Conservation Photography: How to Work With Biologists
As photographers who love nature and wildlife, many of us come to a turning point where we want our images to serve a greater purpose, and might turn to conservation photography.
With a growing desire to protect the landscapes and species that inspire us, we realize that our photos have the potential to make a positive impact.
I experienced this turning point after my first encounter with a little-known mountain fox existing only in the high elevations of Washington’s Cascade Range — the Cascade red fox (Vulpes vulpes cascadensis).
With research, I found that the fox I had encountered was a genetically unique subspecies of the red fox with numbers in steep decline.
This is for several reasons, from threats associated with climate change to car strike fatalities as a result of food conditioning and careless camping and recreational land use in Cascade red fox habitat.
I reached out to volunteer with the conservation science organization at the forefront of studying the foxes – the Cascades Carnivore Project – and a beautiful partnership was born.
The Cascades Carnivore Project used my photos for fundraising, grant applications, presentations, and scientific reports. And in 2022, the Cascade red fox was officially listed as endangered by Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Commission.
This was an accomplishment mainly due to the long-term research and dedication of the scientists involved.
But it was also due to the public support raised by my images and an email campaign that I created, asking the State to list the subspecies as endangered rather than threatened, inspiring community action.
My work with the Cascade red fox has given me purpose and contributed to positive change, but I could not have achieved this level of impact alone.
Partnering with and learning from biologists is critical to conservation photography success.
If you want to work with biologists, here are some tips to help you get started!
1. Have reasonable expectations
Dream big, but understand the challenges ahead.
Conservation photography is a difficult field to earn a living in. Even the most successful conservation photographers have multiple sources of income, whether photography-related or not.
If you’re getting into this field for money or fame, you will be disappointed. This job is best suited for selfless, highly dedicated, resilient individuals willing to make major sacrifices to help protect the earth and its inhabitants.
The work will sometimes leave you devastated, and it will sometimes leave you feeling ecstatic.
But if conservation photography is your calling, you will find fulfilment unmatched by any other career and build relationships with like-minded, compassionate people to stand the test of time.
2. Find your passion
Your first conservation photography project should take place close to home. You will need regular access to your subject over several years and the ability to spend as much time as possible in the field to tell its visual story thoroughly.
Find a habitat or species that you have an undeniable connection with, one that energizes you, sparks your curiosity, and keeps you motivated long-term.
Research and photograph your subject in advance so that when you reach out to scientists and organizations, you can provide examples of your work and proof of your knowledge and investment in the project.
Ideally, your subject hasn’t yet been covered by another photographer. If it has, make sure their project has wrapped up so that you won’t be stepping on anyone’s toes.
Have your own unique perspective or storyline. You don’t want to ruin your reputation within the conservation photography community before you even begin.
Use the internet to find out what scientists are researching within a three-hour radius of your home.
If you already know your passion subject but it’s far away, consider moving. This may be one of the major sacrifices that I previously spoke of.
I moved to the opposite side of the country and lived in my van for over four years to affordably dedicate my work to the Cascade red fox, which turned out to be one of the most fulfilling decisions of my life.
Read more: Photographing a Species In-depth
3. Give first
Once you’ve found your passion, it’s time to reach out to the biologists and ecologists researching the species or location you’ve connected with. You must give first.
Don’t ask for anything until after you’ve formed a relationship with the scientists and built a solid level of trust.
The scientific community is very data-driven and sometimes unaware of the benefits gained by partnering with a conservation photographer.
Therefore, going straight into a pitch about your photography goals may seem like an inconvenience that they don’t have time for, and your requests may be denied.
In many cases, scientists are overworked and underfunded. They need volunteers, and you are their ideal candidate! Volunteering will immensely expand your knowledge of your subject and lead to more successful shots.
When I reached out to the Cascades Carnivore Project, I told them of my encounter with the Cascade red fox and asked how I could contribute to their work. At the time, they needed help collecting scats and hair samples in the field to be tested for DNA data.
This was a perfect way to contribute to their research, as I was already in the field attempting to track and photograph this extremely rare, elusive subspecies anyway.
My fieldwork now had a dual purpose, and I had a direct line of communication with the biologists who knew the foxes best.
In time, my dedication paid off. The biologists were amazed by my numerous encounters and photos of the foxes, as they themselves seldom saw the foxes in person. Soon, I was invited to join them in the field to document their work.
4. Be prepared
Once you are invited to join biologists in the field, it’s important to understand that they are on a mission to promptly accomplish a set of tasks.
