How to Get Started in Conservation Photography

Graffiti on Northwest Branch
Graffiti is a constant problem along the Northwest Branch, a tributary of the Anacostia River. Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed hiking here and wrote “here is a beautiful gorge, deep and narrow, with great boulders and even cliffs. Excepting Great Falls, it is the most beautiful place around here.”

As photographers, we have a special appreciation for the landscapes, buildings and animals, as well as the people and cultures we encounter as we travel the world.  For many of us, those are our subjects and may even provide our livelihood.  Unfortunately, many species, places, cultures and buildings are under threat from development, neglect, disease, pollution and other perils.  Here’s an area where we, as photographers, can make a difference.  As a storytelling medium, photography (and videography) can educate, document, raise awareness and spur people to take action.

What is Conservation Photography?

Conservation photography is (paraphrasing Wikipedia) the use of photography and of photojournalism as a conservation tool.  A powerful image can move people to action in ways a speech, or tables of scientific data can’t.

While all good photography should evoke a reaction from the viewer, conservation photography aims to direct that reaction towards a cause.  It’s more than pretty pictures: it’s a call to action.  Yes, showing a beautiful place or animal can be important, but so can showing a pile of garbage, a dying animal or a ravaged ecosystem; a scientist, an indigenous culture or a toxic cleanup worker.

As conservation biologist Dr. James Borrell says: “It’s the photographs that act as ambassadors for conservation projects around the world. They speak louder than any number of words in a report sitting unread on a desk. That’s why conservation photography is so important.”[1]

Perhaps the first instance of conservation photography in the US occurred in 1864 when Abraham Lincoln signed a law preserving Yosemite based, at least in part, on the photographs of Carleton Watkins.  Watkins began photographing Yosemite Valley in 1861 and later exhibited his photos in New York.  His images were the first that most Americans had ever seen of that wondrous landscape.  Those photos helped convey the unique character of the place and convinced the Congress and President Lincoln to save Yosemite.

The Yosemite Valley, From The Mariposa Trail
“The Yosemite Valley, From The Mariposa Trail, Yosemite, California,” by the American photographer Carleton E. Watkins. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.

A similar story surrounds the preservation of Yellowstone, where the photos of William Henry Jackson, a photographer accompanying a geological survey of Wyoming, along with the paintings of Thomas Moran, helped convince the Congress and President Grant to create Yellowstone National Park.

More recently, “Earthrise” and “Blue Marble,” photos of earth taken from space by Apollo astronauts, became symbols of the burgeoning environmental movement.

Getting Started

Today, photographers like Frans Lanting and Robert Glenn Ketchum travel the world documenting endangered species, cultures and habitats.  They work with foundations, research institutes and governments to shine a light on conservation challenges.  They may be followed by crews filming television documentaries or just by clouds of mosquitos, but their work can change people’s behaviors and government policies.

You don’t have to be a famous photographer, with support from National Geographic or the Smithsonian Institution, to turn your photography skills towards conserving something you care about.

Building along C&O Canal falling into ruin.
House falling into ruin along the C&O Canal. Lack of funding prevents preservation, much less restoration of many historic buildings.

Closer to home, there are abundant opportunities for photographers like us with a love of a local park or stream or forest or historic house.

Citizen science projects, like the various Urban Coyote Initiatives, are documenting the habits and behaviors of these highly adaptable creatures and their interactions with humans in a built environment.  Photographers and videographers like us work with scientists, city planners and community groups to raise awareness and understanding about urban coyotes and to promote peaceful coexistence between humans and coyotes.

Is there somewhere, something or someone you are repeatedly drawn to photograph?  Something nearby you feel passionate about?  There are countless local parks and natural areas, architectural marvels and historic buildings, local culture and history that need protection and preservation.  Each may have a group dedicated to its protection.  Many of these smaller organizations don’t have a photographer on staff and could use your help with images showing the importance of their mission, the progress they are making, the people they are involving and the work they are doing.  You could make compelling photos of the beauty of what they're saving.  You could also shoot their park cleanup day, their awards dinner, their work with scientists and meetings with legislators.  You could document the progress of a grant-funded conservation project or make the case for one.  The possibilities are endless.  Every conservation organization has a website and other communications vehicles that are constantly in need of fresh images to tell their story.

