Making the Move From Scientist to Full-Time Professional Conservation Photographer with Luciane Coletti
Are you a scientist or researcher discovering your passion for visual storytelling? Well, you're not alone! If you've been curious about moving into conservation photography as a profession, today's guests provides insights and advice about making the leap.
It's a fairly common thing to meet scientists, biologists researchers who have decided that where their real passion lies is not necessarily in doing science, but in documenting science and communicating it.
Where they really want to get going is inside of conservation visual storytelling and sharing the information, the excitement, the details of science through photography and filmmaking. And that's exactly what happened with my guest today.
Luciane Colletti is a biologist turned full-time conservation photographer, and she's joining us today to talk about what that transition was like, how life has been in the year or so since moving full-time into conservation photography, the lessons she's learned and the advice that she has for any other scientists, researchers, biologists, who have also realized that they want to make that same change.
- Why Luciane made the switch
- The big mental shift that helped her overcome self-doubt
- The surprising realities of life as a professional wildlife conservation photographer
- Where she looked for help in navigating her start-up
- Her top tips for other scientists who want to build a career in conservation photography
Episode 064: Making the Move From Scientist to Full-Time Professional Conservation Photographer with Luciane Coletti
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
It's a fairly common thing to meet scientists, biologists, researchers who've decided that where their real passion lies is not necessarily in doing science, but in documenting science and communicating it, where they really wanna get going is inside of conservation visual storytelling and sharing the information, the excitement, the details of science through the mediums of photography and film making. And that's exactly what happened to my guest today. Luciane Coletti is a biologist, turned full-time conservation photographer. And in fact, I met her early on in her journey when she made that big decision to leave biology behind and to jump full force into being a full-time conservation photographer.
0:00:47.5 JH: She came to one of my conservation photography workshops, and you could just tell that she was absolutely determined to make this work, and ever since meeting her at that workshop in Monterey Bay, I've watched her absolutely excel in pursuing her career path and really making it work, but it's not easy. It's definitely not easy to make a, one, a career change, and two, to make a career change into conservation photography, which it's tough to make a living in this field, so she's joining us today to talk about what that transition was like, how life has been in the year or so since moving full-time into conservation photography, the lessons she's learned, the advice she has for any other scientists, researchers, biologists, who have also realized that they wanna make that same change. Let's dive in.
0:01:44.0 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.
0:02:16.7 JH: Well, Luciane welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I am very excited that you're here, and in particular, because we met in the fall of 2019 when you came to one of my workshops, and ever since then, it's been phenomenal to watch your career trajectory and how you are really finding your footing as a professional in conservation photography. So I really appreciate you coming here to talk about that journey with us.
0:02:48.1 Luciane Coletti: Sure, thank you very much, Jaymi. It's such an honor to be here in your podcast.
0:02:53.8 JH: Well, so we met in a way that I think is a pretty familiar story, at least I hear it pretty often, which is that you were a biologist who decided to move into conservation visual storytelling. Why did you decide to make that transition?
0:03:11.7 LC: Yeah, it's a really good question. I think it's... I started at very a young age, really being passionate about wildlife, and had a great interest in photography, but at that time that you need to choose a career, I end up choosing to go and be a biologist, but my idea was always that I wanted to help to preserve the natural space and all the wildlife. And so, I went to that trajectory and I started doing science and research, and I actually end up working in a lot of different sectors, private sector, and university, non-profit. My last move was trying to go to Washington DC to do something about it, but I felt that at a certain point, I wanted to make a change.
0:04:08.7 LC: And especially because I wanted to use my creativity more and really work with photography and do the storytelling, because I really wanted to tell the stories of all that is seen, you know, all these people working with conservation and all these wild places that nobody ever heard about and were so important conserved, so I really wanted to have a way to communicate with the general public about it, especially because I realized that conservation is something done collectively, and we really need to engage more and more people to really be able to be effective doing it.
0:04:53.0 JH: When you talk about wanting to really tell the stories, I mean, I know that you said that you were drawn to photography when you were young, but I'm curious about why visual storytelling, why photography versus maybe writing or other ways of building community and story around conservation.
