Conservation photography and photojournalism: Using your photography for environmental conservation

Disposable surgical face mask underwater, plastic waste in the ocean since coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Photography has the power to move people in ways few other mediums can. Photographs can make strong statements about our world and our lives. Conservation photography is no exception. As a form of advocacy, conservation photography plays a vital role in raising awareness of the threats to our environment and its inhabitants. If you enjoy wildlife photography, are a devout environmentalist, or just want to get involved in advocacy work then consider taking up conservation photography or photojournalism.

Conservation photographers work within their local environments, or even on national campaigns. There are opportunities for conservation photographers to work within journalism, environmental science, field research, and policy-making sectors. Conservation photography is a great way to use your photography skills to create a story and make a statement about a critical topic of interest in today’s society: the impact of humanity on our environment.

What is conservation photography?

Conservation photography is nature photography to advocate for wildlife and our planet’s natural ecosystem. Conservation photography can be a powerful tool to showcase the beauty of, and in some cases threats to, our environment. Multiple types of organizations use this type of photography. Environmental conservation organizations, photojournalists, those involved in environmental policy, and even private citizens are all able to affect change through conservation photography.

The intersection of conservation, photojournalism, and wildlife photography

As a conservationist photographer, you’ll wear many hats. You will not only think like a conversationalist, but as a photographer, a storyteller, a researcher, an organizer, and a journalist.

Conservationist photography is often used to communicate specific messages or emotions. When capturing your images, think about the story you’re telling, as well as the purpose you want your image to serve or elevate. You’ll want to organize with other conservationists, advocates, and environmentalists. Creating these bonds can help you amass important resources and funds, as well as create effective advocacy campaigns. Conservation photographers may also team up with environmental scientists, as these photos can aid in further research efforts.

How photography can influence conservation efforts

Visual evidence showcasing nature’s beauty and highlighting the devastating effects of the lack of environmental protections can have a profound impact. Research published on Science Direct has shown that people are more likely to remember pictures in more detail than they are words. This makes advocacy photography an incredibly powerful tool for raising awareness and inspiring an emotional response among your audience.

Photographs are also more shareable. Research from HubSpot on the Facebook algorithm has shown that photo posts receive 53 percent more engagement than text posts. And of course, there are photo-centric platforms, like Instagram and Pinterest, that require an accompanying image to make a post. With these social platforms, conservationists can easily and quickly share their messages to a wide audience. This helps awareness campaigns generate traction and bring little-known issues to the forefront.

The ethics of photographing wildlife

Ethical photography is an important topic, particularly within the advocacy and policy spheres, which conservational photography intersect with. Many photography organizations have a code of ethics that shapes the way they interact with vulnerable populations. The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) has a code of ethics, as does Photographers Without Borders. These organizations need these codes to protect the rights and dignity of their subjects.

This topic is highly debated in the case of wildlife photographers. Some might argue that animals don’t need to be treated with the same dignity as humans, and therefore animals can be baited or disturbed for a shot. As demonstrated by Outside magazine, others strongly disagree with these types of practices.

The argument typically comes down to whether or not your shot, or how you set up or capture a photo, involves endangering or harming the animal or its habitat. This is an especially important question for conservation photographers, as the destruction of the environment is the exact opposite of what conservation means.

Whether or not you believe animals deserve to be treated with dignity is your own opinion, however, to be a conservation photographer, you have to practice elements of ethical wildlife photography to preserve the way of life of your subjects.

General best practices for photographing wildlife

Photographing wildlife can be a delicate but rewarding experience. Even if you’re not a conservation photographer, you’ll want to keep environmental considerations top of mind when going out into the wild. This is important for the safety of the wildlife, and yourself.

The ethics of shooting wildlife are highly debated among different groups. The standards and opinions vary depending on location, species, and reason for shooting. When looking to shoot ethically, follow the above practices and make a conscious effort to minimize your effect on the wildlife.

Sharing conservation messages on social media

Posting conservation photography on your social media can require a delicate balance. Social media is a great place to curate your professional portfolio, as well as expose your work to an audience. However, as the Audubon Society describes, exposing protected locations or animals to large, curious crowds can pose a threat to the animal or the ecosystem. There are a few best practices to observe when you’re posting conservation photography on social media:

Crafting a visual narrative

You can emphasize the visual narrative of your images using different photography techniques. Framing, lighting, and composition techniques can all change the tone of your image. Other wildlife-specific photography tools, like photo blinds and camera traps, are especially helpful for long shoots. They may also help you capture unique images from different perspectives.

When it comes to capturing your image, patience will be your best tool. Unlike posed photography, nature and wildlife move at a pace entirely their own. Being flexible with your goals and open to the world around you will help you capture and create truthful and impactful images.

Considerations for photo editing

While conservation photography is centered around the truth of the world around us, photo editing is still a part of the process. Where and how your photos are going to be used will help determine to what degree you’ll be editing them.

When it comes to photographs you’re taking for research and documentary photojournalism purposes, accuracy is mandatory. However, very basic digital alterations and adjustments are accepted. These minor adjustments may include:

Whoever is publishing your photo may provide a guideline of acceptable edits or input on the editing process before publication.

On the other hand, a picture for an advocacy or awareness campaign may be more heavily edited to create a more poignant message. These heavier edits may include:

The more you edit a photo, the more you change the original story of the image. Depending on what the image is for, you may have to think as a photographer as well as a conservationist, photojournalist, or advocate.

Packing the right photography equipment

Equipment is another vital part of conservation photography. Because you’re shooting outside, you’ll want to invest in waterproof and protective gear for your cameras and lenses. This will help you protect gear from inclement weather on a shoot. Packing this equipment should be near the top of your shoot prep list. You may also want to invest in outdoor gear for yourself, such as:

This gear can help you maneuver your photography equipment easily, regardless of the weather. It can also help keep you comfortable on shoots by keeping you warm, dry, or out of the direct sun. Also, be sure your settings are optimized for nature photography as a part of your shoot prep.

Resources for further reading

You don’t need professional training to become a conservation photographer. However, these guides and tutorials can help elevate your art, which will improve your skillset. Tools, skills, and resources that can help increase the quality of your photos and storytelling include:

Search online or your local universities for photography classes. Classes give you dedicated time to hone your skills, as well as a place to connect with peers.

Resources and organizations for conservation photojournalism and wildlife photography.

Many photographers and photojournalists operate on a freelance basis. Because of this, it’s incredibly important to stay on top of industry happenings in your field. Organizations and resources for conservation photographers and photojournalists include:

These organizations can help connect you to professional opportunities, as well as other photographers and photojournalists in your fields.