The 5 Biggest Hurdles When Starting Out In Conservation Photography (And How To Overcome Them)
It isn’t easy getting started in something new, especially in conservation photography where you’re learning many new skills all at once.
It’s tough, but it’s also completely doable.
Here are the common sticking points when you’re starting out and strategies for blowing past them and finding success.
Enjoy This as a Podcast Episode
Episode 002 of Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast
Starting out in conservation photography can feel a little bit like a marathon race…
through a forest…
with fallen logs across your path…
and branches thwapping your face…
and really cold creeks to wade across that have those slippery ankle-twisting cobblestones at the bottom…
and then there's the bogs…
And it's all so much fun! Seriously. Even the difficult bits.
Because being a conservation visual storyteller is truly fulfilling work.
But it's helpful if you have some strategies in place for when you hit those obstacles, so you don't get too frustrated. Indeed, even the most prepared of us still appreciate a few insider tips so that those problem areas can be navigated through or avoided altogether.
I've noticed a few common hurdles that everyone seems to face when starting out on this crazy and entertaining run. And here's how I suggest leaping them.
Hurdle 1: Thinking your conservation photography story is too small to make a “real” impact
I’ve noticed a trend with emerging conservation photographers when I ask what they're working on. I often hear things like:
“Well, I’m just working on something near home”
“I don’t know what I really want to focus on so I’m only doing XYZ”
“I started working on XYZ, but I don’t really know…”
Many inspired but inexperienced photographers are quick to brush away their work as if it is unimportant, or a stepping stone, or not “real” conservation photography work.
I’m setting the record straight right now. Your work IS important. No matter where you are in your journey. Whatever you’ve chosen to focus on right now, even if it is documenting the bugs if your backyard, it is important.
What is a “real” impact, after all? It is changing one person’s behavior or perception on an issue through your images. That's all it takes.
What if through beautifully documenting the bugs in your backyard and holding an exhibit at your local library, you inspire one person to transition their yard to a pollinator-friendly garden? Think about what an impact that makes to thousands of little invertebrates. Well done!! It is an achievement to celebrate.
Everyone starts somewhere, and that somewhere is important.
LEAP: Every time you post an image from your photography story or project to social media, include an educational, engaging caption.
Then pay close attention to the positive responses. Write down the responses that are particularly encouraging, and post them somewhere obvious like above your desk, on the bathroom mirror, or on the cover of your daily planner. Use that as a reminder that your work is influential now and worth pouring your heart into.
Hurdle 2: Going too broad on your conservation photography story topic
When you’re passionate about something, it’s exciting to keep connecting the dots until you see one huge picture in all its glorious complexity.
But, when you’re starting out and haven’t tackled a big project before, that complexity shifts into overwhelm awfully fast.
By going big, you risk stopping forward progress altogether as confusion and lack of a clear path forward take their toll. By going broad, you risk losing sight of the core reasons you’re working on a project or what exactly it is you’re working toward.
These aren’t insurmountable challenges. But when you’re just starting out, they can do some real damage to your confidence, and right when you need that confidence the most.
LEAP: Get narrow in your photography focus, and flourish.
The thing you’re passionate about might indeed be a large issue. However, if you can narrow it down to one small piece, with one defined goal, you’ll stay energized, focused and importantly, you’ll keep moving forward with clarity and enthusiasm. It’s in that zone that you really start to develop who you are as a photographer.
Hurdle 3: Taking things too seriously in your conservation visual storytelling
The world is in a pretty bad spot of trouble right now. And we all need to wake up and make some big changes. But… hammering away at the downside of every issue isn’t going to win people over and it’s the fastest route to maxing out with compassion fatigue both in your audience and yourself.
There’s a reason why Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert are a welcome relief from the typical news cycle. Humor helps us all take a break from the awful, recharge, and refocus.
Humor makes problems approachable. Humor gives us room to breathe, and remember why it's worth fighting the good fight.
Here are three examples of excellent conservation photographers who aren't afraid to bring humor to the table, and manage to make a huge impact on audiences:
- Morgan Heim and Deer 139
- David Herasimtschuk and March of the Newts
- Clay Bolt and Ghost in the Making
The list could go on. I suggest checking out how they've used humor within a larger topic. It breaks up the doom and gloom so that problems don't seem insurmountable.
