Wildlife Photography and Social Responsibility Part 1

Sleeping In 2

This week’s experience with the Snowy Owl in Delaware has lead me to want to share with others the good practices and social responsibility that we have as wildlife photographers.

There are images that I am proud to share, as demonstrated in the one above. Images that show birds in their natural and undisturbed state. Whether it be foraging, preening or even better sleeping. This was a large flock of Snow geese that were sleeping in at dawn at the beach in Chincoteague last winter. As with all bird flocks, there is usually a sentry or two that is up to keep a look out and to sound out the alert if need be.

I really wanted to capture the flock sleeping. It was 20 degrees out with a strong wind coming off of the water. It was a cross wind but it would have been better if I was downwind from them. I would approach a few feet and one would pop his head up and look at me, wondering if he needed to sound the alert. I stopped, hunkered down and waited him to settle back down. Once he did, I would approach a few more feet. Up popped his head. Down I would hunker. We played this game for over 45 minutes and at last I reached a comfortable place with a natural blind where I could get this capture with my 500mm lens.

An alert flock looks like this.

Wake up! It's Sunrise!

After achieving the sleeping flock capture, I snuck out quietly, leaving the flock undisturbed. There are photographers out there that pride themselves in showing a bird in flight shot. Many times the bird is flying because he has been flushed for some reason. Other times, and also frequently that’s not the case though.

While out on the beach this week, I had reached a small flock of Dunlins that were sleeping along the surf. I laid prone on the sand and crawled to a reasonable distance. Using my super quiet Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II with 300mm lens (600mm equivalent) and I began working on my composition.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw another photographer quickly walk towards me and started to photograph the Dunlins I was working with. Before I knew it, he approached even closer (as he was using a shorter lens) and sure enough the Dunlins flew off. I was pretty annoyed as it took me a little bit to get to the position I was in and laying down on the ground and the birds were still sleeping. My approach was considerate to them and my reward was for them to continue resting.

The other photographer should have left us be. Seeing that I had worked myself into a good position and the birds were quiet. But he didn’t do so.

As a wildlife photographer, the most important that you need to ask yourself is “How Many Pictures do I really need?” You really only need one. And sometimes it’s not even that. It is the experience and appreciation of nature that is valuable. One of the best gifts you can give wildlife is to leave. Never overstay your welcome.

We’ll begin with a broad overview of appropriate field practices and ethics with the guidelines created by The North American Nature Photography Association which is posted on their website and I couldn’t explain it better than they have. I will continue on the next post and go more in depth with each portion to help others learn the skills I have developed over the years out in the field.


  • Learn patterns of animal behavior so as not to interfere with animal life cycles.
  • Do not distress wildlife or their habitat.
  • Respect the routine needs of animals.
  • Use appropriate lenses to photograph wild animals.
  • If an animal shows stress, move back and use a longer lens.
  • Acquaint yourself with the fragility of the ecosystem.
  • Stay on trails that are intended to lessen impact.


  • When appropriate, inform managers or other authorities of your presence and purpose.
  • Help minimize cumulative impacts and maintain safety.
  • Learn the rules and laws of the location.
  • If minimum distances exist for approaching wildlife, follow them.
  • In the absence of management authority, use good judgment.
  • Treat the wildlife, plants and places as if you were their guest.
  • Prepare yourself and your equipment for unexpected events.
  • Avoid exposing yourself and others to preventable mishaps.


  • Treat others courteously.
  • Ask before joining others already shooting in an area.
  • Tactfully inform others if you observe them in engaging in inappropriate or harmful behavior.
  • Many people unknowingly endanger themselves and animals.
  • Report inappropriate behavior to proper authorities.
  • Don’t argue with those who don’t care; report them.
  • Be a good role model, both as a photographer and a citizen.
  • Educate others by your actions; enhance their understanding.

11 replies »

  1. This is wonderful, Em. So much here that needs to be said as people venture into the wild with their cameras. Sometimes I think the 24/7 attachment to iphones has made some feel that the “old ways” of mindfulness toward our fellow beings are “out the window”. Like they have a license to go anywhere, do anything, and TAKE whatever they want. I believe the opposite to be true. BECAUSE of the new technology we have these days that allows us to get so much closer to wildlife… the more we need to be mindful of where we step. And how we step. And what is our motivation as well. So thank you for your post, and most of all – for your mindfulness toward all things wild. ❤

    • Love your thoughtful words, and it is true that people with smart phones just walk up close thinking they can take a picture of the wildlife. Crazy huh? And as you..I am grateful and thankful for your kindness to all things wild.

  2. I wish everyone knew this! Patience is so important in the field, quiet and peaceful approaches reveal so much more than blundering. NANPA guidelines should be posted at every park and refuge. Good post, Emily!

    • Wonderful to know how well you understand the beauty of respecting nature and how rewarding it could be. Funny, even with signs all over I’ve seen many a visitor completely disregard them and still break the rules to the risk of their own peril at wildlife. Thank you Eliza.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.