How to Get Started in Conservation Photography
Conservation photography is photography with a purpose. It is about what you DO with your images to bring attention, understanding, and action to environmental issues.
– Jaymi Heimbuch
What is conservation photography?
Conservation photography and filmmaking gives a purpose – a why – to your work.
If you are already passionate about wildlife photography or filmmaking and are interested in environmental issues, chances are, conservation visual storytelling is precisely the niche for you.
Perhaps you have never heard of the term, “Conservation Visual Storytelling”, or maybe you have and you're interested in exploring the possibilities of choosing this as a career path.
Either way, it can be tough to know exactly how to get started and build momentum for your work.
That's the experience I had when getting started 10 years ago. It's hard enough figuring out how to be a great photographer, but add to that the extra hurdles that come with focusing on wildlife conservation and… well, it can feel daunting.
But it doesn't have to be that way (and with help from the Academy, it isn't!).
Once you've recognized that you want to do something meaningful with your images – your big WHY – you can make an impressive positive difference for the world through the visuals you already love to create.
Push PLAY on the podcast episode below ⬇️ to learn about the difference between conservation photography and wildlife or nature photography PLUS walk away with actionable steps to get started where you are.
- How conservation photography adds a why to your existing passion for wildlife photography
- The primary distinction between conservation photography and other forms of photography
- Examples of the endless possibilities for conservation photographers to showcase your work
- What it looks like practically to put your images to work for conservation purposes
- Some of the misconceptions about conservation photography
- Three specific ways you can get started in conservation photography
- Examples of how you can leverage your social media content to raise awareness
I want to be a conservation photographer but I didn’t have the storytelling skills to really get started. I was insecure about how to move forward, and I hadn't seen a class that taught the skills I would need. You probably don't want to know what I was saying to myself – suffice it to say, it wasn't positive!
I've read articles on how to become a Conservation Photographer, but that does not even begin to compare with what you learn in this course. Here, you get the “nuts and bolts” on how to move forward with the goal to enter this field that you won't get anywhere else. I now know how to research conservation stories and to better plan my images so that they tell a story.
When I saw CP101, I didn’t have any hesitation about enrolling. And now, I’m on my way! I have a specific goal to get published and more importantly, I have a plan and resources to accomplish it.
I love to be outside with my camera but I struggled with a drifting lack of focus. I wasn’t pushing my photography skills. I felt confused and discouraged about how to make a real difference, and how to contribute in a way that also generates some income.
This course was a perfect fit and I just jumped in head first. This is such a strong, cohesive program and Jaymi’s encouragement for large and small gains really pushed me to try harder and be better. I have way more options to choose from when shooting, and I find myself looking for story-telling photos more consistently now.
One of the richest things about this course has been the access to Jaymi and the student group. I learned so much from everyone. With so much information to inspire and challenge, you can't help but grow your expertise. Jaymi's connections and wealth of information along with the diverse experience of group participants is priceless.
Now I feel like I have all the tools, and know what direction to go in.
I had no idea how to package my work to present it to others and nobody…would…return…my ….emails….nobody! I was pretty frustrated. I thought I had some good images but I wasn't making any progress in selling those images. I really wanted to learn how to pitch my work to editors and get responses.
This course has changed my approach to my photo storytelling. I now know a good story when I see it and I know when one of my story ideas isn't quite there yet.
And, one of the stories I worked on during this course has been accepted for publication by a national magazine! WOOOHOOO! That's what we're talkin' about!
Being part of the student group and taking part in the Q&As really accelerated my learning. It was so helpful to hear other student’s frustrations and watch Jaymi coach them into practical next steps. Now I have more tools when I have those same frustrations.
You can study all sorts of information and practice hard to become a good photographer. And in time, you can probably also learn to put together nice photo essays that convey an idea. Until the Conservation Photography 101 course came along, I'm not sure you could learn to do conservation photography without spending a decade developing the contacts, learning what works, and having plenty of luck along the way. After taking this course, I feel I've learned the fundamentals and have success pitching stories, doing fundraisers and building collaborations with conservation organizations.
As a matter of fact, within four months from the start of this course, I went from being frustrated that I couldn't get prospective clients and collaborators to return my calls and emails, to a national magazine editor telling me that they wanted to publish the story I pitched. I can't think of a better result than that!
Why does visual storytelling matter so much?
And how can I get started in conservation photography and shooting photo stories?
A single image is a powerful thing. A photo story is far more so.
It is truly incredible how much information and emotion can be packed into a single photograph documenting the briefest moment in time.
Again and again we have seen how one image can change hearts, minds, and behaviors across a culture, across a country, across the planet.
Yet one image equals just one moment. It represents just one small part of the whole story of what's happening around an issue.
The human brain thrives on stories. It's how evolution has hard-wired us. Stories are how we understand simple and complex issues alike.
