In his 1997 article “The Problem with Wildlife Photography,” author and environmental activist Bill McKibben wrote, “Without Kodak there’d be no Endangered Species Act.”
While viewed by some at the time as controversial, McKibben’s point has only gained traction in the intervening years. Recent news reports abound with stories of overenthusiastic shutterbugs who do harm to themselves—or worse yet, to their intended animal subjects—when attempting selfies in the wild or trying to capture a prize-winning close-up. Fueled by the power of photographic technology and the immediacy of social media networks, the interface between dwindling wildlife amid a burgeoning human population has reached an ever-more-precarious imbalance.
The Case for Animal Rights
Concern over animal rights is nothing new, with legislation to protect animals from cruelty dating back as far as the 1600s. The first animal rights societies were founded in Britain and the United States during the 1800s, around the same time that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species revolutionized the way humans viewed their relationship with other sentient beings.
When it comes to recording animals in images, guidelines for ethical practices in photographing wildlife have been established by various environmental and animal rights organizations in recent years, a few of which are linked below:
Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography, by The National Audubon Society
The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice, by The Royal Photographic Society (RPS)
The overarching philosophy behind such rules for ethical conduct can perhaps best be encapsulated in the passage: “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”
Contemporary Media as a Cause for Unethical Behaviors
The overwhelming popularity of the Netflix series Tiger King is just the latest example of how contemporary media sacrifices wildlife ethics in favor of popular entertainment. Thrill-seeking shows or unnatural images that normalize encounters with wild animals send a subliminal message equating such animals to a prop, perpetuating a misconception about ethical conduct.
Social media and photo sharing platforms are equally responsible for spreading such damaging impressions. South African wildlife photographer and safari guide Isak Pretorius attributes a false sense of accomplishment from social media posts and “the idea of instant fame without putting in the hard work,” as contributing factors to unethical behaviors in photographing wildlife. “Instagram and Facebook are great tools for bragging about your photos, building a portfolio to get your name out there, and enjoying the attention that spectacular photos bring,” he says. “However, it doesn’t take long to realize that people don’t care how a stunning photo was created. A beautiful portrait of a tiger’s face taken in a zoo would get the same number of comments and likes as one where the photographer spent a month in a blind in Siberia to finally get his one shot.”
Rather than succumbing to the peer pressure lurking behind misleading social media posts, Pretorius stresses the importance of rediscovering the reasons why you love nature and wildlife photography, offering this advice: “Think about using photography as a tool to immerse yourself in nature and experience it in a more intimate way. You’ll be most fulfilled by creating truthful images in an ethical manner, regardless of the success that photo earns you on social media.”
Ethical Practices for Truth and Safety in the Field
According to renowned wildlife photographer Art Wolfe, “Ethical wildlife photography begins with knowing your subject. There is a certain amount of Zen in wildlife photography,” he says. “Maintaining a mindful calm is critical.”
When capturing images, Wolfe recommends keeping a low and slow posture, which presents a much less intimidating profile than walking straight toward a subject. “Animals have very acute senses and pick up human stress and anxiety,” he explains. “If you’re stressed about the situation or anxious that your camera isn’t working, you might as well retreat.”
Animals are particularly attuned to the sense of smell, possessing a degree of perception to this unseen element that is much greater than that of humans. Noted animal advocate Ami Vitale advises, “Watch the way the wind is blowing and move in the opposite direction. Since animals are sensitive to smell, they will move away when they get a hint of your scent.”
For successful wildlife pictures, Vitale also recommends waking up early, before the sun rises. “Many species are most active at night and during the early hours,” she explains. “They will usually find a hiding place to sleep in during the day.”
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s crucial to remember that animals are unpredictable, so you can never be 100% sure what they might do, even if you think you’re a good judge of behavior. For this reason alone, it’s essential to keep a respectful distance when in the presence of any wild animal. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics offers this basic trick when encountering wildlife out on the trail: “Make a thumbs-up sign, extend your arm all the way in front of you, close one eye, and see if you can hide the animal with your thumb. If a portion of the animal is still visible, take a few steps back and try again. Once you can hide the entire animal, this means you are at a safe distance.”
Truthful Images of Animals in Nature vs. Set-Up Shots
When capturing still photos or moving footage in the wild, one determinant for ethical conduct is whether the images represent an unmediated occurrence in nature or if they result from human intervention. While practices such as baiting animals with food or otherwise altering an animal’s behavior may help to ensure an iconic shot, such behavior by humans can have serious consequences in changing the dynamics of the ecosystem, or even putting the life of an animal at risk.
Says Vitale, “I think in our desire to make beautiful images of animals, we can forget our impact on them. While well-meaning, wildlife photographers can actually harm the creatures they are pursuing. Never clap at, chase, or bait an animal to get your photo. Not only is it unethical, it can cause physiological changes such as an increased heart rate or other types of stress that could disrupt the reproductive process. Furthermore, an animal’s behavioral response such as running or flying away can separate them from their babies, resulting in orphaned young.”
