This is an article I have wanted to write for awhile, and I finally found the time to do it.
Wildlife Photography - There are many reasons wildlife photography is so addictive and fulfilling. We love the challenge of locating and successfully photographing the wildlife, and we love nature and the wildlife in it. Wildlife photography can be the most rewarding medium one minute, and then the most frustrating and disappointing the next. Some days yield no useable photographs, while some yield twenty. Wildlife photography takes studying locations and the species within them, and little to no sleep.
Your Responsibility - Giving yourself the opportunity to photograph creatures normally not seen by many people, comes with an important responsibility, a responsibility to have little to no impact on the wildlife while photographing them. We are out there to enjoy these animals in their natural settings, not to interrupt their lives or manipulate their surroundings. Negative practices, although they may yield impressive looking results, could physically harm the animals, cause them to abandon feeding locations and young, or become dangerously habituated to humans. There is definitely a right and wrong way to go about wildlife photography, and in this journal I will address both.
The Wrong Way - There are many types of unethical things some photographers do in order to get the shot they want. I will list some of the most common unethical behavior I have seen and heard about.
1. Intentional Spooking </u> - By far the most common unethical behavior I have seen in the field is intentional spooking. This is when a photographer intentionally scares an animal out of a location in order to get an action shot, or make the animal move to a more photogenic location. Every time I see this, it infuriates me. Examples I have seen are photographers throwing rocks in the direction of hunting herons to make them fly, honking a car horn under an osprey nest for a flight shot, and running through a tern colony on the beach. Spooking a mammal or bird away from a location can cause it to abandon young or give up on a feeding location. With coyotes in all 50 U.S states, and an abundance of other predators on the hunt, abandoned young don't last very long in nature.
Here is an example of this written by Iamidaho for inclusion in this journal:
"From about 200 yards away in a small meadow in Yellowstone I saw two photographers, both with professional grade lenses. Curious as to what they had seen I stopped my vehicle and watched through my binoculars.
The photographers were egging something on in the grass just a bit in front of them. Judging by the angles of there lenses the matter of there focus was very close to them, but I could not see what it was. You could see them waving their hands in aggressive mannerisms and hooting and hollering at whatever was just out of sight in the grass.
One of the photographers turned around and left his camera, and began wandering through the brush, only to find a large rock about the size of a small watermelon. He returned to where his camera was and flung the rock in the general direction. It crashed through the brush and stopped just short of where the lenses were pointed. Just than, a young newborn pronghorn antelope burst up and in a frightened panic ran in a confused circle, saw the photographers and in utter fear bolted again. Finally, in a clumsy newborn run, it took off over the ridgeline.
I could not believe what I had just seen.
Likely this behavior lead to the death of the baby. Pronghorns are commanded by their mother to stay still and silent, the mother cleans them religiously to the point they are odorless than she goes and forages for the nutrients needed to nurse the baby. She will return every five hours. "
Here is one more example, written by fubecando for this journal:
On a very cold, rainy May afternoon, I set out to find some wolves. *Iamidaho had told me about an elk carcass that was in the middle of river that he had seen a wolf eating from a few days prior. After driving around most of Yellowstone to some of the wolf hotspots, I saw nothing, so I decided to give this spot a chance.
The carcass was visible from a pull-off but unless you knew what to look for, you'd miss it. I finally found it and decided to watch the carcass from my car, as animals in Yellowstone are much more accustomed to not worrying about cars. I waiting for close to two hours until I finally saw something.
A large Bald Eagle landed right on the carcass and I had the pleasure of watching and photographing it pick at the rotting, bloated elk for nearly fifteen minutes. It was a brilliant sight to see. One of America's most elegant birds of prey in action.
The event ended very abruptly when a tourist from Utah noticed my white lens sticking out of my window aimed at something. He slammed on his brakes and immediately got out. In his hand was a point and shoot camera. After his first shot, he realized he didn't have near the focal length to get a close shot so he proceeded to walk directly for the bird. When the idiot ran directly for the eagle, the eagle spooked.
Some may think that its not that big of deal. It was spring and the eagle probably had a lot to eat anyway, right? In the world of nature, there is no guaranteed next meal.
Unethical to the max.