And here's the most important part for conservation — stories are the tool that help us emotionally connect to people, places and issues that we'd otherwise overlook or dismiss.
We're a visual species evolved to be enthralled by stories.
And that's why visual stories – whether photo essays or films – are hands down the most powerful tool for conservation.
Master the art of telling stories through your photography and you gain a superpower far more important than technical perfection with a camera.
Whether you're raising awareness, raising funds, or raising support for legislation, you can get spectacular results for the causes you care about with your photography.
But here's what's most important to know:
You don't have to travel the globe or be famous make an amazing difference for conservation with your photography.
The most important impact you can have for conservation happens in your own community.
That's because all conservation starts at the ground, where your feet are already standing.
The way to begin this fulfilling adventure is simple: Start creating visual stories.
Ready to find your first story? Here are three types of stories you can photograph locally ⬇️
Jennifer Leigh Warner
I am a conservation photographer living in central Texas and I primarily focus on human-wildlife coexistence stories.
When I was pitching stories to editors, it was crickets. I wasn't hearing anything back. And that made me doubt myself. I was second guessing what I was doing, and I didn't have a support system to say, “You're on the right track” or “Maybe you should tweak this”. I was doing everything completely on my own and with my own gut instincts – and I was doubting if my gut instincts were right.
It was making me afraid to continue to pitch because I was afraid that I was just sending out a bunch of junk into the universe. I know that first impressions are really important in an industry like this, and I was afraid that I was going to develop a bad reputation of somebody who doesn't know what they're doing.
I’m a member of Wild Idea Lab and I was hearing a lot of people who are taking Conservation Photography 101 talk about all the amazing things that they were getting out of it.
People were saying, “If you're having a hard time putting together photo stories, then this is a class that is going to be tremendously helpful in guiding you to getting to the success that you're looking for.”
When I enrolled, I wasn't making a lot of income because a lot of my photo tours had been canceled due to COVID. The cost investment felt like a bit of a barrier for me. But I believe in investing in education so I went for it.
This course has been absolutely worth the investment. When you have an actual step-by-step course that teaches you everything you need to know, and have a support system to show you you're on the right track or maybe you need to take it back to the drawing board, it's absolutely worth it. Without it, you are going to spend a lot of time trying to navigate these things on your own, second guessing yourself.
Thanks to Conservation Photography 101, I've had success with getting the attention of the people I'm trying to pitch to. I’m having open conversations with editors as opposed to hearing nothing back.
I have gone from the beginning to the end of the course and applied everything. I was very careful to not just try to skip ahead and think, “Oh, I already know this”, because that's a really easy way to miss important learning opportunities.
And when I completed a story and sent it to an editor, that editor’s response was probably the most encouraging thing I had ever heard. He said that the combination of story woven in with the narrative was one of the best story narratives he's ever seen. And that's an editor who's been around for 25 years! So that was a big confidence boost.
From that, I've been putting together new stories, and I just feel really confident with taking what I've learned from the first photo story and being able to quickly put together a new one without having to spend a lot of time figuring out what I'm gonna do because I already have the framework that this course is created for me.
Even outside of pitching stories, I'm seeing a greater success in working with organizations that I've been partnered with, and I’m helping them have a greater understanding of what we can accomplish together as I tell their stories through images. I can now see what the needs are of the organization, and using the storytelling skills I’ve gained, I can create great assets for them to use for outreach and fundraising.
The ongoing Q&A is a huge bonus. Whether I am just listening to what other people are working on or I'm getting the hot seat for the day, that has been tremendously helpful for brainstorming.
And, as soon as I enrolled, I had a group of people who were on the same journey as me that I could speak my thoughts out loud to, and who were helping me re-evaluate how I was pitching, how I was creating photo stories.
I’ve experienced an immense change in everything that I'm doing. Even if I’m just going out to photograph for the day, instead of grabbing random shots I’m thinking about the variety of shots I need to get to tell a story. I used to look through what I had already photographed and see if I could find storytelling shots in my archive. Now, I pre-plan shoots. I'm using what I've learned in the course to be more strategic in all aspects of my photography.
To be honest, I studied photography in college. I feel like you learn so much more in this than you would in a college. And if you really think about what is involved… if you do a one-week workshop you're probably going to spend at least $3000-$4000 to be in person. But with CP101, you don't have that investment of having to travel somewhere, you can do it at your leisure, and it never really ends. You just keep learning. You can't beat the price for what you're gonna learn in this course.
As someone who has spent so many years of my life trying to figure it out on my own, it's better to just admit what I don't know and let people help me (and I am not somebody who likes to ask for help).
I knew going into this course that if I was going to spend the money, then I was going to absolutely participate, and I'm really glad that I did because I think it's 100% worth it.
