Being an Animal Photographer
"You need patience," says photographer Martin Withers, "but you really need a patient partner. Someone who won't mind you working all the time."
Martin has been photographing natural history since the 1970's so he should know. His career grew out of his passion for birds and wildlife generally but over the years he's learned so much that these days he counts himself a pretty good field naturalist.
"After all," he says, "it's no good going off to Dartmoor trying to take a picture of a woodpecker, is it? I mean, I've spent so long waiting for animals to do things that these days I can recognise the signs and predict what they're going to do next. For example, just before he roars a lion usually licks his lips a couple of times."
But photographing animals isn't an easy field to break into and in order to make a full time living from it (especially at the beginning), you'll probably need to exploit lots of different angles: lectures, talks, selling prints, working for agencies, looking for book ideas, perhaps even teaching.
David HOSKING from the Frank Lane Picture Agency agrees: "Especially to begin with, you have to combine photography with something else, like lecturing or journalism. But as you go on and add agencies in different countries you can build it up. It just depends what sort of working pattern you're after."
In fact, it is possible for almost anyone with an eye for a picture to start selling their work. You don't need complicated equipment. These days even quite simple cameras are enough. And you don't need to go on safari to Africa and snap the lions roaring.
"Actually," says Martin Withers, "pictures of garden birds like robins sell much better than shots of rare eagles and stuff. There's a never-ending demand for robins."
So a simple camera, a saucer of raisins to attract robins into your garden... and you're away.
Well, not quite. You'll need a nice selection of different slides (agencies don't want prints) before you can approach an agency - and don't think that 50 pictures of the same robin on the same old saucer will do! You'll need a cross section of work. Some animals and birds, some plant-life and maybe some landscapes. You still won't need to go to Africa but you will need to learn to see detail.
"A red leaf on a bed of green moss, for instance, taken from the right angle with the right lighting, can make a beautiful slide which could be just perfect for a calendar," says Martin.
"We like to see a cross-section of work," says David,
"because that way we can advise photographers. It may be that everything is spot on, but if not, we can tell them what we are looking for and help them get there."
Picture agencies don't pay cash up front though. They send "Wants Lists" out to photographers, which are made up of requests they couldn't fill, or most often requested pictures, or pictures they know they haven't got. And they also accept pictures submitted on spec - as long as they think there's a reasonable chance of selling them. Unfortunately, the demand for shots of tails - the tails of animals running away - is severely limited and a lot of these shots are submitted...
But if they like the pictures, agencies will accept work from anyone, subject to signing a contract. They don't care if you're male or female, young or old, working full-time or part-time, professional or amateur, experienced or a rank-beginner. It's the picture that counts.
"In fact, we have some very talented and successful photographers working for us who only got started when they retired," says David HOSKING.
"And why not?" says Martin Withers. "After all, having a hobby that pays for itself can't be bad."
So when do you get paid? When the agency places your
picture, which happens when a magazine or an advertising agency rings up asking for a shot of a worm talking to a blackbird or lion eating porridge or whatever it is. So the more pictures you've got with an agent, the more chances you have of getting one used. And the more agencies in the more countries...
But of course you can't just go round giving all the
agencies the same pictures. Otherwise two agents might sell the same picture on the same day to two rival publications and then everyone would have egg on their faces.
So you'll need to label everything. Once your slides (or "trannies" - transparencies) come back from the lab, you'll not only need to sort, label and file the negatives but you'll also have to sort, file and label every slide with the common name plus the Latin name of the species, plus details of where the picture was taken and any special notes such as "lion sitting on a sofa" or whatever makes the picture interesting. You'll also need to keep a note of which agency has accepted which pictures and on what basis and for income tax, you'll need to keep a tally of what you've spent on films, camera equipment and travel as well as what you've actually earned. And you still need to be out there taking as many pictures as possible.
"My father," says David, "was possibly one of the first wild life photographers and back in 1929 when he was setting out, there were only 10,000 members of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) but now their membership has topped a million. Interest is growing all the time - stimulated by good pictures of course."
So if you're serious about selling your work, you won't be able to spend your mornings lounging around in bed. Which is also why you'll need an agent. If you're glued to the phone all day, how can you get on with the business of actually getting out there and taking the photographs?
Which is also why you'll need an understanding partner...
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