Those of us who like to dabble in wildlife photography have never been luckier. Today, we have unprecedented opportunities and tools to find animal subjects. Online databases, photography forums and social media yield information—sometimes instantly—on the location of animals, often with GPS coordinates. Camera traps and drones find and track elusive wildlife; and thermal-imaging devices can locate dens and nests. Current camera autofocus systems, gear lightness and maneuverability, and lens technology make stunning images within easy reach of both amateurs and professionals.
But Earth has lost half of its biodiversity in the last 40 years, and every day the planet loses precious habitat to an exploding human population and commerce, crowding wildlife into ever-smaller fragments of wildness. Overfishing and pollution devastate whole communities of animals. Creatures from polar bears to sea turtles to monarch butterflies are adversely affected by climate change. A recent United Nations report found that one in four species faces extinction, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction. The illegal wildlife trade, now equal to the drug trade in profits, targets even the most endangered animals. In addition, our collective disconnect from nature presents its own threat, one of a culture of indifference. We lead virtual lives, plugged into devices instead of the outdoors.
The best wildlife photographers seem to be able to get close to and be accepted by the animals they shoot, while still respecting nature. It’s a tricky trade-off. It’s all too easy to frighten your photo subjects or damage fragile natural habitats, even when you have the best intentions.
The thrill of seeing an animal in the wild all too often carries us away and causes us at times to make decisions that override an animal’s welfare. The allure of the moment, the desire to enter the animal’s world and capture the image that you know will help you remember the experience forever are powerful motivators. I know; I’ve been there.
However, putting the well-being of animals first should be every photographer’s goal. So, how do we make ethics part of our photography outings? Here are some tips.
1. Do your research.
Before you even go out to photograph wildlife, learn about the animal’s natural habits and history. Sound research on animals is only a click away on the Internet. What kind of habitats are you likely to find the animal in, what does it like to eat and what are some interesting behaviors that you’d like to capture? Being able to predict an animal’s actions will make you ready for the shot. For example, before they fly, birds will often defecate.
Photographing brown bears requires a different technique than shooting polar bears. If brown bears are fishing for salmon along a stream, you can often approach in small groups very closely. In contrast, polar bears on land are hungry and totally unpredictable. Elk are okay to approach on foot, but you have to be on your guard around moose. Shooting from ships or inflatable Zodiacs on group tours is one way to approach wildlife safely. If you were to get out and start walking, it would be a different story.
For migrating species, if you know their patterns you have a greater chance at success. For example, in Baja, the prime season for seeing gray whales in the Pacific Coast lagoons is from late January through early April. In the end, a successful shoot may only come down to a few key moments after hours and hours of waiting.
Once in the field, assess the animal’s behavior when you’re around. Is your presence causing a fox to behave fearfully? In bison, signs of stress include licking their noses or raising their tails. Stressed birds may issue alarm calls. If you see any animal abandon its nest, stop feeding or change its behavior in any way because of your proximity, you are too close. Move back slowly and quietly, and wait for the animal to settle. If it doesn’t, leave. Sometimes ethical photography simply means you have to walk away. No photograph is worth jeopardizing the well-being of wildlife.
Also, find out the status of a species in the state in which it lives. It’s incumbent on you as a photographer to acknowledge what the animals you’re photographing are up against and to be especially sensitive to those that are truly struggling to survive.
Situational awareness is one of the most important skills for a wildlife photographer. You need to think like the animal you are photographing, and knowledge is the best way to achieve that.
2. Commit no harm.
Do no harm on a basic level means not destroying habitat to make for a more picturesque scene. There is no reason to touch an animal’s home and disturb its most sacred space, under any circumstances. It also means not causing wildlife to stop eating, hunting or resting, or to threaten or charge you.
Breeding season requires special care. Avoid actions that might result in driving parents away from the young, which leaves them open to the elements and predators. Never alter vegetation around dens or nests, as it provides critical camouflage as well as protection from rain, sun and wind.
Because seeing nocturnal animals is a relatively rare experience, they are attractive photographic subjects. However, never use a powerful light source, such as a flash, because it can temporarily blind these animals.
3. Show respect for wildlife—and other humans in the field.
When moving around an area, it is important to be quiet and discrete. Not only does this increase your chances of spotting wildlife, but it reduces disturbance to your subject. And try to blend in. Camouflage outfits are recommended as a means of reducing the visual distraction caused by the presence of photographers.
Wildlife should not be manipulated or handled in any way for the purposes of photography; such as spraying water on them to create artificial rain; forcing them into unnatural poses, for example, with strings; or confining, restraining or trapping them in order to stop movement.
Intentionally spooking an animal by shouting or throwing objects towards it can cause an animal to expend unnecessary energy in a flight response or scare a parent bird away from a nesting site.
