How to Drive Your Passion as a Photonaturalist to the Next Level

Dickcissel (Spiza americana) / Photo by Wes Gibson

Dickcissel (Spiza americana) / Photo by Wes Gibson

This is a guest post by Wes Gibson, who’s been reading PhotoNaturalist for a few years now, but has been a photographer for over 20 years. After reading his post, please be sure to check out his blog for more of his posts. And, if you’re also interested in writing a guest post here on PhotoNaturalist, please contact me, thanks! –Steve

One of the things that attracted me to the PhotoNaturalist blog a few years ago was Steve’s philosophy of being more than a nature photographer. How we should go beyond just making images of our environment. How we should expand our knowledge and learn more about what we photograph. How we should become photonaturalists.

And, while I have a bookshelf full of nature books that I routinely refer to, I have recently discovered something that propelled my journey in becoming a photonaturalist to the next level: I started donating my photographs to local nature organizations.

It all started last fall when I discovered Nachusa Grasslands, a prairie restoration project in northern Illinois (United States). I wanted to photograph a prescribed fire, which is a necessary part of prairie management.

I contacted the volunteer organization that takes care of the Grasslands, and asked them if I could photograph the fire and offered them any photos I shot. They liked the idea and invited me out to their prescribed fire training and an actual burn. I made some really good images that day, but got so much more than just the photos.

I met a lot of really great people who have devoted a significant part of their lives to restoring our lands to their former glory. These volunteers know every flower, plant and animal by common and scientific name. And they shared this information with me freely. Here are just a few benefits Iʼve received from volunteering:

  • They let me know when a particular rare flower is in bloom.
  • They invite me to their events, where I’ve met even more great volunteers.
  • They help me identify the flora and fauna in my photos if I get stumped.
  • They give me advanced knowledge of upcoming projects that would be interesting to photograph.
  • They call me by name. Do you know how great it feels when people see you in a field and call out your name? A lot of times they will visit, ask what Iʼm photographing and then tell me about something special elsewhere thatʼs worth a photo or two.
  • They have introduced me to other photographers in the area that volunteer their time.

This has all happened to me in less than a year. Can you imagine the benefits you could gain by donating your photos to a nature organization over the course of several years? And all you have to do is what you love doing anyway…making photos of nature. Itʼs truly a win-win scenario.

So, get involved. Pick out several of your favorite parks, preserves and nature organizations. Email them, send them a letter, or just stop by. Introduce yourself and tell them about your passion for nature and wildlife photography. Then, offer to document their cause, their events and their lands absolutely free. If they take you up on your offer, I promise you that you will get back far more than you invest.

About the Author: Wes Gibson is a 20-year veteran US Navy Chief Photographer and spent six years teaching color and illustrative photography, photojournalism, and portraiture at the US Naval Schools of Photography. Today, he’s an avid “photonaturalist” and photography blogger over at Wes Gibson Photography.


  1. I am a full time nature photographer. I work with many wonderful nature organizations. They pay my for my photography. They give me great information and I provide them with great photos that tell their story. Because they pay me, I can pay my bills and feed my family. Because they pay for the great photos I take, they can promote their programs and their preserves and get large donations for their cause. When organizations begin to rely on FREE photos, they sometimes have to publish less than wonderful images and as a result their marketing materials begin to suffer and their image looks less inspiring. When organizations are no longer willing to pay me for my photos because they are getting them for free, then I no longer have an incentive to take the wonderful photos for these organizations. Everyone loses. Wonderful photos of rare and beautiful places and species should paid for. If you want to do something for these organizations consider donating the money they PAY you back to them, that way everyone wins.

  2. I am a full-time biologist and part-time photographer, so maybe I’m not the target audience. But many of these nature organizations do not have the budget to pay for advertising and would not function without the generous donations, of time, money, and publicity, of volunteers. I think donating your time (and images) is a wonderful way to highlight the great work these places do. And to understand that when it comes to maintaining park-lands and rehabilitating wildlife, money is much better spent that way than paying a photographer. I got into photography out of a passion for conservation, not for the profits. Thank you Wes for an inspiring article and a reminder of generosity.

