“Responsible wildlife photographers observe a strict code of ethics. The cardinal rule: if anything you do directly or indirectly endangers, restricts or harasses an animal, stop and leave the animal alone. The integrity of a wildlife photograph evaporates if the subject was not free to come and go, if it shows fear or anxiousness, if it has been provoked to attack or to defend itself.”
~ Robert Winkler, A Wildlife Photography Primer
I saw a clip recently on You Tube where the videographer approached a grebe resting on the beach. He kept moving in until the stressed animal lunged away from him toward the water. A diving bird like a grebe has a difficult time moving on land. Its back legs are set far back on its body for water propulsion, making mobility on land more awkward.
The grebe settled in farther down the shore, but the photographer kept following. Once again, the poor grebe raised itself and moved closer to the shoreline. This routine persisted with the oblivious guy behind the camera not recognizing how his actions were harassing a bird that could have been injured or ill, owing to its position on the beach. At the very least, it was resting and warming itself, and should have been left alone. I spend a lot of time with wildlife (in a hospital setting and in the field) and — understanding the stress on the animal — scenes like this are agonizing to watch.
I always have the expectation that some semblance of code comes into play when venturing onto an animal’s turf with a camera — into their habitat, their homes, their sanctuary.
Of course, when the intent is to get the image, to post the photo — the perfect capture no one else will have — I’m afraid I’ve witnessed far too many scenarios where the person behind the lens did precisely what the videographer on the beach did: put the interest of a film or a photo above the obvious concerns for the animal’s well-being.
Giving Wild Animals Space
If you look up wildlife or nature photography ethics on the net, it’s easy to find general guidelines like these, from the North American Nature Photography Association: first and foremost, do not create additional stress for the wild animal. I come at my love for wildlife images from both a visual and visceral standpoint. Obviously, I’m thrilled if my camera renders a still that captures the nature of a wild animal in a candid moment. But I also work with wild animals as a volunteer, and am acutely aware — increasingly so as time goes on — of the many stressors which plague them. And chief among those stresses are actions perpetrated by humans, either deliberately or out of ignorance.
This photo was taken just two months before the Cosco Busan oil spill in November 2007 — when the Bay and its bird life seemed largely at peace and unharmed. This Brown Pelican meandered our way as we sat on a dock near Tiburon.
I feel it’s incumbent upon the person photographing the animal to understand the animal first — to know what its signs of distress might be, to observe a rational and comfortable distance, to use long lenses (and teleconverters) and put the animal’s welfare and its sense of security above any photograph. An expert I know in avian biology suggested that any action which causes the animal to change its behavior because of your presence, is an action that’s gone too far.
When you consider that a mere walk on a trail is bound to rustle a bird from your path, it’s impossible to be in shared spaces without causing some changes along these lines. And none of us is perfect. All of us leave a footprint and an impact of some kind. But what my friend was alluding to was the deliberate and elective pursuit of an animal, in this case, for a photograph, without a good barometer for where to stop. We should all at least strive for higher ground in this regard.
This Pine Siskin was perched near the visitor center at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah — where animals, both domestic and wild, couldn’t be treated with more respect.
I err on the side of caution to the point where, yes, good photographic opportunities are sometimes lost. And I’m okay with that. I don’t earn my living from wildlife photography, but neither do most of the people I’ve witnessed stalking wild animals for the shot.
The Image is the Emissary
Recently, while walking in the Palo Alto Baylands, it was impossible not to notice the fervor with which bird parents were protecting their young. I was able to grab some shots with a long lens, from a populated walking path, without disturbing the birds. But I wasn’t about to add to their stress by forcing parent and chick into a space that might then expose them to a predator or other danger. In A Wildlife Photography Primer Robert Winkler points out that even checking a nest in your garden can leave a scent trail, from the babies to a predator’s nose.
This was among several lucky captures, of American Avocets at Palo Alto Baylands, just as they exhibited their breeding plumage, but before nesting season.
