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Episode #050

How to Become a Conservation Photographer


UPDATED: May 22, 2023
ORIGINALLY AIRED ON November 17, 2020


What exactly is conservation photography and how do you get started? We dig into the details of what sets conservation photographers apart, bust several myths about what it isn't, and detail three specific ways for you to get started right where you are.


Get started in conservation photography

So far on this show, we have dug into many specific topics surrounding conservation photography, but we have not unpacked what exactly being a conservation photographer is all about!

Perhaps you have never heard of the term, or you are interested in exploring the possibilities of choosing this career path. This episode will answer all of those questions for you.

If you are already passionate about wildlife photography and are interested in environmental issues, chances are, conservation photography is precisely the niche for you.

You'll learn the difference between conservation photography and wildlife or nature photography, and walk away with actionable steps to get started wherever you are.

Conservation photography gives a purpose – a why – to your work. And once you've identified that, you can make an impressive positive difference in the world.


You'll Learn

  • How conservation photography adds a why to your existing passion for wildlife photography
  • The primary distinction between conservation photography and other forms of photography
  • Examples of the endless possibilities for conservation photographers to showcase your work
  • What it looks like practically to put your images to work for conservation purposes
  • Some of the misconceptions about conservation photography
  • Three specific ways you can get started in conservation photography
  • Examples of how you can leverage your social media content to raise awareness

Ready For More? If you're excited about what this fulfilling niche has in store for you, check out our in-depth article How to Get Started in Conservation Photography in 6 Steps. It'll show you exactly what to do to begin your adventure as a purpose-driven nature photographer!

Learn more in our Guide to Conservation Photography

Choose a chapter and dive in! 

Resources Mentioned

Episode 050: How to Become a Conservation Photographer

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/50

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)

Jaymi Heimbuch:

00:00 Jaymi Heimbuch: Hello. Hello, and welcome to another episode of Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. Now, this podcast is dug into a lot of things having to do with conservation photography, whether that is the business side, the volunteer side, the artistic side, but you know what we haven't done yet, we haven't actually dug into what conservation photography is. What is it all about? If this is a brand new concept that you've never heard of before, and how do you get started if this is something that really interests you? So that's what this episode is all about. We're gonna get to the roots of conservation photography and explain what it is and what sets it apart from nature or wildlife photography, and we're going to go through several ways for you to get started right where you are. Let's dive in.


00:51 JH: Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch, and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place, from conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.

01:26 JH: I remember the very first time that I ever realized that conservation photography was a thing. I was working as a writer for an environmental website, I was working in the Bay Area, and they sent me to an event that was all about ocean conservation, and there were a bunch of presenters there that were talking on everything from hope spots to ocean acidification and some of the big conservation issues, and there was one presenter who spoke specifically about the power of photography and visuals to create really impactful change for conservation issues, and the presenter specifically used the words conservation photography, and all of a sudden, everything just kind of changed for me, I mean, I even remember exactly what the room looked like and where I was sitting inside of that room because it was such a profound thing to realize that inside of what was a very strongly, quickly growing passion for wildlife photography, well, now there was an even more in-depth purpose to what I was doing with wildlife photography.

02:35 JH: I suddenly had more of a focus and a why, and it was incredibly exciting to realize that not only is there this thing called conservation photography that I could be part of, but there were already so many incredible photographers who identified as conservation photographers, so this was a complete game changer for me, but it really took someone kind of explaining conservation photography and what it is to even help me realize that this was a field that I could focus on.

03:09 JH: And this is actually a question that I hear pop up fairly often now from nature photographers and wildlife photographers, basically all the people who are right now in the same position that I was in, I don't know, 10, 11 years ago, really focused on wildlife and nature photography and wanting to find a bigger why, but not really realizing that conservation could be a way to have that bigger purpose. So a lot of times I'll hear, "Okay, well, you say conservation photography, but what is that? I don't really know what that is." So in this episode, I wanna talk about what it is, what kind of sets it apart, and also how you can get started if this is a brand new concept for you and it resonates as powerfully for you as it did for me back then. So conservation photography is not really different from any other type of photography, so whether that is portrait work or wildlife photography or landscape photography, there's not a lot that sets it apart from any other type of photography from fine art to documentary. What sets it apart is what the photographer does with the images. What sets it apart is the purpose for taking the images and the actions that are taken with the images after they're made, so conservation photography is simply what you do with your images.

