IRAN ART EXHIBITION: HOW SUCCESSFUL WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHERS MAKE THEIR CARRIER WORK GAINFULLY
How do you make money from wildlife photography? From photographing the magnificent ‘Big Five’ animals on safari to the nature closer to home, wildlife photography is one of the most popular genres among amateurs. With so many hobbyist photographers to compete with, as well as falling revenues in traditional print media, it’s essential for pro wildlife photographers to diversify.
Rather than merely selling photos, wildlife photographers now sell a style, a brand or even an experience. Many professionals have multiple income streams across everything from workshops and seminars through to photobooks and pioneering forms of publishing.
Here, successful wildlife photographers Marina Cano, Vladimir Medvedev and Radomir Jakubowski share their advice for making money out of photographing the natural world, with each prioritising distinct approaches to their business.
1. Build up a following on social media
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Spanish photographer Marina Cano has built up a thriving career photographing wildlife across the world and become known for capturing drama and emotion between animals. But her love of wildlife photography began at the Cabárceno wildlife park just 15 minutes from her home in Santander, northern Spain. There she honed her photography skills and built up a portfolio that she turned into her first book.
Building up engaged social media communities, including half a million followers on Facebook, has been integral to her success. “At the beginning I was very present on Facebook and my community started to grow and grow,” says Marina. “10 years ago I was publishing and speaking to people every day. I invested a lot of time in it, but I also loved it.
“Facebook and Instagram were very important to develop my career, so I always encourage people to be present, to share work and to comment and respond to people. They’re also great platforms to see other photographers’ work so you can learn from what they are doing.”
Such engagement allows her to gauge the popularity of different images, with emotional shots proving most popular. “I love these kinds of pictures as well – mothers and babies, or very dramatic connections between two animals, or between animals and the landscape, like with stormy skies. My work is very emotional and I don’t look for it, it’s the work that comes to me, naturally how I take pictures.”
Her weighty online presence across social media and her specialised website has also paid more direct dividends by enabling work to come to her. “People contacted me from magazines, to buy fine art prints, to publish books or to ask me to give a talk. This is the importance of social media – those people found me online because I was present there. [But] you have to be strict about what you publish to have the best quality of work online.”
2. Publish photobooks
After graduating in economics, German photographer Radomir Jakubowski decided to turn his love of wildlife photography into his profession. “I asked myself, what were the possibilities to earn money from this,” he says. “Wildlife photography is very popular, but you need a product that is more than just photography.”
More than 10 years on, he has won scores of wildlife photography awards across Europe. He says, “I have lots of different ways I make money and photography is one piece of that.”
IRAN ART EXHIBITION: While Radomir runs a diverse and innovative business, publishing remains a core pillar of that business, including regular articles and photobooks. “I usually write about one longer magazine article per month,” he continues. “It’s six to 12 pages about nature photography, conservation or photographic techniques, alongside my photos.” He has published two nature photography books, with a third due to be published in 2020. In every case, editors approached him with a proposal.
Traditional publishing across magazines and photobooks is a mainstay of Marina’s income, too. She has published four books – Cabárceno; Drama & Intimimacy; Inspiración + Naturaleza; and Wild Soul – two of which sold out, and she’s working on a fifth.
“There are different ways to approach book publishing,” she says. “The first book, about the park, I took to the director, who loved it and so they printed it. Sometimes people came to me and sometimes I did them by myself.” Her second was self-published and she was approached by editors to publish her third and fourth.
3. Run workshops
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“Education is another way of making money,” Marina says. “With digital photography, more and more people are taking pictures. In a way you have more competition but in a way it’s good because there are many people out there who really want to improve their photography, so education has become a great way to generate income.”
IRAN ART EXHIBITION: Marina runs regular workshops and one-to-one tuition in the Cabárceno wildlife park. She also leads safaris across Africa, having previously run tours in Namibia, Botswana and Kenya.
Similarly, Radomir has been running photographic workshops since 2012 and estimates they provide up to a quarter of his income. Rather than focusing on destination photography, as is common in the industry, he sets thematic workshops around a certain animal or photography technique.
“My clients are really ambitious nature photographers who are very well equipped,” he says. “It’s inspiring to work with other people who see the world a little bit differently to you. We normally focus on one species of animals, like ibex or chamois, for three or four days. Or I run really artistic workshops – for example in Switzerland I take people to focus on the shapes and colours of stones and mountains.”
4. Build your brand
“Wildlife really is the most popular and exciting genre among photographers,” says Vladimir Medvedev. “These days photographers don’t compete within a city or even within a country, because the internet has erased every boundary. There are now thousands of gorgeous wildlife photos online, so you have to be the best in the world if you want to reach success in this field.”
Vladimir’s accomplishments – from winning the Eric Hosking Portfolio Award at Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2012 for his images of Banff National Park, Canada, through to chairing the Russian Union of Wildlife Photographers – have earned him recognition as one of his country’s top nature photographers. For him, success has come from resisting the urge to follow the crowd to the big nature spots and carving out his own niche covering wildlife and the habitats they live in, with an artistic flair.
