On Becoming a Nature Photographer in the Digital Age

by Dr. Robert Berdan
October 31, 2010

Slide Show Prepared for CPS meeting, all images are copyright - Download PDF 33 MB

"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."
                                                                                                         John Muir




Sunrise at Killarney Provincial park in Ontario by Robert Berdan ©

Sunrise at Killarney provincial park in Ontario

I have been photographing Nature for over 35 years, but it was not until 1996 that I quit my full-time job and started my own business, Science &  Art Multimedia. My plan was to do three things that I loved: Web site development, teaching and nature photography. My long term goal was to spend more time in the field travelling and photographing nature, and for the most part I seem to be on track as I am able to travel to remote areas in Canada to photograph wildlife. I am not able to live solely off my nature photography and frankly I don't know any nature photographers that can. Even my friend, Dr. Wayne Lynch who publishes photography books and articles like a beaver cuts wood, also teaches and offers workshops. It seems that even the most famous nature photographers can not live only on the sales of their images. Of course I could shoot weddings on weekends, but how many commercial photographers have the energy or even the desire to go out and photograph for themselves after satisfying clients all week long - not many.  So I do what I have to and spend as much time as I can afford to travel and take nature pictures. I would love to write more magazine articles, but magazines usually work a year or so in advance and payment is a long time coming and is not very conducive to paying a mortgage. 

Alberta foothills black and white photograph by Robert Berdan

Alberta Foothills near Longview

Photography books are nice, but unless you have a publisher and distributor any income from a book is modest and comes with significant financial investment and risk. E-books seem to be the way for the future, but the photographer still has to provide something of value and pretty pictures are not enough to satisfy most buyers today.  Most of the professional nature photographers I know did not enter the field for monetary gain, but rather to pursue a way of life they felt would be more fulfilling then any other job. Not everyone I know that has tried to become a professional nature photographer has been successful. Technology has certainly made some things in photography easier, but it also made it more difficult to succeed in a field where many amateurs can produce photographs as good as some of the best professionals and online stock agencies sell photographs for only a few dollars. Still, I believe there will always be opportunities for those with fortitude, talent and willingness to adapt quickly,

Siwift fox in winter by Robert Berdan ©

Swift Fox, near Cochrane, Alberta (CS)

Nature and technology are at two different ends of our world and as a nature photographer I spend time in both worlds. Technology seeks to use the natural world for human benefit and profit. While nature simply tries to survive the onslaught of the human species as we multiply and utilize the earth's resources in an attempt to improve our lives. Nature, though we may not realize it,  plays an important role in our lives providing us with air to breathe, fresh water to drink, land to live on and it also nurtures our spirit. But things are changing quickly and I believe too many people are coming to rely on technology too much. It seems that some folks can't go anywhere these days without their cell phones, text messengers or laptop computers. I think  people are trying to do too many things at one time and I believe the consequences could be disastrous. We need balance in our lives and places where we can contemplate, think and evaluate what we want our lives to mean - spending time surrounded by Nature is the cure. 

Bull moose Kananaskis by Robert Berdan ©

Bull Moose Kananaskis 300 mm F2.8 lens with 1.5 X teleconverter

As a nature photographer I utilize the latest camera technology to capture moments which I hope will affect others and make them appreciate what we still have and what needs to be preserved in the future. I love to travel to remote areas in Canada and photograph its natural wonders. I also use photography to celebrate "being alive" and to investigate the beauty and complexity of life that surrounds us. My tools include digital cameras, high powered telephoto lenses, microscopes, telescopes and I process my images using image editing software on the fastest computers. I drive a jeep that consumes oil and gas and I am by no means an environmental angel. The images I try to capture are pictures of what was, what is and I hope of what could be. I would like to think that my images do not and will not replace reality but are simply representations that will inspire others to seek out and engage with nature and support the protection and intelligent management of wilderness areas in the future.