Another way to attract shy or elusive animals that has become a contentious issue in recent years is to play their call. This is an especially common practice among birders. “Without a doubt, playing a call will alter behavior to some degree,” says Pretorius. “Some calls that appear to have no positive reaction might be an intimidation call, scaring the animal away.”
As an example, he describes the call of a male lion being played among a pride, cautioning, “This could have a disastrous outcome. Cubs might run away out of fear of the ‘intruder,’ making them vulnerable to attacks from enemies like hyenas. To what extent a given call is detrimental to the species in question is unclear,” he admits, “especially if you’re not a species expert. If possible, it is best to avoid this practice altogether. But, if you must, it is certainly better to only play a call once or twice instead of repeatedly.”
As Pretorius explains, “Truly committed wildlife photographers are passionate about nature and the tranquility associated with it. Unfortunately, the success of flagship DSLR cameras hinges on the fact that they can fire off multiple shots in a second, sounding like a jackhammer at best.” This rapid-fire technique of using a DSLR in burst mode might better the odds of capturing a magnificent pose but, adds Pretorius, “the noise disturbance it creates can scare animals away, especially those that are not used to hearing it.”
One popular alternative is to swap one’s loud and bulky DSLR for the silent operation and trimmer form factor of a mirrorless camera. Vitale recently added the mirrorless Nikon Z 7II to her gear bag, relying on this system for much of her animal work. “The Z 7’s silent mode has been a game changer when working with wildlife,” she says. “I also used this camera while working with orphaned and traumatized elephants. They were afraid of the metallic sound of the shutter on other DSLR cameras, but since I started filming and photographing with the Z system, they were no longer stressed by those sounds.”
Wolfe’s current camera of choice for wildlife work is the Canon R5 mirrorless, which also has a silent shutter mode. Instead of a flash, he recommends the use of newer model cameras for their ability to capture decent imagery at very high ISOs.
When it comes to lenses, telephotos are a must for wildlife photography. “Long lenses give a sense of intimacy with the subject while maintaining a working distance,” says Wolfe, who has gravitated to Canon’s EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM and the EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM in the past few years. “But I like to travel light,” he admits, shifting to the versatile RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L IS USM during a recent trip to Kenya. Vitale often uses a 500mm fixed lens, yet she points out, “These lenses add a lot to your load.” When weight is an issue, she chooses a NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6, or if not, she uses the 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, or 600mm f/4. “If I’m hiking, I prefer smaller and lighter lenses,” she adds, “but the downside to smaller lenses is the loss of light and image quality.”
Camouflage, Blinds, Remote Cameras, and Camera Traps
When photographing wildlife, the ability to blend into one’s surroundings offers a decided advantage, and there is a wide range of photo accessories available to help. Lens skins are made in many flavors of camouflage to fit over your lens and hide its telltale black or white surface, while camouflage camera skins and leg protectors can also help disguise your other gear. If you want to blend in even further, camouflage shooting covers of various shapes and patterns provide an even wider berth. To dig deeper into this subject, check out B&H’s Camouflage Buying Guide for Wildlife Photographers.
Although traditionally associated with hunting, ground blinds are another useful method of concealment that allow image makers to observe wildlife undetected, often at close range, while waiting patiently for an optimal photograph. Another trusted method for capturing wildlife up close or in environments that would be impossible to access directly to is to incorporate remote setups such as trail/wildlife cameras or more elaborate camera traps. A camera trap consists of two basic components: a camera with a lens, and a sensor that can detect an animal’s presence and trigger your camera with an infrared beam. In addition, it’s helpful to have some sort of enclosure to protect the camera, such as a hard watertight case, a mount to hold it steady, an external battery pack for longer camera life, and a large memory card. Many photographers also add strategically placed flashes to freeze movement and add light to the scene. Once set up, a camera trap can be left for days or even weeks at a time. The longer you leave it, the greater your chances of capturing an image of an elusive animal.
In recent years, the use of flash has become a contentious issue from the standpoint of wildlife ethics. “It can definitely cause animals some sort of discomfort or risk altering their behavior,” says Pretorius. “This is why wildlife filmmakers now use infrared cameras to film at night, and safari lodges have converted to red lights at night. But, these are not feasible options for keen hobbyist wildlife photographers,” he adds. “So, my advice would be to judge an animal’s behavior when adding light to a scene. If the owl squints or look away, it’s best to switch the light off. If an elephant jumps each time your flash fires, even in the daytime, then it’s best not to use it.”
The Problem with Drones
Even more problematic from the standpoint of ethics is the use of consumer-level drones in wildlife settings. “It’s the noise that frightens the animals,” says Vitale. “Elephants and buffalo will run and even possibly cause a stampede,” adds Pretorius. “Antelope and predators also run or try to get away.”
