Conservation Photography in the Digital Age

Conservation photographers play a critical role in world of conservation.  They combine nature photography, photojournalism, and advocacy to draw the public’s attention to the most critical environmental issues in today’s world.  Unfortunately, it’s getting harder for conservation photographers to make a living.  That could have serious consequences, especially in light of the growing urbanization of the general public.

Conservation photography can be a lonely profession, but plays a critical role in conservation.  Ty Smedes at The Nature Conservancy's Broken Kettle Grasslands - Northwest Iowa.

Conservation photography can be a lonely profession, but plays a critical role in conservation. Ty Smedes at The Nature Conservancy’s Broken Kettle Grasslands – Northwest Iowa.

In some ways, photography is getting easier, and it’s certainly accessible to more people than it used to be.  Today’s cheap digital cameras have many features that, just a few decades ago, were found only on very expensive high end cameras.  As a result, novice photographers can often capture great photos from situations that used to flummox the most veteran of photographers.  In addition, of course, nearly everyone carries a camera with them, nowadays – most often in their phone – so being in the right place at the right time (with a camera) is a much more common occurrence than it used to be. 

In the field of nature photography, all of this adds up to an abundance of quality images of animals, plants, and natural areas.  That’s a good thing, right?  If photos lead to awareness, and awareness leads to conservation, then yes, it’s a good thing.  Not only is it easier to see lots of nature photos, more people are also getting out in nature to try to take their own.  Excellent.

On the other hand, my friends who make their living from conservation photography have a different perspective.  It’s never been easy to make a living as a photographer, but now that it seems like everyone is taking high quality photos, it’s even harder.  Book and magazine publishers (as well as web sites, of course) can now buy decent quality photos from amateurs who are excited to see their work in print and don’t really care how much they’re paid.  Have you ever wondered why nearly every conservation organization and publication hosts a photography competition these days?  In many cases, a big reason is that they obtain the usage rights to every photo entered.  This nets them a huge stockpile of images they can use in publications.  For free.  It’s pretty tough for a professional photographer to compete with free.  

Photography can provide intimate introductions to species most people wouldn't otherwise know exist.  Robber fly - Central Platte River, Nebraska.

Photography can provide intimate introductions to species most people wouldn’t otherwise know exist. Robber fly – Central Platte River, Nebraska.

True Conservation Photographers

Impressively, there are some professional conservation photographers who still separate themselves from the masses by creating images that are unique, as well as beautiful.  A great example is Piotr Naskrecki, who studies and photographs creatures most of us step over (or on).  By focusing on subject matter that is largely ignored by others, and by using innovative techniques and equipment, Piotr creates images that are as distinctive as they are beautiful.  If you haven’t seen his Smaller Majority blog or his books, you should remedy that as soon as possible.  Clay Bolt is another photographer who takes fantastic photos of small creatures, and has co-founded an entire venture to make all of us more familiar with the small creatures all around us – “Meet your Neighbours”.

There are many other wonderful conservation photographers, including Michael Forsberg, Joel Sartore, and Laura Crawford Williams, who use innovative technology and techniques to portray places, creatures, and situations that the rest of us might not otherwise notice.  More importantly, all three are willing to spend countless hours researching subjects, traveling to remote locations, and then sitting and waiting until the right moment comes to make the photograph they’re looking for.  It’s that dedication that really sets them apart from the crowd.  Not only are they fantastically talented, they’re willing to put in the time because they care about the conservation of the natural world they photograph. 

The term “conservation photographer” is becoming popular, and it often used too broadly.  All of the photographers mentioned above are great examples of real conservation photographers.  They are not only passionate about the species and landscapes they photograph, they go out of their way to use their time and photos to help conserve what they love.  In addition, they take great pains – and a lot of time – to be sure they get their great photographs without negatively impacting their subjects. 

Photography can help draw attention to endangered ecosystems, and help showcase both their beauty and value.  The Nature Conservancy's Little Salt Fork Marsh Preserve - north of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Photography can help draw attention to endangered ecosystems, such as the saline wetlands of eastern Nebraska, and help showcase both their beauty and value. The Nature Conservancy’s Little Salt Fork Marsh Preserve – north of Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Dilemma

The accessibility of digital photography means more people are spending time outside with a camera, and that more people come back, at least now and then, with a truly fantastic photo.  For the most part, that’s a wonderful thing for nature and conservation.  Unfortunately, it also means that a professional conservation photographer with 10,000 fantastic images is competing against 10,000 individual photographers who might each have one fantastic image, but who are willing to give that photo away for free just to see it published.  Conservation photographers are still set apart by their willingness to go the extra mile (literally) to get photographs of species or places others won’t or can’t get, but it’s getting harder for them to get paid enough to do that. 

