When I asked George Turner what made being a wildlife photographer worth it for him, his answer was simple.
“Spending time with animals.”
He then told me about a time recently when he observed a pack of wild dogs and their puppies playing together. As he watched, he realized he was the only person in the world seeing the sight before him.
After two years of being a professional wildlife photographer, George has a lot of wisdom to share. Here are seven things to know about being a wildlife photographer.
Having a passion for animals is a necessity.
George grew up close to a safari park in Dorset (southwest England), and remembers sponsoring a tiger there when he was about six years old. He’s been obsessed with animals for as long as he can remember.
“Some people are really into birds, some people like fish, some people like smaller mammals,” George said. “I like big mammals.”
Lions. Leopards. Cheetahs. Ethiopian wolves. Tigers. Wild dogs. Having a passion for the animals you’re photographing is crucial for two reasons.
First, you have to learn about the animals themselves before you take a single photo, and if you’re not interested in those animals, your job is a lot more difficult. Second, you have to know about and love the animals to be able to photograph them accurately.
There is no hard and fast route that leads to becoming a wildlife photographer.
Though George has loved animals since he was very young, he didn’t just become a wildlife photographer. Originally, he pursued a career in advertising. But, after a while, he found that though he’d come up with ideas for brand campaigns and pay photographers to go get the images, they weren’t returning with what he really wanted.
So, he started taking on some freelance work to fill that gap. George’s transition to becoming a wildlife photographer was less a decision and more a progression. He slowly got more gigs, and gradually took on work full-time.
George shared that, at the beginning, his work was only about 10% wildlife and 90% travel and other photography. Now, it’s the complete opposite.
He says that there’s not one surefire path into wildlife photography, and that each photographer has to find a unique way into the business.
Knowing your camera like the back of your hand is crucial.
“Most people don’t appreciate how difficult it is to use a camera properly when it comes to wildlife,” George said.
When he elaborated, he told me that, just like in war movies, he practiced using and assembling his equipment blindfolded. He changed settings without looking and got to know his camera inside and out.
This intimate knowledge of your camera is essential as a wildlife photographer because your subjects are living, moving animals. They can decide to do anything, at any time.
“When you see an image, like a stunning photo of a polar bear diving into the water after a seal,” George explained. “It’s not just the person being in the right place at the right time. It’s all their knowledge and research, plus the intimate knowledge of their camera — knowing exactly what the settings should be for the kind of image they want.”
You won’t be out in the wild 24/7.
A glance at any wildlife photographer’s Instagram feed will make it seem as though they’re photographing animals every day. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
George’s life requires a lot of coordination; he’ll spend months at home preparing for and scheduling shoots, which could be weeks or months away. It’s a lot of planning, and a lot of time away from home, George confessed. (He got married in May, went on his honeymoon, then spent a few months away in Iceland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Canada for work).
And though George has the luxury of planning his jobs now, that wasn’t always the case.
“You have to go where the work takes you at first,” he said.
You’ll learn on the ground.
When first starting out, George quickly learned that research would only take him so far. He began learning more by talking to local guides and observing the animals in person.
“If you can read an animal’s behavior really well, you can walk up to a lion on foot and it won’t do anything. That blew my mind the most when I first started.”
Once, George was in a truck, about 20 meters away from a male lion who was awake, but sleepy. He asked the guide what would happen if he got out of the car and walked over to the lion.
The guide told him the lion wouldn’t do anything.
“So I called his bluff and just got out of the car and started walking,” George recalled. “I got within 15 meters and the lion did nothing.”
George made sure to stress that photographers should not try to get that close to a wild animal on their own.
You must be able to handle failure.
First, you go wherever the work takes you.
You spend a lot of time away from home. You learn. You take a lot of bad pictures. You get turned down. You get stranded in the middle of nowhere. You miss your flight. You break your camera, forget your batteries, lose your memory cards.
“Things can go wrong so often,” George said. “You have to be able to roll with that.”
But there is immense satisfaction when you get the perfect shot.
“There’s nothing better,” George says.
Like when he was in the Serengeti and a storm rolled in. George watched as the sky let loose thick, thumbnail-sized raindrops. He kept watching as the sun broke through the clouds in the distance and lit up the rain from behind.
He knew he wanted an image with a cheetah, so he and his driver headed to a spot nearby that cheetahs regularly frequented. They waited, hoping that even though cheetahs don’t like water, one would come out from hiding.
Then, out of nowhere, one walked right by them.
“It stopped, and looked back at us for three seconds, then ran away.”
George snapped a single photo, and rushed to look at it after the cheetah was out of sight. The second he saw the shot, without any editing, he knew it was one of his best.
“I’d never felt like that before.”
See more of George’s photography on Instagram.