A 2015 scientific study to test the physiological reaction of wild black bears to the presence of a drone recorded a significant increase in the animals’ heart rate, and in certain cases interfered with the innate behavior of a mother bear and her cubs. It’s also worth noting that the use of drones is largely prohibited in sites administered by the National Park Service, at the risk of steep fines and the possibility of jail time. Even flying a drone in a seemingly unpopulated outdoor landscape setting could draw the attention—and the predatory instincts—of a passing bird, resulting in a downed and damaged machine, or worse yet, the prospect of injury to the bird.
Although unmanned aerial vehicles are valuable tools for the study of wildlife conservation and management, extreme care must be taken whenever drones are used in proximity to wild animals. A best practice involves using a spotter with binoculars to assess the area and identify any potential wildlife that might be negatively impacted by the introduction of a flying object. Close observation of area fauna should continue after the drone is launched, and the flight should be immediately discontinued if any behavioral changes are observed in surrounding animals. All told, Vitale counsels that, “Flying a drone very high and far away from animals is the only way to get your shot while not interfering with nature.”
The Matter of Zoos and Game Farms
Avocational photographers with a penchant for wildlife are often drawn to photographing animals residing in zoos, animal sanctuaries, rehabilitation centers, or game farms. In recent years, game farms have developed an especially bad reputation due to the questionable ethics behind keeping animals in captivity for the sole purpose of human enjoyment.
The Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFAS) offers links for vetting entities in what it describes as, “a poorly regulated industry, in which facilities that keep animals in deplorable conditions can identify themselves as compared to those of the highest quality.”
Before visiting a sanctuary or reserve, check the GFAS website to see if the location you’d like to visit is listed there. Those interested in visiting a zoo should check to make sure that it’s accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). According to Melissa Groo of The International League of Conservation Photographers, “the AZA is distinct from the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), a recently-formed, somewhat controversial coalition with a decidedly confusing name/acronym. Although some debate may occur about whether every AZA-accredited facility provides the quality of life to a captive animal that some of us would wish, these facilities are certainly held to high standards of care.”
Identifiable Locations and Truth in Captioning
Concern over ethics in matters related to wildlife is hardly limited to image making. Illicit activities such as animal poaching have long posed a major threat to animal well-being. In today’s highly digitized world, poaching has been aided by access to a photo’s identifying details, such as geolocation data, which can be readily pulled from publicly shared image files and used by poachers to track and kill endangered animals.
Everyone—from the humble tourist to the seasoned pro—who captures a coveted animal subject in images and shares it in a public forum needs to be aware of the impact these actions could have. Best practices for minimizing risk range from switching off your geotagging before a shoot to scrubbing location details off existing photos to not disclosing identifying information about when, where, and at what time a given photo was made when writing a caption.
While being vague about specific location details—or not publishing such images altogether—is an encouraged practice for situations involving endangered animals or otherwise sensitive scenes, truth and accuracy in captioning wildlife photos is otherwise more critical today than ever. This is particularly relevant when submitting photos for publication or entering images in competitions. Indeed, failure to truthfully identify an image that is set up or enhanced in post can lead to disqualification, or even worse, do harm to a photographer’s future credibility within the photographic community.
In 2017, NANPA published a Truth in Captioning document as a guide for photographers to use in creating captions that are both accurate and thorough. In addition to the basic attributes of what, when, where, and how, commonly used to describe conditions under which a photo is made, NANPA’s document references the terms Wild, Captive, Controlled, Baited, or Lured to distinguish naturally recorded scenes from those involving varying degrees of human intervention. Additionally, the terms As Shot, Cleanup, Manipulated, Composite, Multiple Exposures, and Effects are suggested to clarify any enhancements made to an image in post.
Careful Planning to Ensure Ethical Conduct
According to the Royal Photographic Society’s Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice, “There is one hard and fast rule, whose spirit must be observed at all times. The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.” This guiding principal is the cornerstone of wildlife photography ethics.
When asked for his insights, Wolfe provided a succinct, yet detailed, overview of his process—from initial planning of a wildlife shoot to his arrival in the field—presented below as a final pearl of wisdom. While the complexity of his approach far exceeds what might be expected of a beginning wildlife photographer or hobbyist, Wolfe’s procedures constitute the essential building blocks of preparedness that everyone with a camera should keep in mind to ensure ethical practices during any interaction with inhabitants of the animal world.
“I first try to anticipate the photographs I hope to take, even sketching out some ideas,” says Wolfe. “I then get organized by pulling out the proper equipment. I begin my research on the Web and through other researchers, friends, and travel professionals. My staff and I research the best time of year to travel to a specific destination, weather, terrain, wildlife habitat, accommodations, contact information, and travel restrictions. Any special permits or visas are researched beforehand. On some trips, I rely on guides or a guide service. I also acquire the necessary maps and books prior to my travel for inspiration. Then we plan all the connections, from the massive jetliner, to the smaller prop plane, to the boat, and finally, to the trail leading into the place I have been thinking about for the previous months. Over many years, I have learned to avoid putting myself or my subjects at risk by carefully observing the animals’ reactions to my presence.”
For more on photographing animals in the wild, including plenty of inspirational articles, product guides, and helpful tips, visit the B&H Birding and Wildlife Photography page.
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