Selling wildlife photography; cute sells

August 24th, 2010 by Paul Burwell

When I was first getting involved in professional wildlife photography, one of my mentors told me something I’ve made a point of remembering. What he told me should be obvious, but like much of what should be obvious, it isn’t always that obvious until someone points it out to you. And what was this pearl of wisdom and insight that I received? It was simply, “Cute Sells”.

I know a lot of wildlife photographers love capturing images of predators capturing and then ripping apart their latest kill. And don’t get me wrong. Those are exciting shots that graphically illustrate the harsh realities of the natural world. But ask yourself, is the average person going to want to look at that sort of image as a print on their wall, on a greeting card or even a calendar? I’ll tell you that regardless of what you might think, the answer is no. You’ll find the occasional person interested in that sort of graphically real image, but the vast majority of people don’t want to be reminded of the harshness of a wild life.

So then, let’s consider the sort of images might qualify as cute for a wildlife photographer.

I’ll tell you the first one. And it is darned obvious and that’s why I’ll point it out. Baby animals. Much like human babies, it is very difficult to find a baby animal that a lot of people won’t consider cute. Babies (human and animal alike) tend to have proportionately large eyes and it seems we humans are instinctively drawn to these features. So, we’re programmed in one form or another to babies and when you can get a photograph of a cute baby animal, your chances of selling it go quite a bit higher.

(You can click on the images to see larger versions)

Sleepy Raccoon Kit peering out of a hollow log- CA

Another thing that makes baby animals compelling wildlife subjects is that baby animals tend to be a bit playful and clumsy. And if you and your camera can capture some of that playfulness or clumsiness, you’re on your way to creating a cute image that has sales potential written all over it.

Playful Bobcat kitten on top of a rocky hill – CA

Black Bear cub peering over the top of a tree

Black Bear cub peering over the top of a tree

Here’s another truism. Interaction between cute subjects makes a big difference. What does this mean for a wildlife photographer? Consider different types of interaction. Interaction between a baby animal and its parent is compelling. The average person loves to see one animal being cared for by another. Another type of interaction that is compelling occurs when a two or more siblings are interacting and playing with each other. Just like its compelling to see one animal exhibiting playful behavior, I’ll argue that the cute factor goes up exponentially when there is more than one baby animal involved in the playing.

Common Loon with chick on its back swimming on a lake

Pair of Red Fox kits play fighting in some tall grass

Pair of Red Fox kits play fighting in some tall grass

Find an animal exhibiting a behavior we typically associate with humans (also know as anthropomorphism; that’s your big word for the day today) and you can create an image that will have the cute factor working in its favor. When we see an animal exhibiting a behavior we typically associate with our own species it helps create a connection between the viewer and the image and that connection will help make the image more salable.

Black Bear standing and leaning against a tree - CA

Black Bear standing and leaning against a tree – CA

Polar Bear Chillaxin'

Polar Bear Chillaxin'

So, if you want my advice, heed the follow.  If you’re a wildlife photographer who is interested in selling your images, invest your time and effort into looking for and making cute images.

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