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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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© 2016 Deb Hirt