Wildlife Photography + Field Ethics
The animal is more important than the photo
As a general rule and to the best of my ability, I reduce my impact by observing best field practices, respectful distances, and noting important behavioral cues from the animals. Our presence as humans can be a disruption in itself, and I recognize that no methodology is perfect, that we all make mistakes. But I go into the field with the intent to minimize my footprint, and with this intention, often capture the moments I might not otherwise see without the quiet and patience of just being in the animal’s space.
My Personal Guidelines
• I use the NANPA Ethics Guidelines and the Audubon Guide to Ethical Photography as models. I’m always learning more about animal behavior and natural history, to better understand the wildlife I photograph.
• I photograph with long lenses, my primary wildlife lenses being the Oly 300mm f/4 (which has an effective 600mm reach) and the Panasonic 100-400mm f/4-6.3 (effective 200-800mm, with 2x crop factor)
• I don’t bait or lure wild animals like owls or foxes (Note: these practices are not legal in many areas)
• I don’t use calls or decoys, electronic or other
• I’m cautious about nesting/denning areas, with a few important caveats, noted below
• In macro photography of insects, all photos are taken as I find them, in their natural settings. I don’t stage or move animals for images.
• I align with the principles of compassionate conservation, as they challenge some of the longstanding norms about our interactions with other species.
Young and Nesting Animals
I’m particularly cautious about photographing young animals and nesting areas. Human presence and attention to nests or dens can present some dangers like interrupting feeding and nurturing behaviors. Understanding that predators can follow scent trails or notice where we are focusing our attention, I make nest safety a priority and will avoid photographing in many cases. In settings like large urban heron or seabird rookeries, or Osprey nests — where, with adequate distance, the birds are accustomed to human presence and are generally not disturbed — I’m more comfortable setting up my camera. Again, I use my best judgment and try to get the pulse of other photographers and birders who also know the area and the local animals.
On Disclosing Wildlife Locations
Community is important to me, and I love bringing new people into the world of wildlife observation. I also cherish my connections with fellow wildlife photographers and birders, and the passions we all share.
At the same time, I encounter frustrating human-wildlife interactions often enough to feel protective of the wildlife and birds I photograph. So, I’m judicious in sharing wildlife locations in online media, especially if the welfare of the animal could be at stake in any way. The popularity of birding and wildlife photography is a wonderful development, but it also adds human and population pressure to sought-after species. I’m keenly aware of issues in conservation that challenge our fellow species, sometimes to the brink of existence these days. And, I feel an obligation to contribute to their well-being, and not detract from it.
I personally believe that our fellow species benefit from more people interested in and caring about them, about their well-being. The adage that we protect what we care about tends to be true. It’s such a thrill for me to see more people engaging wildlife in thoughtful, enthusiastic, and non-violent ways. I do my best to promote that, while also finding a comfortable, safe balance for the animals..
• Related: Wildlife Locations – When Sharing Endangers the Animals
With wildlife, I shoot in natural light, no flash or artificial illumination. It’s less intrusive to wild animals, and I enjoy the challenge of working with the nuances of available light. Because I appreciate photographs as emotive and story-telling devices, I see difficult light — darkness, fog, and high-contrast situations — as a call to adapt and find something new in the frame. If I use artificial light in any situation, I’ll note it in the description.
I shoot RAW so my current, standard edits include exposure, white/black levels, white balance, saturation changes, sharpening, and noise reduction.
For more creative imaging, I give myself a bit more leeway with artistic license, and will apply other effects, vignettes, etc. Those photos will be captioned with the alterations or labeled “fine art” to distinguish between straight, naturalistic imagery.
The term “anthropomorphism” is often used to deny animals their rightful entitlement to complex emotional and social behaviors. I don’t believe in stripping an animal of his or her individuality because she belongs to a different species. I prefer to grant nonhumans the benefit of the doubt, because I believe we diminish them by consistently underestimating their capacity on these levels. It’s caused so much harm to other species historically, to deny them these qualities — the ones we deem exclusively human but which, over time, we discover are not unique to us.
• Related: The Benefits of Anthropomorphism
The Feel-Free-to-Comment Policy
Feel free to comment, disagree, to challenge. I’m a believer in the First Amendment. I come at my subjects from the perspective of an observer and an artist, not a scientist, so there’s obvious subjectivity inherent in my views.
“When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.” ~ John Muir