I started out in wildlife photography being told I'd never make it, seriously! That was over 20 years ago and while I don't think I've "made it," I'm still out there making images. Have you been told the odds are against you? Have you heard that very tired and overworked phrase "it's too competitive" (written by boobs who can't shoot)? Do you have a desire to make photography more than a hobby? Is being involved in one of the most rewarding fields in photography in your future? If wildlife photography is where you're aiming your viewfinder, it's well within your focus!
I was told long ago that professional meant taking what you do seriously, putting your best foot forward. There is nothing in this definition about getting published or making fabled millions. But there's no euphoria like getting a great image on film and then on the printed page. These rewards are not for just a select few. They can be yours! The formula for developing success is a foundation built on good images, realistic goals and dedication.
"You're only as good as your last photograph." This motto has always been unconsciously in the back of my mind and I try to instill in folks attending my marketing workshop. I've talked about experience being the best teacher before, but understand it's key to your photographic success. We all constantly strive to improve upon our last photograph. NOBODY starts off with a D1H and 400f2.8AFS taking cover photographs, this is a goal that's worked towards. Whatever is in your camera bag right now is a great place to begin. The images it takes will be the cornerstone to your files.
Where do you begin your file, how about in your backyard? The misconception is that trips to far off romantic locations are required in building a strong image file. Did you know there's a greater demand for photographs of backyard birds eating fruit than African lions sunbathing (and I have over 21,000 grizzly bear photos which I can't give away)? The immediate advantage is traveling to your backyard requires less time and money which can be better spent on film and equipment. The main benefits are the lessons learned from capturing this relatively boring and simple sounding subject. Getting "the" image on film of any subject is the start of a foundation, of good images and experiences!
What if backyard birds don't excite you? Editorially, one of the biggest voids is in creepy-crawly (insect) photography. Yes, you've seen lots of butterflies in print, but what about the female Black Widow killing its mate? There are thousands of insects crawling about, waiting to be exposed to the close-up eye of the camera lens. These too are in your backyard or neighborhood park. They can be technically the greatest of photographic challenges.
And once you've accomplished photographing one subject, what then? You keep on going! You take those lessons learned from the last project and apply them to the next project. Whether it was mastering flash for close-up work or telephotos for birds, combine the two techniques on the next project. After numerous projects and one, two, five years, you'll have built a foundation that will propel you for the coming decades!
Where do you want to take your photography, and where's it going to take you? I'm very fortunate that one of my first experiences with endangered species over 20 years ago answered that question for me. But not everyone is as lucky. Many of you have a great passion for photography that's weaved around a job and family. You don't have to sacrifice your job or family to live your passion, nor the opposite.
My first seven years of shooting and building my files, I worked a fulltime job. I'd squeak out every possible minute to venture out with my camera. I'd spend time at work figuring subjects to photograph, how, and when to do them. Most of my weekends and holidays were spent in the field shooting. This scenario is true for many of you. But for others, this just isn't possible. If reaching your goal is a long term reality, it's still within your reach!
A good friend was faced with this dilemma. The answer for him was specializing in photographing backyard birds, honing his craft and building up a file for the day he retired. He spent summer afternoons and weekends diligently having fun while learning. He's reached his goal, now retired and enjoying his passion fulltime. He's receiving rewards from his photography as well, having just recently been published in Audubon.
There are a number of answers to be found in published photographs. What subjects, species and places are getting printed? Are they eyeball photographs (close-ups) or habitat oriented? Is there an overall trend in the style of photographs being published? You can discover techniques and styles to incorporate in your own photography in magazine pages. You may discover weaknesses or holes in photographic coverage your photographs can fill. And most importantly, what's in print is a valuable indicator of whether your photography is developing in the right direction.
Goal setting requires awareness of the business of photography. Millions are not probably in your future; even a basic wage could be unobtainable for quite some time. This shouldn't discourage you. It should aid you in setting a goal for yourself and your photography. I set my goal at shooting for five years, building my files before even beginning to market my images. The time seemed to go so slowly, but I'll never regret waiting. My photographs and experiences now support what was once only a passion. They've brought me to a point where I can write and tell folks like you that you can do it too!
Slow and easy wins the race, is my answer for how I got where I am. I didn't start off with D1Hs, bags of lenses or mountains of knowledge. I started off with simple equipment and a belief in my abilities (simple as in F2AS and old chrome barrel 300f4.5). What some call good karma, I call plain old hard work and self-determination! There were plenty of hard knocks and missed opportunities (still are). But being successful comes down to being in for the long run, dedication!
Don't let anyone tell you there's no room for a newcomer in wildlife photography! Look at the photos being published, there are constantly new names attached to them. If you work at your craft and dedicate yourself to constantly improving the rewards will come. Always keep in mind that you've entered one of the hardest fields in photography (also the most rewarding). Nothing comes quickly or easily. Don't expect them to!
This includes getting "the" photo on the first snap of the shutter. Don't ever believe that being a professional means getting every photo every time. Whether it's a mental error, mechanical failure or plain old Mother Nature, missed opportunities go with the job. Of course we do try to eliminate as many of these as possible. This is where experience plays a big part in your success.
In submitting your photographs for publication, you'll receive lots of rejection notices, I still do. You can take them two ways: "no one likes my work so I'll quit" or, "I'll show them by succeeding" or understanding that while you had the greatest shot, it just wasn't communicating what the magazine had to say. You'll have to pick yourself up by the camera straps many times. You'll have to drive yourself to take the next step and make the next submission. You'll have to be dedicated to your goals and keep shooting and improving your craft. Once you're exposed to the high of publication, you'll be hooked for life!
"How did I make it?" I don't think I have yet. I have a lot more photos to take and trouble to cause before I'll have reached my ultimate goals. But, before you, lies my formula for the past two decades to get to this point. Sorry, no fancy tricks or magical people propelling me along. You're probably disappointed there are no glamorous stories. It's not that I don't have any, but they have no relevance in getting me to this point. There's just one other thing I forgot to mention. It was said best by a fellow wildlife shooter, "It helps to be a bit loco."