Ethics in Wildlife Photography

Keeping Your Distance – Wildlife Photography & Social Responsibility Part 2

As nature and wildlife photographers we all want to get beautiful captures of the species we discover. It is inherent that in that desire to do so, we naturally want to get as close to the animal as we possibly can to achieve that.

However, in order to do that the first objective is the most important one. The animal and/or bird should not be disturbed or distressed with your presence and approach. But how are you to know what distance is appropriate and when it is too close for comfort?

It’s not a simple answer as we would all like to have. In searching the internet, there was no one protocol set out there that recommends just how far you should stay from your subject.

A few National Parks have set guidelines put forth. The most important ones are for your safety as well. When visiting parks like Yellowstone, Glacier, etc. Wolves and Bears live there and one should stay 100 yards or 300 feet away. Other large mammals, the guidelines is 25 yards or 75 feet.

At Assateague National Park they request visitors to respect their wild horses with one bus length or 40 feet, and migrating seals seen on the beach should be given a 150 foot berth.

But there is not a set protocol for birds, and as a bird photographer I see that it all depends on the circumstances and species that you are photographing. When I am out birding and I spot a species I would like to photograph, I always start from really far away. I take a few shots and wait to see what the bird will do.

All wildlife see you way before you see them, and there are some species that are quite spooky. Hooded Mergansers, Belted Kingfishers and Pintail Ducks are some of those that quickly come to mind. Others are more tolerant of your presence and you can slowly begin your approach. Go to Florida and they run right past you on the beach.

The first thing you should do is photograph with a lens setup that offers you the longest reach possible and that fits within your budget. In my case, I use a Canon 500mm lens and add the 1.4x Extender to my full-frame Canon 5D Mark IV. This gives me a 720mm equivalent. I also use an Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II with the 300mm f/4 Pro lens which gives me a 600mm equivalent.

More affordable long-reach lenses include the Tamron and Sigma 150-600mm telephoto lenses. One could also get a 50x or 60x Prosumer or cross-over camera which includes the lens with the camera body which can give you around 1000mm reach.

So what does this look like? I’ll start with my Canon kit and give you the following examples. I photographed each distance with the 500mm alone and then the 500mm with the 1.4xx Extender. The statue is 20 inches high as a reference. A Snowy Owl’s height is 21 – 24 inches.

At 50 feet (16 yards)

At 75 feet (25 yards)

At 100 Feet (33 yards)

In reviewing these examples, I am frequently photographing beyond 100 feet as my camera is bringing the bird closer to me inside the frame.

Project Snowstorm has a Snowy Owl Etiquette page. A good point they make is “How do you know when you’re too close?”

This applies to any bird or animal species you may be trying to photograph. Are they staring at you intently? Do they appear to be fidgeting or anxious and lastly did they poo? Chances are that you’ve pushed too close and it’s time to back off. A better thing to do and is frequently my choice is to leave the bird alone and depart the area.

In the case that occurred this week, there was just too much hub bub on the beach for me to work with the bird as I would usually do when I am alone. As a human, it was my fault to not recognize the impact of all of the happenings around me that was affecting the owl. In hindsight, because of the circumstances it would have been better if I had stayed further away.

At least I quickly recognized what was occurring and deferred to my preferred method of respecting wildlife by leaving.

I will continue this discussion tomorrow and include techniques in approaching wildlife for observation and photography. On a side note, I have now created a category for my postings on Ethics in Wildlife Photography for easy reference.

10 replies »

  1. Thanks for wonderful information. I try to be very respectful & was reading your article thinking that I was doing pretty well. Then I read something I didn’t know (always room to learn) & now I will add that as I watch what I am photographing for any sign of stress. The last thing I want to do is stress the gorgeous creatures I find so much peace & joy in. They give me calm & serenity & I never want to take that from them. Thank you. I do hope to see a snowy owl one day. Happy Holiday.

  2. Good Pointers, especially when bird photographing. I try to be aware and take clues from the bird in order to respect their space. I have all the sounds off on my camera, however; it still makes mechanism noises and some birds do not like that at all. One other note – some birds are light sensitive, so have to be careful with flashes going off – this came happen if in a shaded/dark area. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • So true about the flash Renee, and I didn’t even think to mention it as I almost never use a flash. With my big lens though, they can see the glass and definitely glare at it with annoyance. Thanks for being so caring for our critters.

  3. This is always something I’m contending with, when traveling with other wildlife photographers, everyone seems to have their own boundaries. For the most part everyone is very good, however there is always one who roams into an ecosystem, when it clearly states not to. There was even one occasion when someone didn’t tell our small group that there was a bear within 30 metres, all because they wanted to photograph it by themselves. Wildlife safety and human safety come first before any photograph. Great post

    • Yikes you’re right Troy ! Safety should always be first. In fact, when with a group even the terrain can wreak havoc if people aren’t careful.

      It’s amazing how there are so many people out there that were taught the true lesson of respecting the environment. Oh well, all we can do is help show the way. Thanks for your comment Troy.

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