0:05:14.7 LC: Yeah, because I think that in my own life, I think that I've always seen how much images change the perception of people like myself. I grew up watching the commentaries and reading magazines with these amazing photos, and that was a way that I found about all these different places and these pieces inspire me to become a biologist as well. And so, I think that was a great way of visually engaging to make people to pay attention in the stories. As a scientist, you end up with like a scientific article, or you go through these meetings where you just have the same public, and I wanted to have... Really engaging with the general public, and I think that visually telling the story is a very good way to do that, and I really wanted to pursue photography more and more because that means something that I was doing on the side, kind of like documenting the things that I've been doing and the research that was being done, but I really wanted to dig in and really be like a storyteller. And then I just decided to really go for it full-time and decided to give it a try. [chuckle]
0:06:46.4 JH: Well, so that's what I think is so brave, is you decided to go for it full-time and make a career out of it, so what was going on career-wise for you before that decision? And then let's get into what happened after that decision.
0:07:03.1 LC: Yeah, so at that point, when I made the decision, I think that I just have tried so many different ways to have an impact, and I felt I was not really happy with the results. Because I felt that sometimes even in normal conversations, I would tell people what I was doing in my research and people are like, "Oh, but why?" [chuckle] And then I felt though like, "Well, I really need to explain better why and let people know what's the importance of it." And so that's why I decided to go towards visual storytelling, because I think that was the best way to do so.
0:07:50.4 JH: So when you were kind of making this decision to go full-time as a conservation photographer, which is, I think such a brave thing to do, to just say, "Nope, I'm completely changing my career and just going for it." Had you already started to dabble in a semi-professional way, or try and make your way in conservation visual storytelling prior to deciding to go full-time? Or did you just say, "You know what, I just know that this is my path and I'm gonna make the jump?"
0:08:26.0 LC: Yeah, [chuckle] that's an interesting thing because I actually had worked with photography before, but it was assisting other photographers and studio doing portraits professionally, but not full-time, and I didn't feel like that was it. I knew that I wanted to really focus on conservation and wildlife, and so I really decided to go full on at a certain point because I just felt that just doing it on the side was not really getting me to where I want it to be. It was kind of nerve wracking, but I think it was a good decision because before I was kind of always doubting myself and thinking, "No, but I have this plan B," and at the point where I've decided, "No, that's what I'm going to do," then I had to just stop doubting myself and really making it happen. [chuckle] That's why I think it was a good decision.
0:09:38.3 JH: Yeah, well, first of all, yes, it was a very good decision, just watching your work and your growth in this. Yes, you definitely made a good decision, but you mentioned that it was nerve wracking and that you really doubted yourself. So what were some of the fears that you had that you were working through?
0:09:58.4 LC: I think that... Well, many, [chuckle] but I think it was mostly not knowing a lot because you're starting in your career, so everything is new, and I think that nowadays, to really make this a career, you have to be a freelancer, and that means like starting a business of your own. And then there was all this other side of things that I've never done because I was a scientist, "How to run a business?" [chuckle] And I had to learn all of it from the beginning. So that was, I felt comfortable with the conservation and with the photography, but how to start a business as a conservation photographer, or how to even start doing things. There was a lot of doubt about how to do things, and I think that I got to a point where I thought, "Well, I need to try to figure out or go after people that can help me to do that and make it successful."
0:11:05.0 JH: The idea that you decided, "If I just fully go for it, then that means I cannot doubt myself. I have to believe in myself in order to make this successful." Can you tell us a little bit more about making that kind of mindset decision and what it's meant for you in moving forward in your career?
0:11:27.2 LC: I think it was like in the beginning, I had this idea, "Well, I'm going to do that." But at the same time, I was also looking for jobs [chuckle] and doing interviews, and it was kind of like, "Oh, but I have this plan B," and it almost got to a point where I'm like, "Okay, I have to stop doing that. [chuckle] I have to really be committed." And I think the point where I just said, "Okay, I'm gonna do a business. This is a business, and I'm just going to go full on in it," and like I decided to start a business, and I had to do a business plan and I had to have these goals in the budget and everything, and I was just... Have a business structure. I think that was the time that really shift to me, because then it was like, "This is very specific," like, "These are my goals, and I have to move forward to make it work." And I think, to me, that was the point where I had to stop and just concentrate on reaching my goals and stop doubting myself so much. I think that's how it kind of work to me.
