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Episode #022

Urban Wildlife Photography: 5 Steps for Getting Started


UPDATED: May 21, 2023


When you think of a conservation photographer, do you think of someone who travels to far off locations, photographing rare species and untamed habitats?

Well, some of the most important conservation work is being done in the heart of cities.


How you can make an impact for nature in your city

Did you know that you have the power to shape how a city is designed? It's true! And you can be part of designing a city that supports people and wildlife; both the bustle of human culture and the busy interconnected web of a healthy ecosystem. And you can accomplish this through photography. 

We can be catalysts for critical conservation efforts without ever leaving the concrete canopy of an urban jungle.  Indeed, this rough and rugged habitat can be one of the most important places to focus your conservation efforts, especially if you are a nature photographer who is aspiring to be a wildlife conservation photographer.

In this episode I'm outlining five first steps to take when you're starting an urban conservation photography project.

But first we're going to dive into why this niche of conservation photography shouldn't be overlooked in importance, and we're going to look at some amazing, inspiring work that well known photographers have done in urban areas.


You'll Learn

  • Examples of powerful conservation photography from cities across North America
  • 5 first steps to take when you're starting an urban conservation photography project including:
    • 1. Get to know your city
    • 2. Open yourself up to pursuing stories that are different from what you've normally been photographing
    • 3. Decide what kind of story you want to tell
    • 4. Decide very carefully who you are collaborating with
    • 5. Consider how you'll put your superpower of universal language to work

Resources Mentioned

Episode 022: Urban Wildlife Photography: 5 Steps for Getting Started

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/22

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)


Jaymi Heimbuch:
When you think of a conservation photographer, what often comes to mind is the image of someone who travels to far off locations, places in need of a protector, someone who works off the grid, photographing rare species and untamed habitats. Someone who brings images back to civilization to help win over minds and hearts and protect these areas and animals that most of us will never see in person. And indeed, a lot of conservation photographers do exactly that. However, wildlife conservation photographers do important work anywhere.

We can be catalysts for critical conservation efforts without ever leaving the concrete canopy of an urban jungle. Indeed, this rough and rugged habitat can be one of the most important places to focus your conservation efforts, especially if you are a nature photographer who is aspiring to be a wildlife conservation photographer. The city can be an incredible place for conservation work.

In this episode I'm outlining five first steps to take when you're starting an urban conservation photography project.

But first we're going to dive into why this niche of conservation photography shouldn't be overlooked in importance, and we're going to look at some amazing, inspiring work that well known photographers have done in urban areas. Let's dive in.

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 conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make impact. Let's dive in!

To get started, let's look at some numbers. Roughly 63% of our country's population lives in an urban area. So, two-thirds of the U. S. lives in an urban area. More than half of the world's population lives in urban areas, and that's going to increase to two-thirds by 2050. Within the next 10 years or so, our planet will have 41 mega cities with populations of over 10 million inhabitants.

Urbanism is more than just these dense spots of skyscrapers and mega-cities, though. See, along with cities, come suburbs and exurbs, and nearly half of the world's billions of urbanites currently live in these cities and towns of fewer than 500,000 people. These small areas are actually growing the fastest.

All these statistics, they illustrate more than just how much real estate we’re taking over on the planet's surface. As humans take over an area, we create new habitats. But as we create these new habitats, the drama of evolution continues to play on. Species die off. They shift their ranges away from us, or they maximize the advantages of living near us in order to thrive. Successful species, in turn, influence the course of other species toward success or failure.

So how do we want our planet to look? Because humans have the ability and the responsibility to decide this. And this is where nature photographers come into play as a powerful force for shaping how our cities are designed and maintained. Not only to incorporate, but to encourage the health of the most valuable neighbors that any city resident can have on our flora and our fauna.

Every human has an emotional reaction to an image. It may be profound or imperceptible to our conscious psyche, but once something is seen, it cannot be unseen. And, we react. Usually we react in ways that can be predicted and crafted. We have the ability as conservation photographers through imagery to bridge the chasm between scientists and city residents; between city planners and conservationists; between corporations and the communities; in which they set up shop. And that means that we, as conservation photographers, have the ability to give plants and animals a starring role in every urban environment.

Our intuition tells us that when a city is built, wildlife disappears. Roads and sidewalks cover up the dirt and trees were felled and transformed into poles for power lines, and wild habitat is divvied up by houses and hotels and industrial parks. But this isn't actually the case. In suburban areas, there's actually a higher diversity of bird species than within city centers or in wild habitats. This is such a fascinating thing.

