I’ve long been a believer that wildlife and landscape photography does a lot of good for wildlife by raising awareness of conservation issues. But there’s a problem that many of us don’t consider. Are you aware of what can you do to ensure your photography is doing more good than harm?
There’s an old children’s story about a king who demanded the world’s biggest birthday cake. The baker made this monstrous delight and placed it in a huge box. Inquisitive members of the royal household passed by and looked inside the box, and each was tempted to try one small piece, thinking nobody would notice. When the king’s birthday arrived, he opened the box and there was only a small crumb left.
Wildlife and landscape photographers, often unwittingly, are doing the same with the subjects they shoot. Wildlife populations are plummeting, and the world is waking up to the damage photographers do.
The Importance of Where You Live
Wherever you live, there is a certainty that it will be important to different species of creatures. The coastline where I am is next to an estuary. It teams with wildlife. The rocky and sandy shores, the tidal mudflats, and the dunes are host to an incredible variety of wildlife. Many of the birds that visit here are migratory, so this little corner of Great Britain is of global importance.
I enjoy photographing those birds and the scenery here. However, I certainly don’t consider myself a wildlife photographer. That definition is preserved for those who study the creatures and use that knowledge to understand them and their behaviors. It’s those who capture astounding photos. About a third of my bookshelves are filled with wildlife photography books because I enjoy seeing those great images. I find them inspirational but, most importantly, I can learn something about the creatures because the photographers are experts in their field. Invariably, these days, that information is about how they are at threat of being wiped out by human interference.
Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of photographers, just like me, long to take wildlife and landscape photos good enough to adorn the front cover of National Geographic Magazine. But we don’t have the time to learn the fabulous skills of Andy Rouse, Apub Shah, or Rathika Ramasamy. We are, therefore, tempted to take shortcuts and don’t bother to learn how to take photos without upsetting the wildlife. Consequently, along with the rest of humanity, we are gradually eating away at that cake. In my lifetime, nearly three-quarters of wildlife have been lost from this planet.
Bad Practice in Photography
Responsible wildlife photographers learn how to cause minimum impact on their subjects. But so many do not. Here are some examples.
Close to where I live, little owls breed (Athena noctua). Although their status is of the least concern worldwide, their numbers are declining rapidly here in the UK, probably because of intensive farming methods and the shocking loss of invertebrates and small mammals on which they feed. Just 7% of Britain’s native woodlands, where they live, are in good condition ecologically. It’s not the photographers’ fault that they are disappearing.
They live on inaccessible private land. Consequently, wildlife photographers entice them by baiting them with mealworms on a boundary fence post. This might seem harmless. After all, they are feeding the birds. However, the fence post is by a road, which increases the risk of the owls being hit by a vehicle; one of them has been. Furthermore, the post is also in the open, making these tiny birds more likely to be predated. As the owls regularly visit the same spot to get food, so too will the bigger hunters that will see the tiny owls as easy meals.
Some photographers play bird songs on their phones, which attracts others of that species. They arrive not to be photographed but to defend their territory against this nonexistent intruder. Everything birds do is about survival, so this seemingly harmless act distracts them from finding food for themselves, winning a mate, feeding their young, defending their territory from real intruders, and protecting their families from predation.
Every winter, large migratory flocks of shore birds arrive on the mud flats here to feed. They make a magnificent spectacle. Many of these migrated vast distances to get to their feeding grounds. They must replenish their energy reserves, ready to return to their nesting grounds thousands of miles away. Last year, I saw a woman run into the flock to make them take to the wing and then started photographing them with her phone. Photographers often stalk these birds, getting as close as they can to get a photo, but ultimately frightening them away.
The use of drones is increasingly restricted because of the disturbance they cause to wildlife. Even when flying 100 meters away, they can cause distress. Most unmanned aerial vehicle (AEV) pilots do not want to disturb wildlife and will ask for advice from experts. Even though they might not seem to be causing a disturbance, drones can still cause huge amounts of stress to animals and birds.
Each of those actions seems small when considered individually. The photographer probably thinks that their action alone is not causing too big a problem. However, each unwanted disturbance increases the chance of the bird being unable to cope with additional stresses in their lives. Furthermore, multiply each incident by the tens of thousands of unskilled wildlife photographers who carry out similar acts and, overall, it has a huge impact. Wildlife photography is helping to destroy wildlife.
