Despite reaching the goals he initially set out to achieve, such as appearing in BBC Wildlife Magazine, pursuing wildlife photography full time is no longer Jules Cox’s ambition.
«You look at these things through rose tinted spectacles when you start out», he says. «You see people like Danny Green, Laurie Campbell and David Tippling, and you think, ‘Wow! What a life that must be’, but then you look at the reality of how competitive it is, and what the market rate for images is, and you say, «Ok … if I’m going to be able to put food on the table and pay the mortgage, I need to make a sensible commercial decision here.
«The leading full time wildlife photographers don’t just make a living from selling their images. They have to diversify: they also lead trips, provide hide rental, and run workshops and one to ones. The only difference is that, for me, it’s my day job as a partner in a law firm specializing in employment law that pays the bills, and enables me to pursue my passion as a wildlife photographer.
«I like to see my work published, and I have another income, but I never give my images away for free. I wouldn’t want to drive down the prices for the guys who are doing it full time. It’s important that you recognize the financial value of your own work and don’t just give it away, however great the temptation.»
Cox studied for a degree in English Literature and Language at Birmingham University. Unsure what career to pursue following this, he decided to study for a further two years and convert it to a Law qualification.
«Law was something that really inspired me, because I would be able to help people», he says. «I converted my English degree, did my Law finals, and got a training contract with a firm.
«My career took off, and I went to work in-house for a FTSE 100 company. My boss there introduced me to wildlife photography, lending me a Nikkonos underwater camera. I learnt to dive out in the Red Sea, and got some nice images.»
Travel to the Far East and South America became a big part of Cox’s life, the adventure providing the perfect antidote to his office job in the city.
«A career in law has never seemed quite enough», he says. «I’m quite a restless spirit, and I need something else to complete me. I’m passionate about travel, people, and the natural environment, and I want to see the world.
«I took some pictures on a little compact during a trip to Peru, and put them together in an album. One of my colleagues saw it, and told me I should take photography more seriously. Everyone needs encouragement, and I think that almost gave me permission to pursue my interest.»
Cox explored many areas of photography for the next few years, from street and travel, to landscape and wildlife.
«I started out with a budget film SLR, then quickly progressed onto my first digital camera, a Canon EOS 300D with a 100-400mm zoom», he says. «I settled on wildlife photography, because I’d spent a lot of time in places like South Africa and Borneo, and it was my real passion.
«I followed Andy Rouse’s nature photography blog at the time and, while his work blew me away, it made me realize what a vast difference there was between what I was producing and what the professionals achieved.»
Cox strove to improve his imagery, looking closely at the difference between his own work and that of the photographers he admired. «I’ve served quite a long apprenticeship, and have worked incredibly hard», he says.
Underwater photography being a passion for Cox in the early days, he approached Martin Edge, author of The Underwater Photographer, and asked for mentorship.
«Martin was hugely inspirational», he says. «He sat me down, and showed me a feature in a magazine that included 25 great underwater images from the previous 25 years. He asked me what they all had in common, and I just couldn’t see it. He had to point out what made these images a cut above the stuff that everyone else takes.
«It opened my eyes to the possibilities, and made me realise there are so many variables that need to come together in order to create a successful, beautiful photograph.»
It was at this point that Cox approached < the then Editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, Sophie Stafford, and asked her how he could get his work published in the magazine. «We had a helpful conversation, full of good advice», he says, «but it left me in no doubt that it was going to be incredibly difficult to achieve.»
Undeterred, Cox put in the necessary graft over the ensuing years, and his photography is now at a level where it appears in magazines alongside the work of the top wildlife photographers who inspired him along the way.
Cox met leading British wildlife photographer Danny Green after his stint working with Edge, and he has been instrumental in offering advice and mentoring his photography over the last few years.
«Danny asked me to accompany him on a trip to Scotland, to photograph gannets for Wild Wonders of Europe, a big collaborative project celebrating Europe’s flora and fauna», says Cox.
«On the long drives to Scotland and back, he said, ‘Ask me whatever you want’. We had a long conversation, and the one thing that really stuck was that, as a first step, I needed to get a portfolio together.»
At the time, Cox had what he describes as, «a really bad website», and no coherent portfolio. «My ambition outreached my ability at that stage», he laughs. «Even when I did take a nice image, I would murder it in post processing.»
With renewed enthusiasm and a portfolio to create, Cox purchased his first professional camera body, a Canon EOS 1D Mk III, and a 500mm lens.
«Once I had the kit, it was a question of learning how to take a photograph», he says. «Danny has mentored me for the last four years. I’ve done my own projects, and shot particular species, and I’ve also taken photography trips to build up a portfolio.»
Producing a portfolio led to a surprising revelation for Cox. Where he had previously enjoyed travelling to far-flung locations, he began to realize the wealth of photographic possibilities that were much closer to home.
«I needed to get a portfolio together, so I chose to photograph 12 iconic species of British wildlife: foxes, hedgehogs, water voles, barn owls, blue tits, and so on», he says. «These are the images that sell.
