James Lowen | Wildlife Photographer, Author & Travel Guide
I spoke with James Lowen. Nature Lover, Author, Wildlife Photographer, Travel Guide amongst other things. I asked him about his love of nature and where it all began, his writing and photography and what advice he could give people…
What first got you interested in nature and did you consider when you were younger that you could make a career out of it?
I first got interested in nature when I was 3 years old. I was in Devon with my dad when I saw my first Common Buzzard. I can only remember being interested in wildlife and being part of nature. All my youth was spent outside looking at things. By aged 8 I had convinced my school to set up a Natural History Club and I persuaded my teacher to set up a project for the rest of the class to decide what their favourite bird was and write about it. I continued then purely as an amateur doing this as nothing other than a hobby till I was 19 and at University.
While at university there was a group of students in an Explorers & Travellers Club, organizing conservation expeditions to tropical rainforests and I was lucky enough to get on one of these. Aged 19 I spent 3 months living in Paraguay in a tent researching the birds of national parks and other protected areas. It was then I suddenly realised what I was doing as a hobby had a value in the real world and my skills in identifying birds could be useful to help organizations create protected areas and fundamentally save the rainforest. At this point I said to myself, hang on a minute, perhaps I can get a life out of nature, a professional life? And by my early twenties that is exactly what I was doing.
Was there anyone that inspired you when you were younger?
Yes, almost too many people to mention. It’s not so apparent now but there was a mentoring system that existed in my youth for wildlife watchers. Aged 7,8 & 9 I remember a local man called Peter Hemming taking me out with his son and a few other classmates to the local nature reserves. If I hadn’t had Peter taking me out, advising me and showing me birds I don’t think I would ever have thought to grow and spread my wings. Aged 13 the mentors were people at the local RSPB group & the local birdwatching club. They took me to the local reservoirs and RSPB reserves and coach trips further afield and to the coast to look for migrant birds. That form of mentoring, inspiring & also guiding me, was invaluable and critical in my own development as a naturalist and as someone who could contribute to nature in the future.
Was your education at school and university a help in pursuing a career in nature?
No, not directly. I studied French & German at A level and at university and haven’t really used either of them except when I was interviewing people in them when writing articles.
But it was the very fact of being at university and joining the explorers & travellers club and without that community of like-minded people I would never have got anywhere. Some of those people in that club now hold quite impressive positions in the field of conservation in BirdLife International and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
What made you decide to write a book? How easy/difficult did you find it and how did you choose the subject?
I had always been interested in communication & conservation, but it took me a while to realise that I could marry the two and write in an accessible way about things that might help change a little bit of the world or a little bit of someone’s world. In my early twenties I worked at Birdlife International in the marketing & communications department and I worked on one of their magazines. It was through writing for magazines that I realised you could do quite a lot with writing and you could do quite a lot with writing a book.
The first book I wrote was a travel guide on the wildlife of the Pantanal (big wetland in central South America). It wasn’t my idea for a book but came from a publisher that wanted someone to write it. One of the things that they realised was that I was able to jump the ditch between twitcher and layman making wildlife accessible to people who wouldn’t really think of going on a wildlife holiday and to encourage people that were interested in wildlife to think about travel and seeing the world through a wildlife filter. I have now written 10 and by the end of this year 9 of those would have been published with another 2 out next year.
Does it get easier the more books you write and what advice can you give someone wanting to embark on a nature writing career?
Yes, it does get easier because,
- I am now more confident in my writing and can write a decent copy quicker.
- It also becomes easier to persuade publishers to take you on because it shows that you’re someone that can deliver a decent product. One of my books in 2016 won travel guidebook of the year so that’s an accolade that can help get you more work but –
No, it’s not easier because every book is new, and every book is different. Right now, I am writing the outline for a new book that I hope to spend most of next year writing but it’s difficult to get down on paper the concept that’s been brewing in my mind for years and encapsulate it in way that will make a publisher go yeah, that’s the book I want, that’s the book that will sell.
- Read lots and Read everything. (Find out how to write and how to communicate).
- Simply to write. When I was starting to write the only way to get published was to persuade an editor to use your work. Now you can write on blogs without the need for an editor to give marketing approval for your idea.
- Practice your writing, write about whatever you experience, whatever you see, whatever you feel out in nature and publish it yourself on a blog then you have a body of work you can refer to and you may have a following that might get a publisher interested in you anyway.
- Just a note of caution, it is difficult to write a book when you have a full-time job, when I started writing I was freelance then I had a part time job only, so I had plenty of time to write now I am a full-time freelancer again, I really admire people that can find the time to write whilst working full time.