So, if you are a photographer with a passion for conserving and protecting something, and your name isn’t Frans Lanting or Robert Glenn Ketchum, how do you get started?

Ten things to think about when starting

  1. Find something that interests you and that is local, so you can more easily spend time there and have a better chance of connecting with the key people.
  2. Decide on your ultimate goal. What outcomes do you hope to have at the end?
  3. What is your role? What are your limits?
  4. What do you need to know to do this? Do you have to learn about animal behaviors? Agricultural runoff?  Federal regulations?  Where can you find out?
  5. Determine your audience. Is it the general public or the decision makers?
  6. What is the emotional appeal that will impact this audience?
  7. How can you bring awareness to this topic?
  8. Create a small photo essay or a portfolio as a sort of “proof of concept” and work sample.
  9. Don’t limit your attention to just an animal, a culture or ecosystem. Tell a wider story that included humans and human interaction, science and economics. To tell the whole story, you’ll have to connect with, assist or involve the experts who are studying this topic.  How can you build those bridges?
  10. Create a Facebook page, Instagram, blog and website dedicated to this cause (assuming none exist). If you want to work with an established organization, how can your work supplement their communications and advocacy efforts?

Learn from Professional Organizations

The International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) (conservationphotographers.org)

The International League of Conservation Photographers supports photographers working in this field.  Founded in 2005, their mission is “to further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography.”  The iLCP is known for Conservation Photography Expeditions that connect local, regional and international organizations with iLCP partners and “Fellows,” a top-notch group of the finest nature, culture and wildlife photographers from around the world.  Each November, iLCP hosts WiLDSPEAK, a two-day conference in Washington, DC.  Their website has a variety of videos and other educational information and their Fellows are a great source of inspiration and advice.

North American Nature Photography Association (nanpa.org)

Because I live in the US, I’m a NANPA member, but there are nature photography and conservation photography organizations all over the world.  Founded in 1994, NANPA is North America’s “preeminent nature photography organization,” and focuses on environmental issues, the rights of nature photographers, and ethical conduct and responsible photography in the wild.  NANPA has lots of educational materials and resources for members, from webinars to insurance, and hosts a Nature Photography Summit, regional events, a Showcase photography competition, and a Nature Photography Celebration in Jackson, WY, this May.

The NANPA Foundation awards grants, including the Philip Hyde Grant which, this year, went to Morgan Heim of Astoria, OR, for her work, “Trespass,” documenting the disastrous environmental effects of illegal marijuana growing and processing on public lands.

Each of the photographers interviewed below are NANPA members.

Stories from the field

There are a lot of different ways to get started.  You can get tips from famous professionals in magazines, but what you don't often see are the stories of people like us, who are relatively early in their journey of conservation photography.  What inspired them?  What's working for them?  What can we learn from them?

I met Joshua Asel in Muir Woods National Monument north of San Francisco, CA.  We were both shooting in this magnificent forest and started talking.  Joshua is the founder and director of Wild Expectations (look it up at wewildlife.org) and is an award-winning nature and conservation photographer (find him at joshuaasel.com).  Later, I interviewed him by email for this article.

WEWildlife website
Wild Expectations, founded by Joshua Asel, wewildlife.org.

For Joshua, “conservation photography is more than creating art through various photographic avenues; it’s a call to duty. There is an inherent responsibility photographers take on when they become invested in stories larger than themselves. In my case, I don’t see that I have a choice. In a single image, one of devastation or one of love, the viewer can instantly connect to what’s going on. There is no neutrality in conservation photography and so the photo forces the viewer to make a decision about how they feel about what they see.”