vorticella single cell protozoan by Robert Berdan ©

Vorticella - Single cell protozoan living in pond water - about 1000X

Professional nature photographers today face possible extinction from many different threats. Access to wildlife and nature preserves is getting more difficult, more costly and we have to travel to more remote places on the planet to find pristine areas to photograph. As wildlife diminishes so do the opportunities to photograph it. Many nature photographers are becoming specialists as their is an oversupply of certain types of images. How many grizzly bears, penguins and lion shots does the market need?  Stock photography was once a major source of income for many nature and outdoor photographers, but today many are finding it does not pay enough as stock agencies sell and distribute images on the Internet for only a few dollars. To survive in stock photography it was essential that photographers have both a large number of images and a diverse portfolio, but even that may not be enough.  I believe the days for photo generalists is coming to an end. However, by becoming a specialist nature photographers are  more prone to changes in market demand which can be fickle. One time stock photographers are now seeking alternative sources of revenue and many have begun to focus on teaching and offering workshops. Others are trying to sell printed books, e-books, post cards, calendars, and art prints. The only market that seems to be expanding is that of e-books. Some photographers are selling small digital books for about $10 each or they offer short video tutorials for a few dollars and buyers are paying online using PayPal.  Some nature photographers focus on writing whether it be for magazines or for blogs where income may be derived from on-line advertising. For nature photographers to survive in the future, they will have to be resourceful, technologically knowledgeable, creative and excel at marketing and business. They will also have to take better photos then their predecessors, luckily this is one area that new digital camera technology is helping us.

Great Gray Owl in a snowstorm by Robert Berdan ©

Great Gray Owlin a snowstorm near Bragg Creek, shot using manual focus with a 70-200 mm F2.8 lens, Nikon D300

For many new nature photographers, opportunities to photograph certain wild animals in their natural habitat is declining. Even in our national parks it seems that many of the large animals such as bears, moose, and bighorn sheep are tagged or collared. Many of these animals are being killed every year by cars, trucks and trains, but there seems to be little will to enforce the speed limits in the park and bureaucrats seem more intent on increasing the number of visitors, revenues and activities offered. Instead, what we should be doing is promoting the expansion of the parks and increasing the number of protected areas. In Alberta our provincial parks are used for a variety of purposes including logging, hunting, fishing and grazing cows. Yet in these same parks rangers were stopping professional nature photographers from taking photographs with big lenses. They insisted we pay as much as $500\day to take pictures and have $2 million liability insurance because we were running a business in the park. These regulations were originally intended for commercial photo shoots or those making Hollywood style movies. 


Comic published in Calgary Herlad following an interview with me regarding an attempt by rangers to prevent me from taking photographs - they wanted me to pay $500\day and have a permit. Things have relaxed a bit since then after many of us began writing letters, but professional photographers are supposed to have 2 million liability insurance - though I know most don't ( I do as need it to get government contracts and it provides me with $25,000 insurance on my camera gear).





Filming and photography projects with specific requirements not normally extended to visitors will require a permit in most cases. A permit will be required for filming and photography-related activities that:

  • require access to restricted areas;
  • require park staff supervision;
  • have potential for impact on park resources not consistent with traditional use;
  • may interfere with other park visitor’s enjoyment of the park;
  • require exclusive use of an area; or
  • involve sets, props, models etc.

To my intrepretation of the above, a permit is not required for any photographer dong anything that any other normal visitor might be doing. If you are vfisiting and taking stock photographs then a permit isn't necessary. Howevera, some of this is left open to intrepretation so its best to read the regulations and be prepared to defend yourself in necessary. Alternatively if you encounter a conservation officier that is difficult move on your way or try to avoid them so long as you are not harming an animal or endangering the public in any way.

