Connecting the dots since 1985


Ecology of Freelance Conservation Photography

The Ecology of Freelance Conservation Photography


Costs, Competition and Common Ground in the Business of Selling Environmental Images


Clearcut papaya forest near Tikal, Guatemala,  © Ron Levy

For three of my five years as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, I was a double major in biology and music. Then I switched to a single, multi-disciplinary major in Environmental Studies. But I continued to wrestle with integrating the two larger concepts that those disciplines involved – logic and intuition – to find focus for my life.

After working as a seasonal Park Ranger for many years, photography began to emerge as common ground between the two, but also a solution. Photographing the beautiful areas and animals I was working amidst, along with the political and ethical issues suffusing these areas, became my drug of choice. The perfect shot that would resolve each ethical dilemma was always just around the next curve.Most photographers shoot because of heartfelt reasons to record the world, to inspire others, to resolve some sort of conflict, and/or to just figure out what makes themselves tick. There are factors inside and outside of us that push and pull us deeper into the rabbit hole. Unraveling and documenting the selective compassions of humanity, between cultures, animals and the planet, have been heartfelt passions of mine.

In dealing with these issues for over 40 years now in the fields of conservation, ecology, global travel and outdoor recreation, I’ve discovered some connections between them, and how to focus and sustain a freelance photography business (as opposed to a work-for-hire corporate photographer or agency/magazine employee). The points mentioned below involve more of the emotional preparation and planning rather the physical, day-to-day nuts and bolts of marketing, writing, digital prep, etc.

As I hinted above, conservation and wildlife photography involves a conscious mix of brain hemispheres. If you can integrate beautiful images with a clear theme and sensitive, focused, insightful writing in your marketing, you will catch the eyes and minds of important people in the field. You will also have a massive edge over other photographers who may just have stunning images. Images may speak louder than words, but together they add a structure to your brand that can support you for a lifetime.

Costs, Competition & Common Ground

More than other fields of photography, a conservation-oriented photo business has some unique and curiously relevant relationships to its subject matter. Managing a photo business in this day and age of declining stock image rates, declining photo group memberships and increasing cellular journalism from non-serious photographers is kind of like managing declining wildlife populations. Both have to be taken in context with other fundamental factors and undercurrents from larger forces. Consider the following:

Habitat loss — Obviously political and global macro-economic factors can ruin the landscape. Recessions, wars and digital innovations affect all businesses and seem to level the technology and marketing playing fields. Erosion of copyright protection threatens to take the wind out of our lofty retirement balloons.

Pollution — Many times the solution to problems involves first cleaning up the playing field by removing barriers that prevent a resolution. The concept begins with recognizing mindsets – yours and theirs. There have always been reluctance to paying a lot of money for, say one-time use, or, research fees to a photographer just for searching the collection. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in the digital age or selling physical images. Address what has “polluted” the field in the past and you’ll be planting healthy seeds.

Sustainable resources — To sustain yourself in photography, it has always been a volume business, in terms of the number of photos shot, image collection size, or marketing. Make as many solid, personal connections as you can. Digital has made this easier, but the idea that you can sustain yourself with stock images has run its course. It’s tempting to blame larger photo agencies for setting trends, but the more introspective reasons mentioned above deserve at least as much consideration (blame?).

sheep-graze-clearcut-conservation-mexico-Ron Levy Photography

Sheep grazing in clearcut, central Mexico © Ron Levy

Predator-prey relationships — Positioning yourself in the competitive photographic business means you have to try many different angles and techniques to get noticed and get ahead. ASMP has been great for helping in this regard, but there is a price to pay for keeping the bar high. One of those prices has always been to be ready to walk away from low-ball pay rates, which I’ve reluctantly done many times, missing opportunities for some recognition or “tics on the resume” in some cases.

I have always supported ASMP and other agencies for their tireless advocation of realistic assignment and stock photo rates. The scales have been traditionally unbalanced between the large media moguls with massive legal departments against the independent sole proprietor photographer. Combined with the common, but not universal, assumption on part of many publishers that self-employed photographers, whether or not they have a studio or employees or sub-contractors, and whether they have been in business for 1 year or 20, do not have the overhead or other expenses of a traditional business.

The fact remains that whether photographers have a separate brick-and-mortar office or a home office (my home office is, in fact, made with mortar…), they all have the same basic fixed and fluctuating expenses to fold into a day rate or stock image rate. All the expenses of running a stock photography business contribute to providing convenient access for an editor to order and receive a stock image, or hire them and/or their team to shoot a project, and to be able to depend on them repeatedly in the future.

Speaking of the future, all successful businesses plan for the future, in terms of amortizations, marketing, taxes and retirement. Accurately calculating and dividing these anticipated expenses into a day rate estimate or a stock usage fee can make the difference between a successful or failing photo business.

That being said, there are forces at work on both sides of the desk that need to keep expenses as low as possible without sacrificing quality or sustainability. Charging too low a date rate is like shooting yourself in the foot. You may not survive. But an editor that pays too high a day rate , based on a photographer’s public reputation, or some other intangible factor(s) that may or may relate to a profit, is akin to putting a gorilla in a cage with a mouse. Something’s going to eat up the resources fast. Editors and publishers, like photographers, need to triage expenses without sacrificing life support.