After discovering his passion in wildlife photography, he dropped out of college and started volunteering anywhere he could to help wildlife and working a “string of unsatisfactory jobs.”  Persistence paid off when his work caught the eye of bird of prey conservationist Larry Broderick, who decided to sponsor him.  Most of his work still comes from him making pitches to organizations, but sometimes a group will come to him with an assignment in mind.

He’s had direct support from NGOs like Defenders of Wildlife and other nonprofits and has sold and licensed his photos for conservation-related causes.  While he considers, on a case by case basis, requests to license his work to nonprofits to educate, inspire and enhance grant research, he cautions against giving away photos and, worse, giving away copyright.  “This concept of ‘giving your work away for free but people will see your name in the credits’ is a plague and needs to be stopped immediately.”  Photographers deserve to be paid and recognized for their work, but our collective expertise is devalued every time someone gives away their photos.

Joshua Asel's website
Joshua Asel's website, at joshuaasle.com

His advice to beginners in conservation photography?  First, getting started isn’t easy.  “Get used to disappointment.  Get used to doors shutting in your face, seeing a lot of animal cruelty, having your hard-earned photos go unnoticed . . . The good news is it’s not 100% of the time!  What you can offer in the long run as a conservation photographer far outweighs the negatives. Second, don’t ever stop! Keep learning, constantly put into practice the new things you learn, and don’t forget what you truly love and what that love means to you. You will feel like quitting, oh so many times you will feel like it. Don’t!”

Here in the Washington, DC, area, Bill MacFarland, Amanda Joy Mason and I are the co-leaders of a NANPA Meetup group, and also do some conservation photography. I asked Bill and Amanda about their thoughts on and experiences with this type of work.

Amanda Joy Mason's website
Amanda Joy Mason's website at amandajoyphotographics.com

Amanda Joy Mason has always enjoyed being in nature and has a passion for state and national parks (find her at AmandaJoyPhotographics.com).  After a decade as a professional photographer, she wanted to do something more personally rewarding to her than wedding photos and retouching. That led to her returning to school for a degree in Digital Media and Visual Communication with focus on environmental studies.  She sees conservation photography and videography as “something that’s not always pretty pictures.  It could be documenting scientists in the field, or showing the effects of a chemical spill, or piles of litter.”  What matters is reaching and moving people.

Amanda interned with the Environmental Integrity Project in Washington, DC, and got interested in collaborating with scientists conducting research and community groups doing cleanup projects.  Both needed visual imagery to tell their stories.  A storytelling photojournalist can help raise awareness, educate people and spur folks to take action.

One of her initial works of conservation storytelling is the result of a “passion project,” something she did because she felt she had to.  “Beyond the Pipeline” is a video documentary she created, detailing the potentially devastating effects of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline on the communities and biomes it would disrupt.

Beyond the Pipeline
Amanda Joy Mason's documentary on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. https://bit.ly/2GNVTSr

Amanda sometimes volunteers her time and talents to organizations with missions close to her heart.  However, if she’s working on assignment for an organization, she expects to be paid fairly for her time and the use of her images.  Many nonprofits have money from grants and other funding to do communications and education which can be used for photography.  Developing a relationship with an organization can help them plan to include money for storytelling and photography in their grant writing and funding requests.

For newbies to conservation photography, Amanda recommends doing your own passion project.  It’s a great learning experience and gives you work to show prospective clients.  You may want to decide whether you want to be a specialist, who focuses on one type of animal, or location, or a single threat to nature, or if you want to be a generalist who tells a variety of comprehensive stories from start to finish.  That will help guide the kinds of work you do and the types of organizations you’ll want to work with.

Amanda also recommends attending the WiLDSPEAK conference for the opportunity to network with iLCP Fellows and other conservation photographers, to learn from them and to meet photo editors from magazines that publish conservation-related images and stories.  You may not have a WiLDSPEAK in your community, but there are probably local Meetup groups and other opportunities to connect with the photographers, nature lovers, and the nonprofit organizations who preserve and conserve the places, people and things we love.