04:39 JH: And again, this can take many shapes. I think that there's a misconception out there that conservation photography has to be sort of documentary style, it's photo journalistic, and it needs to be kind of gritty and raw, but the reality is, if you're focused on what you do with your images and having a conservation-oriented purpose with them, then your photography actually has no barriers. Yes, you can go about it in that photo journalistic style documenting stories and kind of being that on the ground field reporter vibe or working alongside researchers documenting their work, sure, it can take that form. It can also take the form of fine art, it can take the form of portrait photography, there really are no limitations. In fact, there's one really phenomenal conservation photographer, his name is Robin Moore, and he did an entire series painting models to look like reptiles and amphibians, and it was really beautifully done, and the goal was to create awareness around these endangered amphibian species. I can't remember all the details, I will find it and link to that in the show notes so you can take a look, but that counts as conservation photography as well, working with models, because the goal of the images and what was done with the images after they were created, had a conservation goal. So again, it's really mindset and purpose that sets conservation photographers apart from any other field of photography.

06:19 JH: So if the goal is to put your images to work for conservation, well, what exactly does that mean? Typically, when conservation photographers are focused on putting their images to work, it's usually in order to change laws or to help establish laws such as protecting endangered places or endangered species. It can also be something that is based around bringing awareness and action to an issue. So let's say there is an oil pipeline plan to go through a critical habitat, well, a conservation photographer can use images to bring attention to the huge downsides of that oil pipeline going through and encourage the public to speak up about it, and that could potentially end construction of that pipeline. It can also be to bring about a mindset shift or behavior changes on a larger scale that might be more personal, it may not be oriented towards laws or policies at all, but really about causing a behavior shift among people, either in one small localized area or even globally. So a conservation photographer may be focused on bringing behavior changes about when it comes to plastic pollution, it could be bringing awareness to the aftermath of plastic once it is disposed of and how plastic never really goes away, or the impact of it on wildlife, and then those images are used to help minimize plastic use by people.

08:01 JH: Now, an issue like plastic pollution is definitely something that is a big conservation issue to which visuals can be put to use in really important ways, so to are things like ocean acidification and sea level rise and the impacts of human development on wildlife on specific species or on an ecosystem, there's a lot of really well-known conservation issues where visuals are really important and big drivers of change, but conservation photography does not necessarily have to be all about these big concepts like climate change or the health of our water ways. Conservation issues are happening everywhere and in all sorts of subtle ways. So really it's about taking your photography and using it toward a conservation issue that you see happening nearby, and that is one more important element about conservation photography and what it is, just like there is, I think sometimes a misconception that conservation photography is all documentary, photo journalistic style, which it's not.

09:14 JH: I think that there's also a misconception that conservation photography always has to do with something that's happening out there in exotic places, it has to do with deforestation in the Amazon, or it has to do with sea level rise in these tiny islands in the Pacific, or it has to do with something that requires travel, that's actually not the case at all, there are conservation issues that are happening everywhere, including in your own backyard, so conservation photography is actually something that can be taken up anywhere in the world and have an equally important impact.

