The Future Of Nature Photography

The Next Generation • Show Me The Money • The Crystal Ball • Too Much Of A Good Thing

This Article Features Photo Zoom

These are two great examples of images captured by this year’s participants in the NANPA high-school scholarship program during their field sessions near Reno, Nev., in February 2010. Above: Detail of Fly Geyser, located on private property north of Pyramid Lake, Nev. Canon EOS 7D with 17-40mm lens at 18mm, 4 sec. at ƒ/22, ISO 200. Photo by Adam Brobjorg.


Photographer at Fly Geyser, located on private property north of Pyramid Lake, Nev. Canon EOS 7D with 17-40mm lens at 21mm, 1⁄25 sec. at ƒ/9, ISO 100. Photo by Stephanie Wollmann.

The Next Generation
We’ve just returned from the 16th Annual Summit of NANPA, the North American Nature Photography Association (www.nanpa.org), an organization that promotes responsible and creative photography of wildlife and the landscape. The Annual Summit always is an occasion to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and to be inspired and renewed by the amazing work shared by professionals and skilled amateurs in this field.

One of NANPA’s best efforts is its focus on developing young photographers through scholarship and mentoring opportunities for talented high-school students, a program funded by members through the NANPA Foundation and carried out with the support of partnering corporations, including Canon USA, Apple, Bogen, Delkin, Wimberley, Hunt’s Photo and Photoflex. In addition to professional classroom instruction, the students are able to work in the field with professional Canon gear, Canon’s dedicated tech guru Michael Nadler and pro coaches affiliated with NANPA, such as Raymond Klass (once a student in the program), Ellen Anon, Darrell Gulin, Arthur Morris, yours truly and visiting guest speakers. It’s a great experience for everyone involved.

Spending time with “the kids” is our favorite part of any NANPA meeting. In this column, we write a lot about the next generation of this or that photographic technology, but in this case, we’re talking about the next generation of the users and movers of that technology. The high-school “nature scholars” at the 16th Annual Summit really get it, and they can teach us some new ways to see, interpret and capture nature, as illustrated by the extraordinary “guest photographer” images gracing this column. And they have the same concerns as experienced photographers who want to make a difference in the world and be successful in the nature photography field. For the answers to three great questions posed by the teens we met at the 2010 NANPA Summit, read on.


Show Me The Money
Q How do scenic or wildlife photographers make money? My parents think that if I become a photographer, I’ll be destitute.

A Photography—like other creative occupations such as drama, painting and sculpture, music and dance—doesn’t pay much unless you achieve a very high level of recognition in the field, and even then, we’re not talking about huge incomes. Outdoor and wildlife photographers make money by working directly for scientific/educational institutions or organizations that market nature and/or travel; by publishing their images in articles, books and blogs that they, or others, write; by selling their images for commercial use such as in books, calendars and advertisements, either directly or through photo agencies that negotiate the terms and give the photographer a percentage of the proceeds; by marketing their prints at galleries and art festivals for purchase by collectors and other enthusiasts of wildlife and landscape art; and by teaching others how to photograph.

The field of outdoor/nature photography is definitely crowded, and it’s also costly in terms of equipment and travel. Many nature-photography enthusiasts support themselves in related professions, such as news, travel, sports or commercial photography (portraits, advertising, weddings) so that they can pursue their true love (nature) on the side. I trained as a biologist, worked as a graphic artist, went to photography school and photographed at a research university and for Car and Driver magazine before moving into full-time nature photography. Several of my most successful colleagues have taken up professional nature photography following careers in business, medicine or academia.

Parents are rightly concerned that children who dedicate themselves to nature photography—or to other artistic careers—may never earn enough money to leave home. But those who are truly committed, work hard to learn and develop their talent, and are able to promote themselves and their work aggressively do have a possibility of achieving greatness in terms of fame or fortune as photographers. Do you have what it takes? Some with great talent never realize their potential, and some with lesser talent overcome their limitations and achieve distinction.

