Stephanie Foote: From Amateur to Professional
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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Photographer and filmmaker Stephanie Foote’s work focuses on wildlife conservation, ecosystem restoration, and human stories about our relationship with nature.
She has photographs honoured in the British Wildlife Photography Awards and International Garden Photographer of the Year.
Past projects of Stephanie’s include capturing the vital work of rangers on the frontline of wildlife conservation in Kyrgyzstan, documenting endemic species in the Galapagos Archipelago, and photographing the wonderful diversity of urban wildlife in Vienna.
When and why did you first catch the nature photography bug?
Growing up, natural history was a subject that captured my imagination like no other and I spent countless hours reading nature books and watching wildlife. I cannot remember a time when I have not been filled with a sense of wonder and fascination for all the life we share our planet with.
I first became interested in nature photography in 2006, when I was about eleven. I initially used a couple of single-use film cameras from our local chemist. As a child, I was a victim of playground bullying and I felt that I did not really fit in, so using a camera was like my key to the world. Photography gave me the confidence to pursue my interest in nature.
When I am focused on making creative images, I am not worried about what anyone thinks of me. During those difficult years, photography was a welcome escape.
Show us one of the first images you ever took. What did you think of it at the time compared to now?
This is one of my early images, which I took 13 years ago, just a couple of years after I first became interested in photography. Like many of my early images, it was captured on a holiday in France. My grandmother was French, so we often travelled there to visit my relatives.
I used to spend hours with my father’s Canon PowerShot A630 wandering through meadows and looking for interesting compositions. In those early days, I mainly focused on macro photography because I did not have any longer focal lengths to work with and was only using a simple point-and-shoot camera.
I remember at the time I was really proud of this image because I had tried something new by using a low angle to photograph the flowers. Now I look at it and instantly notice it is overexposed and not a unique image. However, I still think it is pretty good considering the limited equipment I had to work with!
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 have a sense of nostalgia for my early photographs. Although there are many of my early images that I now view as quite low quality, there are a couple that have stood the test of time and remain some of my favourite pieces of work.
I took this photo back in 2014 on a Canon 550D during my studies at Falmouth University. It was around that time that I discovered the joy of working with wide apertures and using natural colours in the environment to add colourful tones to my images. Here, shooting through autumnal leaves adds a sense of warmth to the image.
In 2020 I photographed this stunning round-leaved sundew while I was capturing some footage for a client on the importance of peatland habitats. This strange and enchanting plant has evolved a carnivorous way of life to supplement its diet.
If you look carefully at their ‘dew’ covered tendrils you can see tiny unsuspecting insects that have fallen prey! This remains one of my favourite recent images because, in my view, these plants are some of the most exciting and interesting species we have in England.
When did you decide you wanted to become a professional photographer? How did you transition into this and how long did it take?
I am passionate about the arts and nature. Pursuing a career as a nature photographer felt like a natural step for me, but it was not until I discovered Falmouth University’s Marine & Natural History Photography course that I got my heart set on it.
Many people told me I should not risk doing a photography degree because there were so few related jobs and I would struggle to find work, but I decided to follow my ambitions and hoped that the rest would fall into place.
After graduation in 2017, I soon learnt that becoming a professional is not an easy transition and there was some truth in the warnings I had heard from my peers. I had to take on unrelated work while I forged my way into this immensely competitive field.
I funded personal projects through a data entry job at a local warehouse. My resulting portfolio gave me a strong foundation to approach people who were looking for photographers or filmmakers. After about a year I managed to get a full-time role at a conservation organisation where I worked on visual content creation, and also continued to pursue my passion projects.
After nearly two years my employer put me through a redundancy consultation process and, although I managed to keep my role, it was a huge turning point for me.
I decided to escalate my efforts dramatically in the pursuit of my ambitions. I mention this because there are times on this path when you will feel hopeless and I want to reassure aspiring nature photographers and filmmakers that sometimes the worst circumstances can lead to the best outcomes.
During the redundancy consultation period, I applied to work for the UN. I think if I had not felt insecure in my employment, I would not have taken that leap of faith to apply for a producer position for which I felt underqualified.
I was offered the opportunity to work for the UN Environment Programme as a freelance Multimedia Producer. This was a pivotal moment for me in my career. My work shifted to having a far stronger focus on photography and video.
For a couple of years, I was able to hone my skills and become more specialised. I was paid to go on a few solo field assignments, which were incredible experiences. A personal favourite was meeting and photographing the team at REEFolution, a coral reef restoration project on the Kenyan coast.
East Africa had so many interesting opportunities for wildlife stories and meeting like-minded people. Even at the UN, our office grounds were shared with monkeys, tropical birds, chameleons, and terrapins.
I was also lucky enough to collaborate with Jonathan and Angela Scott on their Sacred Nature Initiative. This was such a surreal moment for me. I grew up watching Big Cat Diary on the BBC and getting to film social media content with two of my greatest role models was like a full circle moment. They were extremely generous with their time and it was great to practice filming with them.
However, after nearly two years with UNEP, I decided to find work closer to my partner and family. I saw that Fauna & Flora International, a conservation organisation which is headquartered in my hometown, were hiring. They have incredible projects focused on conserving biodiversity around the world.
After a successful application, I am now fortunate to be managing their photos and videos, while I can pick and choose my favourite freelance projects on the side.
The era of being able to make a steady income through stock photo sales and travel on regular assignments is over for the majority of people. In my experience, only a privileged few will encounter those kinds of opportunities consistently. However, if you are willing to diversify and persevere, I have found there are still ways to build a fascinating career in nature photography.
Was there a major turning point in your photography career – a eureka moment of sorts?
