10 Reasons Why Wildlife Photographers Are Crazy

10 Reasons Why Wildlife Photographers Are Crazy

Sometimes photography can be difficult, but what keeps us going is our passion for creating images that satisfy something inside us. However, if your passion happens to be wildlife photography, then you have a whole other level of difficulty coming your way. Come to think of it, there are so many valid reasons to abandon this passion and yet, this group of photographers persevere and do it anyway. Here are 10 reasons why wildlife photographers are crazy and why we can’t help but respect their pursuit of happiness.

1. It’s Been Done

These days, it’s more difficult than ever to create something unique. This is true across all genres of photography. As time passes and photography grows as more people pick up cameras — whether that be an interchangeable lens camera or a smartphone — the ability to be original is getting more and more challenging. However, other genres are much more readily able to cope with new ideas and trends. Professional-level wildlife photography today looks the same as the images seen in a National Geographic from 1970. Wildlife photography is extremely rooted in its concepts, and that can make it seem like everything that’s shot has probably been done, only better.

As the late Michael Reichmann said: “Do we really need another three-quarters view of these animals?”

Not only does one have to capture an expressive animal in pleasing photographic light these days, it has to be caught in a surrounding that compels a narrative if you want a chance at standing out. We’ve just about expired the need for close-up wildlife photography, and now the challenge is to do everything that’s been done before, only in a better location with a better story.

Photo provided by Backcountry Gallery.

2. Photo Opportunities Are Rare

To be more specific, good photo opportunities are rare. Think of how rare it is to get excellent natural lighting in a strong composition, and now think of how rare it is to see wildlife doing something peculiar or having a photogenic pose. Now put those together and we have just about the mother of rare photographic events. This is not even to mention the keeper and throwaway ratio of images we shoot, even when everything in front of the camera is coming together. It’s hard to even imagine how much pressure one would have felt in the manual-focus film days. It can take wildlife photographers a very long time to achieve something they are happy with, and still the thirst for one-upping it remains.

3. No Control Over Subject

While portraiture experience can certainly help in crossing over to wildlife photography, the biggest distinction is going to be in the ability to command your subject. There’s no real control over what your wildlife subject is doing, and even after many years of observing an animal, it’s hard to accurately predict what they are going to do next to prepare. It can be so insanely frustrating when after all the time spent preparing for one shot, all that’s needed is for the animal to face the other direction for lighting — and they just sit there… and they sit there… and eventually they leave in the wrong direction for the camera. You really have to have a love for simply viewing these animals to just let things like that go even if they seem to happen all the time. Never forget your lucky penny at home.

4. Wildlife Can Be Dangerous

Photographing wildlife works against basic human instinct sometimes. Smart Brain: “Maybe you should be going in the opposite direction of the big, scary animal with sharp teeth?” Crazy You: “But my composition!” Getting a photo with a mama grizzly and her cubs is probably going to be an epic image that will hang on your wall, we all know this, but it really comes at a price of endangering all creatures involved if not careful. Wildlife photographers always need to remain conscious of everything they are doing in order to avoid escalating any risks of danger.

Going to where the wildlife live usually involves going away from where the people live, so on top of knowing their stuff when it comes to photography, it’s essential that wildlife photographers have a competent outdoors skill set as well.

Photo provided by Backcountry Gallery.

5. The Alone Time

As it was just mentioned, wildlife shooters are going to be away from people for many expeditions. Certain people can handle this better than others, but it can still be a struggle for everyone. Even if one has a travel companion, it’s not like they can just set up camp and chat freely while still expecting a scene to unravel. There are going to be extended periods of time where it’s just a human and their thoughts, so don’t be surprised when “What the hell am I doing?” pops in there every now and then.

6. The Preparation

I’ve touched on this slightly already, but to dig deeper here we are looking at all the things that go into both the shots that are shown off and the shots that never even happen. A wildlife photographer never knows if there’s a shot at the end of the pre-dawn alarm clocks, the laying in a field during a rainstorm, or the hours of strenuous hiking. All the same, it’s done anyway because there simply is no other way to do it. For every keeper image there’s thousands of throwaways, and regardless of which one we are looking at there’s the same exact amount of work put behind it.

7. Difficult to Make a Living

Earning money from photography is tough, especially going full-time and making a living wage. If you want to play professional photography on hard mode, become a wildlife photographer. Just think of the market. There’s some magazine clients with editorial work, possibly a little commercial licensing here and there, and print sales to the man or woman with a hunting cabin. Each one of those can be difficult to get started with. Remember it’s not just you though, because all the other professional wildlife photographers need their share of the pot too. There are only a handful of people that are getting these clients and customers, and it’s usually because they’ve been working with the same people for some time now. You can probably squeeze by some work if you’re fortunate, but this is really a passion genre for most. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it because you love it and money doesn’t mean a damn thing.

Photo provided by Backcountry Gallery.

8. Cost of Equipment

Big, fast lenses are typically the name of the game with wildlife, as are rugged and accurate cameras. But don’t forget the durable support equipment either. Just typing that gives me a sinking feeling. There’s just so much investment to really get into a quality setup, and we already went over the minimal financial returns you get from it. When discussing this article with the Fstoppers writers, Nino Batista brought up a good point as well, saying that the used marketplace for the big lenses is chock full of weary people who don’t want to risk purchasing lenses that have been living outdoors and may have taken a fall or started to grow fungus on the inside. It can be difficult to step up this gear little by little by selling and upgrading.