LEAP: Keep humor as a highlight, even in (or especially in) the darkest stories.
Bringing your most earnest self to the work is fantastic, but be sure to temper that with joy, silliness, and the brighter side of being alive. Humor keeps people curious, keeps them asking questions and thinking critically. And importantly, it keeps you from burning out.
Hurdle 4: Getting over the giving-away-images habit
It’s really common for emerging conservation photographers to provide images to organizations or publications for free. It comes out of kindness, generosity, and the desire to help in some way, as well as establish positive vibes with organizations you want to work with in the future.
I get it. I promise, I fully get it. But here are three truths:
- Exposure in the form of a byline does NOT bring in paychecks.
- Working for free at the beginning creates an expectation you’ll *always* work for free.
- You giving away images takes a paycheck away from you AND all other professional photographers who could have been hired to fill the image need.
I’ve talked a lot about why I don’t give away my images, and quite a few other pro conservation photographers have weighed in on this as well. So I won’t keep pounding away at it here.
If you’re feeling wishy-washy about asking for money because you’re new, or don’t know how to respond to requests for free images, I have a swipe file for you that takes the heavy lifting out of the situation. But the important thing is, if you:
- want to become a professional photographer or
- you want to be supportive of professional conservation photographers or
- you want to ensure that the highest quality standards for ethical conservation photography are maintained or
- you want to ensure that a wide variety of perspectives on conservation issues make it to print or
- pretty much any other great reason for being valued…
Then it’s time to get out of the giving-away habit.
LEAP: Your photography work is of value. Own that fact.
Be highly selective in when and how you donate work, and focus on asking for what you know you’re worth for all your collaborations.
Hurdle 5: Focusing too much on species and not enough on people in your conservation photography
Many of us get into this niche because we adore wildlife and wild places. We want to save what is in decline, shine a spotlight on problems and fix them. And a lot of us just simply prefer spending time with wild things than spending time with people.
But… Species or habitats at risk are usually that way because of human impacts. And it’s usually known that there’s a problem because people point it out. Taking humans out of the equation takes away a huge portion of the story of that species or place.
Plus, people relate to people. Connecting an audience to an issue typically means including the stories of people who are affected by the species, its presence or decline, the study of it or the conservation of it.
All the best conservation stories are those that include the human side of the story, and do just as beautiful of a job photographing the human characters as the wild characters.
LEAP: Begin documenting people as part of your daily photography practice.
It is one of the best things you can do to improve your audience engagement on your issue, and to improve your visual storytelling skills in general. The researchers, the community members, those who threaten a species or rally behind it. This is where you move beyond a picture-taker to a story-maker.
And remember this one thing as you move into documenting people: no one is the enemy. We’re all in this together, even if we have wildly different opinions about the world.
Our task as conservation photographers is to document, with the hope of changing behaviors for the better of all. To do so, we have to approach all people with understanding, empathy, the desire to connect, and to find solutions.
With this mindset, you’ll be on a path toward making a difference.
Grab the episode transcript!
Episode 002: The 5 Biggest Hurdles When Starting Out In Conservation Photography (And How To Overcome Them)
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Jaymi Heimbuch: Starting out in conservation photography can feel a little bit like a marathon race. But not just any marathon race. You're running through a forest with fallen logs across your path and branches slapping you in your face, and you have to cross those really cold creeks that have those slippery, algae covered, ankle twisting cobblestones of the bottom. And then there's the bogs and well, it's all so much fun!
I mean, even the difficult bits, because getting to the other side of those difficult bits is exhilarating.
But it's helpful if you have some strategies in place for when you do hit those obstacles so you don't get frustrated, or worse, stop all forward progress. I mean, even the most prepared of us still appreciate a few insider tips so that those problem areas can be navigated through or avoided altogether.
So today we're gonna tackle five common hurdles when starting out in this crazy and entertaining run called Conservation Photography, and we're gonna talk about strategies for leaping them.
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 an impact. Let's dive in.
Thank you so much for joining me on this new episode of Impact, the conservation photography podcast. And before we dive into all the great content that I've got planned for this episode, I have something extra exciting to share. This episode is sponsored by Wild Idea Lab, my membership community where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community and support for their wildest work, and doors are opening soon for a very limited time.