Oiled pigeon guillemot, Exxon Valdez spill, Alaska. ©Ron Levy

Whether the subject is commerce or conservation, business relationships do not have to be antagonistic or predator-prey oriented. They are both  feeding from the same media environment, keeping each other alive. The rate and quantity of image consumption supports a healthy refreshment of great pictures worth paying for.

Ironically, perhaps counter-intuitively, by advocating adamantly over many decades for the highest day rates and usage payments to survive, photographers and some photo organizations have contributed to the inevitable decline in rates paid to photographers. Publishers and editors have always looked for other ways to get what they needed (not always the best images) more efficiently (i.e. cheaper) to stay within budget. In conservation terms, most people want to keep feeding from the same resources and in the same community.

I can’t blame them (or us) for trying to save money where they can. We all do this when we shop for photographic gear, travel deals, cars, and, for that matter, toothpaste at Walmart. When quality becomes a priority, we are willing to pay more. But the relationship is not always linear or consistent. As they say, quality is like ‘nailing jello to the wall”. It’s hard to define it in the field of art or advertising or even photojournalism, but we know it when we see it. Or more accurately, when we feel it. A great image “hits you like a ton of bricks”, whether it’s editorial, commercial or art.

So the reason we are partially to blame for the demise of rates paid to photographers is simply that we, like “them” are human. We have limited resources, mostly in terms of time and money. Not recognizing this writing on the wall earlier, and perhaps softening some hard lines in the sand, could have softened the blows of the massive weaning many of us had from the gravy trains of the pre-digital era.

Regardless of whether your job involves images, art or auto mechanics, it’s important — healthy – to recognize the stress levels behind the humans. you work with, and in front of you. Your family, spouse and/or loved ones receive the brunt and benefits of your business decisions. They are the qualitative balances behind your decisions. Crunching numbers can only go so far, at which point you look up from the spreadsheets and decide whether the job (or profession) is worth it, despite, or because of, the numbers.

The same applies to the humans on the other side of the business phone. You both want the best deal for your time, reputation and future. But ultimately deals are sealed – the vast majority of time — on whether the person trusts you or not.  Both of you have budgets, but those are adjustable based on unspoken qualitative factors like personality, efficiency, attention to detail, ability to get great expressions from subjects, dependability, etc. In photography and art, it’s hard to quantify “stress” or that warm, fuzzy feeling you get with a great image or its effect on masses of people.

These are the same factors and reasons why top business people, politicians, lobbyists, managers, etc. like to meet in person to discuss their projects. Non-verbals such as how you look, how you project yourself, how well you listen, whether you offer any ideas or insights – these are vital traits to nurture. Practice being more aware of others’ needs vs wants (start with friends and family). As you may know already (especially if you have kids): They won’t always tell you directly.

Tease those real needs and desires out in your communications. Clients may need a photographer, but what they want is someone they can trust, who gets the shots in an efficient, timely manner, with minimal oversight. Other non-quantifiable benefits include offering possible scenarios (subjects,concepts, locations), providing more than asked for (different outputs, long-term follow-up, connections in the field, etc.), maintaining regular communications and being upbeat yet honest throughout the project, especially during “hiccups”), etc.

Lastly, be sure to recognize the personal stress levels you are willing to work with in pursuing what you love.* Take a regular inventory of your own progress in creating the balance you want in your life. Are you doing the jobs you like, or moving tangibly closer to the lifestyle you want or the place you want to live? Is there some sort of integration and balance between your daily and longer-term lives? If you have kids, you are always being reminded of longer-term perspectives amidst daily hurdles.

Part of my adaptation to changing times has been to (finally) pursue “back burner” projects that bring great fulfillment (despite financial gratification), including more teaching, consultation, photo tours, and charity work. This wasn’t something easily done if I was still in my 20s raising a family. But it’s not impossible**.

There are a myriad of options available that allow you to design the lifestyle and photographic “job” you want. Jot them all down on your bucket-list and check/ modify them regularly. Find what connects the dots in your life. Over time, you may be surprised at the ability of your conscious and subconscious to integrate them organically.


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* For another perspective on a related issue,  see also: Triage and the Costs of Photography – The Line in the Sand
** My only regret is if, knowing what I know now but earlier in my life, I could have figured out a way to have this balance earlier. I suspect it has taken its natural course in time to arrive at where I am. “Pushing the envelope” any more than I did could have burst the balloon (I like mixed metaphors). But based on where I’ve lived for the last few decades (7-acre slice of land and water in Alaska), and how I’ve lived (feeling less constrained and vulnerable in a 9-5, city-based existence, and more connected to broader perspectives), I am deeply gratified and satisfied. To be able to wake up and photograph sandhill cranes, bald eagles or moose on the lake in the morning – or just before going to bed – has provided a daily connection between the ends and the means. And now the ends have turned into a “means” for my kids — a completed circle. Or perhaps more of a repeating arc through the generations. This, in turn, motivates me even more to support and speak for conservation issues.
Ron Levy has photographed for commercial and editorial clients worldwide for over 35 years. Images have been exhibited in museums, galleries, murals, billboards and elsewhere throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been an adjunct instructor for the University of Alaska, and currently leads photography tours to popular wildlife and scenic destinations in Alaska. Ron also enjoys working with companies, agencies and NGOs involved in health, conservation and humanity-centered projects anywhere in the world.



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