20 Ways to Photograph Wildlife Ethically

by Lana Tannir

Wildlife photography could arguably be the one of the most challenging and sensitive types of visual arts. Wild animals are unpredictable and (mostly) have a healthy fear of humans. Therefore, a lot of the work that takes place in the field is a result of extensive research, preparation and intuition. Yet, despite all this groundwork, it’s sometimes difficult to judge whether the actions we are taking to photograph wildlife can truly be considered ethical. In order to photograph wildlife ethically, making different considerations need to be taken into account.

Read also: How Ethical is Wildlife Photography?

Wild species strive to survive on a daily basis. For this reason, utmost attention should be dedicated towards capturing images authentically and ethically. This article provides you with 20 ways to photograph wildlife ethically when venturing into the wild with your camera.

1. Nature first

Even the greatest photograph is not worth the destruction of natural environments and wildlife habitats. Therefore, when venturing out to photograph wildlife, it is of critical importance that you do not alter the vegetation for a better perspective or modify your surroundings by removing essential flora in the area. This may greatly impact feeding, nesting, and gathering sites of species. Animals are dependent on terrains to survive, camouflage and protect themselves from the elements. Disturbing their living space may cause them to migrate or reduce in numbers as a result of habitat loss. After all, you would not want to be left with nothing to photograph, would you?

2. Consider your purpose

Why do you want to photograph the animal you are pursuing? Wildlife photography involves immortalizing vulnerable species. Hence, it is important to consider conservation as an important aspect of your work. This means: depicting animals authentically in their natural habitat, without attempting to manipulate their routines and terrains. In this case, it is helpful to partner with scientists and researchers to ensure and accurate portrayal of the subject. This not only ensure correctness, it also adds authenticity to your image. When in doubt, ask the question “Is my photography is aiding or hindering the conservation of the animal I’m portraying?” This should help you to evaluate your objectives and photograph wildlife ethically.

3. Do your research

Ethical wildlife photography goes beyond preserving an animal’s natural habitat. It also entails ensuring the well-being of the subject in front of your camera. Knowing the natural history of the species you are photographing is essential to understanding its behavior and making responsible decisions on site. Reading up on an animal’s natural history and observing the subject closely is crucial to wildlife photography. It can help you to recognize aggravation, alarm, fear, avoidance and aggression (put simply: when to back off). Hence, educating yourself in advance about wildlife behavior assures a safe and successful photography environment.

4. Take only photos, leave only footprints

With climate change, habitat encroachment, wildlife trafficking, hunting and poaching, it’s safe to say that animals already have a lot of threats to face on a daily basis. Therefore, damaging their habitat by leaving food, rubbish or traces behind only adds to the multiple threats they face to survive. For this reason, the environment should remain unscathed and appear exactly the way you left it when venturing outdoors. Even minor alterations, such as removing branches around a bird nest, may greatly disrupt its habitat. Therefore, taking only photos and leaving only footprints is crucial in order to photograph wildlife ethically.

5. Blend in with your environment

The majority of animals have sharp vision and a highly developed sense of hearing and smell. Therefore, they can easily detect the presence of a human via our shape, movements, odor, and color. These heightened senses are an important way for wildlife to determine whether something is a threat. Hence, wearing camouflage is a helpful way to reduce visual distractions and stressors on the animal.

Arctic Fox Shedding Winter Fur
Arctic Fox in Svalbard

6. Use professional help to photograph wildlife ethically

When photographing in an unfamiliar environment, it is always helpful to consult with a guide or biologist who is versed in the area. This not only helps you understand the laws of photographing at the location. It also ensures personal safety and the safety of the flora and fauna you encounter. Lastly, by consulting a biologist or guide, you guarantee to photograph wildlife ethically. The added bonus: learning more about the wildlife you are photographing, their behavior and seasonal sightings in the area.

