When I was growing up, a lot of my very creative friends had one common, distant goal in life – “I want to become a photographer with National Geographic”. The thought of going out into the wild on assignment, spending months at a time, taking pictures and videos that add to our understanding of our world, and how we interact with nature – it fascinated us.
If you haven’t read National Geographic magazine, I highly recommend that you do. It’s still a fascinating place to get a deep insight into nature. Unfortunately, getting a full-time job as a wildlife photographer is hardly a career option anymore. There are very few people who work full-time as photographers for the magazine, or for any wildlife magazine for that matter.
So if you want to become a wildlife or nature photographer – how should you go about it? Where do you begin? How much of it is technical, and how much is art? Do you need very expensive, state-of-the-art equipment to start off? How does one actually make money?
These are all very interesting and important questions if you’re considering a career in this field. So we spoke to one of India’s most well-respected and passionate wildlife and nature photographers – Aditya Singh, or Dicky as he’s more well-known. Dicky’s been living in Ranthambore for more than twenty years, and has photographed the park and its inhabitants extensively.
To become a wildlife photographer, the first thing you’ll obviously need is access to wildlife. Which sounds obvious, till you realize that you’ll need to go on many many shoots before you get good at it. And if you’re living far from the forests, be prepared to spend a lot on an expensive hobby. You really need to learn about your subject. That’s how Dicky says he got started.
“I moved to Ranthambore in 1998 and my wife and I started a small lodge. At that time, it wasn’t a very well-known park as such. There were very few visitors coming here. Over the next one or two years, I built up a reputation as a good field worker for wildlife documentary film makers. I was working with BBC on a long project and they wanted someone to shoot behind-the-scenes stills and the outer park.
“Till then, I had no clue. I wasn’t a photographer by any standard. I learnt some basics from the cameraman and the others, and I ended up doing the stills for the BBC documentary film. And so I actually got into photography many years after I got into wildlife.”
Now even if you’re certain that you want to make a career of wildlife and nature photography, don’t jump into it – spend a few years learning the craft. Visit different national parks and reserves. Get to understand the forest.
“Photography is an artistic skill. So even if you go do a course in photography, you may not really become a ‘good photographer’ or even a ‘functional photographer’. So if you want to make a career out of photography, it’s probably better to start taking pictures for a few years before you jump into it. “Because it’s a competitive market. Your chances of getting work, getting published or getting sold only improve when you know your skill very well. When you’re good enough to compete with the big guys.”
Anyone can snap a tiger from a jeep using their mobile phone – but a great photographer can take a photo that stands out and speaks to people. Maybe it tells a story, or maybe it shows the interplay of the animal and the environment. So let’s look at getting three things correct, that’ll help you stand out.
You need to be technically strong; you need to have great gear – and you need artistic vision. You need to understand and own the craft.
Developing Technical Skills in Photography
First, the technical skills. Understanding exposure; understanding light; understanding how your camera works, so you instantly know which parameter to change, to get the photo you want. This isn’t enough to make you a great photographer, but it’s definitely a necessary step. There are some great Youtube channels – Sean Tucker, Fstoppers, The Photographic Eye, and many more – to help you gain the technical skills you’ll need to develop.
The Gear you need to shoot Wildlife
Second, the gear. Now wildlife photography actually requires the best and most expensive lenses, because you’re shooting in tough external conditions; you’re often shooting from great distances; and your subject could be moving really fast. The best telephoto lenses cost 8 to 10 lakhs. You don’t need to spend that money to begin with – in fact, it would be a really bad idea, because you won’t even know how to put it to good use. But yes, you definitely need a good telephoto lens, and a decent camera. Keep in mind that in recent years, telephoto zoom lenses have gotten much better – so again, you might not need the crazy expensive primes at all.
“At no point of time do you have to have an insanely accessible amount of kit.”, says Dicky. “In fact now I’m trying to move to less and less equipment, so over the years I’ve almost switched from fixed primes to zooms. So, you don’t really have to splurge on equipment.
“So, my advice is don’t splurge, and whenever you get any more kit, you should actually have a very good reason, a strong need to get it. but you do need a certain, basic good kit, otherwise you won’t get the results you want to get.”
Finally comes the craft. Compositions. Angles. The interplay of light with your subject and its surroundings. This comes with years of practice – which is why you need to get out there and shoot. A lot.
Making a Living doing Wildlife Photography
Now the big question – if magazines aren’t hiring, how do you actually make a living off your wildlife photography? Unfortunately, most likely there’s no one source of income that’ll keep you sustained, and you’ll have to branch out into different areas.
“As a wildlife photographer don’t expect to get jobs. For example, in National Geographic, there are what 3-4 full-time photographers, and they’re all Americans. So, you’re not going to get a job as a wildlife photographer.
“There are just a handful of photographers globally who make a living purely out of wildlife photography. Everyone has to supplement their income through some other source. Usually, that source is also photography-related – they run workshops and classes, they sell at new exhibitions, they write books. So you have to be working on any and every angle where you think you can monetise your photography.
“Stock photography has not been doing very well as of late. I used to make a very decent living till about 7 to 8 years ago selling stock photos. Those numbers have been going down for the last few years. So I work on multiple things. I sell a lot of prints, I sell limited edition prints, I do books and I assist people a lot. So yes, you have to work on all possible fronts, all possible angles here.“
And yes, even though we at IndieVisual are ourselves a stock photography website, we agree that being a full-time stock photographer is most likely not going to be a sustainable life. It could be a great supplement to your income as a photographer or a hobbyist, and it could be a great source of passive income. But earning lakhs a month as a stock photographer is very unlikely.
What about magazine shoots and paid assignments, though – how does one go about it? Do you pitch first and confirm an assignment, then go shoot – or do you go shoot, and then pitch the result to a magazine or a streaming platform?
Dicky says that you usually get assignments before you shoot – it’s very rare to be able to shoot first and then pitch it to magazines. At the very least, talk to the magazines first to see if they’ll be interested. Which means that you definitely need to know the magazine people, or they need to know you – so you should have a good online presence. Use Instagram well, edit and put up videos on your Youtube channel. You need to be popular online as a photographer.
You can watch the whole interview with Aditya Dicky Singh here. And yes, sign up on Indievisual.in and share your videos – and start off on your journey as a professional photographer!