Getting Started in Wildlife Photography: The Latest Cameras, Lenses, and Marketing Advice from Jim Harmer

Jim HarmerForest Forward is excited to kick-off our spring interview series with a discussion with photographer Jim Harmer from Improve Photography. Jim’s site is very popular in the photog community, receiving 15,000+ visitors a day reading up on the latest gear, signing up for Jim’s online classes, and listening in on his popular photography podcast. Our discussion ranges from Jim’s camera and lens recommendations for nature and wildlife shooters, to advice on expanding your photography business and sharing your work with a wider audience. The interview is accompanied by some of Jim’s spectacular wildlife and nature images. Enjoy!

Chris Mazzarella For Forest Forward: We know that you came into this profession in a rather indirect way. Can you briefly tell our reader’s about your own path to discovering photography?

Jim Harmer: Only a few years ago, I was a law student. All day long during law school, I read cases where the litigants were willing to ruin one another’s lives for money, or I’d go to the courtroom when I worked at the prosecutor’s office and pour over the disgusting details of criminal prosecutions.  I found that the only things that helped me see the good things in life were (1) my wife and kids, and (2) going out at night to do landscape photography.

Jim Harmer Fox PhotoForest Forward: As avid listener’s to your podcast we know that you’ve done your homework when it comes to choosing photography gear. What advice would you give to an enytry level outdoor photographer when it comes to purchasing their first dSLR and lens kit? What should they be looking for, and how much should they expect to spend on gear they won’t outgrow right away?

Jim Harmer: Buying your first “serious” camera can be intimidating. Unfortunately, there is a lot of advertising behind camera models that can cloud your buying decision. Since readers of Forest Forward are mostly interested in landscape and wildlife, I need to break up my recommendation into the two categories.
For landscape photographers, a DSLR is the right choice.  DSLRs allow photographers to use much wider angle lenses than any compact camera, which is important for landscape photographers.  If you’re starting out in landscape photography today, I would recommend the Nikon D3200 or the Canon T4i as your first DSLR.  Sony is another option for DSLRs, but I still find that Canon and Nikon are leading the pack for landscape photography due to the low light performance and lens selection.
Jim Harmer YellowstoneAn entry-level DSLR costs approximately $650 and comes with a standard 18-55mm lens.  The lens that comes with your camera is called a “kit” lens.  Given its short focal length, it is a decently wide lens.  However, more serious landscape photographers will eventually want to purchase a true wide angle lens, as it captures more of the scene in the frame and gives the viewer of the photos a feeling of “being there.” A quality wide-angle lens for an entry-level DSLR costs approximately $700-$1000, however.
Wildlife photographers, on the other hand, may find that the best choice is to choose a different camera than a DSLR.  While DSLRs have many features and capture outstanding image quality, wildlife photographers need super telephoto lenses to capture wolves that are far away, or to capture small animals like birds on a nest.  The cheapest super-telephoto DSLR lens that captures acceptably sharp images costs well over $1,000, and professional super-telephoto lenses cost approximately $10,000.   However, camera manufacturers have released several ground-breaking cameras in the last year that may be better options for wildlife photographers. Micro Four-Thirds cameras are much smaller than DSLRs although the cost is about the same for the camera body.  The benefit of these cameras for amateur wildlife photographers is that they have a smaller image sensor, which gives them significantly more “zoom” due to the crop factor.  The leading Micro Four-Thirds camera today is the Olympus OM-D.  If you pair that with a 75-300mm Zuiko lens, you’ll have the same focal length as if you used a $10,000 600mm lens on a DSLR because of the crop factor.  While you can’t expect the exact same quality as an expensive system, a micro four-thirds camera and telephoto lens is a VERY powerful setup and I know some professional wildlife photographers who have switched to this system to save weight and money.
Jim Harmer Duck PhotoForest Forward: Many of us have tried to find cheap alternatives to professional gear when we’re first getting started only to find out that it quickly needs replacing. Do you think there are any good alternatives to buying the expensive name brand gear in our camera bags?
Jim Harmer: Generally, I recommend buying a new DSLR rather than purchasing a used camera. This is for two reasons: (1) The shutters on cameras tend to wear out after a few years, and shutters are expensive to replace.  (2) If you buy a DSLR today and then replace it as the model is replaced in a few years, you usually don’t lose much money.  This is because DSLRs are in such hot demand right now that some users are willing to buy used to save a few dollars.  I sold my first DSLR for only $150 less than I bought it for 2 years earlier.