9. Cost of Travel

Ecology 101: Some animals only live in certain places. To photograph a specific animal, there may be a bit of traveling to get to them. Most wildlife photographers are going to have to do at least a little bit of traveling. Whether that’s a couple hours away to a national or state park where there are greater quantities of animals, or to a different country such as Costa Rica with great biodiversity and unique species, it’s going to require some money.

10. Cost of Health

When I went over equipment, did you notice how everything there is on the heavy side? There’s a physical toll to carrying all that equipment while backpacking to remote areas. Furthermore, there’s the sleeping in tents, loss of sleep to getting up way too early, the chance of being stranded or injured if something goes wrong in the wilderness, insect-borne diseases picked up in the field, and of course all the stress that goes into getting a single quality photograph.

To all the wildlife photographers out there, amateurs and veterans alike, we respect the hell out of you and wish you the best of luck searching for that perfect shot that makes it all worthwhile.

Thanks to Robert Mynard, Nino Batista, Alex Cooke, and Ryan Pramik for their suggestions while creating this article.

Ryan Mense's picture

Ryan Mense is a wildlife cameraperson specializing in birds. Alongside gear reviews and news, Ryan heads selection for the Fstoppers Photo of the Day.

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Not having to get photo releases has got to be one of the upsides

There was one case where a monkey grabbed a camera and took a selfie. The photographer had to defend a lawsuit that PETA filed concerning copyright.

I love the alone time, Its a mini vacation.

I'm not sure if this article was "tongue-in-cheek" or not, but I completely disagree. This entire list applies to 99% of photographic genres, not just wildlife photography.

I think pieces of the list applies to 99% of photography, but collectively... nah. The point is that wildlife photographers basically have all the hardest parts of other genres thrown at them.

A wildlife photographer's book is nature...and they must know most of its pages...or they may not make it back from wherever they have been.

Most "wildlife photographers" seldom get far from their vehicles. Ding Darling, Yellowstone, Bosque del Apache - all are loaded with these photographers because the animals are there and are predictable and getting to them is very easy. Few "wildlife photographers" actually do much work to get the images. Those that do earn them while most go to the popular spots and do what everyone else is doing.

I agree with you Joseph, but in many instances it's a safety or an economic issue. I've been fortunate to travel to all seven continents and experience some exotic shoots (the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, South Georgia Island, The Altai Mountains of Western Mongolia). Sometimes you have to get out of your comfort zone to get the shot. The "shot" for me is an existential metaphor for life, not just something to hang on my wall...

Certainly, J. But going 1800 vertical feet for Dall sheep in Denali with shale, loose boulders, grizzlies...that's a bit different. If the opportunity is next to the road, it is a good thing. But sometimes that "predictable" 6x7 elk next to the road, that ends up coming after you, and is just on the other side of a thin pine tree lunging toward you with those huge antlers...well...thank you for crediting "some of us" for earning our shots.

Nice article, Ryan.

Thank you, sir

For some of us it isn't only about the image, but about the experience. Some of my works is as good as anything in Nat Geo, according to colleagues, but I'll never make a dime off it. Don't care to either, as I'm fortunate enough not to need the income. If someone admires an image of mine, I'll give them a print.

photography was something I added to the long treks through nature, a way to share some of it with people that can't or often don't want to do the walking.

Exactly! There is a local place that was interested in helping me market my images via their site, but time spent chasing a few extra bucks is not time well spent to me. I already run a website for outdoor enthusiasts, and find more and more photo gear companies willing to provide me with products to review. The next step is to combine the two - fully supported photo tours. Pay me to camp and take photos? Yes please!

I've spent ten hours in one day tracking local wildlife, without success. Still better than spending hours and hours in post. Time outdoors is never wasted. No one ever dies wishing they had spent more time at their computer.

Connecting. Wildlife photography has its ups and downs, but basically it´s a mental disease.

Definitely a mental disease. I remember crawling on my stomach to get this shot of some young alligators, thinking about what an idiot I was considering that the mother was nearby. I knew where she was when I laid down...but this wasn't the smartest idea to say the least.

alone time? sure, that's whats great about it. Anymore, there's less and less of it. Everyone's a wildlife photographer these days and the places where we use to go to be alone, and capture images are no longer the "property" of a few fellow photographers. The wildlife paparazzi are crowding out the professionals. Toady, I can photograph a dozen to 50 people photographing one subject in locations where only a few years ago you'd find a couple . . . It's out of control. It wont be long till the wildlife photography community becomes more of social gathering than alone time - in a few of the more popular places it already is . . . Work harder, go farther, dig deeper, stay longer, go earlier, walk faster, make fewer mistakes, and dont plan on being alone . . .

The famous places may be crowded, but there are many locations you can go to photograph animals in solitude. That extra work is what makes it worthwhile.

I find it curious there are no African-American landscape or wildlife photographers of note that I'm aware of. Is it because of the expensive equipment, lack of corporate sponsorship, difficulty to get established and earn a living? Is it because publications like Nat Geo are run by white men?