It’s an extremely fine line because there is a point where the image becomes an emissary for the animals. Without the beautiful wildlife photographs we see, there’d be far less appreciation for the creatures with whom we coexist. But for me, there’s a balance that must be struck — between the desire of the photographer and the comfort and safety of the subject. You need to know how far you can go, what situation your equipment is suited for, and what the disposition and stress level of that particular animal might be. We are, to many wild animals, predators. Interaction with humans isn’t the cute-fuzzy endeavor it sometimes seems to us. Our presence often evokes a stress or flight response — how profound, depends upon the animal. It’s important to keep that in mind when moving in their space and circles.
Photo Contest Rewards Dubious Shot
A few months ago, a popular photography magazine featured a winning image from an amateur photographer who’d snapped a flash-photo of gaping nestlings. The story behind the picture was that he’d spotted the nest on his way to work, raced home to get his gear, and planted himself at the nest to take his shots. There was no mention of how far he was from the nest, whether or not his actions were interfering with the babies’ feeding, or even if his presence frightened off the parents. It was, to me, a poor example — rewarding a shot that could have potentially interfered with the health of these days-old birds. Even if this particular photographer maintained a good code in this instance, the fact that a photo like this was rewarded without mention of how one ought to go about grabbing an image like this — well, that’s the inherent problem with so many of us carrying around these beautiful modern devices that allow for this type of photography.
Stalking Wildlife for the Photo Op
On Flickr, I recently came upon some wildlife shots where the photographer bragged about how he’d hidden behind shrubs, off trail in a refuge, then quickly leaped in front of the animal as it trundled by, using a flash and snapping the animal in its moment of terror before it ran off. This particular photographer’s pages were littered with positive commentary for the “amazing” shots he was getting.
In some photos, based on the animal’s visible position or behavior, it seems the photographer might have baited or lured or otherwise brought the animal into frame by dubious means. There’s one Flickr photographer with admittedly gorgeous shots, who’s been called out for this very practice (baiting owls). There have been cases of prominent wildlife photographers luring animals with food, even though baiting for a shot is a controversial topic. Leaping out of the bushes with a flash breaks those bounds by a mile.
Time, Patience, Distance
My rule of thumb, and the one by which I abide to the best of my ability, is Hippocratic in nature: first, do no harm. I use a long lens and if I choose to move in closer to an animal, I do so gradually, allowing that animal to become accustomed to my presence. Then, and only then, do I settle into his or her space.
This juvenile heron was experimenting with objects he’d found at Lake Merritt, where the herons are quite acclimated to human contact — perhaps too much so. He was oblivious to my presence as I snapped this shot of him deciding what to do with the leaf.
Yes, I sometimes miss a great shot. Yes, it takes longer and in the course of a working week, there’s only so much time you can sit still and “be” with your animal subjects. Although my desire may be a stunning photograph, my ultimate aim is to be in the midst of these creatures I find so spectacular. And the reward is sometimes a subtle invitation into their world.
I was photographing shorebirds at Crown Beach in Alameda last year. I’d arisen at dawn to get the best light — and to have a couple of hours before having to get to work. My initial shots were far away, less than stellar in terms of being able to fill the frame.
But as I waited it out, as my presence became less threatening, and as I and my monopod became fixtures in their world — at one point, a flock of mixed birds, mostly Black-bellied Plovers, gathered around me. They were used to the sound of my shutter, to my human form on the beach. And as I snapped some photographs, they fell into slumber, my little coterie of shorebirds snuggling for warmth after a morning of foraging.
These are the captures I strive for. These are the reasons I’m out there at the crack of dawn with unwashed hair and lukewarm coffee. That’s when I really feel the connection between my lens and the life force in front of the lens. And, again, I always hope to first do no harm, and second, to present my earth companions in a way that exemplifies who they are and why we need so desperately to protect them while we’re here.