It’s always good to have a fallback position. We recommend that you do everything you can to develop your photographic skills and experience while you focus on your studies and training for another, possibly complementary, career. Environmental issues are at the forefront of today’s demand for nature photography. Work hard on your science, writing and critical-thinking skills.

Whether or not you become a professional photographer, your love of outdoor and nature photography will always bring joy to your life along with a better understanding of the natural world and the challenges facing it. At the very least, this will make you a more interesting and knowledgeable person, and these are qualities that contribute to success in any field.


The Crystal Ball
Q Where do you see the field of nature photography going in the future?

A Three interrelated forces drive the progress of any art form (or craft, as I usually refer to the practice of photography). The first driving force is an individual’s creative vision and the need for tools to express it. The second is the values and priorities of the society within which the individual functions, and the artist’s inclination to resist, reflect or interpret those values. The third is technological advances that enable new means of expression by removing previous limitations. I’d venture a guess that those working in nature photography will adapt high-speed, high-res imaging technology developed for national security and intelligence-gathering purposes to document and share the beauty and spirit of the natural world, to reveal new knowledge through the capture of intricate detail and fine movement, and to expose the forces that threaten the future of life on earth.

Well, okay, that’s my prediction and hope, and maybe not yours. But the point is that new technology is driven by somebody’s need to solve a problem, and consumers then adapt that innovation to their own uses. Widely adopted technological advances move us as a society into the future, for better or worse. For my purposes, I’m looking for a few key improvements. I want to be able to shoot a stream of images that, together, make a movie, but that, individually, are top-quality stills that can be vertical, horizontal or square. So that means I need my DSLR to capture at 24 frames per second on a large, square, 40-megapixel sensor. Or I need to be able to capture in video mode with the same quality and orientation options. To gather the information, I want optics that will resolve all the data that the camera can use. Is that so much to ask for?

I think that future photographers will be thinking outside the 8x10 box of paper. Images can be huge and at super-high resolution, printed directly on walls and in three dimensions. Printed work already can last 100 years or more, making the image on the wall an enduring treasure. High-quality video is now accessible to everyone, not just filmmakers with huge cameras and crews to handle them. I can’t begin to imagine all that will be discovered when millions of photographers—carrying equipment with capabilities professionals didn’t even dream about 40 years ago—are on the assignment to document their unique visions of nature, and in the process, help others to know and care about the natural world.


Too Much Of A Good Thing
Q Do you ever just end up with too many pictures?

A Every day. Even in the prehistoric days of film (your grandpa told you about that, right?), when I was limited to one (in large format) or as many as 36 exposures at a time, I had too many pictures, and I’m still trying to sort them all out. In the age of digital cameras that capture at 10 frames per second and capture media that holds hundreds of RAW images, you can just imagine the scale of the task. In a recent 12-day project in southern Africa, I took more than 11,000 images. Some of my gigaramas (high-res, multiple-image composites) are created from hundreds of images. Too much information is a problem!

The answers are diligence and strict standards. The sooner you put these qualities into your workflow, the better. I review my images immediately after a shoot and ruthlessly apply the following three tests to winnow them down:

Quality: Is the image technically perfect (by my current standards!) in terms of sharpness, color and exposure? Does the file contain sufficient information to be optimized to fine quality in postcapture processing software? This is the first cut; if the image fails on any of these criteria, it’s gone.

Content: Assess the composition, placement and size of the subject in the frame, and the impact and uniqueness of the image. If there’s no center of interest, no reason for being inherent in the content or portrayal of the content, the image doesn’t make this cut.

Usefulness: Does the image expand the range and quality of my collection? Is it of immediate or potential personal or commercial use? Is it marketable?

Once you’ve determined an image is truly worth keeping, assign it to a location that will allow you to find it again quickly when you need it. Good formats are resident in Lightroom, Aperture and other commercially available image-filing programs, or create your own database. If it’s worth keeping, it’s worth finding.

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit www.georgelepp.com. If you have any tips or questions, address them to: OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER, Dept. TT, George Lepp, 12121 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1200, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1176 or online at www.georgelepp.com.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.

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