09:54 JH: Yes, of course, there are really big stories that are critical to cover, but there's also, I say smaller stories, but I mean that in that the scale of the impact might be more local, but I don't mean small isn't less important because all of these are equally important issues, whatever is happening in your own backyard is just as important of an issue as something that is happening on a larger scale. So it's not exactly smaller, less important, just smaller as in more honed, I guess. So I wanna actually dive into how you can get started in conservation photography, if this is something that really draws you in, if you are like, "Yes, I definitely wanna do something more with my photography, I really love taking images, but right now they're existing mostly as pretty pictures, and I want them to have a purpose, I wanna put them to work. How do I do that?" Well, I've got some ways for you. So just as I mentioned that conservation photography can be implemented basically anywhere, that's the first place to start if you're interested in becoming a conservation photographer or moving into conservation photography. The first thing to do is to look in your home for issues that you care about, and I really wanna emphasize issues that you care about, because when you really feel drawn to an issue, when you feel that this is something that calls you to be active, then it's going to be a lot easier to figure out how to photograph that and how to put your images to work.

11:35 JH: So for instance, let's say you're really interested in pollinators and bees and butterflies, and bugs. Well, pollinator diversity, especially pollinator diversity in yards, that could be something that you could look at, or maybe it's equal access and equal safety in outdoor spaces. The concepts of diversity and racism are absolutely conservation issues, and as people who love nature photography and wildlife photography, these issues are absolutely things that we can document and put our images to work, so that there's more equality inside of conservation and insight of outdoor recreation and the use of outdoor spaces, so that might be something that compels you to put your images to use for a conservation issue, maybe it's the protection of wild spaces. Let's say there's a preserve that could be created in your area, or maybe there's infrastructure for wildlife that could be put into place like wildlife overpasses or wildlife-friendly fencing or wildlife corridors through urban areas, that might draw you in as something that you're really interested in learning more about and documenting.

12:52 JH: So the first step is really to look near home. Like truly from your own backyard, one step outside your door to something that is happening maybe in your town or your county, or somewhere that is a geographical area that's really easy to get to and decide on what seems to really draw you in as something that you're interested in documenting or in photographing in a way that will bring attention to that issue or in a way that will spark a mindset change among people in your area, or behavior change in people in your area, or maybe even a law change in your area.

13:31 JH: Now, if you start to look around your area and you're not quite landing on an issue or maybe that just seems too large or daunting, then another way that you could get started in conservation photography is to volunteer for a non-profit. You can find a non-profit in your area that is doing work that you're really interested in, whether that's maybe wildlife rehab or maybe it's native plant restoration, or who knows what. If there's a non-profit in your area that seems like a great fit, you might be able to approach them and create maybe a package of images for their website or their social media account that helps them to reach a bigger audience, or maybe you want to help raise funds for them through your images, like running a calendar fundraiser. Now, if you're interested in volunteering, I have a couple of other episodes for you as well, that'll help you get started and volunteering, and also make sure that you're getting started on the right foot in terms of things like boundaries and image rights.

14:50 JH: So check out episodes 47 and 48. 47 is all about being a better volunteer by putting certain business practices into place, even in your volunteer work, and Episode 48 is about being really aware of your value in your images and when you want to donate and when you want to charge for your images. So those episodes might help give you a little bit more clarity about volunteer efforts, if this is the route that feels most comfortable for you in getting started. Now, a third way that you can get involved in conservation photography right at home is to look at research projects or programs at local universities. So if there's a university nearby, more than likely, there are grad students or professors who are involved in research projects that have conservation aims or conservation angles to them, you can get a hold of them and find out if they'd be interested in letting you photograph their work, and this could be either for a story that you pitch or maybe it's a portfolio that you'll end up putting on your website to show your work as a conservation photographer and really start to establish yourself with this title, and of course, you'd be able to provide images back to them that could probably help them with grant funding or with outreach or anything else that they might need to get their research project out in front of audiences.

16:20 JH: That's really important work as well as a photographer. So there's three ways to kind of dive in, you can look in your home for issues that you really care about and think about how you might start to photograph that issue and then put those images to work for the issue, you can volunteer for a non-profit and put your imagery to work that way, or you could look at research projects or programs at local universities and get to work that way, but ultimately to just simply get started in conservation photography, the main thing that you need to do, the number one thing before even getting started on any of these other paths is to think about the why behind your images, because again, the thing that separates conservation photography from any other field is that there's a purpose to taking the image, and the image is put to work after it's created. And just by getting clear on the why behind your imagery, you already start down that path of conservation photography. So here's an example, let's say that you absolutely love photographing birds, and one of your favorite things to do is to head out with your camera and photograph birds species and post those images to social media, well, when you start to really think about the why behind your images, then it's likely that you're going to think more critically about what's going on with those species, the things that are impacting those birds.

