Karen Miller: From Amateur to Professional

photographer karen miller

In our interview series “From Amateur to Professional” we will be asking established nature photographers to share their photos and see how their practices have developed, changed, and improved over time.

You’ll get to see the progression of their images, learn how they got started, and find out how they transitioned from amateur to professional. 

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In this interview, we’re joined by Scotland-based wildlife photographer Karen Miller.

Karen is passionate about photographing her wild subjects in their natural habitats and capturing the essence of their natural behaviours.

When she isn’t guiding photography tours, Karen can be found photographing badgers, red squirrels, mountain hares, and pine martens, to name a few.

When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?

I started photographing flowers at the local botanic gardens with my compact camera about 20 years ago, and purchased my first DSLR, a Nikon D5000, in 2010.

In 2014, I went on my first wildlife photography holiday to Mull with three experienced, knowledgeable, and well-travelled photographers.

At the time, I had never heard of many of the species we were photographing, such as stonechat and corncrake, but I loved the week and the wildlife.

From that point on, wildlife photography became the primary focus of my photography, and I resolved to learn more about the subjects I was photographing.

Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?

I took this photograph in my garden in Glasgow in 2011 with my Nikon D5000. Looking at the metadata, I shot using manual mode, and I think I was using a Sigma macro lens that didn’t have autofocus, so I’m quite impressed with the result!

karen miller

I still quite like the photo – I was at eye level with the subject, and it’s fairly sharp. However, the background is a bit distracting.

I remember submitting this to a camera club competition, and the judge told me I should have cropped it in tight. Personally, I prefer this crop.

Show us 2 of your favourite photos – one from your early/amateur days, and one from your professional career. Why do you like them, what made you so proud of them, and how do you feel about the older image now?

I took the old image in 2016 just after I purchased a Tamron 150-600mm for my Nikon D610.  I went to the local park in the evening expecting to photograph grey squirrels and pigeons but then a couple of young rabbits appeared.  

One picked up the feather and looked directly at me – I couldn’t have planned it if I’d tried. It’s still one of my all-time favourite images.  

Although I was yet to find my style this image actually represents what I now try and achieve – eye level, eye contact, and it’s emotive.  

rabbit photography

I’ve spent many days, often in inclement weather, in the company of mountain hares. There’s something so special about sitting on a mountain in the presence of one of these amazing, hardy animals that it’s hard to express in words.

Over the years, I have learned how to find and successfully approach them. I can see from a distance if a hare is likely to run or is terrified and therefore should be left alone, or if it is hopefully approachable.

The exposure is often very tricky – white hares amongst dark heather, or brown hares in harsh sunshine, and learning how to deal with this took time.

Numbers have dropped considerably now, so it has become quite a challenge to find and photograph the hares, sadly, so my experience is invaluable.

I have many photographs of them, mostly taken during my first winter as a professional photographer and guide that I am proud of. This one, though, is a favourite.

mountain hare photography

I was on the hill with another professional photographer and his clients. We were lying on the ground so eye-level with the hare as it hunkered down on the snow. Suddenly, it started to graze, and in doing so, approached me.

When I first started out as an enthusiastic wildlife photographer, I wouldn’t have realized how lying down improves the image – softening the surroundings and allowing the subject to pop.

Nor would I have realized that as the hare came ever closer, I would need to deepen the aperture so that the entire head remained in focus. What I love about this series of images is that they are quite different from all my other encounters with mountain hares.

You can see every detail of the hare’s face and the grass it’s grazing on. I find myself looking into its eyes and am drawn into the image.

When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?

I never really intended to become a professional photographer. 

My thinking was to relocate through work to the Scottish Highlands from Glasgow and work part-time allowing me the possibility of concentrating more on photography and potentially doing some mountain hare guiding. 

In 2016 I began to make a concerted effort to build up my social media profile and portfolio to increase awareness of my work and spent all my leave in the Highlands, much of it photographing the hares.

I was never really a city person and I felt most at home and alive when out in the Scottish wilderness immersed in nature.

However, the relocation was blocked by management and in 2019 feeling very frustrated, I fell in love with a house in the Highlands, bought it and quit my job – one of the best days of my life, and one I’ve never regretted!

Over the first winter, I was able to do some mountain hare guiding and the other local guides all welcomed me and gave me encouragement, support and any work they couldn’t take on themselves which was fantastic, and very much appreciated.

I knew it would realistically take at least a year to do the research and groundwork to offer other kinds of guiding.

