ARTICLE

Making money as a wildlife photographer – how the pros do it

Canon Ambassador Marina Cano says that when she started developing her wildlife photography business, building a following on social media proved important. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens + Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 420mm, 1/2500 sec, f/4.0 and ISO1000. © Marina Cano

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 and Canon Ambassadors 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."

A fox in snow. Photo by Radomir Jakubowski.
Canon Ambassador Radomir Jakubowski has won many wildlife photography awards across Europe. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 260mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.0 and ISO800. © Radomir Jakubowski

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."

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.

Four giraffes in back and white. Photo by Marina Cano on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
Marina has a diverse business model that includes running wildlife photography workshops. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/10 and ISO250. © Marina Cano
A lion in profile. Photo by Marina Cano on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II.
Marina shoots on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, usually with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens or Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens. This shot was taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens at 530mm, 1/1250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Marina Cano

3. Run workshops

A mountain ridge with cloud sweeping over the top.

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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."

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."

A large bear walks though a forest. Photo by Vladimir Medvedev on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Canon Ambassador Vladimir Medvedev has won several wildlife and nature photography awards and has carved out a niche in showing wildlife in its natural habitat. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 75mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO400. © Vladimir Medvedev

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.

"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."

A mountain reflected in marsh water. Photo by Vladimir Medvedev on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
Vladimir says this photo, In the Mirror of the Marshes, is one of his most popular. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 16mm, 1/10 sec, f/13 and ISO100. © Vladimir Medvedev

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."

"There are many different sources to generate income," adds Marina. "I sell fine art prints, posters and have even produced cushions with photography on them. People see a lot of difficulties in their way to becoming a wildlife photographer. 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."

A deer sits in a field in front of mountains, with traffic lights blurring past. Photo by Vladimir Medvedev on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.
Vladimir often shoots with Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV cameras paired with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens, a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS lens, a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens or a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens. This image was taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens at 140mm, 5.0 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Vladimir Medvedev

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."

A young deer leaps playfully. Photo by Radomir Jakubowski.
Radomir captures his wildlife images using his Canon EOS 5DS R and Canon EOS-1D X Mark II, paired with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens or a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens. This shot was taken on a Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III at 1/640 sec, f/4.0 and ISO400. © Radomir Jakubowski

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.

"If you want to live 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."

Σύνταξη Lucy Fulford


Marina Cano's kitbag

Key kit for wildlife photography

Marina Cano’s Canon kit is laid out, showing different lenses and cameras.

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