See Wild Idea Lab is designed specifically for emerging and established photographers, filmmakers and artists who are working in conservation and science, communication with monthly master classes and live events and community engagement and so much more, members from around the world accelerate their growth as creatives and find their place in a network of colleagues and friends. Whether just starting out or you've been a pro for years, Wild Idea Lab has the resources you need to do more and go farther with your work. Doors are opening soon for a very limited time.
So what I would love for you to do is to hop on over to WildIdeaLab.com and add your name to the waitlist. This way, you'll be first to know when doors open.
All right, let's dive in. So I am recording this episode on a very rainy Oregon winter day. It is the kind of day that makes it feel next to impossible to get out the door and go shoot. There's no motivation. I would much rather curl up with a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate and a book.
And the way that this day makes me feel about getting out into the field and shooting reminds me of the way that it can feel when you're just getting started in conservation photography. And there's some sort of a barrier between you and where you want to go on what you want to be doing. That's some sort of a mental barrier that blocks forward momentum.
Now there's five of these mental barriers, these hurdles that I see pop up pretty often with emerging conservation photographers, and we're gonna go through them one by one and help you leap them.
So first up, I've noticed a trend with emerging conservation photographers. When I ask what they're working on, I often hear things like: Well, I'm just working on something near home.
Or I hear I don't know what I really want to focus on, so I'm only doing X y Z.
Or I started working on X Y Z, but you know, I don't really know.
So this is Hurdle number one, thinking that your conservation photography project is too small to make a real impact. So many inspired but inexperienced photographers are quick to brush away their work as if it's unimportant or it's just a stepping stone or it's not real conservation, photography work.
So I want to set the record straight. Right now, your work is important no matter where you are in your journey. Whatever you've chosen to focus on right now, even if it's documenting the bugs in your backyard, it's important because what is real impact after all? I mean, let's look at that really quick.
Real impact is changing one person's behavior or perception on an issue through your images. That's all it takes. What if, through beautifully documenting the bugs in your backyard and then holding an exhibit at your local library, you inspire one person to transition their yard to a pollinator friendly garden. I mean, think about what an impact that makes for thousands of little invertebrates millions! I mean, well done! That is an achievement to celebrate. Everyone starts somewhere, and that somewhere is important.
So here's the leap that helps get you past this sticking point and thinking that your photography project, whatever it is, isn't quite real work of conservation photography. Here's what I want you to do: every time you post an image from your photography project to social media include an educational and engaging caption. I know you might be like Seriously, Jaymi, work on my social media game? Like, is that your strategy?
Well, yes and no. Because, yes, you are going to work on being more engaging on social. But no, that's not the strategy. The real strategy is what you do next. So after you post your educational and engaging caption with your image, pay close attention to the positive responses right down the responses that are particularly engaging in encouraging from your viewers and post them somewhere obvious like above your desk or put them on a post it note and put that on the bathroom mirror or put them on the cover of your day planner that you'll see every day. Use that as a reminder that your work is influential now and it is worth pouring your heart into.
So whether you are just starting out and you have a tiny little audience or you've been a pro for years and you have this huge social following, we all need to know if our work is really landing if it's really making a difference. So by doubling down on social and engaging more and then paying attention to those positive responses to our work from our audience, that's gonna go a long way.
It's really easy to pay too much attention to the comments that aren't helpful. Those were the comments of, like, nice picture, good job. Oh so pretty. Those are just praise. Or we pay attention to the negative comments. But really, it's the comments that revolved around conversation that are the ones that matter. So let's focus on those.
The second hurdle is going too broad on your conservation photography topic. I see this happen a lot when you're passionate about something. It's exciting to keep connecting all these dots until you see one huge picture in all its glorious complexity. But when you're starting out and you haven't tackled a big project before, that complexity shifts into overwhelmed awfully fast.
By going big, you risk stopping your forward progress altogether as confusion and lack of a clear path forward take their toll. By going broad, you risk losing sight of the core reasons that you're working on a project or what exactly it is that you're working toward. I mean these air, not insurmountable challenges. But when you're just starting out, they could do some real damage to your confidence and right when you need that confidence the most.
