How One Nature Photographer Turned Her Passion Into a Business

How One Nature Photographer Turned Her Passion Into a Business

Photo by Jody MacDonald

Jody MacDonald calls herself a documentary and sports photographer, but she’s also a paragliding photographer, paddleboarding photographer, and underwater wildlife photographer.

Jody’s images clearly communicate her business’ brand – full of adventure and love for the outdoors. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Forbes, Outside, and many other editorial publications. With a background in outdoor recreation, a paragliding pilot’s license, and a touring catamaran crew, Jody has carved out a niche for herself in the world of nature photography.

Her photography business actually began when she decided to sail around the world on a 60-foot catamaran five years ago. She knew it was crazy not to be taking photographs while she was out. With a previous career as a photo editor at an outdoor company, Jody has an insider’s knowledge of how to pitch potential clients. “I started submitting to different magazines,” she says. “I had a good idea of how many images to submit, what to say, and how to approach it.”

Photo by Jody MacDonald

Jody still remembers her days sifting through photo submissions as an editor. People would “submit way too many images,” she says. “They were clearly not being critical of their work. That’s a huge turnoff, because editors don’t have a lot of time. They don’t want to look at semi-good images, and they don’t want to look at hundreds of images.”

Jody typically sends around 20 of her best photographs when she pitches prospective clients. “I am my biggest critic. I’m so critical that I could never tell anyone ‘these were good images.’ And to me that’s the sign of a professional.”

When it comes to understanding what will sell, Jody goes with her gut. She starts by doing her research and finding a story that interests her. And because she works primarily with magazines, story lines are an important aspect of her image-making. For example, when Jody was in India working on another project, she saw a movie featuring Rajan, “the world’s last swimming elephant,” floating in tropical blue water. Jody remembers thinking, “I have to experience that. I have to go see if I can find this elephant.” And she did.

Photo by Jody MacDonald

“I went to go swim with him and found out that his story was incredibly compelling. It was a story that I was blown away by. I didn’t know if people would relate to it the way I did.” It turned into her best selling story.

Since starting out, Jody has noticed the effects of digital and social media on the nature photography industry. Today her clients look for “interesting content for the web,” and she needs to produce a lot more work for different media platforms. In addition, video production has become part of her repertoire. There was a learning curve, but video is a lucrative new revenue stream for her – and one that takes much more time to produce.

Photo by Jody MacDonald

There are a couple of pointers that Jody would give to an emerging nature photographer. One, which she knows is controversial, is to not give your work away for free. Jody struggled with this when she was starting out, wanting to get her work seen by as many people as possible. But she’s an advocate for producing quality work and selling it for what it’s worth – something she believes is more than possible.

“Go out and find good stories to photograph, then contact the places where you want your work to be seen. Whether you want to work with an NGO or you want to sell in galleries, it all comes down to shooting a lot and getting your work out there in those different avenues.”

But ultimately, the key is to love the work. “For me it’s less about the money and more about the passion and the love of it and the lifestyle. I place personal importance on that more than the cash flow. I’m a firm believer in that if you do those things, then the cash flow will follow.”

This photographer profile originally appears in our free guide to Selling Nature PhotographyRead how other successful nature photographers like Art Wolfe built their business from scratch, and how to “wow” editorial clients with your next pitch.

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There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Pingback: Article: How One Nature Photographer Turned Her Passion Into a Business | Chad Strachan - "My Adventure with a Camera"
  2. Murray Bolesta at 3:05 pm

    The key element to succeeding as a nature photographer, or any other artist for that matter, which is almost never mentioned, is discussing how folks support themselves while “waiting” for their craft to support them. Countless fine artists have never found the success their work deserves due to a lack of resources enabling them to devote full time to it.

  3. Aswan Harris at 10:27 am

    This was a very informative story, I love nature photography and haven’t really thought about trying to get paid for my work. I do it primarily for the beauty of capturing the scene, but after reading this artical it is something I’m definitely looking to add as a stream of income.

  4. Steve B at 12:36 am

    Another nice “how I did it” story, but i agree with Murray, as I’ve always wondered the same thing. Like most of us, I’ve got a full time “regular” job, a mortgage and other bills to pay, etc. and it would be nice to hear how many of these success stories “funded” their passions. Did they have a spouse that supported them? Did they have a pile of savings they used? These are all nice stories but in the real world, some useful backstory information would be helpful.

  5. Antony K at 4:24 am

    Including the backstory in many of these photography ‘success’ stories, especially with regards to the funding aspect, would most likely have a negative impact on the photo industry: i.e photography education and equipment sales!

    If I recall correctly, I believe Jody used to own/run an adventure sports company, so the photography would be a natural extension to that business.

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