I wish I had a good solution to this problem.  We need conservation photographers to tell conservation stories with their photographs, and they need to make a living doing it.  On the other hand, I don’t think it’s fair to tell an amateur photographer they shouldn’t give away the rights to a fantastic photo just for the joy of seeing it published – it wouldn’t work anyway… the publication would just find another free image of the same subject.  It’s also hard to blame magazines, websites, and other publishers for acquiring photographs at the best price they can find.  Even if the cheap photo is not quite as good as one by a professional, it’s easy to understand going with the cheaper option – especially when your competition is doing the same thing.

Of course, conservation photographers need to do their part to adapt to the new world.  Some are doing that very well, through creatively fundraising for projects (Michael Forsberg is particularly good at that) and by capturing images no else can.  Now it’s up to us to support them.  We can do that by buying their prints, of course, but also by supporting publications that buy images from conservation photographers.  Watch for calendars, magazines, books, and websites that feature portfolios of work by a single photographer (think of the classic National Geographic magazine article, for example) rather than combining photos from various photographers. 

I really hope conservation photographers don’t join Kodachrome film and large format cameras as historical curiosities, but I’m afraid that day may be coming.  That would be a great loss, not just for art and photography, but for the earth.

12 thoughts on “Conservation Photography in the Digital Age

  1. It is great for us to “support” conservation photographers with our purchases, but what really counts is conservation itself, meaning land acquisitions, restorations and on-going protection efforts. Unfortunately, some formerly-great conservation organizations now use photography mainly to deliver feel-good messages, instead of new, on-the-ground conservation initiatives.

  2. Ted, I must disagree with you. We live in a great democracy. However, democracy can only survive if the masses have the education necessary to make intelligent decisions. I see the role of conservation photographer as being on the front lines of disseminating knowledge. People will only save what they know. Money is well spent educating people why they should save a special place, species, etc. Once an idea has taken root, it often grows without further intervention.


  3. I confess to mixed feelings on this subject. I admire the talents of professional photographers, and have many coffee table books from some of the authors that were mentioned. James’ comment struck a chord…”people will only save what they know”. I agree. However, I wonder whether people really know a place or an animal just by looking at some pictures and reading a book. True connectivity comes from experiencing a place. Also, sometimes I worry that there are too many who feel that if they have a picture, there is no need to bother going out to see the real thing. Then, when the book is closed, the subject is forgotten. So if the intent is to educate, it seems to me that most of the time, the pictures do not need to be professionally taken to accomplish this. The true measure of their effectiveness is the extent to which they inspire action, rather than just appreciation. This is admittedly hard to measure, but I am inclined to agree with Ted that some organizations seem more satisfied with creating a good story line, rather than determining whether the story is being effectively translated into meaningful action.

    • Patrick, I think the below excerpt from “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” most adequately describes the power of a photograph to connect someone with a place.
      Sincerely, James

      William Gladstone Steel (1854–1934)
      Episode(s): 2

      In 1870, William Gladstone Steel was a 15-year-old in Kansas when he read an article in the newspaper used to wrap his lunch. It described a clear and deep lake in Oregon, and he vowed to visit it one day. Fifteen years later, he finally made it to the remote spot – Crater Lake – and immediately started a long quest to preserve it as a national park. That effort lasted 17 years before Crater Lake National Park was created in 1902.

      Steel was later named the park’s superintendent and remained involved with its protection until his death in 1934.

  4. If all of these amateur photographers are trudging out into the field to capture digital images, that is a good thing. No, it is a great thing. They are exploring a landscape and developing a sense of place that would never be communicated by simply looking at some “professional” image in a magazine. Stating otherwise is analogous to saying that amateur citizens shouldn’t plant or harvest trees on their land because they aren’t professional foresters. As the bars to becoming a professional in any conservation career are raised higher by arbitrary education requirements and a list of who you know, I say welcome to all the passionate amateurs out there who do these things not for money, but because they feel an irresistible magnetic pull to their cause. We do these things without recognition and without pay because it soothes the meaningless void carved out by modern society.

  5. I concur with all and have been fortunate enough to conduct public education in my field of work. Photographs are great tools; however, I have found they often evoke an immediate appreciation for the beauty of nature and a desire to want to visit it, but little else. Unless there is a true understanding of ecology, many appear to lose the immediate response and leave satisfied that there is still such a place or species out there somewhere. I enjoy photography and appreciate the art, but as Patrick, James and Ted have written and eluded, activity is required to preserve our natural areas. Many love activity and are ready to help. Thoughtful posts.

  6. This dilemma of digital photography is not unique to conservation photographers. It is endemic for all photographers. Therefore it won’t be solved only within the realm of conservation photography, and not worthy of a lot of worry, time, or money. Especially compared to the much larger needs of other facets of conservation. For example, I live in a region that once was the tall grass prairie and now over 99% has been lost. So for me, prairie restoration is a much greater need than whether some can make a living off photography. I have chosen to work in conservation for decades despite very low pay because of its other, non-monetary rewards. I could sell my soul and go work for Halliburton tomorrow in the North Dakota oil fields and make beaucoup bucks aiding in the mining of non-renewable fuel and likely ravaging the natural resources of the area. But instead I choose to continue working on restoration and I can sleep well at night knowing I’m trying to make a positive difference.


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