Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be a Wildlife Photographer

It’s probably a lot different than you might think.

Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be a Wildlife Photographer

A lion from the Maasai Mara, Kenya

Photo by Richard Peters

In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Our first installment featured a Q&A with avalanche forecaster Doug Krause. Next up: award-winning wildlife photographer Richard Peters.

It takes great tenacity to travel to a mountaintop in Spain, burrow in a forest hide for 10 hours at a time, two days in a row, and wait for a lynx that never reveals itself. It takes a charming personality to teach others to do the same. U.K.-based wildlife photographer Richard Peters is the whole package: a talented shooter and a patient instructor. Named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year and a Nikon Ambassador in 2015, he is at the top of his game, boasting a portfolio full of lions, cheetahs, moose, owls, elephants, coyotes, puffins, badgers, and more. When he’s not shooting for himself, he’s giving talks at London’s Natural History Museum and the Lowlands festival in Antwerp, donating images to conservation organizations like the Jane Goodall Institute and the Born Free Foundation, and leading wildlife photography workshops to the Maasai Mara in Kenya. We caught up with Peters in Surrey, England, to find out more about his unique line of work, what it takes to break into this competitive field, and which creatures still scare the bejesus out of him.

When you tell a stranger that you’re a wildlife photographer, what is their typical reaction?

“Most people say something along the lines of, ‘Oh my god, you must get to travel the world.’ The assumption is that I’m always in some far-flung destination, looking at something amazing. Sadly, that’s not always true.”

You’re like, “Actually, I spend 99 hours a week photo editing on a computer.”

“Yep, basically. [Laughs] They look much less impressed when I say that.”

How did you get into this field? Were you photographing animals from a young age?
“I didn’t have any interest in photography as a kid, but I was always drawn to natural history documentaries. When I was 17, I borrowed a friend’s old manual film camera and just started playing around. I loved it. I loved the control it gave me, and that I could mess with aperture and shutter speed. That’s where my interest started. I’m self-taught, with massive help from the Internet.”

Do you remember the first time you took a photo of wildlife and thought, “Huh. That’s actually really good.”

“I do, actually. Back when I was still finding my feet, I used to live near a river. I went to the shops one day and when I was coming back, there was a heron standing on a post. The post had a ‘No Fishing’ sign, and I quite liked the irony that the heron was fishing. I ran home to get my camera, hoping he would still be there when I got back. Luckily, herons are boring and he was still standing there when I returned. That was one of my first great photos because not only was there something quirky to it, but from a technical point of view it had a nice diffused background. I remember thinking, ‘OK, that was cool. I want to do more photos that make me feel this way.’”

From that moment forward, give me your résumé highlights in 60 seconds or less.

“Photography wasn’t my main thing for a long time. I worked a full-time job in the graphics department at a news channel here in the U.K. for 13 years. It was shift-based work, which gave me time to do photography on the side. Around 2010, I started to take shooting more seriously, investing time and money and traveling more. My pictures got better and I started winning small awards, which got my name out there a bit. In 2012, I had a picture of a fox in Yellowstone National Park honored in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which pushed my name forward even more. A couple of years ago, I was given the option of taking voluntary redundancy or reapplying for my job. I took the redundancy and haven’t looked back. Nobody knew at the time, but I’d just found out that I won European Wildlife Photographer of the Year. A few months after that news came out, Nikon asked me to be an Ambassador. Everything just fell into place.”

What’s something about being a wildlife photographer that the outside world doesn’t understand?

“People assume that being a wildlife photographer means you get paid to travel the world and take amazing pictures. It’s not really like that. My photos help me sell workshops, do [paid] talks about my work, write magazine articles, and so on. Teaching and workshops are where you make your money.”

Walk me through a typical day of workshop shooting.

“It nearly always involves getting up before sunrise, because you need to be out and in position. In Africa, for example, we’ll be up around 5 o’clock and out by 6 so we can find a subject as the sun comes up. You’re out for five hours, bumping around in a Jeep. It’s hot and dusty and you’re getting thrown around, but that’s half the fun of it. Come back for lunch, have a bit of a rest, maybe go over your pictures from the morning, then you’re back out for sunset at 4 o’clock. Have dinner, go to bed, get up early, and do it again.”

When you’re in the field shooting, do you typically plant yourself in one place and hold really still?

“Yeah, that’s key. Let everything come to you. If you chase things, you’ll never get anywhere. All animals have a circle of fear and as soon as you’re within that, they’ll go. But if you just sit quietly and give them time to adjust to your presence, animals will get closer to you than you get to them. There are exceptions. I was just doing a workshop on Skomer Island [in the U.K.] and the puffins there are completely used to people; they will literally run in between your legs. We had one jump up on someone’s camera bag.”


Photo by Richard Peters

Do you prefer shooting birds or mammals? “It’s easier to find birds in the U.K., but I’ve always found mammals more interesting. Birds can’t express as much emotion because they can’t do much with their beaks other than open and close them. I like owls and other raptors, but mammals have these nice fur details and more expressive eyes.”

You’ve said before that wildlife photography can be a frustrating genre because animals don’t care that you’ve flown halfway around the world to shoot them. But the only “guaranteed” animal sightings are in a zoo. How do you account for this uncertainty when you’re on assignment?

“There are very few full-time wildlife photographers, especially in the U.K., and most of us don’t do assignments [of the National Geographic variety]. I just go where I’m going, take my pictures, and try to push them out retrospectively rather than shoot for a specific purpose. But it can be very frustrating. The first year I went to the Maasai Mara for the Great Migration, it was very quiet. I’d gone to see thousands of wildebeests cross the river, and they all decided they didn’t want to get wet that week. When I lead workshops, I have to reinforce that on people: Just because we’re going to Africa doesn’t mean everything is going to be available on demand. It’s not Disneyland. It’s the wild.”