7. Avoid all forms of baiting and luring

Baiting, luring, or otherwise provoking a wild animal is an absolute no-go if you want to photograph wildlife ethically. It can severely disrupt an animal’s natural behavior. In fact, the kindest thing you can do for any wild creature is to respect its wilderness. Feeding not only habituates an animal to humans. Incorrect or inappropriate food may also severely damage its digestive system and introduce parasites or diseases. Ultimately, this may cause unnecessary suffering and death.

“A fed animal is a dead animal”, is what the Yellowstone National Park states on their website. Predators are particularly quick to associate humans with food. As a result, this may lead to aggressive behaviors (in which case, the animal is considered hazardous and killed off by wildlife agencies), as well as roadside accidents with wildlife in search for food near humans.

8. Do not disturb

When photographing a wild creature, it is of utmost importance that you minimize disturbance. Disturbances include both direct and indirect interaction with the animal. This means: no chasing, calling, distracting, object throwing, or interfering. Additionally, some practices that should be avoided at all costs are: 

  • Spraying water on a subject
  • Gluing or restraining a small animal to restrict their movement
  • Confining or trapping an animal
  • Forcing your subject into unnatural positions (e.g. using wires or string)

This both causes immense animal suffering and strips all authenticity from the photograph you are creating. For more information on practices to avoid, see my article How Ethical is Wildlife Photography?

9. Be compassionate

Compassion, appreciation and the respect for animals should be at the forefront of wildlife photography. After all, our photographs are telling a story of sentient beings. Wild animals have a broad range of emotional capacities, families, communication systems, survival mechanisms, and senses. In the wild, animals have a tough enough time without our interference. On a day-to-day basis, they need to protect themselves from predators, locate food, build a shelter, raise their young, and find mating partners. Therefore, the primary components to bring with you to a wildlife shoot are empathy, understanding and awe of the subject you are photographing. After all, the goal here is to photograph wildlife ethically, right?

10. Follow the rules

An important aspect to research prior to photographing wildlife at a location are the photography rules at the site. Nature reserves and national parks generally have specific guidelines and regulations for photographers (e.g. how much distance to keep from an animal). Moreover, laws may vary depending on the method of photography, as well as its purpose. Drones, for example, tend to be prohibited around nature reserves, wilderness areas and national parks. Government authorities, such as park rangers, are good source of information when it comes to this topic.

Harbour Seal at the Coast in Düne

11. Be cautious

Approaching a wild animal should be undertaken only with prior research of its behavioral patterns and natural history. After all, is it really worth getting that close-up shot knowing that you have distressed your subject? Assuming that prior research has been done: moving slowly and in a random fashion is an effective way to make an animal more comfortable to your presence.

12. Respect your subjects

The habitat in which you are photographing is an animal’s home. It was there before you arrived and will remain there after you leave. Therefore, it is important to keep this in mind when venturing out into an environment. Ultimately, behaving as if you were visiting someone else’s home is the key to being an ethical nature photographer.

13. Respect other professionals

When shooting wildlife, it is likely that you will not be alone at a location that has had multiple sightings of a species. Therefore, be kind and aware of your fellow photographers and professionals in the field. Sometimes, there may be research studies or conservation initiatives taking place in the area. Be mindful of these projects and do not disturb the scientists’ work. If other photographers are present, make sure that you minimize disturbance on the animal. This can be done by selecting an area that is not overcrowded and yielding space to your colleagues as needed.

14. Don’t use flash

The majority of nocturnal wildlife is sensitive to light. This means that a strong source of light, such as a flash, can temporarily blind them. There is a lot of argumentation and speculation on whether flash photography is harmful to animals or not.

Regardless, even temporary blindness between 5-20 minutes can have serious repercussions on the species. Most importantly, temporary blindness can make the animal vulnerable to other predators. In fact, it may hinder it from hunting and protecting its offspring. In a slightly different scenario, considering the effects of strong headlights on a deer can put things into perspective. “When a headlight beam strikes eyes that are fully dilated to capture as much light as possible, deer cannot see at all, and they freeze until the eyes can adjust. They don’t know what to do, so they do nothing,” suggests Mr. Yancy, a biologist. Hence, when considering whether or not to utilize flash – I would personally opt to leave it at home.

