I had a conversation with a friend of mine in Botswana recently about wildlife photography, and what it takes to be a professional. He’d taken an amazing photograph of a leopard on a Canon Rebel T5, and with a standard 18-55mm lens he’d snapped one of the more stunning wildlife shots I’ve ever seen. He wanted to know if he’d be able to sell it, and my honest answer was – probably not.
It’s not that the photo wasn’t great. It was. And it wasn’t that he isn’t a fantastic photographer. He is. The reason is that in the world of wildlife photography, he isn’t known and he isn’t considered a professional. At the very best his superb photo might win a prize in a small-scale travel sponsored photo competition, but nothing he’d be able to outright sell.
And this got me thinking. What does it take for an amateur to elevate themselves to the status of pro? And how can amateur photographer be considered a professional?
I need to make it clear that I don’t consider myself a professional wildlife photographer. But I’m also not an amateur. I’m somewhere on the road in-between I suppose, not that great but not that shit either. The bulk of my experience is in photojournalism, but I have however, spent a disproportionately large amount of time with wildlife photographers, some of whom might even rightly consider themselves professionals. I’ve learned what I can from them here and there, and while I’ve improved myself as a photographer, I still question what makes a wildlife photographer a real professional.
You hear the term “professional wildlife photographer’ among wildlife enthusiasts and National Geographicesque publications. But what does that really mean? After seeing my friend’s amazing photograph in Botswana, it’s clear that there is not always too great a difference between the photographs produced by amateur and professional wildlife photographers. Not all the time at least. However, there remains this vast difference in mind set between an amateur photographer and a professional wildlife photographer.
For the purpose of this argument, I’m going to define amateur photographers as those photographers putting in the time and looking to improve, and professional photographers as the guys who are recognized openly in wildlife circles as talented, and someone who gets paid for their work. I’ll leave out the stereotype of a pro wildlife photographer as someone willing to dress up in feathers and spend 170 hours in an animal hide waiting for the perfect shot. Anyone prepared to go that far deserves whatever title they desire.
But I digress. For those amateur photographs out there looking to improve their game, what is it they need and what is it they need to do to move from the ranks of amateur to the respected ranks of pro?
Is it the camera?
There has always been this general perception that anyone with a halfway decent camera in the bush is an amateur hoping to get lucky, and anyone with camera equipment worth a fortune is the professional. It’s a tactless assumption and also quite baseless. I’ve met outstanding professional photographers using entry level cameras (and in one case even an instant camera) to capture award winning wildlife photos, and I’ve seen overly privileged debutants ruin photos on Hasselblad setups worth more than my house and car combined. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen so called professionals ruin a shot by frightening off game at the crucial moment with the extravagantly loud click-clack from a Nikon D5 or Canon 1D.
I just don’t believe the camera makes the photographer. And with the advent of cheaper mirror-less cameras and cell phones cameras with pixel counts high enough to brag about, the entire argument of better-camera-better-photographer is blown out the water.
Lenses are of course important, and they can really make the difference between a so-so image and a crisp image that brings a natural wildlife picture to life. Of course they help any photographer view wildlife closer up, creating a cozier and more natural feel, but this doesn’t always guarantee an excellent result. The truth is that even an EF 400mm f2.8 lens doesn’t guarantee you the perfect shot. Telephoto lenses are amazing tools in the realm of wildlife photography, but unless you know how to use them and unless you have everything else right, you’re really just playing animal paparazzi. I’d go as far as to argue that an over reliance on telephoto lenses is possibly more indicative of an amateur photographer rather than a professional able to make what lenses they have in their repertoire work best for them according to the situation.
Could it be that professional wildlife photographers are recognized and published? It could be. But then again, I’ve been to wildlife photographic expositions I haven’t cared for in the slightest. I’ve also seen random images taken by unknown and unpublished photographers that worthy of a Nat Geo front page.
Post production. Yup, the post work on any photograph is incredibly important. But we’ve progressed from the old days of dark rooms, and anyone is able to download and install a workable version of Lightroom and Photoshop. Furthermore, these programs have become so advanced that their automated features (tone, contrast, and color) are often as good, if not better, than hours of professional coloring.
Access is also important. And when I say access I mean access to wildlife areas. A trip into the heart of the Okavango Delta is going to give you incredible access to thousands of beautiful animals, and an opportunity to take stunning photographs. However, unlimited access to pristine wildlife areas doesn’t make a photographer a professional. On the contrary, I’ve personally screwed a number of perfect opportunities for amazing pictures despite having been raised in the wildness in Botswana. At the same time, some of the most amazing wildlife photography I’ve ever seen was taken in back yards – frogs spawning, or birds flouncing, caterpillars and butterflies doing what they do. Access to wildlife is important, but again it doesn’t make a professional. And in the case of wildlife photography in particular, a professional is a professional despite the access they have. It’s their ability to find magic in any natural setting that makes them pro.
At the end of the day, whatever the equipment or location, there is only one thing that really matters and one thing that makes a wildlife photographer a professional. Patience. Patience and the ability to keep a cool head and get the magic shot when it happens. Of course the lens and good access to wildlife make a difference, but not all the difference.
My recommendation to amateur photographers looking to advance is always, make sure you’re completely comfortable with what you have. And if you’re preparing a trip into the bush and don’t own or can’t afford the kind of lens you’d like to work with, borrow or rent one. Make it work. Being comfortable is the important part. Always be ready. Always have a cool head. But most importantly, always be patient.
To my friend in Botswana with the amazing photo my advice is – if you’ve done it once you can do it again. Publish the picture wherever you can and try and make a name for yourself. Someone will pick you up sooner or later, and when that happens, you’ll be able to start making money off your photos and will be able to invest in equipment that in turn will help you take more pictures.
Personally, I’m not really too concerned what people think about my photography. Professional or amateur, it doesn’t make a difference. So long as I get to hang out in the bush, marvel at amazing creatures, and use a camera to play with light, I’m satisfied.