One of my biggest struggles was getting my head wrapped around all the different elements of a story and how I wanted to tell it. With this workshop, I felt encouraged facing that challenge and figuring out how to piece together a complete story that could be published in a magazine.
To be able to see my portfolio come together felt very rewarding. I now think beyond single images, and feel more comfortable pursuing stories and talking to new people. I didn’t have any idea how to go about writing grants or reaching out to editors. But I feel encouraged now.
I am so impressed by how dedicated Jaymi is to teaching. She’s always going above and beyond. I can tell she really wants to be there as much as the participants, which is a great feeling.
Before taking Conservation Photography 101, I wasn’t feeling confident in pitching photo stories to magazines as my previous experience was in pitching stories as a writer. I wanted to fill in the gaps of my knowledge so I could land editorial photo assignments. I kept backing out of sending pitches, as I didn't want to get myself into a situation where I wasn't putting my best self forward.
Now, not only do I have a deeper and more complete understanding of pitching a photo story, but also what it takes to complete an editorial assignment and to design and roll out a larger project. I had holes in my stories before and now I feel I can more confidently shoot the variety and quality of pictures needed to tell the whole story and offer editors a good selection of images. I feel I am a better storyteller from this experience. I’m also finding my unique style and bringing that out more in my photography.
I have published three stories since I joined the course, and while I had pitched and had these stories accepted before the course started, I feel that the work I am submitting in terms of capturing the whole story is improving each time because of the CP 101 experience.
I am also putting together pitches for two additional stories to national magazines, both ideas were developed and honed in CP 101. Now I have the confidence to actually send the pitches off.
How do I get my conservation photography published?
Making photographs is wonderful, but they can't shake up the world without an audience.
You have big dreams for making a real difference with your images.
You know your photography has the power to educate, to show people the amazing world we live in and what we stand to lose.
And you know that getting your work into publications is a massive opportunity to reach a bigger audience…. but…
Which of these thoughts have spun around in your brain?
>> I know how to make beautiful photographs. I just don’t know how to make them into a story.
>> I just have NO IDEA where to start to get published. The whole process feels daunting and makes my palms sweat.
>> I want to photograph a story, but I have zero focus. I never seem to make progress toward that goal.
>> I’ve tried pitching to editors, but no one ever answers my emails. I’m so frustrated and discouraged.
>> I’m comfortable with animals and landscapes – it’s photographing the people part that freaks me out.
>> I want to make a difference with my images, but I’m totally lost as to how. Whenever I start to think about it, I get overwhelmed.
Whether you’re brand new to the scene or want to take your skills to the next level, you likely already know that you need a system for discovering and photographing fresh stories, and a strategy to get them into the hands of editors.
Even if you’ve been a nature photographer for awhile, crafting a complete conservation photo story from START to FINISH, and getting it seen by an editor will…
1. Catapult your photography to incredible new levels
It’s all about focus and clarity. That’s what is required to see a story through from concept to pitch. You’re pushing yourself past old comfort zones, pushing past limits in your existing skills, and taking on a whole exciting range of new skills.
When you can envision all the shots you need to tell a story, you get energized and eager to throw yourself into new strategies and approaches. You’re pushing past limits with your gear and exploring fresh styles with zero second-guessing or self-doubt.
You’re so focused on your story and you’re so clear on what you need to photograph in order to tell it, that suddenly you become a master of surprising new skills.
2. Establish you as a serious conservation photographer
You’re capable of extraordinary things. It’s time to move beyond donating images here and there to nonprofit groups. Ramp up to the next level, reach a bigger audience, and make a name for yourself as a conservation photographer.
This is not about ego. It’s about being effective.
What sets dabblers and skilled photographers apart is the ability to recognize and create a complete story. When you know how to photograph complete stories, you step up your game as a volunteer and as a professional.
You become known as someone whose images are influential, as someone who is the go-to photographer for everyone from local nonprofits to nationwide publications. And that means your photography truly makes an impact.
3. Generate unstoppable momentum
The satisfaction and excitement of seeing your work in print is unparalleled, as is the confidence that comes with it. After your first byline is published, you’ll be chomping at the bit to start in on your next story.
Work your way through the entire story-crafting process, and your experiences build up energy and momentum that rolls you right into your next story, and the next, and the next. Small successes build to big accomplishments, and your work increases in quality and reach.
And you know what? The world needs exactly that.
Your skills and talents in photography are incredibly powerful, and when you apply them to conservation issues, you’re helping us all benefit.
4. Build a cash flow so your passion work pays for itself
It doesn’t matter if this is your hobby, a side-hustle, or something you want to get serious about as a career. Fact is, you need to earn an income to offset the costs of creating stories – from camera gear to travel to permits and more.
This work can lead to paychecks. And incoming paychecks means your ongoing ability to get out there, camera in hand, and accomplish amazing things!