So here's the leap to get over that hurdle: get narrow and flourish. The thing that you're passionate about may indeed be a large issue. It might be big and complex, and it is okay to have big goals to tackle that big issue. However, if you can narrow it down to one small piece with one defined goal, you'll stay energized and focused on hitting that one goal and then that builds momentum. You'll keep moving forward with clarity and enthusiasm and grow and grow and grow. It snowballs. It's in that zone that you really start to develop, who you are as a photographer.
So remember, get narrow and flourish.
The third big hurdle that I see pop up a lot is taking things too seriously in your conservation storytelling. The world is in a pretty bad spot of trouble right now, and we need all hands on deck. We need to wake up and make some big changes. I get that. But hammering away at the down side of every issue is not going to win people over. And not only does it lose your audience, but it's also the fastest route to maxing out with compassion fatigue for yourself. Constantly seeing the direness of a situation and not seeing anything else, it wears you down.
There is a reason why Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert are a welcome relief from the typical news cycle, right? I mean, humor helps us all take a break from the awful. It helps us recharge. It helps us refocus. Humor makes problems approachable. Humor gives us room to breathe and remember why it's worth fighting the good fight.
So there's actually a few examples of really amazing conservation photographers who are not afraid to bring humor to the table, and they managed to make a huge impact on their audiences by using that humor. So a couple of these folks are Clay Bolt, and when it comes to Clay Bolt,, specifically, it is his short film Ghost in the Making, which tackles the problem of the rusty-patched bumble bee.
So this is a species on the brink of disappearing. But even while he's addressing that and all of the things that are causing massive decline with the rusty-patched bumblebee in all native pollinators, he adds in humor. It's a joy to watch this film because there's a lot of silliness and happiness thrown in a lot of childlike, um, ways of viewing the world that make us viewers also remember what it's like to be a bright eyed child, and all of that actually makes us connect more with Clay and with this bee species that makes us wanna support that effort.
Humor was used really effectively in ghost in the making, and that short film was part of a campaign that ultimately led to adding the rusty-patched bumble bee onto the endangered species list, which was a first for a bumble bee species. Big big impacts, not neglecting to add in humor.
Another example of this is through Morgan Heim’s film Dear 139. So in this film she's following three people who are literally following the migration route of a mule deer. They want to discover what obstacles she comes across, what it's like for her on this migration route. And so the film is tackling things like loss of habitat and the loss of migration corridors and some really tough subjects. But there's so much humor thrown in, we never forget that the folks that were watching are just regular old people with a lot of silliness and happiness and and a joy of being out in the world and being in nature. And that helps us as viewers be able to look at the direness of a situation but not get just down in the dumps. It keeps us inspired to think and to act.
So I'm going to include links to both of these films in the show notes. So you can just hop over to the show notes and find links to go watch them. And I highly suggest you do because they are very inspiring.
And I definitely want you to carry that inspiration into the leap that I want you to take to get over this hurdle if it's one that you're facing. So the leap is keep humor as a highlight, even in or actually, especially in the darkest stories.
Bringing your most earnest self to the work is fantastic. But be sure to temper that with joy and with silliness and the brighter side of being alive. Because humor keeps people curious. That keeps them asking questions and thinking critically. And you want that of your audience on your conservation issue. And, importantly, humor keeps you from burning out. And we need you to keep that fire stoked because we need you in the conservation movement.
The fourth hurdle that I see really often is we need to get over the giving away the images habit. Okay, so this is something that I talk about a lot, and I'm not gonna hammer home too much about this right now, but it's a really common thing for emerging conservation photographers to provide their images to organizations or two publications for free. It comes out of kindness and generosity and the desire to help in some way.
And it also comes from the desire to establish positive vibes with organizations or to get your name out there because you feel like you need your name out there in order to have something to pad your resume to open future opportunities.
But here's three truths that I want you to know right off the bat.
First exposure in the form of a byline... it just does not bring in paychecks. In fact, I think it was Amy Gulick who I heard say that the only thing exposure gets you is to catch your death of cold. So exposure. Even if you have this image in a really great magazine, it almost never happens that someone sees that and then contact you in order to give you a paying gig. So just keep that in mind.
The second truth is working for free at the beginning of a collaboration creates an expectation that you will always work for free, so I know that you might want to establish a relationship with an organization. Therefore you volunteer, and that could totally play out well. But if you hope to one day be paid by that organization, just know that you are setting yourself up for an uphill battle to change that mindset between you to change the way that collaboration looks between you and the organization. It's where you'll get paid for your work.
