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Three things you should know before deciding to become a professional nature photographer

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

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Teaching a photography workshop in Guelph, Ontario, October 2013. Photo © Mike Hrabar, used by permission.

It’s been over two years since I cut the academic anchor and sailed away as an independent nature photographer. How am I faring? My little business is chugging along fine, thanks! I’m busy. I have an infant daughter, and I love that my new life allows the flexibility to work from home. Yet I still interact regularly with the university. I’ve just published a couple research papers. Things are good.

I know from various conversations that some of you aspire to be photographers. This post is for those of you curious about what a transition to professional photography might hold.

While I love what I do, my schedule is not necessarily what you’d think. Here are three cautionary observations about the not-so-glamorous side of nature photography business from my first two years.

1. You may make fewer images as a professional than you did as an amateur.

Surprise! Entering the photography business means putting the full time hours into the business, rather than into the photography. While some photographers might step up their game by ditching their day jobs, I have not. Consider my data:

Counter-intuitively, replacing my research job with a self-employed photography gig did not lead to more camera time. Instead, I swapped out lab time for myriad activities required to scare up a livable income: marketing, planning workshops, networking, uploading to my stock agency, handling client requests.

I do more scheduled photo sessions than before, but the resulting photos are counterbalanced by my being less likely to pick up the camera during off hours. So I photograph at about the same rate I did before.

2. You will file a lot of paperwork.

For every sale you will need to send an invoice, sign a contract, and maybe exchange various other signatures and bits of paperwork. Expenditures need to be logged. Taxes need to be filed. Business permits applied for. Wire transfers arranged. Supplies purchased. Copyright registration forms filed. If you are successful enough you may be able to hire an assistant to handle office work, but chances are it’ll be a few years before you reach that point, if at all. Most nature photographers operate as single person operations, and that means you’re also a CEO, a receptionist, an accountant, and a janitor.

Technology should be making these administrative logistics easier, but for me this has only been partially true. My website has an automated ordering system. In theory, anyway. Most of my clients still prefer to handle transactions over email or phone. And that’s ok. I like interacting with users of my images.

Some photographers contract with a stock agency. I have done so for several years now and am represented by a wonderful small agency, Visuals Unlimited, that I recommend to any science photographer. But VU only relieves part of the load. It turns out that a great many photo buyers shop directly at the source. After all, without a middleman, transactions are cheaper for them and more lucrative for me. I don’t discourage this, unless I’m off on a long field expedition.

*update (10/1/2014): Unfortunately, I can no longer recommend Visuals Unlimited.

3. You will find yourself running several side businesses within your photo business.

Most nature photographers don’t make a living just selling photographs. Although the demand for science and nature images is bigger than it has ever been, the competition has far outpaced it. Everyone is a photographer now, amateurs are every bit as talented with their gear as the pros, and the world is drowning in phenomenal images. Predictably, our generation of visual artists has a more difficult time staying afloat through image sales alone, so most have diversified into other lines. Some write. Some run ecotours. Many of us have tapped into the burgeoning interest in photography by teaching lessons and workshops.

Here is a rough breakdown of how my operation makes money:

As you can see, only a little over half  is earned from the photographs themselves, the commissioned projects and sales of prints and licenses. The rest is filled by teaching workshops & lessons, and by blogging here at Scientific American.

Yes, it’s still true the job entails adventuring through remote jungles chasing rare spiders and such. But for the remaining 11 months of the year, the nature photography business is a business.

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. Sean McCann 8:11 pm 11/22/2013

    Very good breakdown! I myself will probably stay on in research or teaching, but I do admire your model. I may consider having a licencing agency do some sales for me sometime, as I could use the extra income. I remember Dr. Lloyd at UF had a stock agency do sales of his firefly images, and it provided enough to buy some equipment every year. That would definitely be nice, as at this point I can barely afford the gear I have, and can certainly not replace it!

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  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 8:33 pm 11/22/2013

    Thanks, Sean! You’re certainly talented enough to make a go of it, if you decided to do so.

    I suspect many of the scientists/photographers/artists in our generation, though, will straddle many skills, changing every few years, especially with academic tenure itself on the way out.

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  3. 3. sfranzenburg 5:37 pm 11/25/2013

    Thanks Alex for this very interesting article.
    I always struggle with myself. Like you, I am a scientist who loves to take photos. I guess, if I would really tackle it, there would be a chance to earn money with it. But photography for me is the most relaxing thing on earth and I fear that is gone once you have the financial pressure to deliver good output.


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  4. 4. joepoppa 5:47 pm 11/26/2013

    One thing he neglected to mention, while doing nature photography, is that you’re already dead before they realize you don’t taste good.

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  5. 5. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 7:19 pm 11/26/2013

    I dunno, joepoppa. I’ve met plenty of insects who seem to think I taste just fine.

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