How to start out as a wildlife photographer

We are often asked: how can I become a professional photographer? We usually answer: don’t give up the day job.

Nature photography is a very competitive field and very few professionals live in the lap of luxury, so it’s best to get your career off the ground, and establish links with publications and/or agencies, before you wave gooodbye to the 9 to 5 and skip off into the sunset with your camera gear in hand.

• Your chances of success are considerably improved if you are technically competent. There are a range of courses available, from casual evening classes to degrees.

• Alternatively, you could join a photography club. There’s bound to be one in your area and they often invite professionals in to speak about their work and review yours. This is a great opportunity to network and get honest feedback.

• Keep a portfolio of your work to show to people. Edit it brutally so that you only include the very best shots. Ask friends to help you choose if necessary – your personal attachment to particular images may influence your judgement.

• Showcase the breadth of your work – different subjects and camera techniques, close-ups and in its environment, etc.

• Enter competitions – being able to say you won an award might make an editor, who may otherwise delete your email, take a glance. Ideally, try to win the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, as this will help launch your career in one easy (or not so easy) step.

• Get your images seen – donate them to local conservation groups for their websites and member magazines. Don’t be mean, let them use them for free – it’s a great way to get published and your name known.

• Keep up to date with the work of professional wildlife photographers – you can learn a lot by studying, but not copying, the work of others.

• Visit the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, British Wildlife Photography Awards exhibition and attend Wildscreen Photography Festival – this is the standard you should aspire to.

• Buy BBC Wildlife and other photography magazines. See if they have dedicated reader sections you can submit your photos to. BBC Wildlife has a Your Photos section, Q&A section and Feedback section (letters), which all welcome pictures from amateur photographers. We also run online themed photo contests.  

• Many photos published in our Your Photos pages attract the attention of other media, who are often prepared to pay for their use.

• If your work is of an equal standard to the professional work published in a magazine – or you have something new to offer – try sending a low res jpg and brief description to the picture researcher.

• If you do not hear anything within a month, send a polite follow-up but do not harrass them. If you do not hear back, simply accept that, on this occasion, you did not have what they were looking for and try again another time.

• Many photographers usually work on a freelance basis, selling their work directly to publications, or using an agency to market their work on their behalf.

• If you have built up an extensive body of excellent work and need some help to promote it, why not approach an agency?

• To see which agencies BBC Wildlife uses, simply read the picture credits in the magazine. Our main agencies are NPL, FLPA, NHPA, photolibrary.com, specialiststock.com, RSPB, Alamy, ardea.com and Natural Visions.

• It is extremely difficult to make a living out of wildlife photography alone. Some professionals supplement their income with commercial photography (such as weddings, etc).

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