The obvious question for a lot of amateur photographers is ‘How do I make money from wildlife photography?’ The answer, unfortunately, is that I still don’t know! All I can do is tell you what I’ve done myself and give you a few ideas.
I had a rather late start to my career. I wanted to be a photographer when I was 15, but my mother said I could always take it up later as a hobby – so that was that for 30 years! I finally got started in 2013 when I went on safari and climbed Mount Kenya. I’m still learning the business after eight years, but my approach has always been to knock on as many doors as possible, whether it’s image downloads, prints, competitions, books, lessons, or even talks. Every source of revenue has a part to play, and it’s just a question of working out where to focus your efforts. In the last 12 months, I’ve made half my money from writing photography books and articles, another 35% from stock agencies, and 10% from print sales, but everybody’s different…
What are the Options?
Microstock agencies are online intermediaries that accept work from photographers and then market those images to potential clients such as creative directors of newspapers, magazines and other buyers. The advantage of using them is that it’s ‘making money while you sleep’. In other words, it’s a passive income that you can build over time as you add more and more shots to your portfolio. Some agencies sell a lot of images but with low royalty rates, some the reverse, but here is the list of the ones I’ve used (in descending order of sales):
- Getty Images/iStock
- Yay Micro
- Lobster Media
I should mention that not all agencies will accept you, and not all your shots will be accepted by any agency that does, but you shouldn’t take it personally. I make about £300 a month from stock agency sales, but my overall acceptance rate is barely above 50%!
[Related Reading: Free Stock Photos! A Short List of Free Stock Image Sites [Updated]]
Even if your pictures are accepted, of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll sell. I’ve had 16,665 downloads from microstock sites, but only 4,456 individual shots have ever been sold out of a total of 15,351. The rest of them are just sitting there, waiting for a buyer. Every now and then, though, you take a picture that goes viral: I’ve sold my jumping penguin (see below) nearly 2,500 times!
The basic process is similar across all agencies. You add titles, captions, and keywords to all your pictures and then export them as JPEG files to upload to each individual agency via their websites or an FTP service using a program like Filezilla. You then typically add the category, country, or other data for each of them and submit them for approval. The agencies then approve the ones they like and reject the ones they don’t. After that, it’s just a question of watching the money rolling in!
A useful way of doing that is by downloading an app called Microstockr. All you need to do is to set up your various agencies on the accounts page and then check the dashboard every now and then for any sales you’ve made. It’s very addictive! Sales should come quite soon after each batch is uploaded, but you may have to wait a while for payment. Most agencies have a ‘payment threshold’ of $50 or $100, which means your first payment (usually through PayPal) might take months to arrive. You’ll also need to keep adding more pictures. Buyers tend to sort images according to what’s most recent, so you definitely get diminishing returns from your shots, however good they are.
The other thing to say is that, with dozens of agencies and hundreds or even thousands of images, it gets very confusing. As a result, I’ve created a spreadsheet to keep track of the whole thing. With filenames down the left and agency names across the top, I know if each file has been submitted (‘s’), accepted (‘y’) or rejected (‘n’), and how many times it’s been sold. I keep a record of the dollar value of all the image downloads on a separate financial spreadsheet. I suggest you do the same.
In the good old days, it was much easier to make a living out of stock photography, mainly because the royalty rates were a lot higher. The difference between ‘stock’ and ‘microstock’ is simply the average price level. Stock agencies want to differentiate themselves from microstock agencies (and everything else out there on the web) in order to charge a higher price, so they generally ask for exclusive agreements over one to five years and set a higher standard for acceptance. I use Design Pics, and you can see that they sell some of my images for hundreds of dollars rather than just a few dollars for the microstock agencies. My general strategy is to offer Design Pics the first pick of my pictures before sending the leftovers to all the microstock agencies. Due to the long sales and reporting cycle, I didn’t see my first sale from Design Pics until more than a year after I’d signed up, but sales are starting to trickle in now, so it just takes a bit of patience. If you’re looking for a list of stock agencies, I recommend buying an old copy of Photographer’s Market, which is the equivalent of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. It has comprehensive coverage of the industry, including helpful articles and a wealth of phone numbers and email addresses for magazines, book publishers, greeting card companies, stock agencies, advertising firms, competitions, and more. I suggest buying the Kindle electronic version, and then you can download everything onto your laptop. I did that and then simply emailed every stock agency on the list – Design Pics were the only ones to say yes!
If you just want the ego boost of seeing yourself winning a competition, then I suggest you sign up with Pixoto and enter the contests with the lowest number of entrants. It’s a peer-to-peer site, and you can organize your own competitions, so there’s a very good chance of winning something! That’s exactly what I did, and I ended up with the Judge’s Award in four competitions. However, there isn’t much prestige to something like that, and it certainly doesn’t earn you any money. Alternatively, you can scour the web for competitions, bearing in mind your chances of winning, the cost of entry, the potential prizes, and the subject matter. The UK national press is a good place to start, too, and I recently won £250 in Wex Photographic vouchers in the weekly Sunday Times/Audley Travel Big Shot competition with my shot of a bear catching a salmon (see below), but the prizes are very rarely cash – unless you pay through the nose to enter…!
