The Ethics of Nature Photography

(a personal approach)

Leave Me Alone

Too close! The owl was clicking its disapproval and left soon after (with this guy in hot pursuit).

Nature photography, in particular wildlife photography comes with many challenges and also responsibilities. Both in getting the image and in post-processing. How far will you go to get that ideal image? What is your ideal image? Here are some of my thoughts on the general ethics of  nature photography and the (self-imposed) standard I attempt to maintain - your standards may vary - I welcome feedback!

Getting the Shot

These are the guidelines I try to follow for observing (and photographing) wildlife, Remember that urban animals are generally more tolerant of humans than they would be away from urban and semi-rural areas. That is to our benefit, but we should still be aware of their needs at all times.

  • Never leave anything behind, especially garbage!
  • Do not clear or modify vegetation. Some photographers like to clear intruding items for a better view of the subject (a practice sometimes known as "gardening"). This exposes the subject to danger and was probably why it chose the location in the first place.
  • Before looking for any species do a little research to be sure that you can recognize signs of stress. Never let your presence cause your subject any stress. If there is any sign of stress, back off.
  • Keep in mind that these are wild creatures and may be unpredictable - especially in the breeding season.
  • You are a guest in your subject's home - do not out stay your welcome and you will be invited back again.
  • No baiting of wildlife. Garden Bird feeders are fine by me, along with creative perches, but please indicate when used.
  • Use a lens of long enough focal length to avoid approaching too closely. I believe that the best photos are often those that show an animal in its environment - close-ups are best kept for Hollywood.
  • If you are in a group, keep it small (I recommend no more than 5 people, unless professionally supervised). Stay together - never approach from different sides. If you must talk, do so quietly.
  • Resist the use of recordings to entice birds. This practice has its uses, but is best left to the experts. Overuse can stress the birds - especially during breeding season, when they are highly territorial.

For further guidelines you may want to check with local societies or on the web. I consider myself fortunate that, in Canada, I  can observe such wild creatures near to home without the need for special permits. Only by behaving ethically will we be able to retain such privileges. The balance between regulation and freedom of access is, by necessity, very different elsewhere in the world. When we, as a species, abuse our freedom by threatening the survival of other species then regulations become essential.

    Image Processing

    Images have always been "manipulated", from the earliest days of photography. The "original" image never represents what the human eye sees, be it negative, slide , JPEG or RAW, processing is always necessary.  Dodge and burn, composite, even sky replacement predate the world of digital photography. So how much is acceptable to you? 

    Documentation vs Art - a sliding scale :  there is a range from recording the scene as a close to what you saw - "reality" vs what you "felt" - both are acceptable, provided you indicate your intent and relevant techniques - was it a composite? Was the subject captive/baited, etc.  For a composite were all the components your own?  And on... Personally I have yet to do a sky replacement, for example, but if I ever do so it will be noted in the image caption / information.

    In general, the images you see on this site have undergone limited post-processing, not because I reject extensive processing but (mostly) because I have limited time and my skills are somewhat dated (even though I have been a DAM programmer for most of my career).

    I tend to aim for an image that represents what feelings were evoked by watching the subject or, for behavioural  images, to convey the nature of the subject and habitat. I am reluctant to remove obscuring  vegetation - habitat  is important, especially for those images in my "by species" sections.

    All that said, I am happy to embrace new techniques going forward - I have some old images that can now be reprocessed to finally create the  scene I originally "saw", and for new images I relish the opportunities!