There’s nothing better than capturing a moment in time that you will truly cherish forever. A moment when a leopard looks you in the eyes, when an eagle catches its prey, or when a humpback whale launches itself from the ocean’s surface – it’s pure magic. But there’s no mistaking that wildlife photography has its fair share of problems…
Although many of us have a passion for animal welfare and conservation which is equally as strong as our passion for photography, many unfortunately have deceitful intentions. Animal exploitation in the era of social media is rife, but that’s where the discussion (or demand) for ethical wildlife photography comes in. It refers to the beautiful balance between humans and animals; a fine line that we cannot continue to cross.
No matter whether you’re an avid wildlife photographer, or someone planning an exciting holiday to the savanna, these tips will ensure that your photos are never at the expense of these beautiful, wild beings.
If you have a camera in hand, it’s your responsibility to always keep your subjects safe.
Avoid Animals in Captivity
Wildlife, as the name suggests, are animals that are intended to be wild… But there are many locations around the world that offer people the opportunity to photograph an animal up close. No matter whether they’re labelled as a sanctuary, an orphanage, or anything of that nature, it’s important that you do your research to ensure that it’s truly ethical and not a greenwashing attempt. They aren’t always what they seem.
My advice: avoid animals in captivity at all costs, and encourage your viewers to do the same.
Don’t Feed or Bait
Luring an animal into your presence might grant you a breathtaking image, but there are many repercussions that can come along from this…
It can cause animals to become aggressive, learn unnatural behaviours, wander into built-up areas in search of food, and can also harm their digestive systems. Animals can quickly associate humans with food, and if they start to become aggressive, wildlife organisations are often forced to put them down.
Trust me, honour the animals ‘wildness’ and let them source their food for themselves. No photo is worth the risk.
Keep Your Distance
I have seen numerous cases where people get far too close to wildlife; driving a metre away from an elephant, crowding moose while they try to rest, attempting to pat a kangaroo… Not only is this putting yourself in danger, but you’re also causing stress on an animal whose freedom should always be treated with respect.
Keep a safe and considerate distance at all times, and if you see others causing trouble, speak up!
Stay as quiet as you possibly can. No chasing, yelling, throwing objects, provoking, or encouraging unnatural behaviour. Do not cause an animal to stop sleeping, breeding, hunting, feeding, resting (or any other behaviour for that matter) for your image. Let them go about their business.
The goal of ethical wildlife photography is to go entirely unseen and unheard. Let the animals behave just as they would if you weren’t in their space. It’s their home, not yours… Remember that.
No Flash Photography
If you’re photographing at night, it’s important that you do not use flash photography. Nocturnal animals can be very sensitive to light, and a flash can cause them to be frightened into a panic, and in many cases, it can cause them to momentarily lose their vision which can last anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes.
The best way to manoeuvre around night photography is to use a light to illuminate a large area (without pointing directly at the animal), using a night vision camera, or photographing with a longer exposure (a tricky one no doubt).
Be very cautious not to spotlight an animal that is vulnerable to predators. If the light affects their vision it can also affect their chance of escape… If you can avoid harsh light altogether, that is best.
Never Alter Vegetation or Habitat
Never ever EVER alter habitats or vegetation in order to get the desired shot. You are the guest… Can you imagine if someone came into your home and decided to change things around?
In many cases, habitats are selected/created by animals due to the flora and vegetation that surrounds. Whether it’s for camouflage from predators or protection from the elements, leave their home in peace… Destroying a home for an image is never ethical. No ifs or buts.
Oh, and this also applies when on your search for wildlife too. Stay on the paths, avoid off-roading where possible, and always be cautious of the fragile vegetation and sensitive habitats that you could be destroying. If you can go on foot instead of driving off-road, do so… But be careful of where you step.
Don’t Invade their Privacy
Animals have a right to privacy, and as wildlife photographers, it is our responsibility to respect that.
Certain locations such as nests, dens and resting areas are always best to be left alone. An animal’s home is their refuge; a place of safety and escape, and it’s important that we never cross the line by invading their personal space. It’s the epitome of unethical wildlife photography and should never be tolerated. Caution should also be taken during breeding season when certain actions could drive a mother away from her young, or cause an immense amount of stress.
Nests, dens, breeding areas/season, feeding/watering holes, should always be approached with extreme caution. These are sacred to an animal, just as our home is sacred to us.
Learn about Signs of Stress
Animals have signals and warning signs that every wildlife photographer should be aware of. If you’re on a mission to photograph a particular species, make sure you study their behaviour beforehand. Learn about their current threats, about their characteristics, about their stress and warning signs. Make sure you know when your presence is welcomed, and when it’s best to leave them in peace.
You don’t want to cause an animal to panic, abandon its young, or harm you along the way. Have empathy for your subject and try to understand their behaviour. The more you know, the better your wildlife photography will be!
Be Aware of the Rules and Regulations
No matter whether you’re in a local, state, or National Park… Learn about the rules and regulations, and always abide by them.
These will vary depending on location, species, and the purpose/method of photography, but it’s essential that you learn about what’s okay and what’s not. Do not fly a drone if it’s not permitted (and NEVER get close to an animal even if you can) and learn about what laws are to be taken into account when out on your wildlife photography mission.
Take Extra Precaution with Endangered Species
If you are lucky enough to capture an image of an endangered species, BE CAUTIOUS. Sharing an image of an animal that is heavily exploited or hunted can quickly put them in danger. Poachers are now using tourist’s social media posts to find the location of where their target was last seen.
If sharing your images online, remove all geotags and locations so that the animal won’t be easy to find. And always be cautious of people that act overly interested… You don’t want to be leading the wrong person right into the hands of a precious species.
Be Transparent about how the Photo was Taken
Ethical wildlife photography doesn’t stop once your camera is out of site… The way you represent the animal in your work is just as important.
If you photographed a trained animal, be honest about it. If it was a captive animal, be honest about it. If you altered the image to improve the aesthetics of the scene, be honest about it. The backstory matters.
Always Portray your Subject Accurately
Photography is storytelling, and sometimes the story doesn’t match what you experienced in reality. The way you edit, crop and manipulate an image can affect the way your subject is portrayed, but it is your responsibility, as a photographer (professional or not) to display the animal in their fair and just way.
Tell the full story; if the image portrays something different from what you experienced, or if something about the story might not be obvious from the image alone, talk about it. Don’t create a monster if there is no monster there. Make sure the animal’s story is honest and truthful… It’s the least you can do.
Ask yourself: Am I aiding conservation? Or am I hindering it?
That’s the most important question.
Disclaimer: All images were taken from a distance without disturbance. All animals were wild, although the image of the Orangutan was taken at a rehabilitation centre where they are slowly reintroduced into their natural habitat.