Distinguishing Your Nature Photography: 3 Strategies Not Often Followed

by Michael Douglas | November 28, 2018

Distinguishing nature photographyIn this article, I suggest three ways to improve the visibility of your nature photos. Two of these you can do yourself, while the last will likely involve collaboration with other like-minded photographers. Let’s first discuss why this is important.

First the questions: Why are we interested in nature photography? Who are we shooting for? Is it for self-satisfaction? For a photography competition? For better recognition for our work or website? To make a statement? To pay the bills for our travel and photo equipment? I suspect that one or more of these applies to every one of us.

A quick glance through the images of the NatureScapes photo galleries will impress even experienced nature photographers. Many of us will never be in the situation to obtain many of these iconic images (e.g. polar bears on ice floes, leopards hauling antelope up trees) and this can be discouraging at times. But if your goal is to have widespread impact, rather than financial success or recognition among your most accomplished peers, you might consider refocusing your photographic strategy.

By counting the entries in each of the NatureScapes Galleries it is apparent that Birds dominate the submissions (103k), followed by Flora and Macro (31k), and then Wildlife and Landscapes (about 25k each). However, from casual inspection, the Flora and Macro category is dominated by insects, with less than half the subjects being flora. I suspect this is typical for nature photography subjects. To most people, plants are just less interesting—and less challenging to photograph—than things that move. This should tell you something. Plants as subject matter may be where there is the greatest opportunity for you to distinguish your photography. There is simply less competition and plants are everywhere. So my first suggestion to distinguish your nature photography is to focus on plants.

A second means of distinguishing your work is to give it away. That’s right—for free. It is very hard to sell nature photographs if you are competing with others who have been photographing iconic subjects for years or decades. There will always be more impressive images of the common subjects (big mammals, birds, and waterfalls) available for the person who must have these images for their office wall. If you want to draw attention to your photography you should consider putting materials in Creative Commons or another source that can be accessed by anyone. Google Maps is also always in need of images, so adding accurately located images will provide free publicity for your work.

The final suggestion I have to improve your exposure is what I consider the most important since it applies to any of your nature images, independent of the subject. Consider developing some of your images into educational content that would be freely available to educational audiences. By content, I don’t just mean some images—no matter how spectacular. I mean a coherent set of images with text that conveys information about some aspect of nature.

Imagine your potential audience, like an elementary or secondary school classroom. There are more than 90,000 elementary schools in the U.S. alone and more than 30,000 secondary schools. This audience is huge, without even considering foreign countries that may want to show posters about the U.S. in their geography or biology classes.

Consider an example. Figure 1 shows a collection of images about Florida’s natural environment. The collection can be presented as individual images, placed together in Figure 1 for convenience of viewing. This type of image is commonly seen in photo galleries online. A catchy name or phrase is assigned to each image and that’s it. Take a look at the images individually. When you are done ask yourself: what did I learn about each of these subjects from viewing these images? The answer will be very little.

Florida nature alternative poster © Mike Douglas

Now consider a second example. I prepared a poster (Figure 2) using these same images, but adding text that might be appropriate for a 9th grade geography or biology classroom (teachers please correct me if I’m wrong about the grade level). It has text that contains more information about the images and ties them together.

Florida natural environments poster © Mike Douglas

I suspect that almost everyone reading this will have learned something new, because I am highlighting some aspects of Florida’s nature that are relatively poorly known, even among nature photographers. In particular, the diversity of “insect-eating” plants in northern Florida and the even greater diversity of epiphytes in southern Florida may not be known to many wildlife photographers, even those that travel to Florida, because most Florida-bound nature photographers tend to focus on bird photography.

In fairness, to any display of individual images like those shown in Fig. 1 these images could also be effective educational tools if they were accompanied by informative text, but they would probably need to be organized in a sequence to convey a coherent picture about some Florida environment, say a Bald Cypress swamp. The logistics of hanging or pasting multiple images on a classroom wall would be more complex than hanging a single poster. But this level of detail could be worked out between educators and the photographers involved in developing the materials.