Today nature photographers are facing more challenges with an over saturated market of images from both professionals and upcoming amateurs.  Many amateur photographers are happy to give their images away for free in order to get a photo-credit. I don't blame them but it does reduce the value of all nature photographs. Modern digital cameras are so good that even newcomers to the field are capable of taking professional quality images within a very short time. A professional nature photographer needs to have more depth, consistency and a greater variety of shots which usually takes years to build up. We also have to climb higher, swim deeper and get colder then our fellow amateur photographers. A professional nature photographer today must also be an expert in business and marketing. The professional must also be know how to utilize the latest technologies in order promote and sell their work. Having at least one web site is essential and there is a growing need to learn how to efficiently utilize social networking technologies such as blogs, subscription based emails and video. All of these activities are time consuming. Each photographer will have to evaluate how useful these features are to their own business. Another thing we need to look at carefully is how we catalogue, sort and find our digital images. Shooting digital means that most photographers are shooting up to ten times more photographs then they have in the past. I try to edit out my bad images in my camera before I download them. I use Google's free image database program, Picassa, to sort and catalogue all my images which I store on multiple 2 Terabyte hard drives. I am already looking at getting 10 Terabyte drives in the future. (A 2 Terabyte drive holds about 500,000 RAW files and takes me about 1-2 years to fill).  If a photographer is going to make money by selling a digital image for only $50 they must be able to find the image within a few minutes otherwise the profit margin starts to drop quickly.

Grizzly bear and salmon, Bella Coola, BC by Robert Berdan

For anyone thinking about becoming a professional Nature photographer the best advice I have heard is "keep your day job" at least until your income reaches a tipping point. Consider having some alternate sources of income so can pay your bills while you wait for your images to start paying off.  If you have a back up source of revenue you are free to photograph what you want - you main obstacle will be getting enough time. Good nature photography takes a lot of time and you can not control the weather, seasons or where and when some animals will appear. You can improve your chances by researching your subject thoroughly before you try to photograph and visit the locations where you are likely to encounter those animals.  If you have a gift for taking pictures that are better or different then anyone else then chances are you could be successful as a professional nature photographer.

Marsh Wren by Robert Berdan ©

Marsh Wren - sometimes it is the small things that photograhers over look

Things that help make a nature photographer successful:

  1. Learn how to create and manage your own web site and utilize it to promote and sell your photographs.

  2. In addition to photography skills learn how to shoot and edit video, many of the new cameras are capable of shooting HD video and the demand for video appears to be increasing.

  3. Master a variety of software programs including a word processor, book  publishing, image editing, video editing and web development.

  4. Buy the best camera equipment you can afford, but understand that while your lenses may be good for a decade or more, your camera bodies will likely need to be replaced about every 3-5 years as new technology supersedes older technologies.

  5. Learn to write well so you can sell not only your pictures, but your stories - take courses on effective writing or read "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. 

  6. Find people that can mentor you  - seek out the best photographers and business people you know and listen to them - they can provide you with shortcuts to success.

  7. A degree in biology or zoology with a minor in business will help.

  8. Seek out subjects that either you know better then anyone else or that no one else is photographing. You need to differentiate yourself from the herd, but be wary of becoming too specialized. 

Kananaskis sunrise by Robert Berdan ©

Kananaskis - sunrise

I believe the essential traits an individual needs to be successful as a professional nature photographer today include; passion, intelligence and fortitude.  Success can be measured in many ways and may not always be a financial one. It could be that as a nature photographer you become happier and healthier. You may have opportunities to travel and see things that your friends do not. If you are very lucky you might gather a small amount of notoriety and live a financially comfortable but modest life style. As a scientist I sought to understand some of the most minute workings of how the cells in our body work but I wasn't fulfilled as I spent most of my time inside a fluorescent illuminated laboratory. Today as a nature photographer and teacher I try to show people possibilities and inspire them to reach for things they value.  You don't have to be a professional musician to appreciate music and in the same manner you do not have to be a professional nature photographer to appreciate nature. Simply carrying a camera, magnifying lens or pair of binoculars with you when you venture out into the wild will open your heart and mind to possibilities.  RB



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