«Getting out and about in Britain made me realize how much wildlife was on my doorstep, so I forgot about exotic foreign travel, and started specializing in the British Isles and the northern countries.
«I did a trip to Scandinavia about four years ago, to photograph golden eagles. I discovered that I really liked the cold, so I went on another trip, to Svalbard, in the Norwegian Arctic, led by a professional wildlife photographer, to photograph polar bears.»
Having worked hard to improve his technical ability, Cox was able to start thinking about how his work could generate an income.
Following mentorship from Martin Edge and Danny Green, and with a growing portfolio, he approached Frank Lane Picture Agency (FLPA), which had politely declined his work several years earlier.
«Having worked hard on my photography, I put in another submission, and this time I was readily accepted», he says. «I now have over 800 images with FLPA. It’s got links with other companies internationally, so it’s given me the opportunity to get my photography seen by a wider market.
«There are other agencies that I wouldn’t touch meanwhile, which have ripped the heart out of being able to sell your images. That’s why you can’t just rely on stock anymore, because it’s been devalued by agencies which are selling images at low prices.»
With a strong portfolio in hand, Cox was able to approach magazines once more, and has been working with BBC Wildlife Magazine ever since.
«BBC Wildlife Magazine has been fantastic and very encouraging», he says. «It kept some of my images on file, and eventually used a picture of a grass snake. Seeing it published there was incredible, because it’s a magazine that has always inspired me.»
The magazine started using Cox more and more, and in November last year, used one of his images — of a water vole — on the cover. «Another wildlife photographer said to me that, in photography terms, that was a bit like winning the FA cup», he says, «and I’ve gone on from there to write for the magazine, as well as providing further imagery.»
Cox has now been published in a variety of other magazines too, including Country Life, BBC Country file, Wild Travel, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust magazine, Water life.
«I’m starting to see my images in all the major magazines», he says, «and I’ve been very lucky over the last three years to have had quite a lot of stuff published in all the national newspapers.
«My life is full what with my day job and my photography, so FLPA does most of the negotiating for me. I also have a press agent. When I do a successful trip, I’ll provide it with images to turn into a story. Last year, my bear cub images even ended up on Good Morning America!»
I ask Cox whether he has experienced any problems with magazines wanting to retain copyright in work of his they have published.
«No», he says. «The BBC Wildlife cover was a case in point. The magazine paid me for its use on the cover, and for several images in the inside article as well. At the same time, it also wanted to use that same image to promote its digital version in an advert, and paid separately for that, too.
«The magazine has always been very good. If it wants to use the image again, then it pays again.»
Cox has also achieved success in various wildlife photography competitions, and stresses the importance of taking part.
«They challenge and inspire you», he says. «One of the reasons I got into wildlife photography was because my brother was a member of the Natural History Museum, and we used to go to the preview of the Wildlife Photographer competition every year.
«I have been very pleased to do well in the British Wildlife Photography Awards. I was lucky enough last year to win the Seasons category.»
The video capabilities of the latest DSLRs have made moving imagery increasingly appealing to many freelances, but Cox prefers to concentrate on what he does best.
«To me, you’re either a photographer or a filmmaker», he says. «If you try and do both, you’re going to miss the shot. I’d love to know how to make a wildlife film, but it would require a whole new skillet.»
Cox is currently working on a book about roe deer, which he is shooting largely in southern England, and intends to publish himself, his day job and income from the stock agency funding it.
«Roe deer are a really difficult species, beautiful but shy and elusive, and the project will probably take me five years, but I’m loving it», he says.
«I’m shooting a lot of it in Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, and Wiltshire, and I hope that in due course the project will take me to Scandinavia, The Netherlands and Russia, too. It’s really hard work. You get the images but they’re hard fought for.
«It will be a limited edition run. By self publishing it, I can do it on my own terms, although I’ll have an editor and a proof reader. I want to make it good enough to sell, and I’ll be taking a step back from promoting my photography in the next few years to work on this project.»
Taking a step back from self-promotion also means stepping back from social media — a tool Cox has utilized well over the last few years, but which he feels will be of little importance to him in the near future.
«Social media is a big topic for wildlife photographers at the moment», he says, «how to use it and how to make it work for you.
«If you’re a photographer who is selling trips and workshops, there’s a lot of value in promoting yourself through social media.
«I put a lot of effort into Facebook and Twitter over the last three years — I achieved over 28,000 followers on Facebook alone -but then I thought, ‘Well, what does that mean? How relevant is it to me?’
«I’m not offering trips or workshops. The only reason I use it is because I want to share my work, so I’m better placed to put my energy into working on the book.» Having achieved editorial success, and with a book in the pipeline, I ask Cox what the future holds.
«If we’d have had this conversation three years ago», he says, «I would have told you, ‘I’ve enjoyed being a lawyer, but now I want to do something else’, but now I’ve realized that I couldn’t do one without the other.
«I love being a lawyer and I love my wildlife photography. Why shouldn’t I do both? It works for me, both commercially and creatively. In that sense, I’m probably part of a new breed.»