Putting on an exhibition may seem like a big deal if you’ve never done it before, but it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. The Norman Plastow Gallery where I started out is cheap, but it’s slightly off the beaten path, and you have to man the exhibition yourself, which is obviously impossible for most full-time employees. You realize pretty soon as a freelance photographer that the most expensive item on your tab is often the opportunity cost of NOT doing what you usually do when you take time off. As a tutor, for instance, I could easily have earned £1,000 during the two weeks of my first exhibition, but them’s the breaks…
If you’re looking for a list of galleries, www.galleries.co.uk is a useful starting point. London is obviously the best place to look (if you live locally), but exhibition spaces there don’t come cheap. I recently looked for galleries to use for an exhibition, and the ones in central London regularly quoted me thousands of pounds for a week! Everything is negotiable, though, so don’t give up.
I started out with 15 prints at my first solo show, but I also printed out a few postcards and greetings cards. You might not make as much money out of them, but at least you’ll get something from punters who can’t afford a print. There are some who say that cards are just a distraction, but it’s difficult to tell. I’ve had exhibitions with and without cards on sale, and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. However, the main reason for an exhibition is to sell prints, so that should be the focus.
One of the problems you’ll almost certainly have is knowing how to price your work. Choosing your favorite shots is easy enough – although getting a second opinion from a friend is a useful exercise – but how much should you charge? I started off at £80 for an A3 print and ended up three years later at £2,000 for a 53″ x 38″ print, so you’ll just have to suck it and see. Andy Skillen is a wildlife photographer, and he suggested a mark-up of two-and-a-half times your printing and framing costs to make sure your cash flow remained positive, but that’s just a rule of thumb.
Proper professional photographers make most of their money from photo shoots, but clients aren’t easy to find if you’re a wildlife photographer! If you shoot weddings, I suppose you can put up flyers at various local venues such as churches and registry offices, but, for the rest of us, it’s just a question of plugging away, taking as many good shots as we can, and putting them online so that as many potential clients can see them as possible. It would be a dream to be able to rely on commissions from wealthy clients who called us up whenever they wanted pictures of something.
Andy Skillen told me once about a group of directors who asked him for a picture of five hippos in a lake looking at the camera. He sent them all the hippo shots he had, but they weren’t happy. In the end, he told them if they didn’t want to compromise on the picture, then they’d have to send him on an all-expenses-paid trip to Zambia for a week. Which they did! He got the shot within a couple of days and then spent the rest of the trip taking pictures for himself! That sounds like a nice way to make a living, doesn’t it?
However, until we’re well established enough with a good enough reputation to get those kinds of jobs, all we can do is keep on snapping and use the networks that we have. I’ve worked for a milliner, a local councilor, a businesswoman, and others, but all my photoshoots have come from friends of friends or personal contacts. I’m not very good at networking – and it’s certainly not something I enjoy unless it happens naturally – but it’s very important in this business.
I work as a private tutor as well as a photographer, so I guess it was an obvious fit to offer photography lessons. It’s finding the students that’s the real problem. One of my tuition agencies provided me with a couple of clients, while the rest came from connections I made at exhibitions and talks. You never know when you might meet just the right person, so it’s important to keep a few cards in your wallet just in case.
If you don’t mind public speaking, then giving a slideshow and talk on photography is an enjoyable way to earn some pocket money. Camera clubs and other groups won’t generally pay more than £100 (if anything at all!), but it’s also a useful chance to take along a few prints to sell and to hand out business cards. I got started after meeting a very nice woman on an Antarctic cruise, and I’ve now given talks in various places around the world:
- The Societies of Photographers
- Antarctic cruise ship
- The Athenaeum Club
- Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp
- Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp
- SW19 Women’s Institute
- Malden Camera Club
- Watford Camera Club
- Putney Library
- London Institute of Photography
- Beckenham Photographic Society
If you want to be proactive about it, I’d simply Google camera clubs (or WI branches!) and email all of them to see what happens. As my mum used to say, you have to cast your bread upon the waters…even if it comes back a soggy mess!
Books and Articles
If you know your stuff, then writing books and articles is another route to market. When lockdown came along in 2020, I happened to see an advert on Facebook for Expert Photography, an online site that was looking for authors and presenters. I emailed them my credentials, and they ended up asking me to write an e-book on wildlife photography! It only took me a few days to write 70,000 words, and they paid me their standard rate of $6 per 100 words. They edited it down to around 50,000 words, but the money came in very handy. In fact, they were so impressed that they asked me to write another one on social media for photographers, which I did. Who knew I could be a published author? If you don’t ask, you don’t get, I suppose…
One final way of making money is to lead photography trips. A lot of photographers do it to supplement their income, and it’s a good way to reduce your travel budget – especially if all the animals you want to photograph are a long-haul flight away! I recently put together a list of tour operators and emailed them all one afternoon to find out if it could work, and I soon received a call from the founder of Gane & Marshall, asking me to lead a trip to Tanzania! I offered my services for free in exchange for the chance to go on an all-expenses-paid photographic safari, but, sadly, that fell through in the end. My biggest break came when I happened to read an article by a photographer who had managed to barter his photographs in exchange for 365 nights’ accommodation at various African safari lodges. I had no idea that was possible, but I thought, “I could do that!” So I emailed around 50 camps in Tanzania and Kenya, and within a few weeks, I had 17 invitations! I ended up spending four months as the Resident Photographer for &Beyond and Cottar’s, and it was a great opportunity. It didn’t make me any money, but it would’ve cost me $1,000 a night to stay at those places as a guest, so that’s a pretty good deal if you ask me…
I hope all that was useful. If you have any more questions, please leave a comment below. It’s not easy becoming a professional photographer, but we can dip our toes in the water while we wait for our big break.
Here’s to clicking and dreaming…