If you’ve landed up on this tab you’re probably asking questions like “how do I get started as a photographer?”, “how do I get involved in big cat science?”, “how do I work for Nat Geo?”. Well, below you will find the answers to the most frequently asked questions I get from people around the world. Before you read on, understand that the road you’ve chosen is a tough one, and often incredibly unpredictable! Working as a professional photographer, videographer, on camera personality takes a ton of dedication (not necessarily an academic degree). You will undoubtedly struggle to find a good story (this is always more important than your equipment), writing and being successful at receiving grants and making a regular income (not to mention probably losing your girlfriend or wife along the way because you’re constantly travelling), so think hard before you pursue your dreams in media and science. If you are OK with all of the above and are up for adventure and riches in experience not necessarily monetary, please read on!
How do I become a big cat biologist or scientist working on rare wildlife?
The easiest way is to pursue a formal academic degree - this is literally the easiest and most straightforward road to getting into the field and studying the big cats and rare wildlife you love! If you look at the best conservation projects out there, they are almost always led by scientists and people that pursued an academic degree. You ask why? Well, when you are first starting out you inevitably want to work under a mentor or a professor who already has access to a field site, knows the local wildlife department and has funding to answer cool questions you want to investigate! The other way to doing this is to literally phone and badger the top people in the field and ask them if you can volunteer/work on their project (often for little pay or none at all!). Don’t for a second think that it is going to be an easy road and it is up to you to phone, email and literally bother the hell out of the people in the field (do not give up! There are many projects). Here are a few good universities and people you can approach if you already have a BSc, Masters or honours and want to work on big cats in the form of a formal scientific project:
Amy Dickman, David Macdonald (University of Oxford), Dan Parker (Rhodes University), Lourens Swanepoel (University of Venda), Jan Venter (Nelson Mandela University), Guy Balme (University of Cape Town), Scott Creel (Montana), Adrian Treves (Wisconsin Madison), Nigel Leader Williams (Cambridge)
How do I become a photographer and videographer?
The easiest way to become a photographer is to practice as much as you can and find a really good story to shoot! If you’re interested in photographing wildlife for Nat Geo come to grips with the reality that you also have to learn how to photograph people (and bloody well). Take a look at the most recent issues of Nat Geo and see how many wildlife stories are actually just wildlife. The answer is zero. The stories Nat Geo is looking for almost always are about everything surrounding the wildlife species - the conflict, the dangers they face, the people saving (and killing) them. Once you’ve found a good story - shoot the literal crap out of it! Get everything! If it’s a new power plant threatening a rare butterfly population shoot pictures of butterflies with the power plant in the background, photograph people catching the butterflies (if they do), photograph their endangered habitat (from the ground and the air), photograph the building sites being put up, photograph the butterfly in a museum collection. Think outside of the box! Your equipment is nowhere near as important as your ability to frame an image, the content of that image and a basic understanding of compositional elements, depth of field and lighting. YOU DO NOT NEED AN EXPENSIVE camera and if this is what you are focusing on then you have already lost the race. Get a basic DSLR or mirrorless number and go!
What about Money
Ask everyone - literally, approach every entity you can think of. Approach apparel companies to give you clothes, ask food companies to supply your rice and tuna cans when you’re in the field, start a small crowdfunding page and then yes, write grants! National Geographic Society offer a number of really good, small grants, as do the scientific exploration society, royal geographic society. Look online and search for hours…its not easy writing them and that’s why you write 15 NOT 1! If you’re working as a cameraman or photographer your daily rate will range widely from maybe US$ 100 to US$ 1000 depending on who you are shooting for, for how long and how good you are (ie. can you operate bad ass equipment that is very technical and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars).
Oh and BTW conservation/science is not a job!
Well they are but they aren’t! Don’t for a second think you are going to roll up to a project and earn what your friends are making - prepare to live modestly. The average Australian postdoc makes US$ 56 000 per year! A typical PhD stipend (living allowance) in Australia is US$17 000 per year! Yep - that’s a 25-30 year old person earning little over US$ 1 400 per month to do science at the graduate level! And these are good wages by global standards, the UK and USA are no better. You are going to have to hustle to earn a decent living and you will have to learn charisma, presentation, writing skills to supplement your income! But then again you’ll be studying and enjoying lions in Africa somewhere so that is pretty much priceless!
I will be looking to take on a few students at the end of 2019 to work on big cat/large mammal questions at the honours and MSc levels. Ideally I’m looking to collaborate with foreign nationals (ie. you want to start a project in your home country, can speak the language) who want to register for graduate studies in South Africa or Australia.
If you don’t think I’ve done a good job of answering your question pop me a mail!
Cover photo: Bertie Gregory.