Improve Photography Jim Harmer Photo

Forest Forward: Your website Improve Photography has grown at an impressive rate since its inception in 2011. How have you succeeded in making such a big splash in the online photog scene? What advice would you give to our readers who are trying to get their work seen online?

Jim Harmer: The key to getting your photography noticed is: (1) Be yourself, and (2) earn every single fan one at a time.  “Be yourself” is advice we all know, but very few people follow. Because there are so many photographers on the Internet, people feel like they need to prove themselves with expensive gear and condescending advice to new photographers.  I took the opposite approach.  I write on Improve Photography the tips I learn as I progress as a photographer.  Looking back at the photos I used in posts when the blog began makes me chuckle because I was really just a beginner. Now that I have been working on Improve Photography for a couple of years, I’ve had incredible opportunities to have my work published and sold to some of the biggest names in publishing, millions of people follow my photo tips, and I have a job I love.  I think a big part of that is because I was able to swallow my pride a bit in the beginning and just explain to people what I was learning–without pretending I was the expert that I wasn’t. The other thing that helps to get your work noticed is to earn every single fan.  When I started my site, I had a contact form where anyone could email me questions and see if I could help them with their photography.  I answered tens of thousands of emails without pay.  I earned the trust of those early visitors to the site.  Now that the site has grown to millions of visitors, I simply can’t answer all of the questions of each visitor, but now there is a large enough community that the photographers are answering each others questions on the Improve Photography facebook page.  However, I still offer advice one-on-one to photographers who take my online photography classes through the site.
Jim Harmer Ram Photo YellowstoneForest Forward: In addition to shooting landscapes, you also run a portrait studio and teach a popular online photography course. Your entrepreneurship is an inspiring example of how to succeed in this profession. How important do you think diversification is in today’s competitive photography environment? What advice would you give to photographers with a passion for landscape and/or wildlife photography, who are trying to make it their profession?

Jim Harmer: I think too many photographers “branch out” before even establishing a single “branch.” What I mean by that is that we all see the importance of diversification in our businesses, but if you spread yourself too thin in chasing different opportunities, you’ll likely fail in all of them.  Most people didn’t realize that my business started out as a portrait studio.  Then, I added teaching local classes, then I started a site, then I started selling stock photos of my landscapes, and then finally I’ve added online classes. Create one profitable venture at a time.

12 responses

  1. narhvalur

    Reblogged this on Ann Novek–With the Sky as the Ceiling and the Heart Outdoors.

    March 20, 2013 at 8:08 am

  2. Pingback: Choosing the Right Camera for Wildlife Photography on a Budget | Mazzarella Photo

  3. liliesandleaves

    I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and found it hugely helpful. Wonderful photographs as well. Thanks so much. Thanks, too for dropping in at my blogs.

    March 20, 2013 at 11:57 am

    • Thanks liliesandleaves, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      March 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm

  4. Great interview! Really liked what he said about being yourself and earning fans one at a time — great advice!

    March 21, 2013 at 12:31 am

  5. Great interview and it make a lot of sense in what Jim are saying, even if I’m only a happy amateur and not planning to change that. Amazing photograph – with loads of common sense. My favorite photo has to be the fox. What a stunning animal … against the snow. Thanks for this, Chris. Enjoyed it very much.

    April 4, 2013 at 8:59 am

    • Very glad to hear it Viveka. Thanks for the nice feedback. :)

      April 5, 2013 at 9:22 am

  6. Amazing images and talented photographer

    April 17, 2013 at 7:40 am

  7. Great captures – really love the house in the field – so bright and uplifting (:

    April 29, 2013 at 12:43 pm

  8. Apers

    Hmm Sony is right up there for low light quality with Nikon and Canon, infact Sony’s latest is considered the best in lab testing.
    Advising wildlife photographers to look at 4/3rd cameras is a bit of a joke considering they are shooting moving targets and need decent autofocus and majority of top wildlife shots have small DOF so fast lenses required, try and get that with 4/3rd!.
    And then telling landscape photogs to use DSLR is also a joke, because if you switch to a mirriorless aps-c camera (which is on par with the recommended cameras mentioned in the article) you’ll get a smaller camera than DSLR, and smallerlighter lenses for wide angle.
    You’d only stick to DSLR for landscape if you were using Full Frame sensors for the benefit of exrta wide-angle’ness compared to aps-c

    The advice in this article is completely backwards.

    July 28, 2014 at 12:15 am

    • Thanks sharing your thoughts Apers. Its difficult to give broad advice on such nuanced subject matter, but I appreciate your input.

      July 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm

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