The Reality of the Life of a Wildlife Photographer

Any similarity to a given individual, past or present, is purely coincidental. This is not meant to encompass the life of any one individual, just a possible scenario of the life of wildlife photographers in general.

Computer, camera, and coffee
Computer, camera, and coffee | Source

How does glamour, money, and prestige sound? We’d all like to be well off, not in need of anything, able to pay all of our bills, have a beautiful home, and work an eight hour day in order to do it. It would be a boon in our lives to strike it lucky and be a famous wildlife photographer, work only a few hours a day, travel all over the world, and have the best of everything. That really sounds appealing to a lot of people, but it isn’t necessarily the case, that these people are living the American dream.

Picture coming from a poor family, only having margarine on the table, and eating rice or cream of wheat every single day. Hand-me-downs are your clothes from people forty years your senior, and finally you want nothing better than to not be forced to eat the same thing every day, wear the same clothes three days a week, and gain some respect from your peers.


Hard work over the youthful years gets you a full scholarship to study for your dream career, but you must learn your camera inside and out, work it rapidly, and be prepared for any kind of weather. One week you might be in the Rocky mountains in the middle of winter putting up with subzero temperatures, and wind so cold it sheers your blood and makes your fingers stiff while you have that mountain cat in front of you sneaking up on a white tailed deer. That could be your prize winning photo, perhaps putting you in a top career with National Geographic. You’re defying the odds on that wild cat that could gore you to bits in two minutes, crawling on your belly through the snow…

Instead of that potential scenario, you lose your footing, and to save yourself, you bang your camera and lens on a boulder and there goes that dream. Not only do you lose that terrific shot, but your camera and lens are gone, and you haven’t even got a top-notch portfolio to show yet. Tough luck, kid. Those are the breaks.

Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle | Source

Fast forward two years from today. You’re married, you finally have that new and better camera that you always dreamed about, but you’re working long hours at that big city newspaper. You have a baby on the way, but you still have to keep working those extra assignments for the State Wildlife Department as a photographer for their needs. You’re not home as much as you’d like to be, and the wife is getting a little irritable due to her hormones changing because she is pregnant.

A call comes from a local businessman who wants photos of American Bison, antelope, and the best pictures of eagles fishing from cold water streams in winter for his new house that will be ready to move in within the next three months. He offers you a price that would pay your mortgage for three months and get you out from under your car loan. The only kicker is that the baby will be born next month and you’ll need to get going on getting those photos now. What do you do?

Lesser Prairie Chicken
Lesser Prairie Chicken | Source

You’re under some serious pressure, a major deadline for those photos for fine art, you will still need to get photos for the newspaper, and your career is really beginning to take off. Your name is starting to be on the lips of people that really want you to work for them, and things are really looking good.

The fact of the matter is, besides all those family and work pressures, there are even more. It is a fact that your car is racking up miles faster than you will be able to pay for it and use it without a car payment. More miles are being spent on the road than out in the field taking photos. In high winds on the plains of Montana, your blind has blown away more than once over night while set up the day prior for getting shots of the rare Greater Sage-Grouse.

As you can see as an insider, life isn’t as easy or as glamorous as originally thought. A wildlife photographer can work very hard for the money, risk his or her life, and have one’s mettle and strength tested to the toughest degrees. Sometimes the only way to those natural sites are on foot, which means walking for miles and with a heavy and ungainly pack to carry in addition. Not only that, those animals give you only what you get. If they don’t perform as you’d hoped, there goes that time spent. That also means that you must know their behavior inside and out in order to increase your chances for those victorious shots.

It is much easier in the twenty-first century than it used to be in the mid-twentieth century for a photographer. That was in the dark ages of film cameras, when you also had to be concerned about having enough film, whether there were enough batteries in your possession, and everything that you carried weighed even more. There was no added comfort with today’s synthethic clothing and gear, and you had to make your own blinds with what was available in the field. Those additional hardships are only the crust on that day old piece of bread. We’re not even talking about GPS enhanced communication or ways to find your unconscious body if you should require airlifting from a remote area.

American Kestrel
American Kestrel | Source

I tip my hat to you, Galen Rowell, Philip Hyde, Arthur Morris, and this generation’s Noppadol Paothong of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Your undying enthusiasm for your passions will take you upward and onward. I additionally thank you for your advice and help with a common cause, as well as your dedication to environmental factors for the century.