And the third truth is you giving away images takes a paycheck away not only from you but from all other professional photographers who could have been hired to fill the image need. So by not giving away your image is you're actually improving the value and the need for all professional conservation photographers.
Now I've talked a lot about why I don't give away my images, and, you know, I should actually add a caveat. I do give away images because I very selectively choose nonprofit organizations with which I want a volunteer and I give away images to them. But I make it limited. It is definitely selective, and it has to be organizations that I'm really passionate about. But quite a few other pro conservation photographers have also weighed in on this as well, and so I won't keep pounding away at that here.
But if you're feeling kind of wishy-washy about asking for money because you are new or you don't know how to respond to requests for free images, or you are worried that you're gonna lose out on an opportunity because you ask for too much and so they just they don't even want to negotiate with you and you lose a chance. Well, if you're feeling like that, the important thing to remember is if you want to become a paid professional conservation photographer, or if you want to be supportive of professional conservation photographers, or if you want to ensure that the highest quality standards for ethical conservation photography are maintained, or if you want to ensure that a wide variety of actives on conservation issues make it to print or pretty much any other great reason for being valued for your work, well, then it is time to get out of the giving away habit.
And here's the leap that will help you do that because I completely recognize that this is a tough, worrying hurdle for a lot of people. Your photography work is a value, and you need to own that fact by being highly selective in when and how you donate your work and then focusing on asking for what you know your worth. For all of the rest of your collaborations or licensing opportunities, you will overcome this hurdle much more quickly.
So remember your photography work is a value. Own that fact.
Now the fifth hurdle that I see frequently pop up that we're gonna knock down is focusing too much on species and not enough on people in your photography. So many of us get into this nish of wildlife conservation photography because we adore wildlife and wild places. We wanna save what's in decline. We want to shine a spotlight on problems and fix them, and a lot of us just simply prefer spending time with wild things over spending time with people.
But species or habitats are a risk, usually because of human impacts. And it's usually known that there is a problem because people pointed out. So taking humans out of the equation of your stories takes away a huge portion of the story of that species or that place.
The other important thing is people relate to people. And so connecting an audience to an issue typically means including stories of people who are affected by the species or its presence or its decline, or the study of it or the conservation of it.
All the best conservations stories are those that include the human side of the story and do just as beautiful of a job photographing the human characters as they do, photographing the wild characters or the places.
So here's what I would love for you to do to help leap this hurdle and make sure that you are connecting with the people of your conservation story. Just begin documenting people as part of your daily photography practice. Even if you aren't getting out into the field and you're just carrying your camera around with you, get into the habit of photographing your family or your friends or your community, or take your camera to events and photograph the people of the events just begin to do this often because it is one of the best things that you can do to improve your audience engagement on your issue and to improve your visual storytelling skills in general.
When it comes to your conservation photography work. You're looking at the researchers, the community members, those who threaten a species or those who rally behind it. This is where you move beyond picture-taker to be a story-maker.
And remember this one thing as you move into documenting people, this is really important, especially when it comes to conservation work. As you document people for your story, remember, no one is the enemy. We are all humans, and we are all in this together. Even if we have wildly different opinions about the world.
Our task as conservation photographers is to document with the hope of changing behaviors for the better of all. And to do so, we have to approach all people with understanding and empathy with the desire to connect and to find solutions. If you go in with this mindset, then you're really on a path to making a difference.
So these are the five hurdles that I see pop up so often, and I hope that by really acknowledging them and also by looking at some strategies to leap them, that you feel like if you're struggling with one of these things, you've got that path forward to regain momentum and really just get trucking on your conservation photography forward.
Now I have listed these five hurdles out in the show notes. So if you want to spend a little bit more time thinking about them and reviewing them, you can head over the show notes and see them there. And you can do that either in your mobile device. Or you can go to JaymiH.com/2. It's J A Y M I H dot com forward slash to just the number two for this episode, and meanwhile, I will talk to you next week
Before we wrap up, I'd love to ask you to do one quick thing. Subscribe to this podcast see 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'll talk to you next week.
Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast
Get all the good things delivered!
How-to action plans, expert interviews, behind-the-scenes insights & more delivered weekly.