Wildlife Photography

Ethical Wildlife Photography

Following ethical wildlife photography guidelines for approaching wildlife can increase a photographer's chances of getting good shots.
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Look at any international wildlife photography competition, and you will see incredible scenes of wild animals and animal behaviour. The response of many people viewing these images is to marvel at the luck of the photographer. While luck certainly plays a part, there is a lot that photographers can do to improve their chances of getting great shots. Follow our ethical wildlife photography guidelines for approaching wildlife to help you increase your chances of capturing those magical shots.

Ethical wildlife photography

Guidelines for approaching wildlife

Words & Images by Diana Andersen

Understanding Animal Behaviour

Understanding at least a little about animal behaviour is one of the most important things you need to learn about wildlife photography. All animals, including us, have a position in the food chain. Apex predators are at the top, so if you are shooting bears and lions, then your safety is the most critical thing and listening to warnings from your guide is highly recommended! Almost everything else is on the menu of one species or another. The further down the food chain an animal is, the higher its flight response. When it comes to flock and herd species, the slightest sign of alarm will trigger a flight reaction. In other words, scare one, and you scare them all.

Animals tend to live quite routine lives as there is safety in repetition. Even as they migrate from one area to another, they will repeat behaviours like landing in the same tree and feeding in the same area where they found food the day before. This repetition allows us to predict their activities to a certain extent and position ourselves for success. Seasonal behaviour also provides photo opportunities if you understand the patterns of movements of many animals relating to a change in the season. At all times, photographers should respect the animals whose daily lives they are trying to document and not interfere. Without following ethical wildlife photography guidelines, we are likely to do more harm than good. A photograph that raises awareness of an endangered species is of little value if it contributes to the decline of that species.

Bear in mind what part of their daily routine they are about to perform. For example, wading birds that have just woken up are keen to go and get some breakfast. If you boldly walk up to wading birds first thing in the morning, they will most likely fly without hesitation as they were about to go anyway. Quietly approaching birds or animals that are already feeding will give you a better chance. Animals are acutely aware of minor changes in their environment, so it is all about lowering your visual impact in their field of vision and behaving in a non-threatening manner.

Ethical wildlife photography, pied kingfisher in Zimbabwe

Pied kingfisher on the Zambezi River.

Setting Yourself up for Success

Gazelles and other prey animals in Africa turn will often turn and walk towards predators. It is about letting the hunter know that they are aware of their presence, that the advantage of surprise over agility and speed is lost. Many animals recognise that humans are a threat, but they make their assessment on whether to flee or not in the same way they assess other animal threats. If they determine that they can outrun you, or take flight before you can reach them, they might stay around for a while, providing the opportunity to get some shots. Thankfully for the animals, cameras don’t shoot bullets!

Stay low and slow in your movements when approaching wildlife, wear clothes that blend into the environment and take baby steps towards your target. If you pause for a while, take a few shots and let the birds or animals decide that you are not a threat, you may be able to step closer again and get better images. Of course, regardless of how well concealed or quiet you are, you still need to be quick as they are going about their lives and that often means moving on from where you encounter them. It is sometimes a case of waiting in the same position in the hope that other birds or animals will take their place.

Cheetah on the Mara. Big cats frequently have spectators to their hunting activities.

Wildebeest turn to face a predator. 

Diana Andersen is a professional photographer with a Bachelor of Arts in Design. Major Australian galleries and collections hold her award-winning work. After years as a practising designer and a lecturer in design, Diana turned her attention to her other passion, animals, and became a zookeeper working in conservation. A published author, Diana initially used photography to illustrate her books, but it has since become a passion. Diana founded Animalinfo Publications in 2007.

Wildlife Hides and Ethical Wildlife Photography

Wildlife hides are a great way to get closer to wildlife. They are an excellent example of how to achieve good shots while following ethical wildlife photography guidelines, particularly if they have been there for some time and are part of the landscape of the area. Getting into position before daybreak or earlier in the afternoon will increase your chances of not being detected. The idea is to conceal the photographer from potential subjects, but of course, many animals have acute hearing and a heightened sense of smell. You also need to very quiet, utilising silent shutter if you have that option on your camera and avoiding conversation and interruptions from your mobile phone!

On the downside, they can be restrictive in terms of shooting angles, and you need to be patient as you are waiting for your subjects to come to you, which doesn’t always happen. Make sure you have all the supplies you need for the wait. Hides that have viewing windows at ground level can allow you to photograph small animals at their level. It can also enhance your photos of large animals because of the low profile of the shots. Many wildlife tours in countries like Africa, visit locations that have hides available and a quick internet search will provide sites in many other countries as well.

Elephants at the Siduli Hide

Elephants photographed at ground level from inside the Siduli Hide at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.

Wildlife Blinds

If you like the idea of waiting in a hide, portable camouflage tents referred to as wildlife or hunting blinds are a possible alternative if a permanent wildlife hide is not available. These vary between lightweight structures that are quick to erect using a pop-up method and more substantial structures designed to offer protection as well as concealment.

There are a few things to consider when deciding on whether to purchase a blind. Wildlife lenses can be large and heavy, and if you like to carry more than one camera or a tripod, then you need to assess whether you can manage another piece of equipment. By the time you have finished erecting your blind, your activity will most likely have scared any wildlife away, so you also need to have the patience to sit and wait for their return. Wildlife blinds can offer a little protection from the weather, but of course, in areas where there are apex predators, they offer zero protection from predators.

ethical wildlife photography - New Holland Honeyeaters

New Holland Honeyeater behaviour.

Camouflage Clothing and Lens Covers

I have visited the Siduli Hide in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and loved the experience because of its waterhole location that brought birds and animals into my view. However, my personal preference is to walk to see what I can find using my eyes and ears to spot approaching wildlife. Clothing colours that blend into the environment such as khaki, camouflage and will help. Some photographers go as far a using a ghillie suit, often used by hunters but again, you need to make your own decision as to whether to wish to go to the extreme of adopting the ‘yeti’ look. They can be heavy to move around in, so my preference is a hooded jacket that conceals my light hair colour.

Black camera gear blends into the environment reasonably well. Still, if you want to reduce the visual impact of your equipment even further, you can purchase camouflage lens covers for many wildlife lenses. The Lenscoat range covers many of the popular lenses used by wildlife photographers, and you can even buy Lenscoat covers for your tripod, monopod or gimbal head. These covers also have the added benefit of protecting your gear from damage.

Regardless of how much you spend on gear, nothing will get you that shot more than practice, patience, and sensitivity towards your subject. There can be no substitute for knowledge and experience and learning your craft over time. The satisfaction of taking and sharing beautiful photographs of fantastic wildlife is addictive, and being in the great outdoors is rewarding and enjoyable in itself. As long as you adopt a ‘no interference’ policy when approaching animals and follow ethical wildlife photography guidelines, there can be no better way to pass the time.

Next article – Light and Wildlife Photography

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