So you want to be a pro nature photographer?

I probably get one or two emails a week from people asking me for advice on becoming a pro nature photographer. I often don’t have a satisfying answer. The bottom line is that it is very difficult to build a successful business as a nature photographer, and getting more and more difficult all the time. An economist might sum up the situation as follows: “supply far exceeds demand.” In other words, there are too many people taking nature photos and not enough people buying them, and the world is simply awash with cheap or free nature photographs. As you can probably imagine, “cheap or free” is not the sound basis for a flourishing business.

That said, opportunities do exist to make a living wage from nature photography. So, what does it take to succeed as a nature photography pro these days? I’ve summed up the key elements of my answer below. Note that this is merely my way of doing things; others have their own business models that may differ from mine.

  1. DON’T SUCK. Although this seems self-evident, it bears saying anyway. Because competition is so intense, there’s only room for success at the top. Be ruthlessly self-critical of your own work, and always strive to get better and to do something that hasn’t been done a million times before.
  2. Shoot Big. Although you can build a successful business shooting your local landscapes and wildlife, if you want to make a name for yourself nationally or internationally, you probably need to photograph charismatic mega-landscapes and mega-fauna. That means extra expense and time traveling to exotic locations, but it is an investment that pays off in the long run. Of course, it helps if you happen to live somewhere that is really cool, but if you live in Iowa, sign up for some frequent flyer programs.
  3. Get Noticed. These days, if you are not big on the Internet, you don’t exist. Heavy participation and promotion online are vital. You should have a good-looking website and a blog, but neither will help you if you don’t have visitors. Promote your work by participating on a number of online photo sharing forums and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. If your work is good, it will likely “go viral” on the Internet and get picked up or linked to by other websites. You’ll be supplying these images to the Internet masses for free, but in return you’ll get a steady stream of visitors to your website.
  4. Get Published. Even though traditional print publishing is on the decline, it is still a hugely vital source of potential business. Submit to magazines and other publishers as much as possible. It helps if you can write well; magazines are usually looking for articles first, photos second. If you can provide both, you’ve got a good chance of making a big paycheck. Articles in magazines are also a great way to promote your website.
  5. Monetize Your Site. Lots of traffic to your site means nothing if you can’t make any money from it. Your site needs to offer products and services that will keep your finances in the black and help you pay your mortgage every month. As for me, I monetize my site primarily through electronic products (ebooks and videos) and photo workshops (see the next point below). Don’t expect to make a lot of money selling fine art prints; although I do know some pros who make money this way, it typically comes from putting in a lot of time with galleries, art fairs, and art consultants—NOT from Internet marketing.
  6. Run Photo Workshops. Almost without exception, every professional nature photographer I know makes a majority of his or her income running photo workshops. The digital revolution has flooded the world with aspiring photographers. There are literally thousands upon thousands of people out there who want to learn more about photography, visit beautiful scenic locations, and enjoy a good time doing what they love in the company of like-minded individuals. If you really want to make a living as a professional nature photographer, be prepared to spend some time teaching.
  7. Understand the Demands of Field Work. Running a successful nature photo business requires a lot of good images, which in turn means lots of extended travel, which can be costly, lonely, and can put intense strain on personal relationships. I try to spend 50% of my time in the field, which I think is a bit on the high end for most professionals and very difficult to do.
  8. DON’T SUCK. You get the idea. This one is REALLY important.

Truth be told, there are many weekend warriors out there who—because they have real jobs—have the money to travel to exotic locations and make great photographs in their spare time. Staying amateur is a great way to continue to enjoy photography without being saddled with the worries of constantly hunting for the next paycheck. If you really want to turn pro, be prepared for a wild ride, and expect that it might take several years before you start making any real money.

I hope that aspiring pros out there find this post helpful, albeit perhaps a trifle sobering. Good luck—you’re going to need it!

"Desert Solitaire" - Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia (by Ian Plant)

Ian Plant

Author: Ian Plant

World-renowned professional photographer, writer, and adventurer Ian Plant is a frequent contributor to and blogger for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, a Contributing Editor to Popular Photography Magazine, a monthly columnist for Landscape Photography Magazine, and a Tamron Image Master. Ian is also the author of numerous books and instructional videos. Ian leads photography workshops and tours around the world to help beginner and advanced photographers explore and expand their personal vision.

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