Mark Higley, the wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, holds a Northern Spotted Owl, a federally protected species in northern California. Researchers have recently learned that rodenticides from marijuana farms are poisoning the owls at an exposure rate of about 65 percent of tested animals. Photo: Morgan Heim

Tips and How-Tos

Use Your Photography to Support and Advance Conservation

Go beyond taking photos of beautiful birds and their fascinating behaviors. Aim to inspire action.

If you’re hooked on bird photography, it’s safe to say you’re probably hooked on birds. Behind your photography is a shared ethos for the natural world and the wildlife that inhabits it.

You may want to use your photography to help those birds. If so, you’re taking the first step to becoming a conservation photographer. Conservation photography is one part what the photograph says, and two parts what the photograph does: It is the active and deliberate use of photos to support conservation awareness and action.

But where to begin? You can be effective and get a lot done if you follow a few basic ground rules.

Work Near Home 

While I've traveled the world for my photography work, I've shot some favorite images just miles from home. Telling a story through photos about bird conservation doesn’t mean jetting off to the Serengeti.

In fact, your best chance for success will be to identify the subjects you’re passionate about close to where you live. You have an intimate connection to your area, and I guarantee conservation issues are unfolding right around you. It’s also a lot more affordable.

For example, a recent project of mine, A Last Leap Towards Flowers, a fine art portrait series about the heavy toll of wildlife-vehicle collisions, started within 8 miles of my home and never strayed more than 25 miles away. But it managed to draw attention to the issue of roadkill on an international stage at the World Economic Forum. That’s not to say that your work needs to be seen by people across the world, just that local projects still carry that potential. You are likely to have the biggest impact nearer home, and often it's local issues that are overlooked by other photographers and in need of attention.

This Barred Owl was hit by a car just outside of Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Washington, where two breeding pairs were known to be nesting. I featured this image in a series of photography project meant to raise awareness about roadside collisions with wildlife. Photo: Morgan Heim

Research and Make Connections

Begin by reading anything you can get your hands on about a subject. Right now, I’m exploring a story about the largest nesting colony of cormorants in North America that happens to live on an island I can practically see from my living room window. They are being culled by the thousands out of fear the birds are having an impact on endangered salmon.

Look up organizations working on your subject, subscribe to newsletters, or read research by biologists. Attend community meetings. See what speaker series are available at local libraries, breweries, and museums. Yes, I said breweries. In my town, a local brewery is the most progressive venue for environment-related lectures.

To go further, reach out and get involved directly. I wrote emails to key names that kept cropping up. This has led to phone calls with public information officers at the U.S.Army Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of the culling, and the beginning of relationships that may help facilitate photography of different parts of a story.

Many communities have one or several Facebook groups. This can be an incredible resource for contacts, information, and sharing work. I posted about A Last Leap Towards Flowers on my town’s artist group page. It resulted in useful connections, such as with a local taxidermist who’s creating amazing dioramas to give roadkill a second life.

Biologist Michael Hague takes body measurement of an Island Scrub Jay, including beak, wing and tail feather length. Hague's research crew discovered that Island Scrub-Jays in oak forests have developed different shaped beaks than their pine forest counterpoints, indicating the emergence of a new species on the way. Photo: Morgan Heim

Find Your Vision

There are many ways to approach the same topic. Conservation photography can involve fine art photography, portraits of birds or humans, photojournalism, or traditional nature and wildlife photography.

First decide how your style of photography could contribute. Then, considering what’s feasible, begin to conceptualize your approach. For example, say a new mine is planned in the mountains not far from your home and risks polluting local waterways. You may decide to create an environmental portrait series of people or wildlife affected by its development, pairing each portrait with a quote or relevant fact. Or, you can take a nature photography approach, creating a compelling landscape. Alternately, you could practice photojournalism by following science in action, or pick one ambassador species to create a series of images that tell a story how it relies on the ecosystem.  

Ultimately, in deciding your approach, consider how you’ll share the images, who your audience is, and what you hope to accomplish.  

Provide Context

Assume people viewing your work know nothing about the issue—our photos and supporting information need to provide context.

You can do this visually, by including storytelling elements in your photos, such as Sandhill Cranes feeding in a farmer’s field as the farmer is working in the background. In a glance you get an entire story about migration and coexistence. There is also a surprising amount of writing involved with photography. When I write captions, I try to make sure I’ve answered the “who, what, where, when, why and how” of things. Also remember to follow ethical and truth in captioning guidelines. With captions, always aim to go beyond awareness-raising by inviting viewers to participate in concrete solutions.

Every spring migrating Sandhill Cranes descend by the thousands to rest and feed in the agricultural fields of the San Luis Valley, near Monte Vista, Colorado. The valley is home to the highest elevation salt water marsh in the United States and surrounded by active cropland. This valuable combination makes the valley an ideal layover on the Sandhill Crane migration. Photo: Morgan Heim

Get Seen

You can take a thousand stunning images, but if you’re not sharing them, the conservation impact is not reaching its full potential. At minimum, start by posting them to social media or placing them on your website —always with context added. Try posting them on Instagram, Flickr, or in Facebook groups to get them seen by bigger audiences. Attach five to ten hashtags to Instagram and Facebook posts to help make them findable. Post habitually: Conservation photography is an active process, not a passive one.

Try thinking of your work in deliverables that can help achieve specific goals. For example, pair your photos with conservation campaigns, pending legislation, or environmental education efforts. Go beyond awareness, by presenting an invitation to your audiences to participate in the solutions. The effort does not have to be complex. You don’t need to get an article in National Geographic or Audubon magazines to be effective.

Whatever you do, think of how to showcase your work in your community and identify allies for accomplishing your goals. Try for a exhibit or presentation at a gallery, coffee shop or library. Write op-eds for a local paper, or self-publish a book and partner to distribute it locally. Getting one partner on board can suddenly open all sorts of doors, especially if you are starting out.  

At the end of the day, community makes conservation possible and that is what you’re building through your work. Never forget that. 

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