Why it is important to be ethical
This photographer is much too close to the bull elk and he blocked the shot of the photographer behind him so he could get the photo he wanted
One of the most discouraging things I see in the field of wildlife photography is unethical behavior by photographers in the field. As we continue to learn more about how different species act and respond in certain environments actions that were tolerated in the field 10 or 20 years ago are mostly not today. Through my photography, I hope to inspire individuals who follow my work to also be ethical in their practice in the field.
Every photo does not need to be a close-up, maintaining a safe and respectful distance can give great landscape photos
I have been an educator for over 30 years and believe in the power of education. So what is there to learn about ethical wildlife photography? A few things, from when and how to approach an animal, where you should position yourself, and how to learn the signs of when an animal is becoming stressed. I strongly believe that the job of a wildlife photographer is to document the stories of the animals we observe. For many folks what maybe started out as the enjoyment of observing and documenting wildlife has shifted to chasing a photo for a competition, publication, or likes on social media. How people behave in those instances can lead to actions that are harmful to themselves or the animals they are photographing.
This bear is showing stress with its ears turned and pulled back
So what should one do in the field? Think before you shot. What does that mean, here are some things you need to think about before you take the shot.
1. Am I at a distance that is far enough away from the animal to not stress the animal? Signs of stress include an animal altering its behaviour such as deer stopping grazing and moving, an owl or other birds flying to another perch, ears pinned back in some species, or warning calls given.
2. Have I observed the animal enough to be able to anticipate where they are going? For example, have I situated myself in the flight path of a hunting owl, or blocked an exit path for a mammal? If you block the pathway the animal is most likely to use, or the hunting path of a bird of prey, you are causing it significant stress.
3. Are you being silent and being still and just observing, sudden movements or walking around an animal to get a better position or better photo? This movement can be very stressful.
Owls are very sensitive to stressors that cause changes to their behaviour and can starve to death due to disruptions
Things that you should not do that possibly in the past were tolerated but can cause harm to animals including using calls to attract an animal or bird or baiting any animal. Calling an animal alters its behaviour, if you are calling a moose or elk during the rut you could be calling it away from a female or group of females allowing another male to step in while it investigates the source of the call. Calling birds, especially during nesting season forces them to leave the nest to protect it and can leave their young vulnerable to attack. Baiting has been seen especially with owl photography in the past and even recently a video went viral that showed a tour operating baiting a great gray owl for a group of photographers. Baiting ultimately changes the animal's behaviour over time. A regularly baited great gray owl may stay near a roadside waiting for food, making it more likely to incur injury from a moving vehicle. People that put out food for coyotes or foxes bring these species into unnecessary contact with humans and increase the likelihood of these animals being harmed.
Photo taken with an 800mm lens from the safety of my vehicle. For most mammals being in a vehicle with the engine turned off is non-threatening as opposed to being outside your vehicle in close proximity.
Lastly do not provoke an animal for the sake of a photo. Not only is it wrong but it puts the animal, yourself, and any bystanders around you at risk. If you take the time to think before you shot, ensuring you are a respectful distance away, that your presence is not changing the actions of the animal, you are being quiet, you are not moving overly much, you are not doing anything to provoke a behaviour and you are not baiting or using calls to lure animals out then you are being ethical in your actions. Place the animal ahead of the shot, never favor getting the shot over the well-being of the species. There is always a next time for the shot but may not be a next time for the animal.