0:12:34.5 JH: Oh man, you're talking my language, which you know very well, setting goals and really saying, "This is where I'm headed, and therefore I'm going to craft the path to get me there." It prevents so much of that wandering and it allows you to see what your progress is like. I'm just kind of curious on the nerd side, what were some of the business side of things that you had to explore? You mentioned creating a business plan and setting a goal and setting budgets, what kind of tools and resources did you seek to be able to figure that part of it out?
0:13:11.0 LC: A lot of different ways. To start with I, as the help for my husband that... He actually works with startups, helping...
0:13:23.2 JH: That's perfect.
0:13:25.4 LC: Setting strategies for them and investments, it was like that common decision of like, "Okay, we're gonna get that amount of our economies and this is a business. And so we have to make it work." And we actually have meetings, we sit down and we look at the progress of the business. And I think that helped me on the mindset a lot. To see how other people are dealing with their business, I think it was very helpful, and I think that setting clear goals as well of what I want to reach, because then is like even if you're going as low, kind of like baby steps, but you know you are going towards that direction that's very fulfilling. You know they're like, "Okay, it's going slow, but I am going forward to reach this goal." And I'm very nerdy about that too. [chuckle] I think it's my science background, I really needed a structure and a strategy. And I think that helped me a lot along the way.
0:14:41.6 JH: Yeah, I love that you mentioned that you went to resources and sort of a mentor and peer coaching way, so you were able to work alongside your husband who's essentially like a mentor guide for starting up a company.
0:15:34.3 JH: And like you said, hearing what other people are doing, it's such a... I think it's such a huge thing to really pay attention to what other people are doing. And you also said something that I firmly agree with, which is treating a business like a business, even if you... I think that so many people have a mindset around, "Oh, it's just a small business, we'll see if it works." Or even volunteer photographers like conservation photographers who do this as a hobby, I strongly believe in treating even your volunteer work like a business and keeping budgets and goals and plans and strategies in place because that's how you really end up having an impact, even if it's outside of your business itself, and it's not necessarily, "Oh, we're not talking about net revenue and next year's projections," but you're talking about really making progress on something. I think that it's so important to treat even volunteer work like it's a business.
0:16:31.8 JH: Okay, that's... I kinda got on a soap box and I apologize, I didn't mean to do that. [chuckle] This is just so much fun to talk about. So when you were envisioning your profession, when you were really thinking about your conservation photography business, how did you envision it being versus how it actually is, as you live it out now that you've been doing this for over a year?
0:16:58.4 LC: [chuckle] Yeah, that's funny, because I think that I envisioned it like I was going to be way more in the field taking photographs, [chuckle] and is a lot of in front of a computer, [chuckle] and really being a business owner. Part of it is being a photographer, I think that was really different, but I think that also it's very fulfilling to me, like every time I'm working with a non-profit or a researcher, is really fulfilling to see how my work, it's helping to advance their mission, and I'm really happy with it. Even the things that are not super fun to do, I still do it, and I still think it's good because I know that's part of the job, and it just has been really great to see that. I really feel that I really want to do that, and I'm really fun myself as a conservation photographer.
0:18:07.6 JH: Yeah, so you mentioned the kind of almost like disappointing surprise that there's way more sitting in front of the computer time than I think a lot of people expect. How do you keep up your creativity? Like when you're being pulled into the admin side of your career, how do you keep up creativity and keep getting out with your camera and really keep inspiration alive?
0:18:33.0 LC: I think a lot of it is... I get a lot of joy as well in the process of trying to figure out how to tell a story. Even if I'm not there just taking photos, but just researching about it and trying to figure out and talking to people that are working in this area, and all of this is inspiring to me, and so this keep up the creativity. Even if I'm not necessarily taking photos, it's still very inspiring to think about the whole idea of how can I better tell this story. And also taking the time to just go out and shoot, [chuckle] even it's not necessarily for a specific story, but just trying different things, like get better at certain specific skill.
0:19:26.2 LC: I don't know, I was just like, for example, trying to get better at micro photography, just for fun, during the lockdown, and just trying to get creative about that, and so I think that you have to kind of keep doing that to keep the creativity flowing and also enhance your skills and something specific that you want to get better at.
