Wildlife photography is one of the most powerful tools to encourage global action and inspire positive change, but in some ways, it can be a detriment too.
Words and Photography by Kate Newman
With social media being a huge part of the world we live in, photos can gain a lot of attention in a matter of minutes. As the desire to create a viral image grows, so too does the use of harmful and unethical behaviour; driving mere metres from an elephant, drone users chasing herds of wildlife for documentary film, baiting animals to create the ‘perfect image’ — these moments are becoming all too common.
In order to continue using wildlife photography as a tool for positive change, here are a few tips to ensure that we can continue to photograph wildlife responsibly, for the welfare of animals and the places they call home.
Always keep your distance
To be respectful of the animals we photograph, keeping our distance and being as quiet as possible is essential. A good way to test whether you’re at a safe and respectable distance is by using the ‘rule of thumb’ — extend your arm and hold your thumb out in front of you, close one eye and see if your thumb is able to hide the entire animal when stretched at length. If not, move a few steps back until your subject can be easily hidden. It’s okay if the animal wanders closer to you of its own accord, but this simple rule is a great place to start.
Telephoto lenses are also incredibly helpful at allowing you to get closer to your subject whilst providing the animal with plenty of space. As for drone users, there is never a time where chasing animals or causing them to run in fear is acceptable. Drones can cause a lot of distress and confusion to wildlife, so keeping a large distance is non-negotiable.
Don’t interfere with natural behaviour
When immersed in the natural world, it’s common to see things that might be upsetting or disturbing (like witnessing a hunt for example). It’s easy to feel the urge to interfere when things feel uncomfortable, however, it’s important that we always let nature run its course.
There should never be any chasing, shouting, disturbing, altering vegetation or habitat, or interfering with any form of natural behaviour. The goal is always to go as unseen as possible and observe nature from an outside point of view.
As they say, “observe, don’t disturb”.
Never feed or bait
Feeding, baiting, and luring an animal into your scene might allow you to capture an incredible image, but no image is as important as the life of the animal you’re photographing.
Baiting can teach animals unnatural behaviour, can harm their digestive systems, can lead to human/wildlife conflict, can make them aggressive, and so much more. Taking shortcuts for the sake of an image can result in a devastating outcome, so it’s best to stick to patience instead.
Avoid animals in captivity
As the name suggests, wildlife is intended to be wild!
There are many locations around the world that allow you to experience wildlife up close, but my advice is to always do thorough research to ensure that the places you support are both ethical and sustainable. Look for organisations that do genuine conservation work such as rescue and rehabilitation, and focus on those that are respectful of wildlife needs.
In my opinion, when you finally capture an image of an animal in the wild, it’s a much more rewarding feeling anyway.
The bright light that comes with flash photography can be detrimental to the health and safety of your nocturnal subject. The fast light can not only scare them, but it can also affect their vision and give them momentary blindness which can last for up to 20 minutes.
When photographing at night, use a soft spotlight to highlight large areas, or better yet, use a night vision camera that uses infrared technology instead. Flashes can cause distress and can impact an animal’s chance of survival — 2 things that should always be avoided.
Respect their privacy
Never invade nests, dens, resting areas or places of refuge — these are their havens and a place for them to escape. If an animal chooses to remove itself from your sight, you should always respect that and give them the space they desire.
This is even more important during the breeding season, as causing stress to a mother could force them to abandon their baby or cause the young to flee in fear. Privacy is important to us, and it’s just as important to them too.
Learn your subject
One of the most important parts of being a wildlife photographer is learning about your subject and their behaviour. Study their characteristics, their stress signals, any current threats, their warning signs etc.
Animals have ways of communicating, and since the goal of photography is to translate that through the power of art, knowing your subject is the very first place to begin. Learn their language to ensure you’re always respecting them and their needs.
Be cautious of Geotagging
Posting the exact location of wildlife online can put them at serious risk, especially endangered species. In areas where poaching and the illegal wildlife trade exist, poachers use social media to find the location of where their target was most recently seen. Always be cautious of the information your share, as you don’t want to be putting precious species in way of harm.
Know the rules and regulations
Each location has its own rules and regulations. In National Parks and wildlife reserves, it’s important that you understand what’s allowed and what must be avoided.
Certain species and locations will have different rules for the benefit of both you and your subject. Keeping to the trails, maintaining a safe distance, and knowing when it’s necessary to put your camera away, are all crucial for the safety of you and the wildlife you’re encountering. This is particularly important for drone users too.
Ethical wildlife photography begins with your camera, but continues throughout the post-production process too. It’s crucial that in all situations, you tell the honest story of how the image was created and the factors that were involved. If you photographed a captive animal, or altered the image to create something different from what you physically experienced — being honest and transparent is the very least we can do.
Photography is storytelling, and telling a truthful story is key.
Am I aiding conservation? Or am I hindering it?