Wildlife Photography + Field Ethics
The animal is more important than the photo
These guidelines were developed over time, with practice that included many personal mistakes. I am self-taught as a photographer, and it took me time to shape a better set of standards and practices in the field, and also in my photo processing. I’m grateful to the people along my trajectory who helped me become a more thoughtful photographer with respect to all of these considerations.
To the best of my ability, I reduce my impact by observing cautious field practices, respectful distances, and noting important behavioral cues from the animals. Our presence as humans can be a disruption in itself, and 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 m.zuiko 300mm f/4 (which has an effective 600mm reach) and the m.zuiko 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
• 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
Human presence and attention to nests or dens presents various dangers. It can interrupt feeding, nurturing, and protective behaviors. In worst-case scenarios, it can lead to the endangerment and death of nestlings. Humans can also create scent trails for predators. For those reasons, these days, I avoid photographing nests in most cases. There are, of course, settings like urban heron or seabird rookeries or particular situations where photography can be done safely. 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 so often, I feel protective of the wildlife and birds I photograph. I frequently post just a general location, unless it’s safe to be more specific. I don’t reveal locations of uncommon animals or charismatic birds like owls which tend to be relentlessly pursued once their location is known.
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.
In the naturalistic or documentary photography I do today, I will apply standard edits on RAW files, tweaking, where needed, settings like exposure, contrast, black point, sharpness. For fine art images, I take artistic license with effect and outcome. I’ll note that in my caption. I’m currently (slowly) updating my catalog of images for caption consistency, especially on earlier works, where I experimented more with post-processing along my learning curve, before I developed my current method.
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. 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