The Ethics of Photographing Wildlife

Nycticorax nycticorax

Nycticorax nycticora at Las Gallinas Wildlife Ponds near San Raphael, California. It took me hours to take this shot. However, remaining patient and not forcing any actions on this bird made the difference. I got rewarded with a “Featured picture” status on Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia’s media repository.

In case you’re into wildlife photography – have you ever thought about the ethics of photographing animals? Here are a couple of questions most wildlife photographers have asked themselves at some point:

Is it ok to bait wildlife in order to get the shot?

If you have explored all options to capture a wildlife image with no luck, would you bait an animal in order to get the shot? While feeding an owl with a live mouse might seem unethical to most photographers, what about having a bird feeder at your backyard? My personal take on this: I haven’t ever attracted animals by feeding them. Because supplemental feeding encourages animals to become dependent on food that might otherwise not be part of their natural diet. Also, wildlife might lose their fear of humans. So, if feeding an animal is needed in order to get a great shot, I’d rather not get the image.

How far would you go with digitally altering your images?

Having browsed through hundreds of bird images on 500px today, many photographers seem to be ok with blurring the background in post processing, so that the animals stick out more. Others even go so far as to replace parts of the image with some part of another image taken at the same scene, a practice known as stitching. Would I upload such composite images to the web? Definitely not. I don’t heavily alter my shots, which means that I never add something that wasn’t in the picture and I only use Photoshop and other tools to enhance the aesthetics of the resulting image (including digitally removing small distractions).

What about taking photos of zoo animals?

It’s never crossed my mind to go to a zoo in order to take photos of animals. Being out in nature is part of the joy of being a wildlife photographer. However, when it comes to taking images of species that are dangerous, or if you simply don’t have the money to book a trip to Tanzania, buying a ticket for your local zoo might be the only option for you. In cases like that I’d say that you should at least disclose in your image description that you took a picture of a captive animal. That way, you’re transparent about your work and you leave it up to the viewer to decide whether they like your practice or not.

How about forcing actions?

How many times have I waited endless minutes for birds to move their head into a different direction. Because the sun was shining from the right while the bird looked to the left. Also, let’s be honest: wouldn’t you rather want to take a picture of an animal that’s moving instead of one that’s sitting motionless or munching some food? And making the animal move would be so easy: you’d just alter your position and the bird would be scared and make some move. Now, I decided not to force any actions on wildlife. Because I like to capture wildlife that behaves naturally, even if that means that I have to wait for hours in order to get the perfect shot.

In the end, it all comes down to your personal choice and good judgement. The ethics committee of the North American Nature Photography Association offers some advice on how to behave ethically when taking wildlife photos. Additionally, you’ll find lots of materials online that discuss the ethics of wildlife photography, like this interview with wildlife filmmaker and photographer Jeff Hogan, published by National Geographic earlier this year. – Now, what’s your take on this difficult topic?

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