Photograph endangered species or those known to be targets of poaching with extra caution. Refrain from sharing when and where the image was taken in order to avoid giving this information to would-be poachers. Removing EXIF (exchangeable image file format) data from a photo will ensure that GPS coordinates will not be attached to it.
Treat all wildlife with equal respect. Common or rare, migratory or resident, all wild animals should have equal rights in your mind. It is not acceptable to disturb common species to shoot rarer ones.
And, it’s not just the animals that you run the risk of disturbing. Be careful not to disrupt other people’s wildlife-focused work when in the field. Serious photographers sometimes wait for hours in a public blind, only to have people walk by or be joined by someone who feels that he or she must talk at full volume to be heard. If there are research studies or conservation activities happening in the area you are shooting in, be mindful of these projects.
When photographing in a group, minimize the disturbance you create by choosing your shots carefully and yielding space to your fellow photographers as needed. Be aware of their sight lines. Remember that your desire to photograph an animal doesn’t outweigh the rights of others to observe it, too. Showing respect to your peers is important.
4. Keep it wild.
The kindest thing we can do for wild animals is to honor their wildness. The quickest way to compromise that wildness is to offer food so that you can get a photo.
Predators, such as bears, coyotes, foxes, raptors and wolves, that are fed food quickly learn to associate it with humans. Animals that get comfortable approaching humans for food are often killed by wildlife agencies. People who feed animals from cars cause them to haunt roadsides, putting them at risk of becoming roadkill.
In national parks, it’s illegal to feed wildlife. On the National Park Service’s Yellowstone website, it is stated: “Never feed wildlife. Animals that become dependent on human food may become aggressive toward people and have to be killed.” Most states also have laws prohibiting the feeding of certain wildlife; even local municipalities may have their own ordinances. Penalties range from fines to imprisonment.
And if an animal lives in or migrates to an area where it’s hunted, feeding it may make it an easy target.
Human food is especially toxic for wild animals. Their digestive systems are not used to it, and this could cause them to get sick. Animals who are regularly fed by humans may also gain weight due to the high caloric nature of human food.
Bird feeders may be appropriate if you take on the responsibilities of cleaning them regularly to avoid the spread of parasites and viruses, stock them only with approved food items, place them at the prescribed distance from windows to avoid strikes and keep cats indoors.
Be careful when using tape lures (recorded birdsong or the calls of other animals)—or forgo using them at all. They can disrupt the natural behavior of wildlife. Never use them during breeding season or in the case of endangered birds. A male who should be defending his territory from real intruders may instead spend his time trying to fend off the nonexistent challenger you are imitating. Bird chicks and/or eggs might then be left open to predation and weather conditions. This also goes for using decoy models to lure males during the breeding season.
5. Take no selfies.
Avoid trying to get into the shot when photographing wild animals. This means no selfies. It may be tempting, but it’s likely to alarm the animals you’re shooting. Seek to visually capture nature in honest, careful ways and don’t be swayed by the prospect of getting more followers and likes on social media.
6. Follow rules and regulations.
There are laws in place to protect wildlife, and they should always be obeyed.
Laws can vary by location and species. It’s crucial to learn what they are in each local, state and national park, such as whether spotlighting wildlife at night is allowed or how much distance to keep between you and particular species. There’s no shortage of news stories about tourists who ignored national park rules on distance and got injured. In many cases, the animals involved must then be put down.
In Yellowstone National Park, for example, surviving the long, harsh winter for most wild inhabitants is a tale of adaptation and endurance. Bison, elk and other herbivores can become weak from the bitter temperatures, punishing snow and scarce food, granting wolves and other predators an advantage. Park rules state that you must stay at least 25 yards away from most wildlife, and 100 yards from bears and wolves. This is especially important in winter, when an animal’s reserves are at their lowest.
Never chase or pursue an animal to get a picture. Accept the fact that a smartphone won’t get a shot that really requires a telephoto lens. Invest in one if you want to take close-up shots.
In Zion National Park, tripods are banned in some areas and situations; and in U.S. national parks, nature preserves and wilderness areas, drones are outlawed. In National Marine Sanctuaries, drones may not be flown within 1,000 feet of a whale. A well-known 2015 study documented the effect of drones on the heart rates of black bears in Minnesota. Though there were no outward signs of stress, bears’ heart rates rose as much as 123 beats per minute above the preflight baseline when a drone was present. In general, if animals react to a drone’s presence, it’s too close. Drones also may not be flown in any area where firefighting activities are taking place.
In any park or other protected area, if you plan on making commercial photography or deploying camera traps, you’re required to obtain the necessary permits.
7. Go with a guide, if necessary.
If you’re shooting in an unfamiliar location, it is advisable to go with a guide who knows the area well. A thorough knowledge of the environment is beneficial for your own safety and for that of the animals you encounter.
