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Nature Photography on a Budget – Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

by Matthew Studebaker | December 28, 2009

NatureScapes.netFrom time to time, I find it useful to review and fine tune my strategies for photographing nature. These principals help the photographer utilize his or her resources and not squander precious time and money, which is always useful but is even more important during these tough economic times.

I believe there are two types of photographers out there. The first is the photographer who simply likes taking hikes at their local refuge. These photographers are little concerned with what images they bring back and simply enjoy being outdoors. You might say they want to photograph whatever they find and prolong the experience. The second type of photographer wants to photograph the most in the least amount of time. These photographers are results driven. They have goals, pre-visualize their results, and create various strategies to achieve those results. Recessions particularly hurt goal-oriented photographers because time and money often limit their results, so it is important for them to consider their strategies carefully.

  • Given #1 – We all have limited time and money (even if individual limitations are different).
  • Given #2 – We want to make the best nature photos possible with the finite amount of time and money we each possess.
  • Given #3 – We allocate our photography money primarily towards two expense columns: In-the-field travel, food, lodging, and guides, and secondly, equipment. I’ll share some tips I’ve learned along the way regarding both categories.

In-the-field Expenses

Evaluating General Productivity and Creating Goals which Conform to a Budget

Lately, I’ve been evaluating my basic paradigm for bird photography and comparing that to many other dedicated photographers. Even though we all may have the same basic standard for what constitutes a successful bird photograph, our logistics and strategy can affect our net productivity in a huge way. Let’s look at this example:

Goal: To photograph as many species of North American marsh ducks as possible
Name Strategy Cost Time* Estimated Results
Joe Go to a marsh two counties away almost every Saturday during February, March, April and wait in a hide at the edge of a marsh for the very shy ducks to swim by. Cost: $50 per trip for gas and food x 10 Saturdays = $500 10 hours x 10 days
= 100 hours
5 images of the most common 3-4 migrant duck species in his area
Jane Fly to a world renowned waterfowl location like southern California and vicinity, one weekend in February. Cost: $609 through Orbitz bundle flight package + food and misc = $700 Saturday and Sunday in the field plus travel Friday and Sunday evenings
= 30 hours
15 great images of the 8 most common species wintering in SoCal
*Time equals travel + time spent in the field

I’ve tried variations on both Joe and Jane’s strategies. I’ve noticed that people who “shoot on a budget” tend to opt for Joe’s strategy. They shoot locally at less than ideal places, spending huge amounts of time for limited results. What they never notice is that they spend almost the same amount of money as if they were to “do it right” and take a workshop or visit a world-renowned location for their subject matter. Always note the cost to benefit ratio. The only way Joe’s strategy makes sense is if he just wants to spend time in the field for fun, or if there is something preventing him from spending the weekend away from home. In my opinion, Jane’s strategy is the one that makes sense for the goal oriented photographer.

Again, the mistake in this example was cutting back big trips and replacing them with lots of local work without really thinking about the cost to benefit ratio. When making image goals and deciding how best to spend your time and money:

Do: Concentrate your efforts on local specialties
Don’t: Concentrate your efforts on local rarities if they can be easily photographed with a little travel

Every year, a couple of Common Loons in breeding plumage are found in a few lakes about 150 miles from my house in Ohio. The local birders get very excited. I have tried to photograph them and multiple trips with lots of time in the field is necessary for this less than ideal location. 150 miles x 2 ways x 4 trips = 1200 miles round trip total. With this sort of time involvement and total miles traveled, I could easily have made it to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and back with time and money to spare. Not only that, but upon my arrival to Michigan’s northern lakes I would be up to my ears in Common Loons in breeding plumage within minutes and bring back MUCH better photographs. So when I’m in Ohio, I don’t try to photograph Common Loons any more even when one shows up. Instead, I spend my time devoted to Ohio specialties – species like Wood Ducks, Warblers, and other Eastern songbirds.

So, if you live in Florida, photograph Spoonbills and Caracaras, not that Say’s Phoebe that showed up near Orlando. If you live in Ohio, try photographing your local Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks this winter, don’t chase reports of Golden Eagle sightings at the Wilds. If you really want Golden Eagles, find accessible nests out west and book a weekend flight during nesting season.

When you do travel, consider the benefit of hiring a guide with local knowledge versus going on your own. I recently made this mistake and ended up spending $1000 trying to save a few cents. On my annual workshop I lead in Arizona, I always stay a few days after the workshop to seek out new opportunities and attempt to add new species to my repertoire. I ate fast-food at sketchy restaurants to save money and bought a bird book to navigate the back roads for species I had never seen. In the end, I got food poisoning which had me in bed for two days and racked up various medical expenses. To make things worse, I only found a handful of new species trying to navigate the foreign territory on my own. If I had just hired a local bird guide and eaten healthy food, I would have saved medical costs, had two extra days in the field, and probably found 10 times the number of species.

If money is tight:
Do:
Acquire the best lenses you can afford
Don’t: Buy unnecessary gadgets

Equipment: Getting the Most Bang for your Buck

When resources are scarce, I find that I always get a good return when I invest my money in lenses as they tend to retain their value over time. I recently sold my 500mm IS lens on e-Bay for more than I paid for it brand new. I showed the bidders some photos I had taken with the lens which made it more exciting. Cameras on the other hand tend to lose their value very, very quickly. In my experience, most digital camera bodies seem to lose about 25% of their value per year. Not only that, but digital photographic technologies are advancing so rapidly, that if you buy the previous generation’s model you can acquire amazing equipment at a greatly reduced price. That’s not to say that those of you who buy the latest and greatest camera body don’t get your money’s worth. I’m simply saying if money is tight, last year’s models still take stunning images if attached to a great lens. For a long time I used a Canon Rebel XT (low end consumer digital camera body) combined with a 500mm IS lens (top of the line professional grade lens). The photos I produced with that duo have been published in numerous national publications and got me through those post-college years of paying off student loans. Spend the money on the lens, bargain shop for the camera body.

The same rule applies for photo gadgets. When resources are limited, if you are a results oriented photographer, allocate your equipment budget toward the equipment that will best help yield the results you want. This principal is ridiculously simple, but I see it often overlooked. In other words, if forced to choose between spending $40 on a Better Beamer flash extender (which will affect how your images look) or on the latest, greatest weatherproof indestructible water bottle holder for your tripod, always chose the item that will yield the greatest results for your photography. Get the luxury goods when you have surplus resources in the future.

So whether you’re struggling through this recession or simply making your 2010 budget for photography and want to direct your resources towards achieving the greatest results, try to evaluate the productivity of your photo location before going. Sometimes it actually saves money to fly to the best location and hire a guide. Don’t spend a $1000 trying to save a few cents. Put your money into equipment that will yield results first, buy luxury gadgets with your surplus. Create goals which conform to your budget’s needs. Worst case scenario in this recession: you end up photographing chickadees at your backyard feeder. A good photo is a good photo. I truly believe that a creative, dedicated person can make a better shot of a chickadee on a $12 budget than most people make of a Harpy Eagle on a trans-continental Safari. The good news: photographs of Chickadees are easier to sell than Harpy Eagles!

About the Author

Matthew is a professional nature photographer living in Cleveland, Ohio. He leads a number of bird photography workshops around the U.S. For more information please visit his website: www.studebakerbirds.com.

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