Gear had exploded all over my tiny 600-square-foot apartment in Boulder, Colo. Boxes overflowed with DSLRs, infrared triggers, bags, recorders, microphones and that SteriPEN water purifier that I know might save my life someday. Somewhere in this sea of packing material were my husband and 10-month-old puppy, but all I could hear was a muffled call for help. This is the life of a conservation photographer.
In just a few weeks, I would leave the frigid Colorado winter behind for the balmy climes of southeastern Thailand. My fellow journalist Joanna Nasar and I run CAT in WATER, a media expedition to document endangered fishing cats. These water-loving cats, resembling a leopard that shrunk in the wash, have rarely been photographed in the wild. At an estimated 10,000 cats and falling, their prognosis isn’t good.
Today we’ve gone on two expeditions, gotten the story in front of millions of viewers by publishing stories in magazines like BBC Wildlife, Geographical, National Wildlife and here. The fishing cat even befriended a Mayan Chief, when Namfon and I presented together at the World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca, Spain. We’ve worked with The WILD Foundation to raise money to rent fishing cat habitat, and Namfon and I have become lifelong friends whose work isn’t finished. Life wasn’t always this way. A few years ago, I was where a lot of people are now—wanting to help with conservation photography with no idea how to get started.
My life in conservation photography began as a scientist, documenting time spent working in the wilds of Alaska, then came years of basic photographic growth, thanks to the help of Outdoor Photographer and other magazines. A graduate program in environmental journalism, internships and projects funded on a student salary soon had me in the company of the International League of Conservation Photographers and published on the pages of Smithsonian and National Wildlife.
Conservation needs a faster timeline than the years of career growth that I’ve bumbled through, though. So here you go, conservation collaborators. Let’s speed things up a bit. Take a gander at these five conservation photography project ideas. Check out some tips on how to get them rolling, and see where you end up. After all, what really turns your photography into conservation photography is the way that you use it after you’ve pressed the shutter.
Conservation Project Idea No. 1: A Local Rarity
Challenge: Find the most endangered location or animal near your home. It can be in your city, state or even region as long as you’re willing and able to get out to it with relative ease.
Preparation: Do some research. Is it protected? Does it need protecting? Is it in the process of being protected? Does anyone know about it? As you answer these questions, you’ll learn which groups are working with your subject matter. Not only can they help you get the inside action on an issue, but they can be an outlet for your project in the long run.
The Goal: Go out to your site as often as you can for a month, and photograph everything you can think of that makes that place or species special. (Note: If you’re doing species-focused work, it’s probably best to team up with a researcher for the safety of the animal and to help you get better shots.) Special can mean beauty shots, impressionistic shots, even the threats to a place, plant or animal.
The Product: At the end of your month, edit down to your favorite selects, and take a portfolio around to at least three places that care about your location. Throughout the course of the project, you may have already created the in with an organization, but if not, most places have a public relations or other communications person you can contact. Or you can submit images to the WILD Foundation and www.natureneedshalf.org, which is striving to document the progress of conservation with a goal of someday reaching protection for half of the planet.
Project Idea No. 2: Become A Citizen Scientist
Challenge: Google environmental non-profits or parks departments in your neck of the woods. Then volunteer for one of their citizen science or restoration projects. You’ll pull double-duty, helping with the project and photographing the conservation effort as it happens.
The Upside: Not only do you get the inside scoop on newsworthy material, but volunteering gets you valuable contacts inside an organization. The fact that you’re working on one of the nonprofit’s campaign issues increases the value of your images to them, and you’ll get issue and location knowledge that will help you take photos others might miss. This is one of the best examples of conservation photography at work in tandem with practicing conservation. The free food and gorgeous views many of these experiences offer aren’t too shabby either.
The Product: Your goal is to come out of your volunteer experience with a comprehensive photo library of the restoration effort and location. Get your images published with the nonprofit, and pitch it to some local papers or magazines. Make sure you write captions so viewers and potential editors learn the stories behind the photos. Try to collect names, place, time, and a quote or fact about what’s depicted.
Project Idea No. 3: Flower Power
Challenge: Create a series of floral portraits comparing past and present plant communities in your city. Give flowers their glam time with a studio setup that pits native plants against invasive ones. This project is especially well-suited to photographers living in the urban jungle.
Add A Factoid: Couple your images with interesting factoids about each plant, such as how much water it takes to sustain them, medicinal properties or what kind of critters rely on it to survive.
