How to become a photographer?
Do what you love and help save the planet at the same time
Chicago Fine Art Wildlife Photographer Derek Nielsen
If you’d asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, never in a million years would I have said “a nature photographer,” let alone one attempting to save the natural places and animals of this world.
Yet, over the last 15 years, photography has grown from a hobby to my life’s calling. To be able to merge my love for the outdoors with my entrepreneurial spirit, while staying true to my mission to give back, has ignited a burning flame inside me. This planet is endlessly beautiful and complicated. And I can only hope my photographs manage to engage and inspire people to feel as passionate about saving the subjects of my work as I do.
If you’ve ever wondered how to become a photographer yourself, perhaps my story can give you some pointers.
The early years: A nature lover from the start
I was five when my loving, supportive family arrived in Gilberts, a distant suburb of Chicago, where I grew up. As my neighborhood only had a few houses at the time, and I didn’t yet have much of a say in my life’s direction, I only had a few friends initially. But I still found ways to entertain myself on the edge of country life.
No matter what I was doing, I always wanted to be outside. If we’d moved to the city instead, I don’t know what I’d be today. As it was, our house backed up to a wetland and critter pond, so I spent a lot of my early years catching frogs, snakes, salamanders—pretty much anything I could get my hands on, including my dog, Oats (as pictured above).
My family spent a lot of time together, which I cherish as an adult, often exploring the outdoors on camping trips to the north woods or visiting relatives in Maine. Both sets of grandparents, enjoyed nature, too (one grandpa was a proud Eagle Scout), and introduced me to world travel. Along with great stories of their international adventures, they’d bring home books and gifts for the grandkids.
I remember well the book we received when one set of grandparents returned home from Africa in the early 1990s. It was full of photos of wild, exotic animals along with black and white portraits of fascinating people. I’d spend hours flipping through that book, daydreaming about meeting those people and encountering those animals.
Over the years, I was fortunate enough to travel the world myself. And my fascination with nature only grew with each journey, each adventure, each continent I visited.
Behind the lens: Trial and error
Somewhere around 2003, I got my first camera. It was a Canon Rebel X S … ish … something? I really had no idea what I was doing. So, I went on eBay and bought whatever camera I could afford that came with a lens.
I can tell you that it was a film camera. Film cameras. UGH. Starting out in photography with no training or education to speak of, I definitely wasted a lot of money on film. Overexposed, underexposed, blurry…you name it I messed it up. But as I was eager to learn (and had very little money) I started to pick up on what not to do fairly quickly.
Magazines helped. I would read articles from accomplished photographers describing their executions of various works and attempt to recreate the desired effects in different locations around Chicago. It became an addiction. I remember how excited I would get to show my friends and family any shot I thought was “pretty.” Thank you, friends and family, for humoring me during these early years.
Speaking of, a close family friend of mine, a brilliant photographer and painter, Robert Kelly, had a particular impact on my career. His work illustrates a connection with light, and the difference between something “pretty” and something you just can’t stop looking at.
Below is some of my early work as a young photographer learning on the fly.
Tragic beauty: Travel reveals a new path
In 2012, my then-girlfriend, Kelly, and I, decided to spend six months backpacking across seven countries in South America. We had a general plan but nothing concrete. In fact, I had nothing with me but my camera, some clothes and my passport. It’s a lifestyle I have come to love.
The first part of our journey led us south, through Chile’s ever-changing landscapes. My own goal, unbeknownst to Kelly, was to hike the W circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.
Unfortunately, a few months before we arrived, a foreign tourist selfishly broke the rules and had a fire outside of the designated areas. The result: He burned down more than 69,000 acres of the park. Torres was still absolutely stunning, but we spent two of our hiking days coughing and wiping tears from our burning eyes.
This was my first time realizing how much damage a single person can have on our fragile planet, and I was horrified to learn some of the plants in Torres take hundreds of years to reach maturity.
But the trip went on. After reaching the very bottom of South America, we decided to make our way back up north, exploring, learning, experiencing life day by day and, of course, taking lots of photos. By the time our adventure through every South American ecosystem was over, we’d covered something like 7,000 miles, by bus.
With a solid relationship built on world exploration, after we returned home from South America, Kelly and I were married. We’ve been on the road as much as possible ever since. I practiced landscape photography in Iceland and learned wildlife photography in Africa. And we officially checked all seven continents off the list with our February 2020 trip to Antarctica.
But while all of these trips were wonderful, somewhere along the way, I realized I was only taking from each place we visited—giving nothing back to this planet and its diverse cultures that were giving me so much. From the melting glaciers I’d witnessed in Iceland to the endangered species I’d encountered in Africa, I began to understand every spot I’d seen on this planet was struggling with environmental issues critical to their very survival. I had to do something to help.
The Start of Derek Nielsen Photography
I’m grateful for all the successes (and failures) of my early photography career, because each of them helped me develop an understanding of the craft itself. And that’s a skillset I’ve been fortunate to grow into a successful, conservation-driven, fine art photography business.
When we first started out, the best route I could think of to help preserve the at-risk animals, cultures and locations I’d visited around the world was to provide a portion of my sales to local conservation organizations.
So, I took a business trip out to Seattle, to study in a workshop setting with successful photographer Aaron Reed. Aaron’s business generates generous sales almost exclusively through an online platform, and his workshop gave me the opportunity to consider similar, non-traditional business avenues for my own photography.
We felt we could do the same but also use our site as an educational platform for conservation causes.
Thanks to what I learned from Aaron, when you visit dereknielsen.com, you’ll not only find an educational platform where you can learn about various conservation causes from all over the world. You can also buy beautifully framed and matted photographs, and know that a portion of the proceeds from your purchase will go to a specifically selected, on-the-ground organization doing the necessary preservation work to save the subject of whatever piece you chose.
Today, our list of hand-selected donation recipients includes: Sea Shepherd, For The Love Of Water, BeTreed Adventures, Live Ocean, Global Philanthropy Alliance, The Borneo Project, Reef Guardian, Tarangire Lion Research Initiative, The Conservation Alliance and Landvernd.
The next step in the journey
In the end, I’d say that if you’re wondering how to become a photographer, I’d tell you to find two things: a good camera and a subject you’re passionate about.
The road that led me here might not have always been obvious, but it has always been an adventure. And it’s an adventure I look forward to continuing, as we work alongside these worthy organizations to provide a voice to the voiceless, put a spotlight on issues many don’t know they are contributing to and bring beauty into people’s homes with photography that will, hopefully, solidify their connection with nature, as we fight to protect it.