  3. I share a passion for nature and photography, and alot of the nature preserves attract a variety of wildlife that we could potentially never see otherwise. Our photos and comments help to make people aware of the need for protected habitats so we can continue to enjoy them. I really enjoy your photos, Wes, and you give me inspiration to become a better photographer. It takes alot of time and patience to get one good shot out of a hundred images, but is definitely worth it.

  4. Carol…thank you for your opinion. I don’t agree with you 100%, but I do respect your opinion, understand the issue and am sensitive to it. In fact, I turned down a photo request not long ago with the very same reasoning. I have many retired military photographer friends who turned professional after leaving the service. Giving away and donating photos is often a topic of discussion.

    But I’m not really talking about a case where an organization came to me wanting free photos. I initially sought out Nachusa Grasslands for the purpose of building my portfolio and was willing to give them images in return. Nothing new there. Photographers, models and stylists have been doing that for a very long time. I think they call it quid pro quo photography. Anyway, after meeting the wonderful people at Nachusa, I wanted to become involved with them. I wanted to use this as a community service and volunteer my time. My photography was the one thing I had to offer that could make a difference.

    I don’t really see this as being any different than a professional chef who volunteers their cooking talents for a charity’s fund raiser or a car dealership that donates a car to a good cause. Then there’s the marketing potential in all of the other volunteers who now know your name and talents, not to mention all the people that will see your name and images in the organizations publications. I still see volunteering as a win-win.

  5. Al…yes, you are very much part of the target audience. This topic applies to the amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals. Although I was once a full-time military photographer, today I am a part-time photographer like you. Thank you for your input on the issue. Sounds like you and I think a lot alike on the subject. By the way, I visited your web site. You have some very nice photography on there.

  6. Tammy…thank you for chiming in on the topic. I am pleased that you enjoy my photos and are able to find inspiration. Yes, nature and wildlife photography does take a lot of time and patience to get that one magical image. It can be extremely frustrating at times. But when you get that one image that wows you, it’s all worth it.

  7. Moose Peterson seems to do pretty good helping organizations by volunteering his time and photos for projects. I just started planning on getting involved doing this same thing in my area. I hope to send out some letters and help make a difference very soon. I do think we can separate the act of documenting a project from giving away free marketing materials though. I would certainly volunteer my time to help research or promote a study, but if the work is being used so they can make money (as in marketing materials) I think some sort of fee would be fair, even if it’s a membership discount or something along those lines. If any nature organizations or research projects in northern Illinois need a photographer to help document a project who also isn’t afraid to put down the camera and get his hands dirty, look me up!

  8. Michael…I had forgotten about Moose Peterson, but you are right, he is a big proponent of getting involved and volunteering photo talents. I noticed you are from the northern Illinois area, as am I. I’m trying to get to know as many nature and wildlife photogs as possible from this area. Feel free to contact me via email if you would like.

  9. Frank Townsley says:

    Just a general question. I have forwarded a link to a friend, and ever since I have not been able to open it myself.

  10. Frank…did you figure out your question? Just from what you wrote, I would guess that although you may have copied the web address to an email, you didn’t establish a link to that web address. With some programs, you have to insert the web address with a link button rather than just cutting and pasting it in. Hope this helps.

  11. Thanks, Wes–what a wonderful idea and I certainly agree that there are many organizations that get by on a shoestring budget and rely on the generosity of a whole host of volunteers to keep them going. There is nothing wrong with a photographer volunteering to aid the cause, just as anyone else would offer their services or labor. Your post demonstrated that volunteer photographers receive back many intangibles that helps them develop personally and in their craft; not to mention the sense of altruism that makes us all feel good about giving. Thanks for the good thoughts…I am going to try to follow a similar path in the months ahead, whenever possible.

  12. Deb…thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad you were able to find some value in it.

  13. Naomi Rodrigues says:

    Was a gr8 read.I too love nature photography.

  14. Naomi…thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.


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