We often see bird photographers creeping toward wildlife, putting pressure on them to the inevitable point that they fly away.
Landscape photographers can be equally problematic for these creatures.
Similarly, we see photographers walking in areas where birds are feeding or roosting to get into position to take a photo of one of our spectacular castles or the beautiful landscape. This can often mean hundreds of birds being disturbed, some mid-migration to West Africa and some during the depths of winter, when every calorie consumed and spent, can matter to the birds.
So, What Should We Do About It?
To misquote a certain superhero, with great wildlife photography comes great responsibility. The techniques used by the very best photographers to get the very best photographs are those that cause the least impact.
I asked Philadelphia zoologist and wildlife photographer Anwar Abdul-Qawi, to ask for his expert advice:
I am actually working on a presentation called “Ethical Wildlife Photography”. Mainly, it focuses on what it means to be a wildlife photographer and the footprint that we leave behind. As wildlife photographers, it is our responsibility not only to capture the beauty of the natural world but also to advocate for its protection.
The issue with wildlife photography is that there are so many different forms all over the world and what that means is that everyone comes up with their own ethical way of doing things. I advocate for whatever technique gives the least amount of stress on my subject.
No matter what we do as wildlife photographers when we are in the field, we ultimately leave some sort of environmental footprint, I just try to ensure that mine is as small as possible.
Learning From Wildlife Documentaries
I’ve watched a series of superb nature documentaries produced by the BBC, and some of their incredible footage took months or even years to achieve. We are unlikely to be able to invest that much time. What is more, nowadays, people have the desire to fill every moment with some activity, usually doing something with their cell phones. Consequently, many have lost the skill of sitting still and doing nothing. So, the temptation is to blunder into an environment, taking shortcuts to get our shots. It’s those shortcuts that are especially harmful to the animals we photograph.
You don’t have to sit on an uncomfortable platform in a tree canopy for months on end, but if staying still in a bird hide for a couple of hours and waiting isn’t your thing, then wildlife photography is probably not for you.
Simple Things to Do to Improve Your Wildlife Photography
Do your research. Speak to the naturalists in the area where you are going to shoot. Ask them about simple things you can do to get better photos in the area while safeguarding the creatures in the environment you are visiting.
There are also common things that always make a difference in your successes and bring about less impact:
The first secret to capturing great wildlife shots is patience. Keep still. Stay in one spot and wait for the action to happen.
Don’t approach your subjects, let them approach you.
If you must move, then gentle, slow movements are less likely to scare away your subjects.
Looking directly at a bird will often scare it off; two forward-facing eyes are those of a predator. Holding the camera to your face hides your eyes. But many telephoto lenses are heavy and so a good quality monopod gives you stability and movability.
Having a Positive Impact With Photography
If taking the photograph is more important to you than the welfare of the creature you are photographing, then there it’s worth taking note of a paradigm shift in wildlife photography.
While photographing birds in a nest has long been frowned upon, these days, photographers and even the people who buy photos are increasingly shunning those who show disregard for wildlife in other ways. On a scale of importance, our photographs, and our enjoyment of taking them is at the bottom and the animal or bird’s welfare is at the top. If your approach is to get the photo at any cost, your reputation will be harmed.
I can already hear the what-about brigade screaming that other human activities are far more damaging to wildlife than photography, and they are right. Most of the wildlife loss is caused by bad agricultural practices including monocultures, insecticide use, habitat destruction, over-fishing and hunting, pollution, and other exploitations of our planet. Added to this is climate change.
But that is no reason why we photographers should not do our best not to cause harm. We achieve that by discovering and employing best practices. What is more, we can even employ our skills to do some good.
You can use your photography positively by combining it with scientific research. Conservation organizations want to know the locations and nesting sites of certain birds, and one can sometimes help with counting animals or birds. There will be similar work where you live too. Often, drones can be used for surveys, and photographs of large herds and flocks can assist with counting too.
The Surprise in the King’s Box
At the end of the children’s story that I mentioned earlier, the King was happy because when he opened the box, although there was only a crumb left; it was a surprise. If photographers continue to contribute to the destruction of our wildlife, we will be in for a surprise too, just a much less pleasant one. As our wildlife fades away, from the humblest pollinating insect to the largest pachyderms, the tapestry of life on Planet Earth will continue to unravel and not having creatures to photograph will be the least of our worries.