There may be no time to ask them to pause or pose, and candid images tend to be most impactful anyway. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before photographing biologists in the field:
- Bring an adequate amount of food, water, and clothing for unexpected weather events.
- Understand all possible lighting conditions and practice the best exposure settings ahead of time.
- Be fit enough to keep up with biologists in whatever terrain they work in. (They are often extremely athletic and fast-paced.) Train by hiking in comparable habitats and elevations with a heavy backpack and all your gear to build your strength. If you can’t keep up in the field, you will miss important shots.
- Keep questions as limited as possible during high-stress situations. Make notes and remember to ask your questions later. Try not to interrupt biologists as they are focusing on the task at hand.
- Stay out of the way, especially in situations where biologists may be handling wildlife or working in a dangerous location. Everyone’s safety is more important than the perfect shot.
- Be discreet. Never share coordinates or any information that may help others find sensitive species or habitats. This is of utmost importance today, with social media’s potential to create crowding and harassment of wildlife or damage fragile ecosystems. Remember—ethical photography practices and the well-being of your subject must always come first.
- Maintain a gracious, helpful attitude. Put down your camera and get involved if an extra hand is needed.
5. Create a project portfolio
One of the most challenging aspects for many of us to grasp in conservation photography is how to tell a visual story. Shots featuring the subject and the human element of the story are equally important.
This may include photos of scientists, indigenous peoples, local artists, citizen scientists, animal or land activists… the list goes on.
The human element of the story is important because it makes your audience relate more to the issue at hand and gives credit to the scientists and the community involved in the recovery of the species or habitat.
So, remember that your project portfolio must include more than pretty portraits. Additional storytelling imagery such as behavioral, landscape, action, and detail shots are vital to your project’s success.
Use a combination of lenses to break up the visuals. For example, include macro shots for details, telephoto zoom shots for behavior, and wide-angle shots to show the landscape or the subject in its environment.
If you are making a name for yourself on a budget, purchase a “nifty fifty”—a 50mm prime lens that can usually be found for $50 to $100 used and tends to be affordable brand new as well.
Combined with your macro or telephoto zoom, a 50mm can help you attain the additional perspectives and compositions you need.
Read more: How to Photograph a Wildlife Story
6. Raise awareness
It may take years, but eventually, you will have all the shots needed to share your visual story. Whether by publication, exhibit, speaking engagement, or otherwise, hopefully, your work has just begun.
Social media is an excellent tool to raise funding and support for your subject and the researchers protecting it.
But, as previously stated, if your subject is endangered, fragile, or at risk of over-recreation or human encroachment, use social media with caution. Make sure the scientists you partner with approve of what you share and be vague about locations.
For example, because Mount Rainier National Park scientists are involved with Cascade red fox research, it is impossible to keep the fact that some foxes exist there a secret.
However, Mount Rainier National Park is 236,381 acres and 369 square miles in size, so the mention of Mount Rainier on social media is still quite vague.
Even so, I normally say “Washington Cascades” as an extra precautionary measure if a location is given, and I’m extremely careful to never reveal any study areas inside or outside of Park boundaries.
The goal is to raise awareness for your subject without turning it into a tourist attraction. It’s a difficult balance.
7. Don’t give up
Conservation photography is both physically and emotionally challenging.
There will be times when you feel like your efforts are unseen and wonder if you should give up. You may receive distressing information regarding your subject and succumb to compassion fatigue or have long periods of time where you fail to capture impactful shots.
Even with my knowledge of the Cascade red fox and my partnership with the biologists researching them, I’ve endured gaps of up to 5 months in the field without a single sighting, leaving me feeling defeated and fearful that the remaining population may be closer to extinction than expected.
But persistence always pays off!
During tough times, set small goals for yourself that you have greater control over achieving. If a species is eluding you, focus on a habitat shot or try capturing photos of their prey or the vegetation they feed on.
If you want your project to eventually be published, email a pitch or send an editor that you’re already in touch with an update to keep your project on their radar.
Remember your “why” and believe that your work will eventually benefit your subject in unforeseen ways.
Capturing hearts and minds with your photography could lead to a lifetime of updates and involvement in the recovery of a species or habitat.
Your work may contribute to legislation being passed and protections being enforced, or books and documentaries to engage the world.
The possibilities for good are endless, and your images are needed more than ever with the current state of our planet.
There is adventure, awe, and joy to be experienced. Your work will likely live on, beyond your years, as documentation of nature’s history. What an incredible honor!