Do you want to be a professional wildlife photographer?

About once a week I get an e-mail from somebody asking me what they have to do to become a professional wildlife photographer. Often these questions come from young children doing projects at school about a future career they would like. These are the ones that often simply send the standard question list (What education do you need? What are your working hours? How much money do you make?).

But often also these mails come from young people, either at the end of highschool or at college, seriously thinking about a career as a wildlife photographer. Often I am asked what subject to take at college. I will try to answer that further on.

Usually my first reaction is: "If I knew a certain way, I would be a fulltime pro myself !". But of course this thought doesn't help people looking for an answer. It does however indicate that there is no easy answer to this question. Seriously, it is difficult to become more than a part-time freelancer. There are so many amateurs flooding the "market" with good quality pictures, that it is very, very hard to make a good living.

Many (most) of the famous professionals in wildlife photography never did have any formal photography training. Frans Lanting, one of the very best at this moment, studied economics before he got an interest in photography. Arthur Morris, probably the best known bird photographer in the US, has been a school teacher for many years before going fulltime into bird photography. I only once met someone (he did the Field Guide training together with me in South Africa) who had done a formal education. He had attended a college in England where there is a 4-year bachelor program in biological imaging. A kind of combination between biology and photography/filming/drawing. But still he had great difficulty earning a living and needed to work as a safari guide.

The best way to get yourself into wildlife photography is to do it alongside another job. Preferable a job that brings you as close as possible to your subjects. Not only to spend as much time as possible with your subject to get good opportunities, but also to be able to learn about your subject. This could be as a conservationist, zoologist, ranger or travel guide. Then while photographing alongside a job that pays for the bills, you can slowly start selling pictures while your experience and expertise grows. After a few years the moment might come when you decide that you can take the dive and fully quit the other job. However if you have young children as I do, the matter becomes more complex. As a wildlife photographer you often need to travel quite a lot. Do you want to leave your wife alone with the care for the children so much? Don't you think your kids will really miss you when you are always away? For me this was a main reason not to go into photography as a fulltime profession.

One thing many people overlook, is that if you intend to be a fulltime professional, you have to look at the photography as a business. Quite a few people are put off by this. But once you are a pro, it is no longer just taking great pictures because you like it so much. It is getting enough money to pay the bills and the mortgage, maybe support a family etc. You have to earn enough money not just to compensate for all expenses such as equipment, films, processing, travel, office expenses etc but also to make a living. That can be very difficult. You do need some kind of business-drive as you will not only be marketing your pictures, but in a way also yourself. So to answer your question on what subject would be best to choose at college: take some business classes as well.

There are two very good books on this subject and I strongly suggest reading them. One by John Shaw and one by Nigel Hicks. You can find reviews of them on my website. Please read them, as they will give you a very good view on the business side of being a wildlife photographer.

I realize that you might have hoped for some better answers. Unfortunately I can't give them. But whatever you do, don't loose your dream!