Is part of the lesson, then, training guests to look for another subject? If there are no wildebeests to capture, focus on a nearby bird instead?

“A lot of other wildlife photographers studied zoology, or they were birders first. But I’ve always approached photography from a creative point of view. I’d rather have a nice picture of a pigeon in amazing light than a lion sleeping under a tree in tall grass. It’s not always the exotic subjects that make for the best photos.”

When you lead a group on a Big Cat Safari or to shoot the Great Migration, and everyone is waiting for the same animal to do something interesting, doesn’t everyone take the same shot?

“If I’m doing a workshop, I won’t say, ‘Right, take out your 7200, zoom it to 200mm, put your aperture here, your shutter speed there . . . ’—I don’t give people that kind of information. I tell them what I’m looking at and how I’d approach it, but I encourage them to use different lenses, different zoom ranges, and different shutter speeds. Some people might be standing up; others are trying to get down low for a fresh perspective. There’s nearly always something you can do that the others aren’t.”

What’s in your camera bag when you travel?
“My essential go-to kit is the Nikon D810 and a 400mm lens. If I need a high frame rate, I’ve got a Nikon D500 . A wide-angle and telephoto are my other essentials. If I’m going to Africa or somewhere further afield, I take multiple lenses, tripod, gimbal head, flash guns—everything!”

If someone wants to get serious about wildlife photography, what is the minimum amount of equipment they would need to invest in?

“An entry-level camera and a decent telephoto lens. A basic setup could be bought for under £1,000. But it gets crazy quickly. There’s no real middle ground, especially with telephoto lenses—the jump goes from £2,000 to £10,000. But I’m forever telling people that it’s more important to understand how your camera works than buy a new one. A better camera doesn’t mean better pictures if you don’t know how to use it.”

What’s the shot that got away—the one that still haunts you?

“There are so many! But when I was in Yellowstone National Park, we came across a bison that was asleep in the snow. It had been asleep for so long, it had a blanket of snow over the top of it. We sat there waiting for it to wake, because we knew snow would fly everywhere when it stood up. We waited for about an hour, and somebody else in the car suggested that we go up the road for about five minutes and make sure we weren’t missing anything else. We did that, there was nothing else around, so we came back. The bison was gone. Just totally disappeared. I don’t know if it would have been a good picture or not, but every time I look at the picture of it asleep and covered in snow, I get slightly agitated that we drove away. If you can see the potential for a special picture, it’s always worth waiting.”

Let’s talk about Back Garden Safari. The idea behind the book is that you don’t have to travel to exotic locations to get great photos of wild animals; you can shoot them in your own backyard. What inspired you to start the project?

“Essentially that. The idea occurred to me after spotting a fox in my neighbor’s garden. I wanted to show people that you don’t have to travel or have access to a farm [to photograph wildlife]; you can see nesting peregrine falcons on the tops of tall buildings. Wildlife is all over cities if you look hard enough.”

What’s the toughest animal to photograph?

“Probably the wolves in Yellowstone. When I went out there a few years ago, the pack that people used to see had mostly disbanded. I heard them but I never saw them. That was very frustrating.”

Of your many photos, the one that made my spine tingle was your “Killer in the Mist” shot of an alligator from Florida, which placed 2nd in the Oasis International Photo Competition in 2014. How far away were you from that ’gator?
“Not that far! Maybe eight feet. Although it looks quite menacing, the closer I got, the alligator retreated—that whole circle of fear thing. If I’d have jumped on top of it, Crocodile Dundee-style, it would have had me.”

Have you had any other hair-raising episodes?

“Generally, no. Anytime you’re somewhere where animals could do you harm—like Africa—you’re always in a vehicle. Unless they were very hungry, or you had agitated them, or there were young around, they would run away if you got out. When we were there in February, one of our Jeeps had a flat tire. There were four male lions walking toward us, but when the driver jumped out to change the tire, the lions gave us an extra-wide berth.”

Is there any animal you’re afraid of?

“Spiders! Can’t stand ’em.”

That must be a big risk in your line of work.

“It can be a bit of a problem. [Laughs] When I was in Slovenia a month or two ago, one of the forest hides was elevated 15 feet off the ground. It was old and covered in cobwebs, so I was on high alert for the first hour. If something crawled out, I couldn’t just sit there—I would have to jump out. That’d be a real problem if I was surrounded by dangerous animals!”

Since travel is such a big part of your job, what do you do for vacation?
“I try to separate my work but the idea of getting on a plane and not having a camera on me is completely alien. Last year, my wife and I went to Cape Sounio in Greece. We wanted to chill out, read books, and sit in the sun. By complete fluke, our hotel—in conjunction with a Greek sea turtle rescue organization—was re-releasing a turtle on the hotel’s beach. So on the final morning of our holiday, I spent three hours lying on the sand, waiting for this sea turtle to walk into the sea. My wife enjoyed the experience, but I always worry that I’m going to cross a line and she’ll grab my camera and smash it or something. [Laughs] I’m very lucky that my wife is massively tolerant; she generally lets me do what I need to do. In the case of that sea turtle though, it took him half an hour to walk 10 feet. Even I was willing him to go faster!”

To learn more about Richard Peters’s upcoming workshops, visit AFAR readers can get 25 percent off his e-book, Back Garden Safari, when they enter the discount code afar during checkout.

>>Next: What It’s Like to Be an Avalanche Forecaster

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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