Kate on Conservation

10 Tips to Ensure Responsible Wildlife Photography: guest post by Max Therry

tourists photographing tigers

Wildlife photography is a brilliant way to encourage others to appreciate the natural world in all it’s splendour. But what happens when we turn our own hand at wildlife photography, and how can we ensure we’re not negatively impacting the flora and fauna we’re so desperate to celebrate? The week, guest blogger and photographer Max Therry discusses the dos and don’ts of photographing animals in the wild. *If you’re a wildlife blogger turning your hand at photography too, be sure to check out my top tips for wildlife bloggers here*.

photographing camels

An Ethics Guide to Responsible Wildlife Photography: Top 10 Tips

Getting great shots of wildlife is an amazing feeling, but how can you do it in a responsible way?

Thousands of photographers enjoy getting out into the wild and photographing wildlife and nature in all their glory, but some are doing untold damage to the animals and environment they live in. Often their actions are completely unintentional, but the consequences to wildlife can be huge.

This article provides a few tips and guidelines on how to capture great images ethically without harming the wildlife and environment we love.

1. Don’t Bait or Feed Animals

Some photographers will put down food to lure an animal out in to the open so they can photograph them. The problem with this is that it can change the way that wildlife behaves and interacts with humans — you actually reward an animal for acting unnaturally. It can also cause them to get sick if you are giving them food that they are not used to. Wild animals that are regularly fed by humans may even become overweight due to constant feeding with unsuitable food.

2. Don’t Take Photos of Dens or Nests

Nesting and den wildlife photography involves getting very close to birds and mammals in their homes. This can cause terrible stress to the animal, and can make them abandon their young within the nest or den. The disturbance can also cause the animal to move their family to a dangerous location in order to escape from the intrusion.

Never be tempted to take photos of nests and dens like this, no matter how good a shot you think you’ll get.

3. Never Chase or Provoke an Animal

Unscrupulous photographers have been known to chase animals until they’re too tired to run anymore, all to ensure they don’t escape before they get the shot. The chased animal is unbearably stressed, and left too tired to escape from a predator or to go hunting for food.

tourists photographing tigers
Photo by Arnab Mukherjee. Source  

4. Don’t Crowd an Animal

Wildlife photography group tours and visitors to wildlife parks may end up crowding and getting too close to an animal. Often they are only after a good photograph, but the animal becomes stressed. Crowding may also provoke a response out of the animal, such as snarling, which is something naive or unethical photographers want, in order to get a ‘good’ photo.

Keep a safe distance from the animal, and if you’re with others who are going too close, try to politely ask them to back off. If they don’t, then try to report the abuse to park authorities.

5. Don’t Use Flash 

Nocturnal animals are sensitive to light, and if you use a flashgun it can temporarily blind them. Even using a flashgun during the day can upset the wildlife, so it is best avoided. There are ways to photograph nocturnal animals that avoids using flash – try looking on the internet for tutorials on photographing wildlife in low light.

6. Don’t Use Playback of Calls to Attract Birds or Animals

Studies have shown that this can cause stress in wildlife. The results suggest that animals or birds responding to these calls may suffer as a result of serious energy expenditure, social system disruption and even pair break-ups.

Using call playback during breeding season could distract adults from nest or den guarding or defending territory, and could have huge consequences on breeding success.

7. Don’t Handle Amphibians or Reptiles for Photographs

This applies to all wild animals, and is illegal. Apart from stress, it can cause huge problems for reptiles and amphibians, because they can get infected with bacteria and fungi from your hands, and their skins can dry up if they are taken out of their natural environment. Also, if a snake has just eaten, handling it will cause it to regurgitate its food.

Some photographers have even refrigerated quick moving amphibians in order to slow them down for photographs. This can cause death or sickness, and should never be done.

8. Avoid Off-Roading in Sensitive Habitats

Grasslands, sandbanks and salt flats, etc. can be damaged if you drive off-road on them. This can be disastrous for ground nesting birds and lots of plants, insects and snakes, not to mention causing destruction to the habitat itself. Also be aware that this applies if you are on foot. Don’t leave the footpath or designated trails.

9. Keep the Noise Down

It might seem like common sense, but people, (especially groups) can make a lot of noise and disturbance, even if they think they’re being quiet. Other photographers who have waited patiently for hours in a hide can understandably get quite upset when other photographers turn up, start being loud and scaring off the birds or animals.

Try to keep your movements and noise to the minimum. Some of the ways you can achieve this include: choosing your camera settings beforehand, so you won’t be switching them in the middle of a good shot; bringing a small tripod and wireless release that would let you stay still for a long time; using zoom lens which allows reaching far without moving physically.

Don’t talk loudly on your mobile phone, or have loud ringtones; don’t shout or play music. Being quiet and discreet will increase your chances of actually seeing wildlife.

10. Look Out for Signs of Distress

Most of us don’t want to cause distress to any animal or bird, but may do so unwittingly. If you are photographing an animal and it appears to be distressed, stop shooting and move away immediately.

A good example of doing this without realizing would be seeing a bird in a tree, and moving closer to get a better shot. The bird then begins to fly around you, calling. This means you are likely near its nest and causing it distress. If something like this does happen, you should go elsewhere straight away. It might be legal to get close to some bird species near their nests, but that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

Most Importantly — Use Common Sense!

Generally, if you have to ask yourself any questions about whether a shot you want to take is ethical, then it probably isn’t. Good wildlfe photography often relies on instinct. On a more practical level, make sure you take home everything you brought with you, including batteries, litter and any uneaten food you may have left from lunch. Don’t be tempted to leave the leftovers for the wildlife. An image is never, ever going to be worth the disturbance, distress or life of an animal, and we must put their welfare, and that of their habitat first.

Max Therry

Max Therry is a 28-year-old photographer, with hopes of pursuing his passion for all genres of photography as a full-time career. He runs the blog site PhotoGeeky.com, and has contributed to a number of photography websites, including: Picture Correct and A World to Travel. 

4 thoughts on “10 Tips to Ensure Responsible Wildlife Photography: guest post by Max Therry

  1. Excellent piece, Kate! This is an important topic as wildlife viewing continues to become part of the economic business model of some countries. My last blog tries to open a dialogue about feeding wild animals as I experienced this unexpectedly while on a Panama Canal trip. I have also seen experienced and reputable guides using playback calls of birds. Both feeding and calling wildlife really goes against what I try to stand for. But then you find out what these guides get paid and the criticality of seeing wildlife to them being able to feed their family and the whole black and white debate becomes a little grey. The important thing is that we have the discussions and use common sense.

    1. Thanks David, that’s a very good point to raise — many places where ecotourism is the main source of income rely on tourists recommending the experience to other tourists; the more species you view or ‘encounter’, the better the photographs you share online, the more interest people have in that experience or location. It’s never black or white, as you say. I think we personally are in a very privileged position most of the time though, to be able to take ourselves and our cameras out to local beauty spots and respectfully enjoy the wildlife. Even then, it’s nice to touch base with best practice and remind ourselves of the boundaries too though. There have certainly been times where I’ve strayed from the line unintentionally — or because I wasn’t paying enough attention.
      As your post on the Capuchin monkeys shows (great read by the way!), it’s so easy to find yourself in situations where — even knowing your own standards — you unwittingly end up a party to behaviours that make you uncomfortable, and having a clear view point of where you stand on that can help in the moments we’re faced with it.

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