Where are All the Female Nature Photographers?

So many well-known wildlife photographers are from Mars, but not many are from Venus. Why is this?

As the book from the 90’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus implied, there certainly are distinct differences between the sexes. Could those differences explain some of the reasons why there are many more internationally known male wildlife photographers than female?

When my interest in nature and wildlife photography started in the 90’s, I had no female mentors. My mentors were Art Wolfe and Tom Mangelsen – both men. When I took my first overseas photography trip to Antarctica, the two ship photographers were men: Wolfgang Kaehler and Jonathan Scott.

Over the last 12 years I have worked in earnest to develop my skills as a wildlife photographer, as well as sharing my expertise by conducting photography workshops and showing my work in juried art shows. But I have learnt that it is essential to develop your confidence, and not be shy about self-promotion, to succeed in a male-dominated profession.

Doing all of this takes so much time, especially with the need to learn all the other things involved in the post production side, which is constantly evolving since digital has become the standard. You must be a salesman, or should I say salesperson, as well as having lots of time, perseverance, and the ability to be critical of your work to push yourself further.

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In the beginning that was a bit difficult for me. I did not have any children, and I kept at it because I wanted to be one of the best. Also, I think that the competitiveness of the business side of things comes more naturally for men. You know, getting your elbows in there to be seen, or shouting that much louder than the rest.

But even the equipment involved could be part of the problem as to why the industry is at a 70:30 split in favour of men. The super telephoto lenses, which are often needed to make that next step in one’s development, are incredibly heavy. The weight can be intimidating, and then there’s the cost too, of course. But that has changed in recent years, with much lighter quality telephoto glass coming at a much lower cost and weight.

Could it be the social side, or should I say the rather unsocial side, of being out in the woods alone. How many women love hiking long distances, sweating (a lot) with all sorts of insect spray on, plus carrying heavy equipment. I would say more women would say “no” to that than men. My quest does take me to wearing rather non-feminine clothes, not much make-up and a cap that keeps my hair from getting in the way of taking pictures. But… I love it!

How about the technical side of photography, or what’s maybe known as the “geeky side”. It seems more men are interested in digging themselves into computers, cameras, tripods, tripod heads, etc. I have tried to learn as much as I can about each camera that my workshop clients use: the different controls, how well different gear performs in certain situations.

I smile when some women I am around talk about just spending money on a Louis Vuitton handbag or Gucci shoes, when I think it is amazing when I get some new Merrell hiking shoes or an Arc’teryx jacket. So maybe it has nothing to do with the sexes, but just different strokes for different folks.

As of late I do see more and more women breaking boundaries: Judy Lynn Malloch, Denise Ippolito and Lisa Langell are just a few of them.

But this has all been food for thought and a bit of me thinking out loud. I have great appreciation for all of my mentors for their inspiration. I have also learned a lot from previous photography trips, as well as instructors, about how to reach out to people (and how not to). Even though they’ve all been men, it hasn’t stopped me from doing what I do today. In fact, much the opposite!

My workshop clients have been equally split between men and women, and both genders have enjoyed our time together and have given me very nice feedback. One gentleman flew all the way down from Canada to have a full weekend workshop with me in Florida. I felt very honoured! We spent 12 hours each day, one out in the field and the next on the computer learning post processing techniques. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, especially when I saw that light come on and the smile on his face after seeing his images at the end of the weekend. I get much fulfilment with these types experiences, with all my clients.

So, women, do not be shy! If you have the interest and love how YOU feel out there, then give it all you’ve got! One of my favourite sayings is, Live MAS, Live BIG or MORE!! There might be a part of this world that would fulfil you, ladies? We will see in years to come if the ratio increases on the female side or not. What do you think?

Nancy Elwood is an award-winning wildlife photographer who resides in Florida, in the United States. She has been perfecting her skills over the last 25 years, travelling throughout the United States, Africa, Antarctica, and Central America. Nancy shares her skills conducting photography workshops, and shows her work in juried art shows. Her passion is capturing nature at its best!

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  • Kirsty McLeod

    Interesting and it’s made me sit and think… I don’t pretend to your level of skill Nancy, I’m a hobby photographer. But since I have no partner or kids to worry about, all my holidays are taken on trips to see and photograph wildlife…. I’m normally the only woman in a group, or there is an ‘also ran’ wife who bought a camera to share her husband’s passion…. maybe women share themselves round their life more and can’t afford to be as ‘selfish’ as you need to be to get out there? (That’s no slur by the way, I just mean you have to be single minded!). Still pondering!

    • Alyce B

      As a fellow female photographer, I agree that it may be because many females are still very much in the mindset of “family first” and use their spare time on hobbies surrounding that activity. In opposition, men are typically use to being the breadwinner and the one to go out of the house to pursue various interests.

      Personally, my husband an I have opted not to do the family thing and thus it frees up much of my time and funds to travel and work on my photography. I hope to follow in the great trailblazing female photographers’ steps and help make the trail a bit wider for those in the future.