© 2016 Deb Hirt

Comments 48 comments

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 2 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Alun! Another good thing to do to add to one's arsenal of knowledge is to know your subject's habitat. It goes hand in hand with being an ornithologist, which was only natural for me. Happy birding!

Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 2 weeks ago from Essex, UK

Salutary reminder of the hardships of wildlife photography. It is easy to pinpoint the advantages of a career such as this - most obviously that it is a way of turning one's hobby into a career, whilst at the same time enjoying the great outdoors and seeing sights which create priceless memories.

But the downsides are not so obvious, and your article helps restore the balance. In these days of multitudes of images available to all on Google, Wikimedia and other Internet sites, quite apart from newspaper images seen one day and cast away into the garbage bin the next, it's easy to take for granted a photo which may have taken days or even weeks of hard work to get.

Speaking of which, I have dreamt of being a wildlife photographer in the past, but to be honest I wouldn't have the patience. So much easier to take landscapes or buildings which tend not to fly away just as you click the shutter! :)

Incidentally, I particularly like your photo of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Perfect timing! Alun

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 weeks ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Nature is priceless, Devika. We must continue to protect it and learn from it.

DDE 5 weeks ago

Your photos are amazing! Nature is wonderful!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

It can be, Anita, but the rewards are bountiful. If one was wise enough in the beginning to realize that family life would not work, it makes it even better. I am so glad that I never went that route, as wildlife is my life.

Anita Hasch 3 months ago

Amazing hubs Aviannovice.

Hard life, but living your passion brings so much personal satisfaction.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey Patricia! Life CAN be a dream when it comes to photos, no question about that. There are some pics that I have tried to get for years, then they fall into my lap. Conversely, I have gotten a great shot of a bird first try, then it is impossible again years later. It is the luck of the draw, as well as just being in the right place at the right time.

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 4 months ago from sunny Florida

This life does not sound glamorous but for those who choose it there must be a wondrous rush when just the most fabulous photo captures a bird in flight, a newly born giraffe finding its legs, and so many other amazing experiences that few witness first hand.

Great hub

Angels are on the way to you this evening ps shared

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

So happy that you found this piece of value, Sha. The love of wildlife spills over into the hearts of true lovers of the animals.

bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 5 months ago from Central Florida

After reading this post, I appreciate wildlife photographers even more than I already do, Deb. Not only do they put their lives on the line, but they put a lot of wear and tear on their bodies, psyche and family life. All in the name of passion and love for life.

Thank you for giving us this inside perspective!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

I don't have time to straighten anything up, Mel. I'm always on the go. I'm barely home long enough to sleep here.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 5 months ago from San Diego California

Women and hormones? What are you talking about?

It sounds like a great life to me. The raw, untamed wild has nothing to match the danger of hormonal women. I'd be packing the camera and out the door in ten seconds if that was me.

Great hub! Sounds like you are making great inroads into the photography world. Love your pics, but for crying out loud straighten up that computer desk. I confuse it for my own.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Peggy, I am having a blast, and I discover more and more new things every day. I always appreciate the shares, as it educates people, especially when it comes to animals, global warming, and what we can all do to try to combat the eradication of certain species.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 months ago from Houston, Texas

Love that bald eagle photo! Your description of what it takes to be a wildlife photographer...or any kind of a photographer is spot on. I believe it was a cousin of my grandfathers who used to have his photos in National Geographic. I heard stories from my mother how he and his wife would traipse out into remote spots and wait hours for just the right sunrise or sunset photo. Like you said, the gear was much different back then as was the clothing. Good luck with your photography career. You certainly do capture some terrific shots! Sharing.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 5 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Lawrence! My first good shot of my Bald Eagle at Boomer Lake was a cold day just like that. It was 18 degrees with a bitter wind, and I saw both of the pair on the main part of the lake, but they were SO far away. When they flew of, I had a hunch on where they might be, so I walked that extra mile, and sure enough, that's where they were. That is where that jul-frame photos came from, it is minimally cropped. Utter joy kept me going on that when I found them.

lawrence01 profile image

lawrence01 5 months ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


I've spent a bit of time in the 'Great outdoors' and can identify with many of the things you mention (though I wasn't going for the wildlife photos). To me they sounded 'great' in one way (I love the outdoors) but I also remember the times when you're so cold it's days before you can feel your fingers again! (at least it seems that way).