0:19:51.4 JH: I'm curious what your biology background has done for you in terms of creating these collaborations or helping you to find opportunities, 'cause you mentioned you've collaborated with researchers and you work with them as a visual storyteller. What role has your science background played for you as a conservation visual storyteller?
0:20:15.4 LC: I think that to me... I think it helped me, for example, in the research phase, I've been a researcher, so to me, it helps a lot when I'm researching for specific species or a specific place to understanding what is the most important part of the work that is being done, or what is the broad impact that this work is going to have. And I don't know, every time I am taking photos with a researcher is just like, I get super excited about all the nerdiest stuff. [chuckle] I just start asking tons of questions about what they are doing. I get super excited about that, and I think it helps a lot with the connection. Because sometimes they don't have many people coming out and seeing what they're doing, and so when they see someone super excited about that, they get super excited, that's why they want to show me. I think it's a good thing.
0:21:22.1 LC: And one other thing is that I really wanna focus in wildlife, and I think that my background and really being a specialist in animal behavior have helped me a lot in identifying kind of what... Predicting maybe what the wildlife will do, and such things such as camera trapping where you're just basically guessing what is gonna happen. You're just putting the equipment there and hoping something is gonna happen. I think this background has helped me a lot, tracking the wildlife and trying to figure where they're gonna be to take the photo. I think that helped me to be more successful, I think.
0:22:11.0 JH: That's really great to point out because you have been really successful, you have this fantastic camera trap shot of a bobcat kitten, and as well as, I know that you're working on other set-ups, and I think that the idea that you're not just guessing, you're paying attention to track and sign and understanding behavior, and like you said, being able to predict, that does help so much. So that's kind of the wildlife and the biology side of it, I'm kind of curious, has your science background informed the way that you photograph science happening? Does knowing what's going on or having a little bit more knowledge of what's going on with the researchers' work, has that informed the way that you create images?
0:23:02.9 LC: Yeah, I think it helps definitely, because I think it's even before I am actually taking the photos, I think it helps a lot with the phase when I'm just researching and thinking about my shot list. I'm already thinking, "Okay, so this is the type of work they're doing. So what is the most important thing that I need to show visually about what is happening?" I think it helps me to inform, to make better decisions about my shot list and what's the crucial photos that I have to take. Of course, you never know if you're really gonna get them when you get there, but I think it definitely helps to inform me about that.
0:23:53.7 JH: So I'm curious then, when you're thinking about your shot list and everything, so there's a couple of things that I know you do, one is you work on projects with researchers and collaborators that is more long-term, like for instance, you're building a story map, and I would love to ask you more about that. But then you also have gone on assignment for Audubon magazine, and there's these kind of different situations where maybe you have less time to prepare a shot list, so it sounds like your science backroom or having some understanding about what to pay attention to or how to tease information out more quickly. Is that true?
0:24:33.0 LC: Yeah, I think it is. [chuckle] For instance, like this specific assignment with Audubon was like very short notice, but I did research before, of course, online, and I read everything about it, but at the same time, I have already an understanding of restoration projects, and so I look at specifically what they were doing. They were doing these restoration of this wetland in the San Francisco bay area, but then I already kind of have a general knowledge about what to expect, and I think that definitely helped. And also knowing to not disturb so much the work that they were doing, I guess just knowing like, "Okay, I'm just getting the shots here and let them do what have to do, and I'm just here to try to tell their story the best that I can.
0:25:31.7 JH: That's a pretty big part of working alongside researchers, for sure, is wanting to do your best to document what's going on to get unique, compelling shots that draw viewers in and at the same time, stay out of the way because they're doing really important work that you don't wanna disturb or interrupt or affect, right?
0:25:52.1 LC: Yes, definitely.
0:25:55.6 JH: I'm curious about input that you have for other biologists or researchers or scientists who wanna move into conservation visual storytelling, because this is something that I hear often. There's even folks that I've met where they're just like, "I was just tired of science, I just... I went through grad school, started to get into the field and realized, I don't even wanna do this after getting my PhD and then move into visual story telling." So if there's someone who is coming from that science background who's like, "I could be so much more effective by communicating the science," what input or what advice would you give them for making that shift?
