Photography has an important role to play in protecting our wild places. But it isn’t as simple as just taking a pretty picture. Two experts reveal what it takes to be a successful conservation photographer.

At the 2014 Wild Shots Photography Symposium, Valli Moosa, former Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, paid tribute to the conservation role of photography. “The single biggest [environmental] impact is when people grow to love nature,” he said. That’s exactly what photography helps to achieve.

But is conservation photography simply taking pictures of beautiful landscapes and wild animals? Wild spoke to two of the international speakers at the Wild Shots photography symposium to get their opinion on what’s involved.

As the former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine and a judge of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, Sophie Stafford has seen thousands of nature images. Neil Aldridge is an award-winning wildlife photographer and the author-photographer of Underdogs, a book about wild dogs and the threats they face. These two know the realities of working in the field of conservation photography – the challenges and the rewards.

Taking a spectacular wildlife photo doesn’t make you a conservation photographer, says Neil. “These days it’s not good enough to take a picture that says I was there, therefore I’m raising awareness.” A photograph that merely documents a place or species doesn’t actively contribute to conservation. To make a real difference, photographers have to give new insights into the wild.

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Stellar, the alpha female of her wild dog pack, knows to keep alert even when resting in the heat of the day. Pictures by Neil Aldridge

Using your picture to tell a story

If you want to make a real difference as a conservation photographer, you need to find a moment that tells an original story.

“The more we know about animals, the more specific pictures need to be,” explains Sophie. The first photograph of an elephant would have been astounding, but now we all know what one looks like. Instead photographers try to capture images that shed light on behaviour, unique adaptations, and the relationships between animals and humans.

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Thandi the rhino survived a brutal attack by poachers. Now her scars remind us of the lengths humans are driven to by greed – and compassion.

Don’t throw out your pretty pictures just yet! A beautiful nature image still has a role to play, Sophie believes. It’s the hook that draws the viewer in, but then the rest of the images have to tell the story of that animal or place.

To do so, you have to be passionate about a project and delve deep into it. “A lot of work just scratches the surface,” says Sophie.

One way to achieve depth is to bring people into the story, to show how they unthinkingly harm animals or, conversely, what they do to protect nature. “People become a prism that can focus the story,” she says.

It goes without saying that a conservation photographer has to be ethical. That means putting the welfare of the subject, whether animal or landscape, above everything else. If you are photographing an animal, you shouldn’t do anything that could distress the animal. Keep a respectful distance and don’t even think of playing alarm calls to get a reaction.

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Tiny Okavango robber fish swim along the Selinda Spillway, a river channel that connects Botswana’s northwest and east.

It was conservationist Baba Dioum who said: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand.” That is the job of the conservation photographer – to illuminate nature so that we grow to truly appreciate it. Are you up to the task?

Tips for conservation photography

Through his book, Underdogs, Neil Aldridge has raised over R20,000 for wild dog conservation. He shares some tips for making your own contribution through photography:

  • Champion a cause. Find an environmental issue that is important to you and focus your efforts on it.
  • Take the ugly photo. Don’t be scared to photograph pictures of traps and kills, people need to know the extent of the problem.
  • Present a solution. Your photographs shouldn’t only focus on what is wrong, but also on what can be done to right it.
  • Pull on the heartstrings. This is especially true of problematic animals such as jackal and caracal. An adorable cub may just make someone think twice about killing a specific species.
  • Allow conservation bodies to use your pictures. Conservation organisations don’t always have the time or budget to get pictures that will help their work. Sharing your work can make a huge difference to their efforts.

Follow Neil’s conservation photography or visit Sophie’s blog for tips on getting your photos published.

Want to learn more?

Wild Shots Photography Symposium is a gathering of professional and amateur photographers who focus on nature images. High profile speakers share their approaches and strategies, and there are workshops on specific skills.

Wild contributor Peter Chadwick is one of the photographers behind www.photodestination.co.za, a guide to conservation areas in Africa. It offers tips and suggestions for photographing these wild places and the animals that live there.