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Here are 33 Photo Masterclasses written by Mark to provide detailed and practical advice on how to improve your wildlife and nature photography. He offers simple but important tips such as getting down low and being aware light conditions, to advice on photographing mammals and bird behaviour, to photographing in black and white (click on any below).
If I’d kept all the cameras I have owned over the years, I’d be able to set up an industrial-scale museum of photography (the same applies to Apple computers, but that’s another story).
My first ‘serious’ camera was a Russian Zenit E, built like a tank and bought secondhand when I was in my late teens. I took my first published photo with it - a spotted flycatcher taken in the back garden – which was reproduced the size of a postage-stamp in Birds magazine in 1981. I dabbled with Olympus for a several years (I remember saving for 18 months to buy a much-coveted OM-1) and then went through a long line of Nikons. I started with the wonderful titanium F3P, built to withstand work in war zones (not that I ever tested that), went digital in 2003 (initially for underwater photography – to avoid the limitations of 36 exposures) and completed the collection with several D700s.
In 2012 I switched to Canon. I sold all my Nikon kit – cameras, lenses, flashguns and all the other paraphernalia - and bought brand new Canon kit. It was a big (and expensive) decision to make, but I’m more than glad I made it and haven’t looked back since.
There were several reasons for the change. Mainly, it was for the Canon EOS 1D X camera. I had borrowed one to test in the Antarctic and was blown away by its performance (12 fps motordrive, large buffer, spectacular performance at high ISOs and astoundingly accurate autofocus system… just for starters). I also tested Canon’s 300mm f2.8 lens, and that was the real clincher. It’s by far the sharpest lens I have ever used. And, to be blunt, the big bonus was that I’d never again have to deal with Nikon’s useless so-called after-sales service.
Here are a few pics taken with the 1D X / 300mm f2.8 / 1.4x extender combination in the past few months:￼￼ ￼
One decision I made during the switch-over was to keep my new kit to a minimum. Partly, this was due to the cost of starting from scratch. But it was also because I think too many cameras and lenses can get in the way of picture taking. Running wildlife and photography trips over the years, I’ve noticed that the people with the most equipment often miss the best pictures because they are too busy selecting and changing lenses. So keep it simple is my new mantra (and, interestingly, I find I get most creative when I have a limited choice of lenses for a situation). It’s also better to travel light when, like me, you spend half your life at airports and on planes.
So here is my current list of day-to-day tools:
I also use the following equipment for specific shoots:
… and, if I ever win the lottery, I’ll buy the new Canon 200-400mm f4 L IS USM with built in 1.4x extender (every wildlife photographer’s dream come true)
For undercover conservation photography, as well as something to keep close to hand in the car, on planes, skidoos, family days out etc, I use a brilliant little camera:
Sony Alpha A7R Mk II camera with Sony FE 16-35mm f4 lens
Other kit includes:
I usually carry everything in ThinkTank camera bags, using several different models depending on how much kit I will need to carry around at the final destination. They are tough and simple (no complicated and unnecessary straps or fasteners) and provide excellent protection for the kit. I’m getting too old to carry 20kg worth of equipment on my back through umpteen airports, and really like the rollers (which are designed to be carried as hand-luggage on most national and international flights):
And, to observe the wildlife I’m shooting (and to find it in the first place) I’ve used high resolution Swarovski for years:
A final word on equipment.
While I’m the first to admit that having the best equipment gives you a clear advantage, even a 1DX can’t decide where to point and when to take the picture. With this in mind, there are two golden rules for taking better pictures, no matter what equipment you are using:
© Mark Carwardine
It’s the dream job, isn’t it? Being your own boss, travelling the world, spending quality time in some of the greatest wildernesses from Europe and Australasia to Africa and Asia, capturing prize-winning images of spectacular wildlife, and seeing your life’s work in books, magazines, newspapers, calendars, and even exhibitions. You’ll never have to commute again, never have to clock in at 9 o’clock every morning, wear a suit, be nice to your boss, or sit through another dreary meeting.
If only it were that easy. Apart from the harsh realities of running your own business (finding enough work in the first place, dealing with tax and VAT, chasing unpaid invoices, paying all your own office costs, etc etc) you have to get up at the crack of dawn to get the best light (much earlier than mere commuters) and kiss goodbye to all holiday and sick pay. Then there is the relentless challenge of editing, processing, captioning and archiving all those pictures – many professionals, who’re taking something like 50,000-200,000 pictures a year, have a massive backlog. I daren’t even tell you the size of my backlog (oh, alright then, at the last count I was 69 trips behind – that means I haven’t even looked at the pictures from 69 trips, let alone edited, processed, captioned and archived them). So rest assured that the dream does not involve a life of continuous, daily photography – you will need to spend at least as much time behind a desk as in the field if you are going to do well. Succeeding as a professional wildlife photographer involves a lot of hard work: you need to be a great wildlife photographer and a whiz at marketing and business.
I don’t want to put you off – I’m trying to help you achieve your dreams and ambitions – but I do want to open your eyes to some of the challenges and hurdles before you hand in your notice at work and jump on a plane with a bag full of spanking brand new camera gear. That’s not to say that, one day, you won’t be leaping on planes armed with the latest and greatest £6,000 cameras (you’ll need at least two – always have a back-up) and £12,000 lenses. I’m a great believer in doing what you love and, if you have the skill, the passion and the right attitude, then perhaps you can make it as a professional wildlife photographer. After all, others have done - so why not you? It’s certainly better to give it a go, even if you fail, than wonder ‘what if?’ later in life. But just make sure you have another source of income, until you’re ready to take the plunge once-and-for-all, so you can still pay the mortgage if things go belly-up.