0:26:49.3 LC: Yeah. I think that we definitely need more of it, [chuckle] that's what I feel as a scientist. We definitely need more ways to communicate with the public about research and the importance of conservation. I think it's something that we need more and more. And I think that one thing that was surprising to me, how much do you need to know about business? [chuckle] It is something that as a scientist, I didn't have any idea. That was definitely not my background, and so I'll definitely advise to kind of trying to get the knowledge about the business side of things. I think it helps a lot, especially for creative people. You can have many ideas [chuckle] of a lot of different things you want to do and stories you want to tell, but I think that having a strategy to do so, helps a lot. So I'll definitely say that that's a good thing to do. And I think especially when you're starting, another good thing to do is really engaging with others in the industry to a number of different reasons, like to learn for community, opportunities to collaborate. And I found conservation photographers to be very friendly and open because ultimately, everybody's working towards the same goal. And I think this is something that have helped me a lot along the way, and I would definitely encourage people to do so.
0:28:25.3 JH: Excellent. So I love that you bring up the kind of a business mindset around things because it's really true, especially among the creative brains, you get all these ideas, you're really excited, you wanna go for stuff, but if you're going broke in the process, [chuckle] it's not gonna help anybody, right?
0:28:43.9 LC: Yes, definitely. [chuckle]
0:28:45.9 JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to know if there's any projects that you've got going on right now that you're excited to talk about. For instance, I know that you're building a story map, and I know you're working on a few things, but I also know that photographers can sometimes wanna hold their projects close to their chest until they're ready, but is there anything that you can tell us about that you're working on right now?
0:29:07.7 LC: Yes, definitely. So the story map, I have been working on with the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy, and it's a story map telling the story of the Carmel River Watershed and is... Well, just to explain, a story map... So it's kind of like a web page where you have text and maps and interactive visual stories with photos and videos and everything, to tell a visual story. And that project was really interesting because they have this environmental outreach, but they couldn't really do in-person because of COVID. And so I helped them to create this virtual experience, so people can go online and have this experience online looking at all these photos and videos and everything. And it's especially directed toward more students. So I'm really excited that we just launched it, [chuckle] and so I'm hoping that will be very helpful for outreach and also that teachers can use it, so I'm excited about that.
0:30:23.1 JH: That's fantastic. I'm really excited to see it too. I think that story maps can be such powerful tools. Did you do all of the design of the story map in addition to the visuals and everything for it?
0:30:37.6 LC: Yes, yeah. I have done one previously, and so I have an idea. And then I work in collaboration with their outreach coordinator, and so we worked together to create the story that would better meet their curriculum that they have for the students, and so it was a really nice experience. I learned a lot along the way. It was a long project and... Yeah, and so I'm very excited about that.
0:31:09.8 JH: Oh, that's awesome. Well, I can't wait to see it. You said that it's launched, so I'm gonna go ahead and go find it, will link to it in the show notes as well, so anyone who wants to explore your creation and also explore what a story map is, we'll make sure to link to that in the show notes as well. Well, Luciane, it's been such an honor to know you, and I feel so excited and grateful that we crossed paths. I guess it's been like, what, a year and four months or so ago? I remember it was a September 2019 workshop. And to see how determinately you have pursued a career path in conservation photography and through the ups and the downs and the challenges, you've really persisted and you're making such amazing progress. I feel like you've hit this new level of momentum, and to get to watch that and be inspired by that tenacity, is wonderful. Thank you so much for everything that you're doing.
0:32:08.0 LC: Oh, thank you so much for you, Jaymi. You have so many resources that were useful for me, [chuckle] so I feel I have to thank you a lot for all of that as well.
0:32:19.9 JH: It's like my joy. And all of the inspiration fulfillment that you get inside of conservation photography, I feel like I also get from helping other people pursue it, so thank you for using these resources.
0:32:34.8 JH: Awesome. Well, Luciane, it's been wonderful talking with you, and I guess I'll see you inside The Lab.
0:32:40.7 LC: Yeah, sure, [chuckle] see you soon. Thank you so much.
0:32:48.7 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.