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To make money from science photographs, specialize

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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A reader emails:

I have been doing nature and wildlife photography for some years now, mostly as an advanced hobby, and have been expanding my efforts in arthropoda and macro work. I am at some disadvantage in this regard since I am one of dem unedumacated types who has to look up nearly everything he finds. This also hampers me in another way, since I would like to actually receive at least some money for doing this, and am at a loss as to how to break in. I have no university contacts, and aren’t really sure if those help.

Some time back, probably about 14 years ago, I took a short course on marketing nature photography, and have attempted sending out packages of flyers, CDs of example images, a letter of introduction, and links to my website. I received not even a courtesy response. While I am well aware that the nature of publication has changed with the rise of the web, I’m at a loss as to how to reach potential customers and editors.

If there is any advice you could impart, I would be extremely grateful. I have plans to contact the entomology and biology departments of the three major universities nearby, but little idea what else I should be doing.

It is not really fair that I answer this question, as I don’t have experience breaking in from the outside. I did not become a photographer by being an awesome amateur who figured out how to access clients. Rather, I built my photo business outwards from my scientific training. I already had access to photo markets, I just didn’t know it until people started trying to buy my crappy hobbyist photographs. That was 10 years ago.

The reason my photos have value is the technical knowledge that goes into deciding what to photograph and how to label the results. I am a specialist in my subjects, and this leads me to my advice:


The photography market is like any other market. You need to create a product unique enough that people want to buy it. You won’t do well to enter an already swamped-out field for general nature imagery with more general nature photographs, not unless you possess a rare artistic genius and an unusually ambitious marketing acumen. Rather, a less difficult path is to find a viable submarket with entry barriers high enough to keep other photographers out. It could be an area that requires rare expensive equipment, like scanning electron microscopy, or difficult access, like deep ocean life. Or it could just be any subject that requires background knowledge to know which are the worthwhile stories to tell.

Specializing in arthropod photography isn’t really a specialization. First, there are simply too many species. Second, the market is crowded enough that you won’t stand out unless you become The Dung Beetle Guy, or The Guy Who Photographs Ant-Mimicking Spiders, or The Guy With All Those Aquatic Insects of the Great Plains. The more extreme your focus, the better.

With the right specialization, your website will rise in the Google rankings for your topic. Internet visibility make you more visible to buyers, to stock agencies, and to scientists who may later recommend your work to publishers.

This is not easy advice. Proper specialization is a years-long process. I have a Ph.D., but you don’t need one. Buyers don’t care about degrees. Nor, for that matter, about any awards you may have won. They only care that you’ve got photographs they’d like to license, and that just comes back to your specialization. Thus, spend time with the relevant literature. Take some classes. Read some books. And as you’ve mentioned, visit some laboratories. Start small. The more specific your interest, the easier this process will be.

I also have plenty to say about who the photo buyers are and what they are looking for, but that’s a topic for another post.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. TheHymenopteran 6:05 pm 09/28/2012

    Fantastic article Alex, very excited to see what you have to say about photo buyers too. Thought I’d register to let you know how much I enjoy reading this blog, in addition to Keep up the good work!

    Tom Saunders (TheHymenopteran)

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  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 7:02 pm 09/28/2012

    Hi Tom- thanks for your kind words! I’m always happy to learn that people beyond the ever-supportive Mrs. Myrmecos are actually reading these missives.

    Entire books have been written on the subject of photo marketing, but I’ll see if I can keep this going for a couple more posts, at least.

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  3. 3. Naskrecki 11:03 am 09/29/2012

    While I agree in principle that specialization is definitely the way to go, the one thing that I often hear from my photo agent is “too many katydids!” They want variety, albeit with strong, easy to identify themes that can be marketed as a package (mimicry, diversity of animal feet, aggression etc.) I think that, unfortunately, one’s specialization should be proportional to the size of a potential market for the photos: the market for earwig photos is probably several orders of magnitude smaller than that for cute-looking frogs, and pest beetles of North America will always outsell even the most interesting tropical daddy longlegs.

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  4. 4. HBG_Dave 11:44 am 09/29/2012

    Even in the micro world of mite SEMs, I get more requests for pests (s.l.) than anything else, so I think Piotor has a good point.

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  5. 5. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 2:07 pm 09/29/2012

    Piotr, I can’t disagree with your advice for the more established photographers (after all, I recently sold a mammal photograph through my agency, and who would ever look to my portfolio to license a vertebrate image?). But, I think the dynamic is different for amateurs who are trying to get noticed. Many have nice collections of landscapes and flowers and deer and sunsets and squirrels, but so does everyone else. Attracting the attention of an agency and other buyers requires a more targeted identity, I think, unless you are one of those rare artistic geniuses.

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