Three Things You Ought to Know Before Deciding to Become a Nature Photographer


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 of 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.

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 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.

About the author: Alex Wild is an entomologist based out of Illinois who specializes in 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. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Twitter. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Header photograph by Mike Hrabar and used by permission.

  • harumph

    It’s not that important I guess, but can you really say that you quit your academic research job if you’re still doing your academic research job?

  • Jonathan

    This post should be titled:Three things you ought to know before deciding to become a PROFESSIONAL nature photographer.

  • Touche

    It is common to quit a job(salary, benefits, regular hours, e.t.c.) and then work freelance on a semi-regular basis for the company you previously worked for full time. This was clearly implied in the first paragraph.

    For future reference, if you wish to be the smart-ass sarcastic guy, it is best to make sure you only point out things that are clearly ignorant or contradictory, this article was neither.

  • Touche

    Hardly seems worth mentioning something so trivial. Here is a tip for the future, don’t search so hard for minor mistakes to smugly point out and less people will think you are an asshole.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    I feel that when it comes to photography blogs, there’s too much negativity in the posts about becoming a professional photographer. Who’s going to feel inspirational when constantly reading that it’s more paperwork than photography?

    I’m not saying these posts shouldn’t exist. But it feels like they are too many. Young people who succeed in getting paid for their work succeed every day with the paperwork and whatnot. And it’s not about the amount of pictures you take, it’s about them being recognized, being sold and published and seen by thousands of people. The paperwork is manageable.

  • Hans

    Too bad this advice from you is over your head, your 7th grade snotty attitude just makes you sound sad and arrogant, touché.

  • Alex Wild

    Don’t mind my negativity. My job is awesome; I’m just trying to keep the competition down.


  • theart

    You don’t just up and walk away from an academic research job. I’m guessing that Alex had about a half dozen projects in various states of completion when he “quit” and still owed his collaborators and funding agencies a finished product. The last time I switched labs, it took two years to clear all of my commitments to the old one. You could say that I was spending a significant amount of time still doing my old job, but I certainly wasn’t getting paid for it.

  • Jonathan Lynn

    Interesting article. How much of your photography business is related to research if you don’t mind my asking.

  • jrconner

    I found the business side of photography took the fun out of using a camera, so I reverted to being an amateur photographer. I’m glad Wild managed to reconcile business with photography, and I wish him well.

  • harumph

    But I’m sure most of us would rather be doing paperwork for our photography gigs, then paperwork for our days jobs.

  • Touche

    In hindsight I was a little harsh, but when I read this good article and looked at the comments, at the time there were only 2 comments and both were negative. I thought, and still do, that a good article deserves more respect, perhaps a little more diplomatically next time though?

  • MarvinB7

    There are a lot of negative articles out there on this topic. I must say, though, that a strong dose of ‘reality’ can be really helpful for a young person finding their way toward a career. It took me a good 5 years after college for my close family and friends to have a clue what I did as a commercial photographer. They somehow thought it was all fun and games and jolly times. I can’t imagine how little people with no connection understand about it.

  • Alex Wild

    Oddly, that’s exactly what this essay was titled when I first posted it at Scientific American. Petapixel seems to have abbreviated me.

  • NancyP

    Which is more painful, paperwork related to grant applications or paperwork related to business? (hint: most scientists would say that filing taxes is a breeze compared with submitting an average grant). There is serious pain in any profession.

  • Anonymoused

    As someone who clicked thinking this would be about becoming a nature photographer and not a professional photographer (of almost any kind), I have to say I disagree.