2. Cornering </u> - Cornering an animal is all too common, and one of the worst things a photographer can possibly do to stress out a wild animal. This is when a photographer gets way too close to an animal and either is so close that the animal is afraid to move, or has cut off all the animal's possible escape routes. Different species of animals have different responses to fear and being cornered. For example, when confronted by a human that gets too close, the northern saw-whet owls initial response is to freeze. With this species, photographers who get too close often think they have come upon a tame bird. I had the misfortune of seeing a photographer bust out a macro lens and hold it mere inches from a poor saw-whet owls eyes. Dont get too close, and dont corner an animal.
3. Capturing</u> - Reptiles, amphibians and insects, are small, skittish and difficult to photograph. Some photographers think it is okay to literally capture them, and pose them how they like. This is disrespectful and unethical, as the strain and distress it puts on these creatures is not worth the photograph. When confronted, these photographers counter that the animal wasnt physically hurt, and was released after the photograph. How do you know it wasnt hurt, did it tell you? Here is an actual comment from DA, about one photographer's technique of photographing a wild snake I chased the male for about 15 feet and then lost him in the tall grass, so I snuck up on the female and nabbed her, she put up one heck of a battle, bit me 3 times, one drew blood!... but after shooting a couple of pics, I put her back near the male and off she scooted!" - This type of practice is unacceptable. Would you trap a wild fox or bird and pose it for some photos? It's the same thing.
4. Feeding</u> - Feeding wildlife or luring them with food in order to get them close enough to photograph is a dangerous and unacceptable practice. Some animals around the country are so used to receiving food from humans that they get dangerously close to campsites and hikers. These habituated creatures are more likely to be struck by cars in human areas, shot by police because of their proximity to people, and many other negative things. Also, an animal that has been habituated to humans is much more likely to strike at a human rather than flee.
5. Dens and Nests</u> - This is a simple one. If you know the location of something like an owl nest or fox den. Enjoy it from a considerable distance and keep the location of it to yourself. The absolute last thing you want is hordes of photographers stressing out the animals.
6. Dishonesty</u> - If your photograph is not of a wild animal, and is of a captive animal at the zoo, say so. Nothing against zoo photographers, because zoo photography does have its purpose, but be honest. The wild animals gallery here on DA is becoming full of zoo animals, and some even claim these animals to be wild. A zoo photography gallery would really help. Also, game farms are awful. Trained animals are greatly mistreated and kept in unbelievably tiny cages. They are transported to natural locations for a photographer with a large checkbook. Some photographers then claim these images of tigers, cougars and other elusive animals to be wild.
7. Exaggeration</u> - Don't exaggerate your settings or methods. If an animal was very cooperative and didn't make you work for the shot, dont say you stalked it for 3 hours and climbed eleven thorny trees barefoot to get the shot. Finally, dont exaggerate the elusiveness or skittishness of an animal. Dont say a common and easily approachable animal is seldom seen, and that it was a once in a lifetime chance that you managed to find it. An animals rarity does not determine its beauty. As another photographer once told me, although a specific species may be common in your area, it may not be common in others. Appreciate the time you have with any animal, not just the rare ones.
7. Local Laws and Regulations</u> - Most locations have rules and boundaries that dictate where you can and cant go. Follow them! Also, some locations have rules as to how close you can get to wildlife. These are important also, as the people who made these rules, made them for a reason. Just because no one is looking, doesnt mean youre allowed to do whatever youd like. I know sometimes the, area beyond this sign is closed signs throughout our national parks can be frustrating; but remember, they are there for your safety, as well as to protect the wildlife. Remember, the more people that break the rules, the more strict the rules get in following years.
The Right Way - Observe wildlife from a distance. Dont attempt to interact with, feed, distract, taunt, or spook the animals. Keeping to these rules is much more fulfilling in the long run. You know your photographs arent contrived in any way, and the animals in them are going about their business undisturbed. Because distressed animals or animals in retreat look different from undisturbed animals, a keen observer can usually spot an unethical wildlife photograph. In the end, an undisturbed animal in a natural setting will look much better than a captive wild animal or a frightened animal in retreat. The goal of a wildlife photographer is to photograph animals in their nature habitat, capturing their natural behavior. The unethical practices listed above yield the exact opposite.
Acknowledgements - Thanks fubecando, Iamidaho, PeterJCoskun, and Nate-Zeman for giving me their input on the topic and reading this for me before I posted it.