Example Fact: The last time someone found the queen-of-the-prairie — a pretty, rose-like flower — growing in Indianapolis, Ind., was in a small damp spot at the edge of Water Canal and 52nd Street. The year was 1935.
Key Partners: Universities and museums with historical plant collections abound in most urban areas. I once used this tactic to gain access to specimens of caddisflies, a funny little aquatic bug that likes to build “houses” out of materials ranging from sand grains to algae and even, if provided, flakes of gold.
The Setup: You’ll need white foam core or black velvet to act as your backdrop. Arrange a plant in the middle with a light or synced-flash system set up on either side of the plant at about a
30-degree angle. You also can use a ring- or twin-light flash to illuminate the subject. If using a white backdrop, you bounce a third light off the back foam core. If studio setups aren’t your thing, try laying the flower on a flatbed scanner and covering it with a piece of cloth for a more old-fashioned feel.
The Product: Propose an exhibit with your partner museum. Contact a local botanist studying urban plant communities and strike up a partnership to document more flowers, as well as collaborate on presentations to scientific and artistic communities. Scientists make great grant writers, and foundations love projects with outreach components, so there even may be opportunities to jointly raise funds. Another option is to submit your images to www.meetyourneighbours.net, and become part of an international project that’s gaining notoriety documenting backyard wildlife.
Project Idea No. 4: Photograph A Love Letter
Challenge: Tap into your sensitive side. Write a love letter about your favorite place. Then turn words into images.
Preparation: After you read this, close your eyes. Think of a place in nature that you love and ask yourself why. Imagine all the things about it that pull at your heartstrings. Is it beauty? Is it different? Does it challenge you? Do you feel sorry for it? Is it your escape? Read a little Aldo Leopold, Pablo Neruda or Edward Abbey to get in the zone.
Extra Advantage: Stop preaching to the choir. A major challenge with conservation photography is the difficulty of reaching people who don’t already care. People may not all be nature lovers, but chances are, they can relate to the way nature makes you feel.
Product: When you’re done, submit the project to at least five magazines (though not all at once, as this isn’t highly looked upon by the magazine industry). Visit websites such as the Society for Environmental Journalists (www.sej.org) or Mediabistro (www.mediabistro.com) to get the inside scoop on pitching to a wide variety of magazines.
Project Idea No. 5: Go Big And Don’t Go Home
Challenge: What’s your crazy adventure idea? You know that dream photo project that you would do if only money, time and experience weren’t an issue. Write it down. Now forget about all the “why nots.” Just decide that you’re going to do this.
Deciding On A Project: CAT in WATER started over a cup of coffee and a conversation. Form your initial idea, then start researching what’s happening with it now. Sometimes it’s good to pursue more than one idea simultaneously. Eventually, one will begin to gain more momentum, and you’ll know you have a winner. Remember, this is conservation, so think of places that have been protected, are in need of protection or are in the process of being protected.
The Method: How would you execute the project, and what would your products be? Would you record your trek through the place? Would you tell someone else’s story? Would you team up with an expert who’s going? What could you provide for the people working on the issue? What’s impacting this place? Would you just let the place/species speak for itself?
Make Your Contacts: Check out nonprofits, research institutes, universities, businesses — anyone you can think of that cares about your subject area — and reach out to them directly. Craft an introductory note and see who responds. Someone will, so keep working on it, and send another note if you haven’t heard back in a while. If you keep working on it in other ways in the meantime, they’ll know you’re serious.
Fund-Raise: Try crowdsourcing with places like Kickstarter or Spot.us. Partner with a nonprofit on a CauseVox project specifically for your idea. Put ChipIn, a fundraising widget, on your blog. The big thing is to be a social-media champ. Don’t just ask for money. Think of promos. Facebook, tweet or blog interesting things about the project or issue. Send direct emails that feel personal. This builds an audience for your project before you’ve taken a single picture. Don’t underestimate the power of the people and a good idea. Once the public is backing you, the editors are almost guaranteed to follow.
Making A Difference As A Conservation Photographer
There you have it—your introductory guide to becoming a conservation photographer. This path won’t get you a quick buck. At first, it may get you no bucks, or more than likely, minus bucks, but it will set you in the right direction, and get you noticed and making a difference. That last part, especially, is what conservation photography is all about.
This article was originally published in 2012 and updated in 2017.
Morgan Heim is a Oregon-based multimedia journalist specializing in stories of science and environmental issues. You can see more of her photography at morganheim.com.