  • Diane Harper

    I think you’ve hit on all the most significant reasons why women are under-represented in the profession. (The same reasons for all professions where women are underRepresented.) I recall coveting the glass others carried into the field, glass I could not afford (and still can’t because it’s not a professional investment for me.) my family still worries about me wandering alone into the woods (more so here in North Carolina where one is as likely to need a gun or pepper spray against a human predator as one is a bear.) my solution to the lens problem was to go macro and landscape, which are a bit more affordable. But now that I should have time to travel and develop more skill, I have grandchildren to care for. And so it goes. I’m getting damn good with an iphone7 plus camera, if I do say so myself! 🤣

  • First, thank you Nancy Elwood, for including me in your article. It is an honor and I do work hard to break boundaries and give fellow photographers really great experiences– as do you! I also genuinely agree with your article on why there are few femal nature photographers. It’s a tough job and I respect those who do it well!

    The photography is challenging, but what’s of even greater challenge is the business end of things. It is a monumental challenge to run one’s own business in this field — many see the glory of it, but few see the hurdles and significant up-front-and-no-guarantees-expense it takes to plan workshops, get permits, develop marketing, maintain and upgrade gear, travel, business expenses, scout out locations, pay tons out-of-pocket up front in deposits in the hopes a workshop will sell a year later, and then ultimately create experiences that people can’t find/do/get on their own. I love it, but it is hard work. That said, I see it as a personal challenge! I’ve always believed that you just have to be tenacious one moment longer than everyone else in “the race” to reach your goals. I also believe–as do you– that treating people well, being honest, being kind, giving unending support, and being knowledgeable without arrogance is a winning combination that many women come by naturally!

    Here’s to women! No matter whether you take a few photos with your cell phone, or have tons of gear, photography is a journey and I am honored to be a woman photographer among the few of us whose passion for this field keeps us going! Loved your well-written article, Nancy!

  • DavidandChristine Sewell

    I think the lack of women in wildlife photography is all the more amazing when you look at wildlife conservation generally, where the balance seems to be, if anything, in favour of women. When I was an undergraduate, women in my conservation class outnumbered men by 9 to 6. Seeing similar classes in later years as a postgraduate and, later, as a postdoctoral researcher, I can only think of a single year when the majority of the course was male.

    Perhaps it is the photography that does not appeal to many women. Certainly my wife, after a period where she carried a camera as what Kirsty McLeod called an ‘also ran’ wife*, now leaves the camera at home. She is, however, more than happy to come out and do a reptile survey with me simply for the fun of doing it.

    Whatever the reason, I know some great female wildlife photographers here in the UK, and thank you Nancy for a thought provoking article.

    *Not sure I like that phrase, but I will run with it for now.

    • Kirsty McLeod

      Lol.. appreciate your temperance… I didn’t like the phrase either, but struggled with how to express it… am quite open to an alternative!

  • Sprocket Nsw

    Whereas in Australia, women seem to make up the majority of camera users in classes, at least. I love wandering in the bush, often with support hubby in tow, enjoying discoveries and taking photos. I do think we’re pretty safe here, which may help.

  • Hi Nancy – thanks so much for sharing your experiences in this post. It is clear that all your hard work has paid off in developing an inspiring portfolio of work. I will offer a small quibble with a few things you mention. I find it frustrating that discussions about women in photography often return to topics like gear being heavy, outdoor clothes being ugly, and nature being dirty. I think even mentioning these things plays into gender stereotypes that paint women as weak, not capable. For my own career in photography and what I see in a lot of my peers, these things are non-issues but by spending time talking about them, we ignore some of the things that are real barriers (like how hard it is to find female mentors, how some educational environments like workshops can be downright hostile for women participants, how the big corporations sponsor very few women, etc).

    • Tamara Rodgers

      Thank you, I had the same thoughts as I read the article! Just like other career fields, like STEM, journalism or business (photography could fall into these categories), women are still fighting for equality and have to prove we are not the weaker sex.

  • Denise Ippolito

    Hi Nancy, this is a great article and brings up some great points. I appreciate that you mentioned me in the article. I support all women in the field and think that if you set your mind to anything you can do it. I hope that each of us can pave the way for others looking to break into a male dominant field.

  • Mary Williams hyde

    I am a pro photographer who is new to bird and wildlife photography. I just started taking photos in January of this year after I finally got a Sigma 150-600 lens….Yes it is soooooo heavy.. if you would like, please check out my photos..
    feedback would be appreciated #klamathbasinbirding

  • Diana

    I’m working to brake boundaries. I hike alone. I go out early. I stay out late. This week I’m actually on a solo camping trip to photograph Acadia national park. But I’m thinking there is still some sort of stereotype for female wildlife & nature photographers. At art shows I’m always asked “did you take these?” And I always think ‘do you think I’m not capable? Physically? Talent? Skill?’ I’m pretty sure no one would ask Mengelsen “did U take these?”