It's talked about in a book called Suburdia, written by ornithologist John Marzluff. He highlights a survey done by John Aldrick in Lake Barcroft, northern Virginia. Over the course of several decades after urbanization hit this area, Aldrick found that not only did the number of bird species actually increase from 23 to 29 species, but the density of birds increased as well. Now, seeing the density and the number of species increase really interesting, but on the flip side, the presence of birds can actually be controversial in urban settings.

For instance, in Santa Rosa, California, there are a handful of eucalyptus trees growing in a median, inside a busy road inside this neighborhood. These eucalyptus trees are the nesting location for hundreds of Black-crowned Night-Herons, Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets and Great Egrets. Every nesting season, this stretch of trees, (it's a very small stretch of trees inside this median on a busy road) is absolutely taken over by these birds. They're loud, messy neighbors, and they're actually the root of a lot of strife among the residents. A lot of people completely loathe these birds and the mess on the stink that they create.

But one conservation photographer, Suzi Eszterhas, brought attention to the softer side of this situation, including the rescue work done by volunteers who save chicks that fall from the nests to the road below. These rescue workers will collect the chicks that fall and those that can be saved, they will rehab and release them.

This story pulls out how much effort people were putting into minimizing conflict. The rescue work for fallen chicks actually revealed that there's a presence of mercury and pollution in the birds food supply that's causing severe bone deformities. The story even pulls out how the school across the street from the rookery celebrates a bird day every year by bringing the kids out to look at the chicks through spotting scopes.

Suzi Eszterhas’ urban conservation photography provides this wonderful and much needed look at the pros and the cons of this urban rookery. And most importantly, it makes people think more deeply about life as a bird just trying to get by in an urban environment. With a couple of trees in a single neighborhood and look at the depth of the nature and humanity that that story encompasses now.

Meanwhile, it's not just birds who can benefit from an urban setting or who needs the attention of conservation photographers. Urban insects go far beyond cockroaches, flies and ants. Cities can support a broad diversity of pollinator species or rodents. You know rodents have lived alongside humans since the dawn of agriculture. They feast on grains and insects and, yeah, garbage found in human habitations. Other animals move into feast on these rodents like hawks and owls and snakes and foxes and coyotes and bobcats. Even mid-size and large predators have adapted new survival strategies to take advantage of the bounty of food and shelter created by urban settings.

Bats co-opt bridges as roosts, song birds nest and shrubs and city parks, deer graze in front yards. Squirrels are well, everywhere. Everything from butterflies to bears find something of interest in our backyards and in our botanical gardens. How urban areas grow is a direct interest to you, and we can shape the future of urban development.

As a conservation photographer, we can affect behavior patterns, direct the course of urban design and landscaping, spearhead massive projects like wildlife corridors and overpasses across 8t and 12 lane freeways or the cleaning of a profoundly polluted river. Photographers are doing exactly this already, all over the world.

Here's a few examples: Steve Winter captured photos of a now very famous mountain lion in front of the illuminated Hollywood sign in Griffith Park, with the lights of L. A. shining behind him. Before that image was taken, Mountain Lion P-22 was really only known among the biologists who had collared him and were watching his movements as part of this study. They were looking at the threats to mountain lion population and the ability for them to move into new territories. But really, his story was limited to these biologists. Now, the primary danger for these mountain lions being studied, including P-22, is that they are cut off from habitat by really busy freeways. And since 2002, 17 mountain lions tracked in the study have been killed by car strikes. This population has the lowest genetic diversity anywhere in the US outside of Florida panthers.

Beth Pratt Bergstrom is the California director for the National Wildlife Federation, and she has put a phenomenal amount of energy behind raising awareness about P-22 and the fact that he is trapped in this territory, this urban park, because of the lack of wildlife corridors. This is keeping him from moving around and helping him to safely find a mate. So she's used his plight to push forward the need for a wildlife overpass across the U.S. 101 which would allow cougars and other wildlife to migrate between the mountains and the coast. Her campaign has the momentum that it has because of the attention grabbing, question begging, behavior changing photographs of this urban cougar, which was taken by Steve Winter.