To me the hardest part of the toll it takes on the family! the strain on relationships that makes me think "is it really worth it?"

Thank you for the insight into that world.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Larry. I never realized all the pitfalls, either, for this sort of career.

Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 6 months ago from Oklahoma

Wonderful insight.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Sounds like quite a spot, Johan. I am trying to save my pennies by staying fairly local in my travels.

Johan Smulders profile image

Johan Smulders 6 months ago from East London, South Africa

Really true and even us part time photographers who do it for fun get into some interesting situations. This wek Audrey and I found a great place called Carols Rest, in the Addo Elephant National Park, where you can park about 20 meters from the water hole and photograph Buffalo, Zebra and even Cheetah and Elephant if you are lucky!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Frank! It is an exciting life for a single person.

Frank Atanacio profile image

Frank Atanacio 6 months ago from Shelton

The fact is.. the adventure is captured on film.. the majestic is held still in photos because of the life of a wildlife photographer.. amazing simply amazing..:)

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Dora! There is so much to do and so little time to try to save these animals that will be affected by global warming. Some of them will not survive, as they cannot change and their food sources will go away. I am recording them for posterity, but perhaps there is a way...

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, agusfanani! It has great rewards as well as learning behavior and allowing people to see animals' lives through my eyes. My heart is with all animals and I only hope that I can help them lead better lives.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, Suhail! That is only a small part of my life in the scheme of things. I am getting my masters in ornithology, am an activist for animal related issues, and am educating the public as best I can through my columns and stories. My work will never be done, but it is helping with every contact made, as those folks echo my concerns and are doing their best to help me. There are many facets to my life, including work regarding global warming.

MsDora profile image

MsDora 6 months ago from The Caribbean

Interesting, insightful and informative. You opened up our eyes wide to the sweet struggles of the wildlife photographer. Hooray to all of you who do such amazing work at such a personal cost.

agusfanani profile image

agusfanani 6 months ago from Indonesia

That's really a challenging job as a wildlife photographer but that doesn't discourage you who have chosen to live in it . Thank you Aviannovice, I like your story very much .

Suhail and my dog profile image

Suhail and my dog 6 months ago from Mississauga, ON


That was one terrific piece on a life of wildlife photographer. I have read accounts of so many wildlife and nature photographers and each one of them echoes the same feelings.

I tried to follow in your footsteps and went out in the winters of southern Ontario to capture birds of our winter months and believe you me taking shots of those tireless birds in those freezing temperatures was nothing short of a miracle.

The life of a wildlife or nature photographer is very hard, but the reward that comes in terms of satisfaction and self-esteem is priceless.

I salute you on what you have chosen to do in your life.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Suzette! I just got back from the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival here in OK, but we had to go to TX to the leks, so wind turbines and loss of general habitat is a big problem here. Do you have a blog?

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 6 months ago from Taos, NM

Your photographs are beautiful and so well done. Amateur photographer here who does wildlife pics in the national park I live near. I take pica mostly of birds. It requires a lot of patience and as you said getting into weird places and stances to get the shot you want. Fortunately I'm retired so I have all the ten to do this. I also love taking pics of wildflowers. Enjoyed reading your hub!

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Ley, Linda! I don't know how far I'll get into the fast lane. I'm working on my masters, so there will be a lot of research in my life.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, Faith Reaper! The story is not that hypothetical. These are things that can and do happen, which is why equipment is made to hold binoculars and cameras to the body, there are stakes as well as guy wires for blinds, and your subject during high noon will not usually make a good shot unless it is out of the bright sun. I am getting better, but I still have a lot to learn in the scheme of things.

AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

Thanks for sharing this interesting and realistic look at the life of a wildlife photographer, Deb. I can see that it has its pitfalls as well as its joys. I love your eagle photo! Best of luck with your own photography career.

Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 6 months ago from southern USA

Hi Deb,

This is certainly an eye opener to all the struggles and hardships wildlife photograhers face with the environment and cooperation of wild animals. It's not like you can set up a specific time with them to take photos, of course!