Producing such a poster for elementary school students or even a full-length illustrated lecture for a high school biology class won’t necessarily get you accolades from the professional photography community or the offer of a gallery exposition. But it will have impact. In this age of widespread lack of contact and understanding of nature (“nature deficit disorder”) it is critical to expose children and their parents to informative material about the natural world. How else will nature conservation activities, that all nature photographers support, continue—and ideally expand—if we don’t have a society that cares about nature and appreciates some of its complexities?

It may be unrealistic to expect each of us to produce complex educational products independently. Individually, we may have excellent images of different nature subjects, but we may not be able to describe the aspects that an educator may want to present to their class. Why not work collaboratively? It is reasonable to expect that a school district in Florida will have more interest in the flora and fauna of a Bald Cypress swamp than a school system in southern Arizona. Photographers who live in Florida will have more frequent access to a Bald Cypress swamp nearby than those living in Arizona. Working jointly on educational projects might be one way to increase connectivity among nature photographers and produce joint works that would positively impact nature education in their state or region.

What I am suggesting above shouldn’t be restricted to the U.S. More effective nature education is needed globally; here the collaboration required to put together such materials might be between educators in a particular country and photographers living in many countries.

The success of any educational effort by nature photographers would likely depend on the non-photographic aspects of the effort. Since education in the U.S. is organized by school districts and states, it might be necessary to first survey the interests in different states to identify the most relevant subjects to work on. Fortunately, matching the needs of educators with the interests of photographers should be possible online. Making schools aware of the materials being generated and obtaining financial support for printing items like posters (that might otherwise be unaffordable to some school districts) would follow.

Although expecting professional nature photographers to contribute some of their images and time to develop educational materials cannot be taken for granted, I suspect that this is an activity that nearly all nature photographers would like to participate in. Just how to organize the photographic efforts and how to contact the diverse school systems would be initial challenges. Probably the most difficult step for the nature photography community is to take the first step, and collectively decide that this is something that needs to be done.

About the Author

Michael Douglas is a retired research meteorologist who, growing up in southern California, developed a strong interest in natural history and especially plants. He and his wife have traveled extensively in Latin America and parts of Africa both for research and personal nature-focused travels. His focus is now on applying his knowledge to biogeography topics and the education of biologists, with the aim of improving conservation activities. Visit their website at for a short photography course for biologists and many natural history talks that can be used freely by clubs or individuals.

7 thoughts on “Distinguishing Your Nature Photography: 3 Strategies Not Often Followed

  1. I love this idea. There are a lot of images and being able to influence young minds is a great concept. Now, how to link to the educators…that’s the tough part.

  2. “There will always be more impressive images of the common subjects.” You use this vague generalization as proof for your agument that photographers other than the recognized few should even try to attain that “status”. In doing so you undermine the spirit of finding and sharing the beauty and spectacular in nature. Hopefully this was done unintentionally. Your illustration of using related images in an educational manner is excellent.

    • Your point is well taken. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from seeking great photos of any subject. When they present themselves, I photograph the same subjects that I suggest not focusing on in my article. But it is easier to distinguish yourself by specializing on things most people don’t. Of course your audience may end up being very small if you specialize too much. Needless to say, even the best photographers out there will ultimately retire (or die) so someone will have to replace them!

  3. “It demeans its value!” …… but one must consider what is the value of an image in non-financial terms. If the “give away” promotes conservation or education one could argue that value is much much more than the paltry average cost per 1000 images that the market would pay.

  4. One might argue that giving imagery away for free is like giving away medicine for free – it doesn’t reduce its value. But I do understand your point. I was once told in a foreign country that I should not give a free short course because students would not take it seriously – they were accustomed to paying large sums for foreigner-taught courses. Most people tend to equate quality with cost. My article was suggesting a strategy for increasing your work’s visibility and for positive environmental impact, not necessarily financial gain. If giving away some of your work gives better visibility to your other work – you might see a net financial gain. Clearly, professional photographers who make their living by selling products and services cannot donate all of their work. It may be that educational outreach is more the realm of photographers who have the luxury of doing this as a hobby.

    • Monetarily maybe temporarily, or you could consider its value as advertising, it gives more people to a chance to see what you’re capable of. With that being done it gives you a wider base of future customers. Recognition in itself has value, and skill not money is what will make people take notice of what you have to offer.