The photos have been all over the media, and they've been featured on the cover of Beth's book titled 'When Mountain Lions are Neighbors.' In fact, Beth carries a cutout of P-22 from one of Steve's photos to practically every press event. This photo is a big deal. I'd say that it was worth the 15 or so months that it took Steve to finally capture this incredible, powerful photograph.

Another example is on the exact opposite side of the country, on the East Coast. There is a project aimed at using visuals to advance decades long efforts by conservationists to bring back the Anacostia River to its former glory. The Anacostia River is an urban river that has endured centuries of abuse from European settlers clearing out the wetlands to residents using it as a dumping area for agricultural and industrial waste.

Through thousands of photographs and an inspiring amount of energy, Krista Schlyer's project is amplifying the voice of the Anacostia and everyone who lives near its banks. This includes the cleanup of toxins and trash. But it also is encouraging support for this massive project of rebuilding Washington D. C's sewage system, which will prevent raw sewage from entering the river. Krista's work is a photographic journey that underscores how much we as individuals can do for our local habitats.

We don't have to travel far or work on something really exotic in order to make a huge impact on a conservation issue. We can look really, literally, in our own backyards. And as a professional project, working in your own town has some benefits. When I talk to Krista about her work on the Anacostia River, she noted that it's actually allowed her to dig deeper than she could ever have done on any other project. Because she's right there. She said it's different when it's your own backyard, and it's your neighbors that are experiencing this with you, your wild neighbors and your human neighbors. It affords a level of intimacy and understanding you can't get in any other way. These are some brief examples of the power of urban wildlife photography to alter the course of our cities for the better, for the health of people and for wildlife.

Conservation photographers provide something truly special to the public. We show people the lives of plants and animals that most of us only see in passing, if at all. Our images capture the interest of viewers, so they paused to learn.

With my own work on the Urban Coyote Initiative, we focus first and foremost on helping people feel empowered to take the lead on preventing human coyote conflicts. We do this first by showing them powerful photos of the lives of urban coyotes, whether that's raising a family or interacting with a dog and an owner on a walk or navigating through city streets. When people pause to look closely at the photo they’re also pausing to learn about coyotes and hopefully also about other wildlife sharing their yards and parks. So in the process of photographing the work of scientists researching coyotes or the coyotes of a particular city, we have a chance to explore this complex relationship that humans have with wilderness and with wildlife, and the role of urban ecology and daily life and in the conservation movement and the adaptability and the resilience of urban species.

This is how we change the behavior of people on a one-on-one basis with coyotes. But you can also change behaviors on a larger scale like the Anacostia River project. Your images could be a driving force on a large scale cleanup or a large scale change in attitudes about animals or an urban habitat or similar to the save the L. A. Cougar's effort. Your images can lead the way on redesigning urban areas to reconnect habitats and wild populations.

Your images might even be a critical component of advancing science and medicine. For instance, a couple years ago, a Smithsonian article underscored the importance of studying the ecology of urban rats in order to protect ourselves from disease and structural damage. But it's really, really hard to study something very small that lives underground and out of sight most of the time. It's also really hard to study something so stigmatized as rats. And guess what's helpful for fixing both of those problems? Really amazing photographs. And guess who knows how to do that? Nature photographers!

In fact, there was an incredible story just out recently in National Geographic that was photographed by Charlie Hamilton James on urban rats. Extraordinary photos that bring to life what it means to live with rats in a city, to get really detailed. I mean, these photos make people stop and think about rats in a very different way.

How are you going to get started on your own urban conservation photography project? I mean, really, you're already part of all of this activity just by being a nature photographer. But if you want to get more involved, if you want to start your own project, here's how to get started.

First, think creatively about where to find wildlife. Check out golf courses and cemeteries, marinas, even irrigation canals. Wildlife seeks out natural habitat within this urban jungle, so hit the spots that have plant cover and see what's there. And in getting to know where wildlife lives in your city, you're likely to stumble across interesting story angles or projects that inspire you.

So Step number 1: Get to know your city.

Step number 2: Open yourself up to pursuing stories that might be different from the classic pristine wildlife portraiture. Because you are in an urban area, as you discover where wildlife lives and possible conservation stories you want to pursue, you might find yourself needing to create images that are outside of your comfort zone or outside of your aesthetic zone. For many wildlife photographers moving into conservation, this also includes photographing people and human animal interactions and the problems the urban wildlife faces. You're moving way beyond portraits of animals and into visual storytelling. You're likely going to be looking at things that are not like classic wildlife portraiture.