  • Nancy Elwood

    Thank you all for your input and thoughts! It was a fun article to write and it is interesting reading what other women think! I am up in Maine at the moment trying to capture our Atlantic Puffins and look forward reading additional comments that have been written when I get home!

  • Monica Doshi

    Thank you so much for this article Nancy. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have only been in photography for a few years and love wildlife. Although I took a slightly different path to yourself (I had kids first!) I can relate to a lot of what you describe, especially the heavy lenses, going out alone (people think me weird for doing this, no female mentors and not having any interest in Louis Vuitton handbags. I am loving your photos. Monica.

  • Beckie McDonald

    Boys are socialised to be louder, more confident and to consider their own desires first, so it makes sense that they find it easier to take the time and money to invest in difficult solo careers like wildlife photography. Girls are socialised to pay more attention to others needs and build up others’ confidence more than their own, as well as to be more cautious. In most fields, both men and women consider women with the exact same skills to be less competent and creative than men. Many women are successful family and pet photographers (careers that fit in better between the family responsibilities that they are more likely to have, and not coincidentally, are not considered as serious or artistic). Given how many women are interested in wildlife and photography generally, I’m sure there would be many more women in the top rung of wildlife photographers, if they had “also ran” husbands supporting their career, and if everyone took women’s artistic voices and abilities as seriously as they do men’s.

  • Nancy Elwood

    Well, just returned from Maine and I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to comment. It is always interesting what others, especially on this article, women think about it all!! I am fortunate Beckie that my husband is VERY supportive, in fact, he sets up my booth at art shows and stays with me through them all. Plus he even learned how to mat for doing my loose prints at the shows!

  • diana

    Hi Nancy, As you probably remember, I have been a big fan of yours as soon as I discovered you on FB about 5 years ago. I have yet to meet you but feel very special when you take the time to answer me via messenger and I know someday soon we shall meet up. We do live in the same state! I just wanted to take a few minutes to say I have been blessed to have met many great photographers and lately, mostly women. Not sure how, the camera club I belong to has been extremely supportive of my work and have encouraged me even do talks on bird photography. Most importantly I have found a way to sell my works and make a living at it. I have a very long way to go but that is all part of the fun. My husband is extremely supportive and helps me with art shows set ups and that in itself is wonderful. I am finally getting a chance to travel a bit and hopefully expand my horizons. I always make a point at looking at your posts, I find them a delight and am encouraged by them. So onward dear friend, I hope our path cross sooner than later… A fellow woman photographer, Diana Calleja

    • Nancy Elwood

      Diana, I so appreciate your kind words!!! And I am so glad you have been able to follow your dream! Yes, we must make our paths cross for sure!!!

  • Suzette Barnett

    Hello Nancy! Thank you for shedding light on this subject 🙂 I, too, have great appreciation for photographers, recognized or not, women or men, though I have in recent years I have indeed met more and more women photographers. Coming from a background in the visual arts, photography feels natural to me; it also gets me outside in nature, challenging myself and creating. I’d like to figure out how to make more of a difference with my images though…. if any photographers have a good story of using their nature photography to make a difference, I’d love to interview you so together we can inspire people. As others here have said, the support and encouragement of husbands, family, friends and mentors is such a blessing. Much continued success to you Nancy, and enjoy your day wherever you are! – Suzette Barnett

    • Nancy Elwood

      Thank you so much Suzette for adding your input!!! I get great joy from teaching people wildlife photography myself. The smile on their faces at the end of a workshop is an awesome sight.

  • Jeni Bell

    I love this. I was thinking this exact same thing the other week when looking at some of the results from BPOY and seeing the majority were men. This article is great and makes me feel much less alone. I’m only beginning and it’s a bit scary with all the tech side, and gear and then just getting a good pic.

    • Nancy Elwood

      Thank you Jeni! Do not feel alone!!! If you have any questions just give a shout. I am on Facebook and on the Nature TTL Facebook page, where there are others willing to help.

  • Kelly Blunden

    Thank you for this article. I’ve recently started getting back into wildlife photography and always felt anxious about entering a male-dominated environment as I always feel being female means more challenges. However, I’ve decided not to let my shyness get the better of me as I am doing something I love and put all my time and effort into. I’ve started going out more on my own and I enjoy every minute of being outdoors and searching for wildlife to photograph! I’ve recently just come back from Northumberland on a trip to photograph the grey seal colony and I found carrying around a super telephoto lens was not as hard as it seemed! I am also lucky in that my fiance will assist with my shoots from time to time and as he has studied animal behaviour has taught me a lot which has guided my photography. This article has definitely provided me with reassurance that there is
    nothing to be worried about, and female wildlife photographers are out
    there and can be just as successful as male wildlife photographers! I think support from others really helps and this thread is an example of that.