For example, in Yellowstone National Park in winter, the only road that stays open to regular travel is between Mammoth Hot Springs and the northeast entrance. Fortunately, that road goes to the famous Lamar Valley, a great spot for photographing winter wildlife. For other locations, however, you’ll need to travel via guided snowmobile or snowcoach. Traveling with a guide that uses chartered snowcoaches allows time for instruction during the journey, provides room for gear and offers a place to warm up between shoots. Wildlife in Yellowstone are habituated to snow vehicles, and the coaches act as a convenient blind while setting up your camera and tripod.
8. Be transparent about using captive wildlife in your photography.
Captive wildlife photography is a popular pursuit, especially for people who may not be able or willing to travel to far-flung places to see animals in their natural habitats. Many kinds of facilities offer opportunities to photograph animals, including rescue centers, reserves, refuges, sanctuaries, wildlife centers and zoos. Just make sure that you visit only legitimate sanctuaries or zoos and avoid places where wild animals are exploited for profit.
In some cases, captive wildlife may have been injured and rescued from the wild. Well cared for, they serve as ambassadors for their species. In others, they may have been confiscated from a facility that mistreated them and are living out their days in a safe, quiet refuge. Whatever the circumstances, be transparent in your captions about how a photograph was made. Explain how you respected an animal’s space and needs. Representing the truth of an animal’s life when we share our photos matters.
Transparency in captioning is also a useful way to check in with yourself. If you’re not comfortable sharing how you got the shot, that’s a clue that you might not have made the best choice in getting it.
For assistance in captioning, refer to the truth-in-captioning guidelines issued by the North American Nature Photography Association.
9. Aim to inspire wildlife conservation.
Wildlife photography has the power to turn people on to the wonders of nature. It’s an essential tool to inspire the desire to protect wildlife and spark real change. When done right, wildlife photography can raise awareness about endangered species in need of conservation. Photos can go viral on social media in mere minutes, bringing much-needed attention to wildlife in the throes of crisis.
This means working to show animals faithfully in their natural habitats, leaving their routines and spaces undisturbed—not trying to manipulate the natural environment to get the perfect shot. It’s important to also be aware how your images are portraying the animals and environments you’re shooting, and whether you’re aiding or hindering wildlife conservation with your photography.
That’s why taking a wildlife photo is a balance. Every time you go out, you have to make a very careful decision. Does getting the image justify taking a shot of an animal whose every, single moment is about survival? If it’s a threatened or endangered animal, can you think of an avenue in which you could tell a critically important story?
10. Take your time—and take time for reflection.
You can’t rush wildlife photography. For some animals, if you’re patient and go slowly, they stop reacting to your presence and go about their lives. We need to remember that animals have their own needs and fears to attend to, and we cannot interfere with them. Photography isn’t only about the final result, or “getting the shot,” but about being in the moment.
If you’re totally engaged with what you love to photograph in this wide world, your photos will be imbued with meaning and will have a strong visual impact. Strive to capture a moment’s essence, whether it’s an animal’s behavior, an interaction between different species or a strong environmental portrait.
And build reflection time into your photography. Think about what practices worked and which ones didn’t after spending time with an animal.
Find your own wilderness
It’s a misconception to think that the greatest wildlife images have to come from the hands of a pro in an African savanna or some other exotic locale. Conservation stories can be found in your own “backyard.” Within 30 miles of almost everyone’s home, there’s some wildness to be found, whether that’s an urban park, an undeveloped woodland, a lake, pond, river, refuge or state park. In the details, there are lots of beautiful things to see.
Sometimes, the real challenge is making new and interesting pictures day after day while visiting the same place. Your wilderness may not jump out at you as a great place to photograph at first, but give it a chance. Having to work at trying to photograph something new or different in a single location helps you learn to see and to appreciate the nuances that make a great photograph. Visit your place at different times of the day and various times of the year. You’ll begin to understand the local cycles of life and death. Be willing to look more carefully than you’ve looked before. As Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
The little discoveries you make in your own personal wild area will translate to anywhere you travel. You’ll become adept at fine-tuning your photographic compositions, anticipating and predicting what the light will do.
Be guided by compassion
Nature and wildlife need our stories, now more than ever. But nature also needs us to develop a heightened sense of awareness about the effects of our presence. The basic principles outlined here can provide a starting point, although practicing ethical wildlife photography is not just about rules of right or wrong. It’s more about nuances and bringing good decision-making to bear each time that we’re out there, because each animal is different. And we are all different. As Ansel Adams famously said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
As with so many other of our actions, ethical wildlife photography springs from empathy. We may not have all the answers, and we may make mistakes; but we can continuously strive to be aware and compassionate. It’s up to each of us to use the power we have as wildlife photographers—both amateur and professional—to act with great care for the animals that gift us with their brief company.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,