How to Become a Wildlife Photographer

Explore the steps to becoming a wildlife photographer. Look at the typical education, job duties, median wages and projected job growth to be fully informed. Schools offering Photography degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information at a Glance

Wildlife photographers snap pictures of animals in their natural habitats and often sell them to magazines and other publications for a set price. No formal education is required to become a self-employed wildlife photographer, but some publications that hire photographers may require an associate's or bachelor's degree in photography. Our chart below offers a quick overview of wildlife photography as a career.

Degree Required Not required; associate's or bachelor's degree may be preferred
Education Field of Study Photography
Key Skills Artistic eye, patience, detail-oriented
Job Growth (2016-2026) 12% (for all self-employed photographers)*
Median Salary (2017) $32,490 per year (for all photographers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

What Do Wildlife Photographers Do?

Wildlife photographers head out into nature and photograph animals in their natural habitats. This could mean camping out in the Amazon to find a rare tree frog, hiding in a manmade burrow to catch a shot of an elusive leopard or even diving in the ocean to bring the public shots of a whale shark. Sometimes the assignment is challenging but safe and other times wildlife photographers risk life and limb to nab that perfect picture.

Once they've got the shot, they may spend days perfecting it using post-production editing software to adjust the lighting, tweak the contrast and fiddle with every aspect of the image. When it's perfect, they can pass it along to the publication that gave them the assignment or put it up for sale.

How Can You Become a Wildlife Photographer?

You don't need any formal education to become a wildlife photographer, though some employers will prefer photographers who have a degree in photography. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016, 68% of photographers were self-employed, so almost anyone with talent, patience, passion and the right equipment can do freelance work. Some wildlife photographers warn newbies that it can be a tough business to break into. The upfront costs can be prohibitive for some -- new photographers may need to purchase very pricey equipment and, in order to get a shot that can turn a profit, they may incur significant travel expenses.

Where Do Wildlife Photographers Work?

In a word, everywhere. A small percentage are employed by nature publications or internet outlets. These few are given assignments and sent out into the field to procure a shot or set of shots. The rest go out on their own, diving the world's oceans, plunging into the world's forests and traversing the world's deserts in search of a shot that sells.

How Much Do Wildlife Photographers Make?

Pinpointing the salary of a wildlife photographer is difficult because, for some, it's a feast-or-famine profession. Many are self-employed and only get paid if they sell their work to a publication. Payscale.com, a website that compiles anonymous salary data, does provide a ballpark figure. According to that data, the estimated median annual salary for a wildlife photographer is $44,055 in 2019. This is significantly higher than the median salary of $32,490 reported by the BLS for all photographers in 2017.

What's the Job Outlook for Wildlife Photographers?

While there is no specific data on the rate of employment for wildlife photography, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does offer a number for photographers in general. The BLS predicts a 6% decline in the rate of employment for photographers between 2016 and 2026. During that same time, however, 12% job growth is predicted for all self-employed photographers.

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