To NANPA president Jim Clark, nature photography is both an idyllic endeavor and a very demanding business.
Late November at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. As the sun dips below the horizon, the New Mexico sky is painted with hues of red and violet. Suddenly, an explosion of wings echoes across the landscape. Thousands of snow geese rise from a distant field and take flight toward the marsh where I am standing.
For a nature photographer, this is heaven. We cherish these moments. Most importantly, for those trying to make a living photographing nature, such moments can help generate a sale. Selling a photograph these days, however, is not guaranteed.
Nature photography is one of the most competitive occupations in existence, and the profession is not getting any easier for either the veteran or the individual trying to break into it. With fewer discretionary dollars to spend these days, both the public and private sectors have slowed their purchases of just about everything — including the products and services offered by nature photographers.
A recent survey estimated that more than 14 million people in the U.S. engage in some form of nature photography. Of course, 99 percent are probably just tourists who do point-and-shoot photography; perhaps fewer than 500 are pursuing nature photography as a full-time profession. Most of those who receive pay for their nature photography are able to do it only part-time, since they must hold down full-time jobs to finance their trips, film and equipment.
The number of folks doing nature photography continues to grow each year. Nature photography provides an attractive, albeit expensive, reason to get outdoors. For just about everyone photographing nature, the romantic aura of the craft can overtake rational thinking.
All nature photographers at some time hear the National Geographic theme music in their heads. They begin to believe that fame and success might just be around the next corner. What they don’t realize, however, is that nature photography is a business, no different from any other occupation.
Diversify and conquer
As president of the 2,500-member North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), I have witnessed the challenges that professional nature photographers face. Of course, there are those who have reached the pinnacle of the profession, but many more are still climbing, one rung at a time. Some will make it; most will not. Whether or not they succeed depends not only on their business savvy but also on current buying trends.
During these austere times, the business climate doesn’t look rosy for anyone, but for nature photographers, the future has always been a challenge. Many professional nature photographers are reluctant to reveal their trade secrets for fear of losing future sales.
Who can blame them? It is difficult to make a living in this craft. It is expensive and requires many months away from home and family. The old adage, “Don’t quit your day job,” certainly has merit in this profession.
As a part-time professional, however, I’ve discovered that there aren’t any trade secrets in nature photography. My dear friend, the late John Netherton, a world-renowned nature photographer, had two pieces of advice for folks wanting to pursue the profession. First, you must absolutely love and be knowledgeable about nature (in addition to being a good photographer, of course). Second — and many can’t grasp this principle — you must treat it as a business, pure and simple.
To be successful in any business endeavor, you need to be diversified in how you operate. Nature photography is no different. Becoming skilled in writing, public speaking and instruction certainly gives an advantage to a nature photographer. But even with these skills, the challenges remain. For most, it’s important to keep that day job. Reality bites big time in nature photography.
As a 20-year veteran of the wildlife photography profession, Michael Francis, who will take over the reins of the NANPA presidency in 2003, has experienced these challenges. Michael feels that surviving in the business of nature photography is getting tougher every day. “Prices paid for images in the editorial market rarely come close to covering expenses to make the photograph,” he says. “Some of the larger editorial magazines are now paying less per image than when I started.”
Michael also sees book publishers accepting fewer nature-related book proposals. “Many of the nature book publishers have been bought out by larger publishers, and nature titles are now harder than ever to sell to these mega-conglomerates,” he says.
Loving nature to death?
Aside from the business aspects, nature photography has other challenges, including the ever-increasing restrictions placed on public lands access. With more than 300 million folks visiting our national parks every year, nature photographers are feeling the pinch regarding elbow room to photograph. At some national parks, wildlife photographers are considered a nuisance. Public access is an issue that NANPA and other photography organizations consistently address.
The profession is not immune to scandal, as demonstrated by recent news stories about unethical behavior by nature photographers. One well-publicized incident involved a professional nature photographer who lit a fire under the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. The flames from the fire scorched portions of the arch.
Although the individual pled guilty, the damage to our profession’s reputation was done. The incident illustrated that unethical behavior can occur at all levels of skill, experience and recognition. Whether amateur or professional, we all have an ethical responsibility to do the right thing. We need to set an example and raise the bar even higher.
Everyone wants the secret code to reaching success in this craft. But it is no different from any other business. You have to work hard. You have to sacrifice, and you have to chart a unique course.
Nature photography is indeed a wonderful, exciting and downright fun thing to do, and it can remain that way, even as a profession. The key is to remain balanced and focused on what brought you into the craft and what will keep you growing in the business.