15. No crowding, please!

A crowded animal is a distressed animal – especially if it is wild. Therefore, if you find yourself in a large crowd during your wildlife shoot, it is best to consider where you can move to alleviate the stress on your subject. Alternatively, consider whether there a different time of day when you can visit the area, when there are fewer people present.

Male Orca in the North Sea

16. Equality is key to photography wildlife ethically

Just because you are photographing one subject does not mean that all other animals in its vicinity should be disregarded. Distressing one species to photograph another is equally as bad as distressing your subject. For this reason, informing yourself of the general flora and fauna of the area is important before going out on a wildlife shoot.

17. Endangered species

Photographing endangered species may have undesirable consequences. For this reason, you must take extra precaution when capturing an endangered animal. If an animal is targeted for wildlife trafficking and poaching, discretion is advised. This means: it is best to refrain from sharing information about where the photo was taken. The same applies to endangered animals. In the case of the latter, it is important to consider whether sharing the photograph may lead to its further endangerment.

18. Avoid captive wildlife

Captive wildlife photography is popular among photographers who are not willing to travel and wait for prolonged periods of time. Captive wildlife can be found at many different facilities with greatly varying living standards for the animal. Some examples include: zoos, rescues, sanctuaries, game farms, adventure parks, safari parks, wildlife centers, reserves, and rehabilitation centers. Regulations for captive wildlife remain scarce. Hence, many institutions can easily label themselves “sanctuaries”, despite not adhering to any animal welfare standards.

Personally, I avoid any captive wildlife facilities, unless they are legitimate rescue and rehabilitation centers for animals that are no longer able to survive in the wild. If you do choose to photograph captive wildlife, inform yourself about the accreditation of the facility. Moreover, learn about what makes a legitimate sanctuary or zoo. As ethical wildlife photographers, we must understand that the money we are spending to photograph captive wildlife goes towards maintaining and justifying the living conditions that the animal is currently in, by no choice of its own. My article, How Ethical is Wildlife Photography? provides more information into the living conditions of wildlife at game farms.

19. Honesty is the best policy

Being honest about where a photo was taken is an important component of photographing wildlife ethically. After all, photographs tell the story of a living, sentiment being. This story should be accurate to both the natural history of the subject and to the creation of the moment. Therefore, it is important to be upfront with the viewer about the backstory of the photograph. Is the animal wild? Did you work with a trained animal? Was there baiting involved? All this information provides authenticity to your shot.

Transparent captioning is an effective way to determine the honesty of our work. If sharing details about how a wildlife photograph was created makes you feel uneasy, this is a good indicator that your choices were probably misaligned with your ethical beliefs. Putting it simply: if the intent of the photograph is to deceive the viewer and provide misinformation about its creation, what does that say about your intent and your work?

20. Leave upon signs of distress

An animal in distress feels threatened and afraid. This can have serious health repercussions for the species and may even lead to its death. Prey species (e.g. deer and eastern cottontail rabbits) are especially prone to distress. Prolonged disturbances can severely weaken their immune system. In the worst-case scenario, distress can lead to stress-related conditions. One such condition is capture myopathy, which can be fatal.

This goes to show that it is extremely important to learn to recognize behaviors of an animal in distress. This way, you can know when to leave the site to avoid further disturbance. Prior to shooting, it is helpful to research whether it is appropriate to approach the animal or not. This is one way to ensure that you photograph wildlife ethically. Lastly, an investment in a telephoto lens is always a good idea when shooting wildlife to avoid close encounters.

Summary

Photographing wildlife ethically should be the primary concern for all nature photographers, whether at a professional or amateur level. Many times, the moment we capture on camera with our subjects depict resilience, survival and tenacity in the face of danger and adversity. Going into a wildlife shoot with prior knowledge, caution and respect for our subject ensures that we are able to tell its story effectively and authentically. Now more than ever, honesty and integrity should be at the forefront of work to pay our respect towards nature and its species.

For more information, also refer to National Geographic’s helpful guidelines.

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