You’re now an accomplished wildlife photographer – What first got you interested in photography and how does your first camera compare with what you use now?
What first got me interested in wildlife photography was jealousy. The mentors that I mentioned in my teenage years that took me out birdwatching were photographers with big long lenses spending much time on an individual bird trying to get the perfect shot. I couldn’t do that because I didn’t have a camera, so I got a little bit bored and frustrated and a bit jealous wandering about on my own whilst they got the perfect pic. I said to myself `1 day I will have the money to do that`. That day came in my early twenties when I purchased my first SLR (single lens reflex) camera, it was a Pentax with a small zoom of 70-30. It was fully manual, so I had to do everything myself, no auto mode! And you could only take 1 frame at a time and of course it was film (no digital back then) so every shot that you took was extremely valuable. On one of the expeditions I went on there were 15 people, we had around 70 films, about 2,500 images between us over 5 months, now with my current camera I can easily take that in a morning. That is the digital revolution!
My current camera is a top spec Canon camera with professional lenses, and with vast amounts of money now spent on camera equipment photography is now completely different. I can see an image instantly and you can take an infinite number of pics to get the right one the downside is you have to spent precious hours of your life trawling through hundreds of images before you get to the right one. Another downside is you don’t quite get the sense of anticipation you did when you sent off your slide film by post waiting 2-3 weeks then taking out the slides holding them up to the light trying to see if the image was right, was the bird in the picture, was it in focus, was it sharp? It was like a sense of Christmas back then that you don’t get anymore. There is no doubt that the digitization of photography has made it accessible to the masses.
What advice can you give people wanting to pursue a career in wildlife photography?
The downside of the democratisation of photography is that many people can now afford a digital camera and can take photos means that the market is flooded with wildlife photos. Long gone are the days when there only use to be a handful of professional bird photographers. There are now 100’s of semi professionals earning a few hundred to a few thousand pounds from nature photography each year, combined with the even greater number of people that just take photos as a hobby and are happy for their photos to be used for free, this all means that the market is flooded with low cost or free images and publishers are unwilling to spend money on photographs.
It is very difficult or even impossible to make a living full time as a nature photographer. If you are dedicated enough and you can find a niche, such as underwater photography or macro close ups of invertebrates then you can make it work.
If you’re just going to concentrate on general nature photography you need to have a lot of time available, perhaps going away on shoots that could last several weeks. But you can’t really do that if you have commitments such as young children that need picking up from school. Most of us just have to accept that nature photography will form part of a portfolio of income. I probably spend about a third of my time/portfolio on nature photography.
Apart from books and photography can you tell me what else you have achieved during your career, what you enjoy the most and what you are most proud of and any other highlights you would like to mention.
I’ve had 3 careers connected with nature & conservation.
- As a tropical conservationist working in rainforests for BirdLife International and the World Wildlife Fund helping collect the data to designate protected areas, helping write the red data book to birds which is something I am very proud of.
- I had a career in government working in all things environmental. One of the things I did there was to negotiate environmental legislation in the European union and negotiate in the United Nations on climate change legislation/policy and again I am proud of what I achieved.
- My third career is writing and photography, but I also do quite a bit of editing. I run a magazine called Neotropical Birding which is the only magazine to concentrate on wildlife in Central & South America. I love the freedom that this gives me to promote the wonderful work that conservationists are doing in that region to help save birds.
It is important to safeguard the natural environment for everybody. What do you think is the best way to get young people interested in nature to help protect the planet for future generations?
Young people (thinking about my daughter and her friends), are separated from nature by screens, windows and overprotective parents. The best way to get them to understand the beauty, the wonder and the importance of nature is to expose them to it.
2 years ago, when my daughter turned 6 she had a Star Wars party and they all dressed up as Star Wars characters and had fights with light sabres in the garden. As part of the day I ran a Moth trap the previous night and spent an hour showing them the moths I had caught. The girls spent more time gaping at the moths particularly the colourful & dramatic Hawkmoths then they did playing the Star Wars characters.
It is apparent to me that the love of nature and wildlife is innate within all kids. You just must give them the opportunity to discover it and if you can do that (Moths is a wonderful way) then I think you’ve got a chance, but if you don’t give them the opportunity then they will stick behind windows, screens or be cosseted by over protective parents who don’t let them go outside and get dirty.
Any further advice for people wanting to pursue a career in nature?
- Take every opportunity you can
- Take risks
- Place yourself outside your comfort zone, maybe volunteering at a local nature reserve and getting dirty and learning stuff.
- Setting up a blog & writing.
- Tweeting what you think about the world and the condition it’s in.
- Let your love of nature shine through and at some point, someone will want to employ you for it.