Bill MacFarland is a part time photographer with a demanding day job.  A while back, he says, he was feeling a lack of direction in his nature and wildlife photography. He told me he was asking himself “what is the story being told by my body of work?  Who am I telling that story to?”  He found the theme of water surfacing time and time again and decided to focus on that.  (He also uses his photography “to help foster dogs get adopted quicker.”)  (See his work at macfarlandphoto.net.)

Bill MacFarland's website
Bill MacFarland's work is at macfarlandphoto.net

With his focus on water, Bill has done work with a Potomac River conservation group whose mission is to promote and preserve clean water, healthy lands and vibrant communities along the river.  He has licensed some of his photos to them, with the proviso that he is credited and the images are used in furtherance of their mission.

While some conservation organizations hope to move people and increase donations by screaming that the sky is falling and the end of time is nigh, Bill’s approach and style is more positive.  He likes showing the beauty of the great outdoors, enjoyment of nature, appreciation for natural resources.  He illustrates what’s possible through conservation of our natural places and wildlife.  He’s had success by starting local, with places connected to the Potomac River that he can easily get to and return to, again and again, in different seasons and conditions.

Furthering his thoughtful approach, he’s using his Instagram account to highlight properties created and funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is particularly important this year as there are bills in the House (H.R. 502) and Senate (S. 896) to permanently authorize the Fund.  Established by Congress in 1964, the Fund has purchased over 7 million acres that have been saved for conservation and recreation as National Wildlife Refuges, Forest Service land and other designations, including Assateague Island here in Maryland.  Although its money comes from oil and gas leases, and not taxpayer dollars, there was a fight in Congress over reauthorizing the Fund in 2015 and, under a compromise solution, it was authorized and funded for only 3 years.  The Fund must be reauthorized this fall, so public awareness and support, spurred by conservation photography, really matter in today’s political environment.

Frog in fall foliage
There has been a dramatic reduction in frog numbers worldwide over the past few decades.

And then there's me.  I came into conservation photography backwards, creating notecards for a conservation organization and then learning about conservation photography.  I’m a part time photographer who has been a big fan of and visitor to the National Park system.  I’ve shot the typical grand vistas and sought out less popular locations, like many of you.  Some of those images find their way into a calendar I make every year for friends, clients and as a marketing tool for potential clients.  My wife gave one of those calendars to a former colleague of hers who went to work for a conservation organization that supported National Parks.  That nonprofit later bought several hundred note cards from me.  The cards had park images that matched that year’s conference theme and were put in the bags of conference attendees. The cards remind affiliates, supporters and donors what their efforts are preserving.  And they got me interested in conservation photography!  Now we’re talking about more note cards or other items for this year’s conference and opportunities to tell more conservation stories through photography.  (You can find me at frankgallagherphotography.com.)

None of us are famous conservation photographers . . . yet.  But we’re doing it, and so can you.  Share your experience in the comments below.  What’s your best tip for a beginning conservation photographer?

[1] https://www.jamesborrell.com/photography-as-a-conservation-tool/

4 thoughts on “How to Get Started in Conservation Photography”

  1. About the graffitti, there should be a law passed that allows us to shoot the eye polluters on sight…..

    1. It pains me every time I see new graffiti there. Some of the neighborhood residents and other lovers of the park do as much as they can to prevent and remove it, but there always seems to be some thoughtless person who thinks they are the next Banksy. Here’s a place where photographs can make people aware of the graffiti problem so they can be more vigilant in preventing it and maybe, just maybe, it will make the next person with a few cans of spray paint think again.

  2. Wonderful, encouraging article Frank! More photographers need to see how they can get started in conservation photography. The paths are so diverse and stories interesting.

    1. Thanks, Morgan. And congratulations on the Hyde grant! I’d heard about people growing pot in national forests and parks but had no idea about the environmental damage. Thanks for bringing it to our attention

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