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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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