice badger
images. These got me into a good UK stock agency - I am still with this same agency now, and they continue to sell the odd badger image taken 19 years ago! So I got to make semi-pro fairly quickly. Full time pro took much longer - I will deal with this in a later question.
Jennifer; You photograph wildlife (mammals, reptiles, plants, etc.) in areas all
over the world. Which is your favorite subject to photograph? Where is your favorite "photographic destination"?
Nigel; Actually, I don't travel the world (although I shall be doing an Antarctic
trip at the end of this year). I concentrate on the southern African
subcontinent. I know the area very well, and so feel I have an edge here.
Also I have a good relationship with the Parks authorities - I get to visit closed areas, have permits to work off road and after hours, etc. It is exceedingly difficult to get these privileges - so I have a bit of an advantage over a lot of other local or visiting overseas photographers. I would never dream, for example, of going to The States to photograph your wildlife. Everything has been done tremendously well, by people that know the area and have the contacts. In The States I would have no edge, no advantage at all. Favourite places? The Kalahari is brilliant - and easy to visit. The Kaokaland in Namibia is also fantastic - but a real mission to get to! You need at least two 4x4 vehicles (one as backup in case of a breakdown).
Jennifer; Is there anywhere you want to go, but haven't had the chance? Any particular wildlife you want to shoot (with your camera of course), but haven't had the chance?
Nigel; Tigers in India would be nice! Getting very difficult now (with the
poaching) and very expensive too. Maybe one day!
Jennifer; Which project(s) are you currently working on?
Nigel; One thing you learn fast, when working freelance, is that lots of things do not pan out - projects get canned, clients don't pay, and so on. So it is wise to have
many things on the go. Currently I am working on another three books, doing
a lot of magazine work, am shooting for fifteen stock agencies, plus my own
photo library - all this keeps me quite busy!
Jennifer; How much research do you do prior to going out on the field? Is it important to know a lot about animal behavior to get the perfect shot?
Nigel; If it is a new location lots of research! Even for an area I know well, I
prepare a shooting list of subjects I need. This is really important! Also I
can "see" pictures in my mind that I want to find and create. I carry a
notebook full of sketches of pictures I want to take - they are really
scruffy sketches, but at least I am going out there with a clear objective.
Jennifer; How long do you generally spend on a single assignment?
Nigel; Of course this depends on the assignment. If it is just a quick shoot for a
magazine travel feature - I may get it tied up in three or four days (but I
don't often do this kind of work). A large wildlife book, start to finish,
could take one to two years, but then I would expect to get several good
(nature) magazine features off the back of this, plus of course a lot of
Jennifer; What do you generally carry out on the field with you? (equipment-wise)
Nigel; Again it depends what I am doing. If I have to walk a long way then as
little as possible! Big game photography in Africa is mainly done from a vehicle,
so then I feel I might as well take the lot. Lenses from 20mm to 600mm, plus
seven camera bodies - one for each lens I use regularly - so I don't miss
opportunities when changing bodies.
Jennifer; How has your wife influenced your work...how do you think you have
Nigel; Yes Wendy has been a great influence - in particular she encouraged me to go "full time" ten years ago! I had a well paid job at that time but hated corporate life. All I really wanted to do was wildlife photography. So we went from a good
salary to next to nothing. For the first few years we lived in a tiny rented
cottage at the bottom of a friend's garden. We often joked that there was plenty of film in the fridge, but not too much food! I think few wives would have
encouraged this kind of drastic and reckless career shift! Our photography
styles are somewhat different. However, a few years ago we had our first, and so far only, really serious argument. Our films got mixed up after processing. On one roll was an exceptional shot of a cheetah spitting and rearing up on its hind legs, but we could not decide who had taken the picture! Things got pretty heavy around here and we hardly spoke for days! Finally we resolved (quite correctly I believe!) that the shot was mine - but Wendy is still not sure.....! I expect she is going to read this, and I really don't need to get this topic started again!
Jennifer; You have contributed to many famous publications (Time, National
Geographic, and so on)...Which one are you most honored to have photos published in?
Nigel; I should point out that I have not worked for National Geographic on assignment – they have merely used my stock agency pics from time to time. But of course it's good to get into these magazines. The published pic that means most to me is rather more obscure. A while back I got a whole bundle of tear sheets from my UK agent. Among them was a poster that was given away in a Polish children's magazine. The pic was a Verreaux's Sifaka (lemur). For sure, all
over Poland, kids had my picture of a lemur on their bedroom wall – but the chances are they may never get to see a real lemur in Madagascar. I thought this was great and it really meant a lot to me.
Jennifer; What goes through your mind when you're flipping through a magazine and come across your work? Do you tend to focus on the positive or negative
aspects? Do you ever wish you could have changed something?
Nigel; Of course its nice to see your work published (and of course we need the
money!). But I am my own harshest critic - I always ask "how could I have
made this better?" or "what else could I have done?" - it's the only way to
Jennifer; Of the many books you have worked on, which do you consider your most successful?
Nigel; "The Kruger National Park Wonders of an African Eden" has sold the best -
now in the fifth reprint since 95. "Ultimate Wildlife" (I was not keen on the title
and fought over this, but the publisher won!) is I think a good retrospective of my work over the past ten years. I am most proud of "African Wildlife - a Photographic Safari" as it is the first project that Wendy and I have worked on jointly. She did the text and I did the pics. Amazingly it is selling really well and is due to reprint only six months after the launch.
Jennifer; How long does it take to get all of your material for the average
article, or for the average book?
Nigel; I think I pretty much covered this one earlier - but now with so much stock
on file I can put books together much faster. "Ultimate Wildlife" was done
entirely from stock - I did not shoot any new material for this title - but
it will take another ten years to get enough new stock together to do a
Jennifer; Is there any particular person in your field who you look up to or whose
work you admire and have gained things from?
Nigel; Oh yes - I constantly look at other photographers work. In the early days
Gunter Ziesler and Mitsuaki Iwago were a big influence - they both did
brilliant African wildlife books ages ago. These books still look good today. Also
the Canadian photographer Tim Fitzharris - he used floating hides for waterbirds. I used the idea here - it works fine - as long as there are no crocodiles around!
Jennifer; Have you ever had a "close encounter" while trying to get the perfect
Nigel; Yes I once very nearly stepped on a big crocodile! But seriously - close
encounters are bad. Bad for the animal, as it causes stress, and bad for me
for exactly the same reason. Also close encounters make bad pictures because the animal looks ill at ease. I try very hard not to get into these situations.
Jennifer: Do you regret having made this your career choice? Does your work ever
seem redundant or lose excitement for you?
Nigel; Never ever!
Jennifer; If you hadn't chosen photography, what do you think you would be doing?
Nigel; I hope to goodness I would not still be working in the corporate world - the
money is OK but it is no life at all. I also like flyfishing - maybe I would
have figured a way to make a living out of that?
Jennifer; Where do you see your career in 10 years? 20 years?
Nigel; I hope I shall always be looking for a better picture!
The above interview was conducted several years ago. I have left it posted on my web site as many folk are curious about how I came to become a wildlife photographer. However,much has changed in the world image market in recent years. Simply put it, has now become much more difficult to make a living from wildlife photography. I would now urge great caution to folk attempting to enter wildlife photography as a full time profession. You will need good marketing and business skills in addition to a large number of strong images. I would also advise that a careful analysis of likely remuneration from images is undertaken before launching into a full time career in this field.
I regret that due to time constraints I am unable to answer email questions on this topic.