With covid arriving just 4 months after my move, it meant it was more than 2 years before I was really up and running. Having relocated in November 2019 it was 2022 before I offered summer guiding and multi-species winter workshops.

Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?

Yes! In 2016 I did a week-long photography masterclass with Laurie Campbell at the Aigas Field Centre near Beauly. 

Laurie was a brilliant teacher and his own enthusiasm for nature photography, even though he’d been doing it for many decades, was so inspiring.

mountain hare photo

The week gave me the self-belief and confidence to find myself as a photographer, to develop my own style, and to completely specialise in wildlife. Laurie also introduced me to mountain hares. 

It had never occurred to me that it was possible to sit close to a hare – we sat close to two as they groomed, and relaxed in our presence. 

This day, more than any other, was life-changing. 

Are there any species, places, or subjects that you have re-visited over time? Could you compare images from your first and last shoot of this? Explain what’s changed in your approach and technique.

My approach to wildlife photography is to specialize in a few species; learning their behaviours, habits, and interactions.

I consider myself very privileged to live in an area with easy access to many fantastic species such as red squirrels, mountain hares, badgers, pine martens, and more.

This has given me ample opportunity to study these animals in-depth and to understand more about them, which not only results in better images but also a fuller experience.

When I first started to photograph red squirrels, I would be visiting photography hides. I, therefore, only had a few hours with the animals and my primary focus had to be on photographing them.

I was never there for long enough to really be able to anticipate where they might go or when to press the shutter for the best images. Nor did I have time to start learning about them.

I came away with nice images, but few that have stood the test of time against those I take now.

red squirrel standing on a log

When I moved to the Highlands, I discovered that the wood directly behind my house had a red squirrel population, so I put a feeder up, and during the first lockdown, I spent every morning sitting in a hide watching, studying, and photographing them.

Initially, my images were all from the hide which faced the tree in which I had placed a feeder. Although I think I captured something of the personality of the squirrel, the positioning and background aren’t brilliant.

I became so familiar with the squirrels that I could recognize each by their individual personality, and I learned what all their calls and behaviours meant. As time went on, I ditched the hide, and now I sit on the ground.

Not only can I anticipate what they are going to do, but I’m also able to get down very low for eye-level images and position myself in the best spot depending on the light, etc. I am continuously studying them and how they interact with each other, etc.

I still visit other hides, and I do the same thing there!

red squirrel in evening light feeding

This understanding of the subject has almost certainly improved my photography of these and other subjects I’ve worked regularly with. I have developed a style over the past few years of taking emotive images – trying to capture the “essence” of the animal.

I think it’s only really possible to do that if you understand your subject. Of course, I never let myself forget that not all photographers have the same access to the species to allow them to do this, and I never take it for granted.

Has anything changed in regard to how you process and edit your images?

I’ve always used Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop and have tried to keep my images true to the scene I saw when I took them. However, my editing skills (and in-camera skills) have improved over the years, resulting in a better-finished product.

I often revisit older raw files and re-edit them. As I grew in confidence as a photographer, I began to edit images the way I liked them, rather than trying to please others, such as camera club judges.

crested tit in tree

I like my images to have breathing space, so I leave as much space as possible without detracting from the subject.

That said, social media and what works best on those platforms sometimes influences my editing, as most of my work comes through those accounts, and close-up images of animals are always the most successful.

Personally, I prefer wide-angle environmental images that tell more of a story, and I have many of those as well.

What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?

The biggest challenge was, and to some extent still is, believing in myself as a photographer and a guide.

Trying to justify in my head that I have the right to charge other people money to come out with me – first and foremost, I am a wildlife lover who enjoys spending time immersed in nature and taking photographs of it.

I have found it very hard to convert this into a business as it’s my passion. I am my worst critic. I’m constantly challenging myself and worrying that my photography clients will be disappointed, it can be very stressful. This hasn’t changed, even though everyone has been very satisfied!

I think the biggest challenge now is growing my business and finding more locations and subjects to take clients to, so that I can feel confident that I can guide 12 months of the year.

I tend to concentrate on a few local spots that I know are brilliant and find it hard sometimes to persuade myself to explore new areas.

As wildlife populations are constantly fluctuating and the weather becomes more and more unreliable, it’s really important that I know where and when to go.

What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?

Remember that wildlife can be unpredictable and that your clients should understand that.

If you’ve done the legwork and it doesn’t go to plan one day, it’s not your fault – don’t stress about it!

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