“If you want to sell, you shouldn’t go where others are going – you need to be special,” he says. “After winning at Wildlife Photographer of the Year, I realised it was time to look for new goals and thought about what I liked to do. I discovered the niche of creative nature photography, on the verge of art and decor. I keep sales statistics, so I know what people like best and what they will buy. For instance, one of my most popular photos is In the Mirror of the Marshes. This information is extremely important for me.
IRAN ART EXHIBITION: “Now I’m building my own brand and telling stories of my life. People get attached to this emotionally and want to take a fragment of my story into their homes. They buy my photos, hang them on the wall, and then tell their visitors stories about me, about those shots. An interior photograph is not just a mass-produced poster; it reflects our personality.”
You don’t have to have the very latest gear, but new and enhanced features in new equipment could give you a competitive advantage, and investing in a new camera can be a smart move if it enables you to make your work stand out. When Marina tried the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, for example, she found it “a big step forward”. Its ability to shoot at up to 20fps in Live View mode with intelligent subject-tracking AF, she says, meant she could capture fast-moving wildlife and get shots she would have missed before. “The improvements in this camera are absolutely amazing,” she says.
5. Sell prints, and exhibit
Vladimir’s prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year win enabled him to launch full-time into selling creative prints, as well as giving him personal validation. “I realised that I could be a winner, that my shots had been expertly judged by highly esteemed members of the jury, and this allowed me to move forward. In financial terms, it is hard to reckon what I got from winning. Someone might have bought my photographs on account of my win, but overall, my senses tell me that it brought me only direct prize payments.”
Vladimir stopped participating in photography competitions eight years ago, finding the market oversaturated. Neither does he now seek to earn money from magazines, where he made his first sales aged just 16, finding they tend not to suit his style of creative imagery and work better as a promotional tool for his exhibitions, prints and other income streams.
He does find professional satisfaction and financial reward in exhibiting his work, though. “People can only fully appreciate the quality of photographs at exhibitions,” he says. “The usual print size at one of my shows is 1m x 1.5m, which provides complete immersion. Running a good exhibition is expensive, but that’s the only place where your customers can see the final version of the photograph as a product, remember those impressions for years and hopefully purchase something for their home.”
IRAN ART EXHIBITION: “There are many different sources to generate income,” adds Marina. “I sell fine art prints and posters, and have even produced cushions with photography on them.” For her “very large” prints, she says image quality is critical. When shooting nocturnal animals such as pangolin in the Kalahari Desert with the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III, she found she was able to get print-worthy images she couldn’t have got before. “The EOS-1D X Mark III’s ISO performance is out of this world,” she says, “and there’s no colour noise at all.” The DIGIC X processor at the heart of the EOS-1D X Mark III enables lower noise levels at all ISO sensitivities, improved sharpness with an all-new clarity adjustment, and extra dynamic range – helping create images that will really stand out in print at any size.
6. Explore innovative formats
Building on the success of his exhibitions, Vladimir has been exploring the growing trend for presentations by photographers discussing their shots on a large screen. “You’ve got to understand that humans are changing, and just going to see an exhibition and looking at pretty photos is no longer sufficient,” he says. “People want action, an interactive experience. With exciting stories, face-to-face contact, conversation and inspiration, it’s really colourful and educational. I’m confident that this format will become at least as popular as contests or exhibitions.”
It’s a medium that Vladimir has been using through his involvement in the non-profit Russian Union of Wildlife Photographers, which has brought together more than 300 leading photographers. “One of the goals is to create formats that would help nature photographers efficiently apply their skills to their creative work while getting decent compensation,” he explains. “We are trying to make live appearances into a beautiful, vivid show, a celebration of photography. It’s important for photographers to be capable of not just making pictures but also speaking and telling vivid stories. The first forum, Nature Photo Talks, ran in April 2019 and was supported by Canon – we had a full house.”
7. Make different products to sell
Viewing his images as “unique pieces of art to sell” has garnered Radomir success in selling his pictures to a range of publishers outside of traditional media. “I work with high-class calendar producers in Germany and I sell a lot of postcards,” he says. “I think it’s around 50,000 postcards a year, which wasn’t something I ever thought would work. The company asked me if I wanted to do it, and I thought, ‘Why not?’ I give them the right to print the images and then invoice four times a year, so it’s a really good connection for me.”
By thinking outside the box, Radomir has also developed a successful sideline making a passive income out of online photography product sales. He says, “I work a lot with the photography industry, so when I see a cool idea or product, I try to get it to Europe and sell through one of my distribution clients.” He brings photographic products to German-speaking countries.
IRAN ART EXHIBITION: “If you want to make a living out of photography, you have to want to do your style of photography and sell your unique ideas,” he says. “The first steps are hard but once you start getting successful, you continue to get more success. People are talking to each other about you, or someone sees you on the internet and asks if you would like to do a project. I think the most important part of working as a photographer is getting a good network. I started running my business with a few connections and it’s not easy, but I built it up over the years, so I think everybody can do it.”
Marina concurs. “People see a lot of difficulties in their way to becoming a wildlife photographer,” she says. “While it’s not easy, it’s not impossible. If you put in a lot of passion, a lot of love and a lot of work, you can be a full-time wildlife photographer, as in my case.”