Being a wildlife photographer may entail tracking lions in Africa or observing wild salmon in Alaska. You might shoot a subject in sub-zero temperatures or in desert heat. Other times, you'll work at a home base developing photographs and checking up on new assignments. Wildlife photography is not always glamorous, and is not, in most cases, a high-paying job. However, some of the benefits of being a wildlife photographer are getting to see amazing animals in their native habitats and snapping reminders for all of us of the wonders that exist in the world's remote places.
Most wildlife photographers are self-employed. Some, however, have consistent work for either newspaper, magazine or publishing companies. Government and advertising agencies also seek out photojournalists. The average annual salary range for a wildlife photographer is $26,000. This is the baseline for the field; a salary may either be more or less depending on reputation, education and experience. Some earn as high as $50,000 and others bring home only $15,000 or less during their first few years in the field.
Although some wildlife photographers consistently score high-paying gigs, many supplement their income by teaching part- and full-time at universities and trade schools. In addition, many wildlife photographers use their sharp photo-taking skills to make money at other commercial photography ventures, such as selling images to stock photo companies or shooting weddings and other events. Occasionally, wildlife photographers may apply for private or government grants to pursue specific projects, especially if those projects contribute to an arts scene or to the public good (for example, documenting environmental degradation or animal migrations).
Although the choice photography gigs generally cover travel and other incidentals, wildlife photographers do accrue many expenses. Equipment is the biggest expense, as a variety of lenses and camera bodies is needed to successfully capture wildlife on film. The rise of digital photography has cut down on film-processing costs; however, depending on the client, some wildlife photographers may still prefer to shoot with film in which case lab rental, film and paper costs must be taken into consideration. A home lab for the digital photographer includes at minimum a fast computer with back-up hard drives and professional photo-editing software.
When you first start out you may end up covering all of your travel expenses, too. This means you may lose money or only break even while you build your portfolio and make contacts in the field.
Those with photography experience and a bachelor's degree in photojournalism will have a better chance of obtaining the higher-paying gigs. Some recommendations for those just starting out include visiting a newspaper or magazine office and talking with their in-house photographers or photo editors. It's best to have a portfolio which displays outstanding photos---these days the best way to do this is online with a professionally made website. Extensive knowledge of traditional, nontraditional and digital cameras is also helpful.
Wildlife photographers often travel to remote locations all over the world. Hostile conditions are often the norm in the life of a photojournalist. Some will sit for hours before snapping shots worthy to be sold. If you fear hostile environments or have a low threshold for discomfort, or don't have the patience to wait for an animal to appear, this is not the field for you.