I'm always astounded at the amazing shots you are able to take!

You're hypothetical story of a wildlife photographer's life is fascinating to think about and well-written to bring home the reality of the obstacles they face.

Love your photos here, as always.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Missy, I am nothing like those folks that I wrote about, YET. It will still take time to get where I want to be, as I am still learning. I used to watch Wild Kingdom and all the animal shows that I possibly could in order to learn. So you see, there are still plenty of things to learn.

Missy Smith profile image

Missy Smith 6 months ago from Florida

Hey Deb, I can surely respect all nature photographers. I remember growing up as a child watching Merlin Perkins host "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" and thinking to myself, how in the world did the photographers and film makers get some of those close-up shots? And like you mentioned, back in those days it was much more difficult to do that.

Then later every time a movie came out about nature, I wanted to watch those too. One of my favorites that I would watch every time I crossed paths with it on television is "Continental Divide" starring John Belushi and Blair Brown. That was an awesome story. It was a romance, but it was Blair Brown's character showing John's character complete love for nature and wildlife. Then, of course; they fell in love. lol.... I don't know why, but when I read your hubs, I always think you remind me of Blair's character in that movie.

I also love the "true story" about the Stouffer Brothers; Marshall, Marty, and Mark. That was a great story about three brothers who set out on their own to make a mark in the world of nature photography. I loved it!!

Yes, much respect goes to you wild adventurers who weather a lot of storms some days for the love of educating us with the beauty of nature and its living creatures. Much respect, and thank you! :)

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

I'm glad that you think that I am good at photography, Billy, but honestly, I have a long way to go yet. I'm glad that you're my friend, too.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 6 months ago from Olympia, WA

A great insider's look at what appears to be a glamorous job. Thanks for sharing that with us, Deb. All I know for sure is you are one hell of a photographer and I'm glad you are my friend.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

You know, ChitrangadaSharan, the weather and living conditions are the easy part. When you travel the world, you can get shots in order to keep yourself disease free, but the hardest things are the dangers and leaving your family behind.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Hey, buildereps! I appreciate your support, but always remember that not all wildlife will life on through the problems that we have created.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks, manatita. I never knew about all the pitfalls until I spoke to someone that has been in the business. It is the family that really has the hardest time of it all.

ChitrangadaSharan profile image

ChitrangadaSharan 6 months ago from New Delhi, India

Great hub to give a glimpse of the hardships a wildlife photographer has to face.

I understand how much difficult it must be in unfavourable weather and not so proper living conditions. All these passionate wildlife photographers work hard to get that perfect shot and share it with the World. Hats off to them and to you. It is because of your hard work that we are able to see a World that we can not see otherwise nor are even aware of it.

Thank you for sharing this hub from the perspective of a Wildlife photographer.

Buildreps profile image

Buildreps 6 months ago from Europe

Beautiful photographs, Deb. You can tip your hat for yourself!

manatita44 profile image

manatita44 6 months ago from london

A lot of hard work, yes, made simple and sweet by your easily readable and beautiful Hub. I wonder who this character resembles. Thank you so much Deb, and your chosen pictures, especially the kestrel, really stand out.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

There's a lot to it all right, Jackie. I just got back from doing a spread of on rare Lesser Prairie Chickens. The weather wasn't too cooperative, but they really do need the rain. Wildfires were being contained in the area.

Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 6 months ago from The Beautiful South

It is hard work but I know it is in the blood of all photographers, such as yourself. You would never want to give it up no matter what. I bet you have it on your mind a good deal of the time you are home relaxing? Of course there is the looking at all the shots and though I shot other things I know what a mess that can be trying to keep up with all the photos and put them in order.

I do hope photographers today get better pay and of course you want that perfect never before seen shot. Huh?

You have some beauties and we have all watched you get better and better.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 6 months ago from Stillwater, OK Author

Thanks for saying so, Nell. I once crawled across the snow to sneak up on a Snow Goose in the middle of winter, as I didn't want to scare it away.

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 months ago from England

And yes they are amazing! as you are too! I never realised just how hard it is, but of course thinking about it it has to be, as you said traipsing across freezing moors and just trying to get that photo, kudos too all of you, you are so patient, something I don't think I could do, but what would we do without those amazing photos?

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