Step number 3: Decide what kind of story you want to tell. So there is a substantial amount of fodder for conservation projects, ecology projects, projects documenting the life of an individual animal, projects that will raise awareness about wildlife to either promote habitat restoration or to minimize human-animal conflicts. And all of these can help shape how wildlife is perceived, how it is treated and accommodated in your own town.

If you want help finding project ideas, there's a couple ways that you can get some inspiration. One is to check out citizen science projects that are happening in your area, and in fact there's a resource. It's on the North American Nature Photography Association website. They have a citizen science database, and you can hunt through it to find leads on organizations, projects and people to work with. Another route for discovery and potential stories is to dig into news articles or scientific papers. Find out what work local biologists and ecologists or university students are working on and if their research is something that you want to document.

Step number 1: get to know your city. Step number 2: Open yourself up to pursuing stories that are different from what you've normally been photographing. Step number 3: Decide what kind of story you want to tell.

Step number 4: Decide very carefully who you are collaborating with. As you go through and you find these leads for potential stories to document, you may decide that you want to collaborate with a research team or a non-profit organization, a wildlife rescue facility, a community organization or someone else. This kind of collaboration could be really helpful and working together to get grants to cover media creation so that you can get paid, or at least get your expenses covered, while your images help a non-profit reach its goals. In partnering with a non-profit is also a chance to have your photos published as part of articles where the non-profit’s covered in the media.

If you decide to team up with someone, there's a few things to carefully consider and to discuss openly with your collaborators. These are things like are you providing images to them for use in their work? And if you are, what are the terms of their use? So think about creating a licensing agreement before you even get started. Also, what aspects of their work can you document? And what don't they want photographed? Are you comfortable with those parameters? Because sometimes groups don't necessarily want certain aspects of their work documented because of concern about public relations. So you have to decide if that impact your ability to tell the full story visually, or how you might work around their wishes. Also, what's the duration of the scope of your work together? So are you expecting to collaborate on an ongoing basis, or is there a start and end time to your work with them?

All these questions are pretty important and really what I'm getting at is that if you decide to collaborate with someone, think about what that collaboration looks like before you really dive in. Because there's some things that you can set up beforehand to help really delineate roles and how images are used and goals and all kinds of other stuff.

Step number 5: Right now, in this moment, like right now, pause and consider your superpower of universal language, thanks to photography. I know this sounds cheesy. Do it anyway. Take a moment. Just sit and think right now, and consider how you can use your passion and your images to shape the world that you're living in. That's really a superpower. It is something really amazing to be able to.

What is it that you want to accomplish in a broad sense with your images? What kind of work is going to keep you energized and feeling successful as a conservation photographer? Do you want to follow positive stories of connection and successful coexistence, or do you want to follow tough stories of the problems that we need to overcome? Do you want to follow the science behind urban wildlife coexistence or the boots on the ground side of urban planning for wildlife protection. There's a lot of routes that you can go. So really think about how you use photography, how you have the superpower and to what use you want a put that superpower, and how can you apply that in a way that really suits you and keeps you motivated and inspired?

Let me go through that again.

Number 1: Get to know your city. Number 2:Open yourself up to pursuing stories that might be different from classic pristine wildlife portraiture. Number 3: Decide what kind of story you want to tell. Number 4: Decide if you're collaborating with anyone and what that looks like. And Number 5: Consider carefully your superpower of universal language of photography and how you want to apply that to the work that you do, that keeps you motivated and engaged and inspired just as much as you hope to motivate and engage and inspire your viewers.

I think urban conservation photography is a really powerful, amazing place to focus your energies. And it's also really needed because, like I said, the scale of our urban footprint is only growing, and we have the ability to shape how we want those cities to look. How we want to coexist with and support nature within these large urban areas. It's really, really amazing stuff, and you have the ability right now to look in your own backyard for conservation stories that will have a massive impact on you on a local level and potentially on a much larger level.

If you start up a conservation photography project in your city, I would love to know about it. I'd love to see your work. I encourage you to come into the free Facebook Group Conservation Photographers and share what it is that you're working on. You can find a link to join the group in the show notes. You are so welcome to be part of this community of hundreds of conservation photographers who all share ideas, inspiration, input stories and experiences to help us all move forward in our work. And all of us, I'm sure, would love to see the amazing work that you're doing. I hope to see you in there, and meanwhile, I will talk to you next week.

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.


Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast



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