Wildlife Photography + Field Ethics
The animal is more important than the photo
I believe in the ideas of compassionate conservation ** — where the welfare of individual animals is also important in a conservation context. 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.
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 lens being the Oly 300mm f/4 (which has an effective 600mm reach)
• I don’t bait or lure wild animals like owls or foxes, a practice common in some areas
• I don’t use calls or decoys, electronic or other
• I’m cautious about (and generally avoid) nesting/denning areas
• In macro photography of insects, all photos are taken as I find them, in their natural settings, no staging.
** Compassionate conservation is a debated idea as it challenges the current norms. You can read more about that discussion here.
Young and Nesting Animals
I am especially cautious about photographing young animals and nesting areas, and don’t photograph nests often out of concern for interrupting feeding behavior or alerting predators to the area. Predators can follow scent trails, etc. There are situations, however — like certain urban heron rookeries or Osprey nests — where, with adequate distance, the birds are accustomed to human presence and are generally not disturbed. 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.
Why I Often Don’t Disclose Wildlife Locations
I encounter frustrating human-wildlife interactions often enough to feel protective of the wildlife and birds I photograph. I feel an obligation to contribute to their well-being, and not detract from it. It has nothing to do with hoarding a choice photography spot. In fact, most places where I’ve photographed wildlife are quite open to the public and well-known by birders and photographers throughout the year.
• 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 anthropomomorphism 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, and prefer to grant nonhumans the benefit of the doubt.
• 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