wildlife photographers

Unsplash/Diana Parkhouse

Celebs like the Crocodile Hunter Steve Erwin have highlighted the allure and the danger of interacting up close with wild animals. But what about wildlife photographers? They too, discover and interact with stunning-but-deadly creatures on every continent, all for the sake of capturing images for us to enjoy. What goes on behind the scenes is just as compelling, but something most of the general public will never be aware of. Want a glimpse? Here are some tidbits about the real life of a wildlife photographer, the good, the bad and the dangerously ugly:

Within 20 feet of a grizzly

Of course, you’re going to respect a grizzly bear’s space, right? If you’re professional photographer and wildlife specialist Ingo Arndt, though, you might wait for a hungry grizzly to get engaged in fishing for dinner. “When they’re chasing after salmon, it’s safe to get within 20 feet of these bears,” the German-born Arndt told Popular Photography. That’s just one of the many illustrious highlights of his career as a wildlife photographer. Since 1992, he’s aimed to publicize the need to protect the environment using nothing but a digital camera and his tracking skills. Along the way, he’s seen sights like 400 million monarch butterflies wintering in one place and won awards like the 2016 title “King of Photography” from the Power of the Image Exhibition in Datong, China.

How to subsidize the lifestyle

A wildlife photographer is not an inherently high-paying job description, but it can be done. Arndt, for example, is not above a bit of mass merchandising. But it’s the coolest kind of swag ever, like prints, posters, and calendars. He sells them as an offshoot of his exhibition projects like “Animal Masses,” which is 40 large-scale prints of flocks, herds and other ginormous groups of animals currently touring Europe.

Even getting to the point where he could sell commercial images, though, took massive amounts of dedication and a good bit of rejection. “You have to shoot, shoot, and shoot until you’ve got a good number of stock images. Then you have to market them,” he added in PP. “You have to be inspired and fascinated by the animals, and obsess about seeing and experiencing them. It’s not about equipment. Some people think they get better pictures with expensive equipment, but the logistics of shooting is more important than the camera you’re using.”

Gentle strength on film

Another one of Arndt’s triumphs as a wildlife photographer has been getting to interact with mountain gorillas. “From their expressions and body language, you can sense what they’re thinking and feeling—much more so than other animals,” he added. “They’re big and strong, but gentle, too. I’ve photographed them maybe 25 times over the years, at distances of usually about 20 feet, and I’ve never felt threatened.”

The most dangerous animal fears citronella

Arndt won the third prize “Nature Stories” World Press Photo Award in April 2019 for his work titled “Wild Pumas of Patagonia.” The online exhibit description made it clear that these would be particularly difficult and dangerous wildlife photography subjects. “Pumas are ambush predators, stalking their prey from a distance for an hour or more before attacking. In Torres del Paine, pumas feed mainly on guanacos, which are closely related to llamas.” He has also completed macro photography of some pretty impressive spiders and is known for his photos of American bison. But what’s the most dangerous wildlife he’s photographed? He’s going with, ah, mosquitos, he told Popular Photography:

“People often ask me what the most dangerous animal is. They’re surprised when I tell them it’s not lions, tigers, bears, or gorillas. For me, it’s the mosquito. I can’t afford a case of malaria. And also people, especially in big cities.”

Art is not in these details

While wildlife photography can offer endless adrenalin-pumping adventures, it’s still photography. That means equipment and deadlines, which equate to plenty of drudgeries to offset those stunning bucket-list glimpses of powerful animals. Arndt spends lots of time figuring out how to keep his backpack down to 30 pounds or so. He researches subjects endlessly before setting out to catch them in their native habitats. And he has paid his dues many times over. “I was a very early nature photo-pro, but had to deal with a very small budget the first years,” he told the German blog Hahnemuehle. “The breakthrough came 16 years ago, with a story about chameleons, which was published in GEO magazine (Germany).”

The wannabe’s lament

As for the more common scenario of those pursuing this dangerous but rewarding life’s work? Wildlife photographer Deb Hirt summed up how the field looks for the average Joe in a “possible scenario of the life of wildlife photographers in general” on Felt Magnet:

“You must learn your camera inside and out, work it rapidly, and be prepared for any kind of weather… 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…”

Or, there’s always the alternative ending, Hirt added. “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.”