“Where you get your break is shooting personal projects in your backyard, your home town, places you can go repeatedly. Find Something We haven’t done, make it your own, and beat it to death. Put your blood, sweat, and tears in there. . . take a subject that is your own and spend four or five years on it. And if your balk at doing that, well, that’s where we weed out the pretenders.” – Michael “Nick” Nichols, National Geographic staff wildlife photographer and editor at large.
This is probably one of the best damn quotes I have ever read in regards to “breaking into the business.” Everybody wants to be a professional nature photographer, travel the world, see the sights, drink from life, and get all the girls. The reality of what it actually takes to do this job is another topic altogether of course, but what does it really take to get your foot in the door? As Nick Nichols explains, hopping on a plane for Afghanistan for three months spending your life’s savings is not how its done.
For anybody out there that is trying to make that next step in their photography, these are very wise words and rock solid business advice! Ask yourself, what is in your own backyard that you can focus on, perfect your technical skills in photography, grow your stock files exponentially, and become an expert in? Sure you can move out to Jackson Hole Wyoming and decide you are going to become the go-t0 guy / gal for grizzly bears. You will however already have some pretty heavy hitters that you will find yourself up against. Folks like Tom Mangleson already live there and have decades under their belts making a name for themselves with such animals. You could move to Florida and try to make a name for yourself with bird photography, but likewise you will have a grocery list of other top notch pros that are already there doing just that.
This is not to say that you should not move to Florida to photograph birds or Jackson Hole and take up photography bears. If that is your dream then by all means grab life by the horns and follow through with it. Instead, what I am trying to say is that you do not have to spend 9 months a year camped out in Africa, or hike across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on foot in order to get started. There are plenty of projects for you to work on that will be exclusively yours – its just your job to find those projects. Maybe this does require you traveling to ANWR to photograph nesting shorebirds on the tundra, or to Trinidad to photograph leatherback sea turtles. At the same time though, this could be something close by, something that you do not need to spend thousands of dollars on to make happen. The key is to photograph what you enjoy photographing already. Like Nick Nichols said, take this and put your blood sweat and tears into it. Go beyond what others would do. Make it distinctively yours. Do this, and you will succeed.
For me, this something distinctly me was the wild horses along the coast of the Outer Banks. This is where I live, this is my backyard and I was able to break into the business by making these horses my personal project. For Doug Gardner it was photographing waterfowl throughout his stomping grounds that made him a name before the television show. Kevin Adams practically owns photographing waters falls in NC. Nick Nichols made a name for himself by photographing caves around his home. Art Wolfe built his reputation photographing places like Olympic National Park and Mt. Rainier in his home state of Washington. You have to start somewhere, and most do it right there where they already are.