Conservation Photography: Investments and Returns at Home

by Joe Smith | December 1, 2005

ChartMy first Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest in 2001 was my introduction to nature photography and photographing on ranches in Texas. As a recently retired businessman living in Houston, Texas, I knew nothing about wildlife and habitat and had little experience in taking nature slide images, either macro or telephoto, except for an occasional zoo or backyard photo. During that contest, I became sold on the contest’s concept and have participated in two more Coastal Bend contests in 2003 and 2005 and one Valley Land Fund contest in 2002. Many parties benefit from the experiences and programs built around these contests. In this article, I will describe the investments needed to be successful and the returns you can earn from participating in such a contest.

Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest-Mission

Private landowners in Texas and elsewhere play a vital role in wildlife conservation and habitat improvement. Their efforts are enhanced through sound economic incentives like wildlife photo contests. The mission of the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest is “to create an atmosphere of cooperation among businesses, private landowners, and wildlife photographers, where all participants benefit while promoting the conservation and protection of wildlife and habitat.” This is accomplished through a richly funded wildlife photo contest, $75,000 in prize money in 2005, split equally between landowners and photographers. Wildlife prospers as landowners with the most diverse, well-managed habitat have the best chance of winning. Many landowners plow back their winnings into habitat improvements especially if they are seeking other revenue sources from their land besides energy production, hunting, ranching or agriculture. Ecotourism is another landowner business opportunity, as people will pay to access their properties to view wildlife. Businesses benefit through advertising sponsorships that offer years of positive public exposure. Schools and children benefit from the Coastal Bend’s Kritters 4 Kids program that assists in educating elementary and middle school youth in the Coastal Bend area about eco-systems, threats to habitat and the importance of conservation and land stewardship. Coastal Bend is involved in land conservation projects and partnerships with other organizations in the area. A major source of revenue for the Coastal Bend comes from sale of pictorial books of the winning contest photos. An exhibit of the winning images tours the region over the two-year contest cycle. Economic incentives are present for everyone, and they work.

One of the goals of the photo contest is to create a partnership between landowners and wildlife photographers. Knowledge is shared and transferred and working relationships and friendships are developed that last well beyond the contest time period. Every photographer I have met during a contest has told me that he/she is amazed what the landowner does not know about their property or what wildlife is even present on their property. Photographers often make simple recommendations about what can be done or halted that can have huge positive habitat payoffs, often at little or no expense. Landowners get advice from photographers on pond location and improvements, location and maintenance of blinds as well as vegetation planting and maintenance.

How the Contest Works

The photo contest committee: 1) Sets the rules well in advance of the contest period. Key items include: contest area, time period, image classes, limited or full entries, number of image entries, fees, awards, ethics statement, selection of judges, slide or digital media or both, etc. 2) Recruits landowners and photographers.

The formation of a landowner/photographer team is left to the photographer and landowner. The Coastal Bend can play an important role in identifying landowners and photographers with common needs and goals. In my first contest, I entered as a limited entrant, entering only 20 out of 50 classes. I knew I could not sell myself as an accomplished or award-winning nature photographer. I needed a property with decent accommodations, preferably near Houston. The contest helped match me with a landowner who was willing to have such a photographer on his property. For my second and third contests, I wanted to photograph wading birds and looked for a property with wetlands and good accommodations. The ranch I picked for both contests had wetlands, a B&B, a bunkhouse and access to a ranch vehicle. In my second contest, I was a limited entrant. In my third, I entered as a full entrant and as a team. I was not concerned about the presence of cattle or hunters. If you are, then pick a ranch without them.

Photographer and landowner have to be very comfortable and communicate well with other. The rancher has to completely trust the photographer in that the photographer has complete access to the landowner’s property, livestock, staff, hunting guides and vehicles. Likewise, if the photographer expects feeders and water holes to be maintained and cattle rotations to be kept, then the landowner had best see that this is done to avoid an upset photographer. Neither party should expect that the other understands his lingo and needs, because they do not. (Only a few landowners are also photographers.) And when it comes to blinds, hunting blinds are the only ones landowners understand. Blinds for good deer shots don’t cut it for 500mm or 600mm bird or turkey shots. The photographer has to find the species, place blinds, plan shots and stay out of trouble.

The photographer must be flexible and adaptable. Shoot the species or class if and when you see it. Don’t wait until it might get better. Since one can enter up to three images in 53 classes, use your time carefully to try and cover all of the classes. In southeast Texas the wind blows almost all the time. There may be only one or two days without wind during the whole contest period, so be ready to do butterflies before sunrise or at sunset. When the rancher spots a dead animal, get your vulture or caracara shot. One can’t spend three or four days trying to get that great hawk shot. If the lighting is poor, shoot a class that needs soft lighting. While walking around, plan or anticipate a shot. Be prepared and record in a notebook information for future shots.


For the photographer, the investments are fees, equipment, blinds, film and processing or memory cards and time and talent. The photographer entry fee was:

  • $500 for team of two photographers, entry into all fifty three (53) classes
  • $400 for single photographer, entry into all fifty three (53) classes
  • $200 for single photographer, entry into up to twenty (20) classes of your choice.