I do not think there has been a single eureka moment for me, instead, it has been a series of moments.
The first moment was most definitely when a puffin photo I took on Skomer Island was highly commended in a national photography competition.
Having one of my photographs exhibited in London for the British Wildlife Photography Awards instilled a great sense of confidence in me and I am so grateful to that competition and to my friends who encouraged me to enter!
The second big eureka moment was being selected to work at the United Nations Environment Programme HQ.
When I first met the video team there through a work trip a few years earlier, I remember thinking it would be such an amazing experience to work there. Little did I know that a couple of years later I would be flying out to Nairobi to join the team.
Living and working in Kenya was one of the best experiences I have had. I am immensely grateful to my friends who taught me so much about film production during my time there.
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.
When I was younger, I spent time observing foxes in my grandparents’ urban garden and to me, they were like something straight out of the fairy-tale books I had read. I must have been a toddler, but I remember catching glimpses as one disappeared into the overgrown, derelict air raid shelter at the end of the garden.
There was endless amusement when my aunt watched from an upstairs window as a fox stole the gardening gloves that she had left outside during a break. Foxes have stuck with me as a favourite ever since.
As a result, foxes have been a group of animals I have returned to photograph time and time again. One of my early images, captured in 2012, shows a fox standing on a frozen reedbed at my local nature reserve. This is one of my first ever photos of a wild fox, and only a moment later it had disappeared among the reeds.
In 2018 I revisited foxes and became fascinated by urban foxes while working with The Canid Project. I spent months following one particular family and over time I learnt to recognise each individual.
My approach of revisiting a city graveyard regularly really helped me to capture strong photographs because I learnt where the foxes were most likely to be, depending on the weather and time of day. I figured out that on sunny winter days they loved basking in the sun against a particular set of gravestones but on hot summer days they would seek the respite of shade in a memorial garden.
My fascination with photographing foxes has continued internationally too. My last fox shoot was pre-pandemic in 2020 when I travelled to Iceland to document the blue morph Arctic fox. I spent a year planning the trip and met with a local fox scientist to gain a greater insight into the research being completed on this species.
I think the main change since I first photographed a fox has been in my preparation for photo trips. Now, before I go anywhere, I study up on the local species and ensure that I have a clear understanding of their behaviour and where I am most likely to get successful images.
I try to spend more time documenting a particular species so I come away with an in-depth story and stronger images. If I am travelling internationally and time on location is limited, I often work with guides who can support me with specialist knowledge about their local wildlife.
Has anything changed in regards to how you process and edit your images?
When I first became interested in photography, I did a lot of digital editing and I would sometimes go a bit overboard on the saturation and contrast adjustments. I have definitely toned down my editing process since then. I also started out shooting JPEG files, whereas I now only shoot in the RAW format and never shoot JPEG straight from the camera.
Now I prefer to edit in Adobe Camera RAW. I do not heavily edit photos; most of my edits are mainly white balance and exposure adjustments. When I have a large batch of images to edit, I use Adobe Lightroom. It is a great tool for editing larger quantities of photos because you can batch process multiple images.
I am much more critical about my work now than I used to be. These days I will just process a couple of favourites from a day out with my camera. I only keep photos which I think have strong potential and I am quite decisive about deleting images too.
Hard drives and cloud storage are often expensive and the more images you have, the more you have to pay for storage, and the more time is spent in front of a computer screen.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting out, and what’s your biggest challenge now?
The greatest challenge I faced when starting out was my low confidence. In my early days I found it difficult to be taken seriously as a professional. On some shoots, people were surprised to see a woman behind the camera because they are so used to cameramen.
You also feel a lot more pressure once people are paying you for a service, so on my first few jobs I felt quite nervous because I did not want to disappoint a paying client.
I was extremely fortunate to have a supportive family and photography teachers who encouraged me to pursue my ambitions. However, in school some of my peers warned me that I could not possibly make a living with photography and advised me to pursue a more traditional career with a focus on academic subjects.
More recently the biggest challenge has been financial security, so there was some truth in the warnings of those who were concerned about the viability of a photographer’s career.
When you are fully freelance, clients sometimes do not pay you on time and you can be left with constant insecurity over rent payments and other expenses. Financial hardship is a common issue among professional photographers, even those who have a suite of awards and extensive experience.
For me, the perfect balance has been finding a role where I am able to pursue my passion for nature, photography, and video through a day job, but can still shoot freelance assignments on the side. I can rely on a steady monthly income, but when I accept other projects, I am able to focus on the work I am most passionate about.
What’s the one piece of advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?
A film director whom I admire is Ava Duvernay. During her talk at an Adobe conference a couple of years ago she said “I didn’t get my foot in the door, I made my own door”. She started creating her own films and distributed them independently, with the help of like-minded people.
So instead of spending all her energy trying to get a job offer from a company which would not give her a seat at the table, she built opportunities for herself.
I think this is a great lesson on the importance of being proactive and putting yourself out there. My number one piece of advice is: do not give up! If big companies do not give you an opportunity, try to find ways to involve yourself in smaller projects and make your own films and photo stories with whatever you have available.
It is not easy because many of us are priced out of high-end cameras, but look at support schemes and try to be creative with what you have.
Nowadays, earning a living as a photographer is all about a diversity of income streams. You should not feel that your work is any less special just because you have some office-based work on the side.
In the age of social media, it is easy to have the impression that nature photographers are constantly out on assignments and having the time of their lives. From what I have seen, this is rarely the case.
Try to remember why you got interested in nature photography in the first place. When times are tough, get out with your camera and enjoy it for the sake of it. That is usually when the magic happens anyway!
Feature image credit: © Sofi Lundin