Also, it’s important to bear in mind that, while many people call themselves professional wildlife photographers, not all of them really are. Some are, of course. These are well-established pros, who may have been in the business for decades, and they genuinely survive purely by taking pictures. But, to be honest, few earn a really good living that way. I know it’s not about the money – it’s about lifestyle and following a dream – but there’s no denying that wildlife photography is a tough business. Chances are, you will have to make a lot of sacrifices (such as spending considerably more money on camera equipment than on mortages or cars) along the way. Or marry someone rich.
Having said that, many more people (myself included) are semi-pros – they earn a significant part of their income from wildlife photography and the rest comes from writing books, running workshops, leading tours, giving lectures, and so on. More about all this later.
There are also growing numbers of people who have enough money from other sources to be able to take pictures full-time, though they rarely earn a living in the process (which is fine – because they don’t need to – but they’re not really professional wildlife photographers). So don’t get the wrong impression about how easy it must be.
And remember – you’ll be competing against all these people, and more (there are countless thousands of wildlife photographers who are technically competent and take outstandingly good pictures during evenings, weekends and holidays – just for fun).
Still keen? OK, so how should you go about it?
Should I get photographic qualifications?
To succeed as a professional wildlife photographer you need to be technically competent – that goes almost without saying. But if you are planning to go freelance, in my view you are unlikely to need any qualifications, as such, simply because your pictures will have to speak for themselves (no one is going buy a picture from you just because you have a certificate or even a degree – the picture has to be good, or at least be exactly what the client needs, for you to make a sale). Having said that, if you have the time and inclination, there are some outstandingly good courses available, ranging from casual evening classes to full-blown degrees, that can provide you with a good, solid grounding in photography – and that certainly won’t do you any harm. It would be fun, too.
Alternatively, there are lots of places to get training and advice without compulsory exams at the end: one-day workshops (which can be technical or creative – I run them myself, sometimes, so keep checking the website for new dates) and wildlife photography holidays, or special one-day courses run by camera manufacturers such as Canon or Nikon (a great way to get to grips with all your equipment). You could also join a local camera club, which is an excellent way to hear talks by professionals and a great source of inspiration and honest feedback on your own pictures.
There is one avenue of study I would recommend – and you’re not going to like it. It’s certainly not what you’ve been dreaming about all these years. And that’s business studies. You could be the best wildlife photographer on the planet, but if you can’t run a business efficiently you simply won’t succeed. So if you do opt for further studies, I would strongly recommend a course on how to run your own business. It doesn’t have to be anything too fancy or overwhelming – evening classes would do perfectly well. Even a one-day course, to get you started. If you come from a business background already, all the better. Then you really can set out to earn a living, as a real professional, from what you love.
You should still work at improving your photography, of course. We can all learn and improve. With this in mind, I think there are two key ways of raising the bar of your picture-taking to an increasingly competitive level:
With this in mind, if you are based in the UK (and even if you’re not) I strongly recommend an annual event called WildPhotos. This is a two-day event wildlife photography extravaganza at the Royal Geographical Society in London every October, in which top wildlife photographers show some of their latest work. It’s the most inspiring two days imaginable and a great opportunity to network and rub shoulders with people who have make wildlife photography their career. I compère one of the two days (Chris Packham does the other) and absolutely love it.
Just in case you’re wondering… I’ve never been on a photographic course in my life. However, I read every single book on wildlife photography ever published, attend lots of photography events, spend an inordinate amount of time studying other people’s pictures… and, over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a great many established wildlife photographers. Hopefully, some of it has rubbed off.
The challenges ahead
Not only is wildlife photography an extremely competitive and crowded business, there has never been a harder time to earn a living from it than now.
Traditionally, wildlife photographers used to submit their best images to picture agencies, or stock libraries, and the money would pore in while they were out in the field taking yet more pictures. The libraries took 50 per cent of the money from sales but, in return, did all the selling and administrative work. It was a simple numbers game – the more saleable images they had in the library the more money they made (a very rough equation ‘back in the day’ was an average income of £1 per year per image – so 50,000 images would result in an income of about £50,000). Those were definitely the good old days. And, sadly, they are no longer.
Now, while a very small number of wildlife photographers may manage to survive in this way alone (although I don’t know any myself) income from stock sales has plummeted. There are many reasons for this, including:
The bottom line is that it’s extremely difficult to earn enough money to survive through stock alone although, managed properly, it can still be an essential part of your income.
So what should I do?
I’ve talked to many friends in the business about this. What is the solution? Not everyone agrees, of course, but the general consensus is that you should get your images noticed as much as possible – in any way you can – and then sell yourself, as the expert, rather than putting all the emphasis on selling the pictures themselves.
I’m not suggesting that you should give all your priceless images away for free, of course (though don’t be mean – I give lots of pictures to my favourite wildlife charities). But I do think it is important to lower your expectations in terms of the amount of money you can earn from direct picture sales. Make as many picture sales as you possibly can and negotiate hard but, once you are established, expect to earn the bulk of your income from lectures, workshops, tours, articles and books. The people who survive – even do well – in this business are the ones with lots of irons in the fire. Personally, I have many different projects on the go at any one time, and many more in the pipeline.
Whatever you do, it’s essential to be businesslike. And bear in mind the old adage: every day in the field costs money, while every day in the office earns money. Ask any professional wildlife photographer and they will tell you that they have to be strict with themselves and spend more time sitting behind their desks, editing and processing, writing and sending out proposals, contacting prospective clients etc, than sitting in a hide. It’s a frustrating fact of a wildlife photographer’s life. But it is a means to an end.
First, here are some ideas for selling your pictures:
Second, here are some ideas for getting yourself better known as a wildlife photographer:
What should I shoot?
I hope this has all helped. Good luck!
© Mark Carwardine
(Click here for a printable version of this page)
Both articles were published in BBC Wildlife magazine