Capturing Conservation: Navigating the Path to Success as a Conservation Photographer

conservation photography

Hello budding conservation photographers, my name is Shane Gross and I’ve been a full-time freelance conservation photographer for four years at the time of writing (March 2024).

I am not the biggest or best in the world. I do not have all the answers and I’m still learning as I go…and I still have a lot to learn. So why listen to me?

Shane Gross

I believe that we must all carve our own paths, but I also believe that learning from others’ stories can help inform our own.

I know the biographies of the people I respect who came before me and I think it has helped. However, it’s important to keep in mind the landscape is changing rapidly, and we must all adapt.

The first thing you should know is that this career is not easy, and you’ll need a lot of patience. I mean patience in terms of years – you will be putting in years of hard work that slowly builds like a snowball. Each good thing you do slowly rolls the snowball to help it grow.

So, how do we grow our snowballs so that we can form them into a mighty snowman?

Here are some tips and suggestions that will help you on your path to success as a conservation photographer.

1. Take interesting photos

This probably goes without saying, but you need to take interesting pictures!

You need to learn the craft and then push it further. Easier said than done, I know. 

2. Tell a story

Those interesting pictures should tell a story. Single images can tell a story, but think about how 10 images that each tell a story can work together to tell a larger narrative.

conservation photography

Now we’re onto something! Now you have something publications can’t ignore.

conservation photography

Now the thing that you care about saving has a moment in the limelight that may help push conservation forward. 

3. Don’t give away your images for free

Your pictures are worth something, so don’t be afraid to act like it. Ultimately, giving our images away for free is like saying that our work is worthless.

conservation photographer Shane Gross

Of course, there are certain causes or circumstances where I’ll choose to donate images, but most of the time I have the confidence to state why I believe they shouldn’t be given away…and so should you.

Exposure is not compensation, please remember that.

4. Focus on local stories

I love travelling and am inspired by new places, landscapes, and animals, but local stories give me what’s most important for making groundbreaking images – time.

Shane Gross conservation photography

Learning about a place over months or years means you can explore spots that few other photographers know about, so you can create something unique. I can go back to the same location over and over, slowly honing the images until I have something great.

It also means I have time to build relationships with scientists and conservationists which leads to better, more intimate, and more informed stories.

5. Diversify your income

It can help to diversify your income. I generate income from various sources including:

1. Stock photo sales

I’m currently represented by the fine folks at Nature Picture Library. I’d avoid micro-stock sites, if possible, but when you’re starting out, they may be the only option.

2. Magazine and newspaper stories

This is what I spend the most amount of time and effort on and find the most fulfilling. Sadly, budgets are shrinking and, unfortunately, I/we missed the “golden era”.

conservation photography

However, I feel it’s so important to keep this kind of journalism alive that I’m going to keep plugging away and hope the pendulum swings back in our direction. 

Most of the stories I’ve done have been my own ideas and most of the relationships started with cold pitches to magazines or newspapers I didn’t previously have a relationship with.

By then nurturing those relationships over time by being nice and producing good work can make this sustainable.

3. Conservation organization assignments

I’ve shot assignments for Greenpeace, The Save Our Seas Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, WildAid, and many others.

conservation photographer Shane Gross

These are incredibly rewarding and impactful, and can give a boost to your annual income. Getting the assignment in the first place is the trick and that can only be done through networking. Get out there as much as possible!

4. Print sales

I generate relatively few print sales because my style tends to be more journalistic in nature, but it’s possible to make a good living if you can tap into the market of people who have money.

5. Leading trips and teaching workshops

I have led several trips around the world. This is some photographer’s full-time jobs and like many full-time jobs takes a lot of time and effort.

whale photography underwater

I do it more sporadically, but annually go to French Polynesia for humpback whales for Just the Wild Expeditions. It’s a way to earn income and get time in different destinations.

It’s also a chance to promote ethical interactions with wildlife.

6. Subscriptions

For a small monthly fee, I give my Patreons access to my latest work, they can get prints for free or at a discount and there are lots of the other perks.

conservation photography

For me, it’s a small amount of monthly income I can count on, which is rare in this industry.

This is also how I do the majority of my teaching and mentoring. I prefer one-on-one conversations so we can talk about exactly what the student needs rather than generalizations.

7. Gear ambassadorship

I am fortunate to be a Marelux Underwater Housing ambassador). This helps to cut down on the substantial costs associated with photography, especially underwater which is exponentially more expensive.

marelux gear

It will increase your workload, so go into each relationship only after careful thought.

8. Create products

Consider creating products like books, calendars, postcards, etc.

My first book, Bahamas Underwater, is available now. Proceeds from the sale of the book fund kids sea camps for the non-profit organization BREEF (Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation) and we are getting the book in every school in The Bahamas.

Bahamas underwater

It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

9. Work in multiple genres of photography

Work in genres like commercial, wedding, portrait, fashion, sports, architecture photography, etc.

I don’t personally do any of these, but I know many photographers pay their bills this way, which is great. It can help sharpen your photography skills and open doors.

10. Start off with savings

Don’t quit your day job until you have a bit of savings. At one point I had to spend $32,000 of my own money to front expenses for assignments.

conservation photography

It was all eventually paid back, but I was nervous, and my credit cards were maxed out.

11. Be nice and don’t give up

Nice guys don’t finish last, they last long.

underwater conservation photography

To last a long time in this business you need to treat people with respect. You also need to not quit.

I know a lot of photographers who had a lot of potential but had to give up because they couldn’t make ends meet. This vocation doesn’t pay well, and it’s very difficult. If you can find a way to stay in the game, you’ll outlast people and get opportunities that way.

12. Keep expenses to a minimum

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a lucrative field.

Is the latest and greatest gear really going to make your images better? Or simply drain you of your bank account so you have less to spend on paying for food/rent/field expenses.

conservation photography

You can either make more money or cut your expenses. I think my expenses are about as low as possible…so I better make more money!

13. Apply for grants

There are a lot of grants out there with varying degrees of competitiveness. I don’t apply for many grants, but the couple I have gotten were highly rewarding.

14. Enter competitions

I used to place a lot of emphasis on competitions and now I realize they are less important than I thought, but they still have a place.

Shane Gross conservation photography

They have a place in that they can build your reputation and teach us a lot and they can get more eyes on your conservation message.

My warning is to not take them too seriously and have some fun.

15. Engage with the community

As soon as I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to conservation photography I made it a goal to become a part of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and I’m so glad I did.

Connecting with the other photographers, staff and affiliates has not only been fulfilling on a personal level, but it has also furthered my career. When I send a cold email, I think I’m more likely to get a positive response because I have them behind me.

You can also create your own community. I’m a co-founder of the Canadian Conservation Photographers Collective (CCPC) and find that community incredibly uplifting.

It doesn’t always have to be big and formal either, even a WhatsApp group with a few photographer friends can be very helpful.

In conclusion

So that’s how I do it. I’m sure there are endless ways to pet the cat (what an awful expression “skin the cat” is…so let’s change that) and I’d love to hear how you are doing it!

Thank you for reading this far and I truly wish you luck; we need you, the planet needs YOU!

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