17:55 JH: Maybe it's the habitat diversity, or maybe it's disruption from our human development or maybe its abundance of food or more migration, there are so many things that could potentially impact these species, and as you head out to photograph birds and you're thinking more about why you're taking these images, then suddenly you start to have a conservation mindset behind even beautiful portraits of birds. And when you post those images to social media, in the captions, you can add in information that is really educational or interesting about that species and conservation issues that revolve around it. In fact, there's a really great example of this actually. I was recently interviewed by Scott Keys, who has a great YouTube station called Wildlife Inspired, and we talked about conservation photography, and he considers himself a bird photographer, not a conservation photographer, but then he started to talk about how he'll add into his captions information about the importance of native plants for birds or something similar, and how that's actually caused other people to think more critically about native plants and the importance of that versus invasive.

19:10 JH: Well, that to me, basically lands him into that conservation photography window because he's providing really important information along with his images that's sparking mindset shifts among his audience about conservation issues related to birds. So here's someone who doesn't even consider himself a conservation photographer, who I completely think is because he's providing purpose behind his images and he's doing something with them that has conservation aims ultimately, and it might be subtle and it might be part of his basic work flow as a bird photographer, but it's there. So there's so many ways that you can get started into conservation photography that does not require you to sign up with National Geographic and pack a bag and head off to a foreign land to document something really profound. It starts at home, and it starts with your why. So that is absolutely the best place to begin. Now, I think that getting clear on your why is so important that I've actually included an exercise on getting clear on your why as one of the first things that my students in Conservation Photography 101 do.

21:09 JH: So it's this really personal thing, and I think that when you spend the time to really dig down and recognize it and clarify it, it can change the way that you think about your photography in general, and also really cement you into conservation photography as an identifier. It basically allows you to pick up that title of conservation photographer and move forward in this field. Now, I know that I kind of barely touched on the depths of conservation photography and definitions and what it means to put our visuals to use for conservation and the richness of conservation photography as a field, as something to explore and to create within. But I think ultimately, the main thing to remember is that conservation photography is ultimately about the purpose behind taking an image, and what you do with that image. There are no other rules around it, like the type of photography that is required in order to be a conservation photographer, whether you are a portrait artist or a fine art photographer, if you love landscapes or macro, if you're a wildlife photographer, documentary photographer, whatever it is that you love to do, you can absolutely put that photography to work for conservation, and thus, you are a conservation photographer.

22:43 JH: If you're feeling fired up and you're ready to get rolling as a conservation photographer, and you know that this is the path that you're excited to follow, then I would love for you to dig into so many of the past episodes of this podcast that help you to learn more about strategies and tools and ways to think about your photography and strategies to put that photography to use. There is a wealth of information already in here, and I have so many ideas for future podcasts that I'm gonna be putting together and rolling out, that will also help you with getting out there and really doing the work of conservation photography, but I also have one more resource that I wanna mention, and that is Conservation Photography 101, my digital course, and I've set a date for when enrollment will open again, January 6th, 2021 is when we're opening for enrollment again, and so if you are excited to learn exactly how to find photograph and pitch a conservation photography story, then you'll definitely wanna mark down January 6th on your calendar.

23:55 JH: Now, in the meantime, you have all the episodes of Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast to dig into and help you out, and you've got me at your back. If you have questions or you're curious about things, send me an email, I'm always around and always available to help out people who want to use their images for conservation, so please consider me your biggest fan and cheerleader and resource. Alright, I hope that this was a helpful clarifying episode, and I will talk to you again next week.


24:25 JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing, subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed and I don't want you to miss out on a thing. So please tap that subscribe button and I will talk to you next week.



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