The Landowner entry fee was $250 for 1000 acres or less or $500 for more than 1000 acres. Landowners paid one entry fee based on total acreage entered, regardless of the location of the land within the eleven county area (about 200 miles near and around Corpus Christi, TX) or the number of photographers using the property.

Contest Results

In 2005, 54 photographer/teams entered, 41 as individuals and 26 as 13 teams in either the Slide format or the separate Digital format contests. Forty-seven landowners entered. (Some are counted twice if they participated in both formats.) I entered as a team with Don Pederson in the Slide format. A fellow NSN, Juan Bahamon, MD, entered in both formats but on a different ranch for each format.

The contest ran from February 1, 2005 thru June 30, 2005, but the photographers were limited to 42 shooting days. Sometimes I shot alone, sometimes on the same days as Don. We tried not to duplicate what we were shooting.
The 53 possible entry classes were as follows:

  • Birds Division, with 22 classes Mammals Division, with 8 classes
  • Insects & Arachnids Division, with 7 classes
  • Reptiles & Amphibians Division, with 5 classes
  • Special Classes Division, with 11 classes

To win big money in these contests one needs to be a very good nature photographer with an excellent knowledge of native wildlife and habitat and also be on a property with diverse and excellent habitat. The more accomplished photographers usually have the inside track to get the best properties that usually repeat as winners in each contest.

Summary for the 2005 Slide Format Contest: Total prize money was $74,700. Only 57% of the photographers/teams won anything. The top three won 68% of the money, and the top six won 86% of the money. Within the 53 classes, money was awarded for first, second and third place images, $400, $300 and $200 respectively. Out of the 159 possible class winners (53 x 3), the top three photographers took 102 of the winning images, and the top six took 123 of the 159. My team finished fifteenth and won $600. Our landowner got $300, and Don and I each got $150. We had one first place in ranch operations, one third place in landscape with mammals and four honorable mentions. The honorable mentions will make the book, but received no prize money.

Slide Format Entrants Slide Format Money Winners
Total number of photographers – 43
Number of photographers/teams – 35 Number of photographers/teams – 20
Number of ranches – 31 Number of ranches – 19

Here is the distribution of the $74, 700. In this contest, and in similar contests, pay very close attention to how the money will be distributed among class winners, division winners and grand prize winners. Most of the money to class winners is the goal. The formulas for determining division and grand prize winners need to be a function of dollars to class winners. Winning classes is where the action and money should be.

2005 Slide Format Contest, Distribution of Prize money pie chart

Here is the distribution of the prize money for the top six photographers/teams and the remaining 14 money winners. The top two photographers/teams took home most of the money and clearly earned their share of the grand prize money. Note that there was not that much difference among the third -sixth place photographers/teams. Given the subjective nature of judging images, deciding what images to submit and knowing something about the judges’ preferences are both very important parts of the contest. Concentration of winnings among relatively few photographers has been the norm in the four contests in which I have participated.

Slide Format Contest, Distribution of Prizes by Photographer chart

Given these results why do landowners and photographers enter these contests and devote so much time and energy to them? For many photographers, it provides access to private properties one would not otherwise ever see or get a chance to photograph on. One gets to meet excellent photographers and landowners and develop lasting friendships. The photographer gets a chance to improve photographic techniques and build portfolios. Those photo books with images by Larry Ditto, Jeremy Woodhouse, and Sean Fitzgerald, Bill Draker and Rolf Nussbaumer and yours truly are quite impressive. But perhaps, importantly, it’s the public awareness our photos provide towards habitat and wildlife conservation that makes a difference.

The digital contest was on a smaller scale with $4,150 in prize money. See the latest contest details at

For more information about this contest or establishing a similar organization in your area, contact Michelle Horine or Roger Zessin at the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contest, at 361-881-9316.

The Valley Land Fund 2006 contest, ($100,000 in prize money) is recruiting photographers through January 31, 2006. Digital and film submissions will both be accepted and compete alongside one another. The 2006 Contest will be shortened to 3 months: April 1 – June 30, 2006. Submissions limited to 50 images. No photographer teams – individual shooters only. Winning images (1st, 2nd, & 3rd place) in every class will win a cash prize. The 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Grand Prizes will be based upon the portfolios with the highest accumulated point scores. I want to thank Michelle Horine and John West at the Coastal Bend Wildlife Contest who provided me with the details on the prizewinners.

About the Author

Joe Smith has over 40 years experience in photography including medium format black and white which he began as a teenager. He began nature photography in 2000 and learned by attending nature photo workshops but primarily by participating in Texas wildlife photo contests. He is one of the winning photographers in the 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007 Coastal Bend Wildlife Photo Contests and also was a winner in the 2002 Valley Land Wildlife Photo Contest. Joe conducts photographic introduction seminars for eighth graders at various schools in Houston, TX and serves on the boards of various non profits. He recently helped Houston Wilderness publish its "Houston Atlas of Biodiversity." Joe photographs with Nikon digital cameras and Nikon lenses.

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