A guide to responsible wildlife photography – Wild Voyager Blog
A guide to responsible wildlife photography

A guide to responsible wildlife photography

Wildlife photography is one of the most enjoyable and interesting forms of photography. The best wildlife photographers have the ability to bring nature closer to us and capture places on Earth that might be inaccessible to many. However, one needs to keep in mind the ethics of wildlife photography before indulging in it.

A close-up of a Bengal tiger
A close-up of a Bengal tiger

Experts or masters of wildlife photography skilfully approach animals while also respecting their space. This balance is extremely important because, in the name of wildlife photography, many tend to capture animals without taking care of their surroundings. For mere likes, ‘perfect’ images, and instant gratification, incidents of wildlife photographers disrupting nature have become common. Even though many have the best intentions, photographers can damage nature and disturb the animals due to a lack of awareness or simply being indifferent towards them.

What is wildlife photography?

The genre of wildlife photography concerns itself with documenting various forms of wildlife in their natural environment. This type of photography not only requires good photography skills but also specialized equipment such as different types of lenses, camera traps, ghillie suits, and flash extenders.

An responsible wildlife photographer makes sure that their practice is as ethical as possible. They believe that wildlife photography is a great tool used for raising awareness about diverse species and encouraging conservation. The wildlife images are only authentic when the photographers enter a natural habitat and capture the wild without impacting the surroundings.

A common blackbird
A common blackbird

Wildlife photography has the power to influence people to protect wildlife and spark real change. Social media can make such photos go viral and attract attention towards endangered wildlife species. However, it also brings wildlife pictures taken genuinely and mixes them with certain images clicked solely to garner more followers, at the expense of the subject. Here lies the problem as the viewer cannot tell the difference between ethical and unethical photography.

When does wildlife photography become unethical?

In recent times, an exponential surge in wildlife photography has occurred due to the technology boom and the easy accessibility to camera equipment. Before it went mainstream, wildlife photography was an expensive hobby. Camera lenses and rolls were not only costly but also limited, so only a handful could enjoy this practice. Wildlife locations were remote and did not have many amenities, allowing only the experts and passionate photographers to visit. While taking up wildlife or nature photography is not a bad choice, the enjoyment aspect should be accompanied by responsibility.

Many nature photographers regard animals and birds as mere models, existing solely for their camera work. It may not occur to such photographers that clicking pictures of animals while trespassing and disturbing their natural habitats can cause them stress. This quest for the perfect action shot can cause harm to the wild animals and their environment.

An ugly instance of unethical wildlife photography can be observed way back in the 1990s in India. The photographers would visit villages and reward local villagers to locate active nests. After the nest was found, they would remove twigs and leaves, try to get a clear view of it, and click the nest from various angles, occasionally with flashes. After being satisfied with the clicks, the photographers would depart, leaving the nest vulnerable to predators. Although this was an activity of the past, new incidents of unethical wildlife photography are still seen today.

In 2010, a tigress from Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh was found dead without any explanation. Post mortem reports later revealed that the cause of her death accounted for injuries inflicted by a vehicle. The crowding of jeeps and vehicles causes the animals tremendous stress and disrupts their natural behavior. Moreover, driving above the speed limits in sanctuaries and parks just to take a picture can result in the animals getting run over.

Tiger safari in India
Tiger safari in India

When a photographer from Spain captured a photo of a ‘jumping wolf,’ he was given the prestigious ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ award. However, it was later discovered that the wolf was trained for the shoot after which the photographer was promptly disqualified. Similar competitions or contests involving wildlife photography can create unethical practices and insincere pictures.

Images and videos of agitated animals like elephants charging and attacking tourists’ vehicles are frequently seen online. It has become almost habitual during a tiger safari to witness a huge traffic jam inside national parks, wherein a trail of vehicles cluster together, leaving no place for the animals to walk.

As ignorant tourists indulge in nature photography without following any ethics, there have been several reports of provoking various species and altering their natural behavior.

Instances of unethical wildlife photography

Many of these instances or practices are not only unethical but also violate environmental and wildlife laws:

  • Jeeps and vehicles crowding around an animal in a sanctuary or a park can cause stress to the animal and disrupt its natural behavior. To avoid this, take a few pictures and leave the area when more vehicles approach.
  • Nest or den photography can lead to disturbance. Many mammals are forced to move to another den which may not be as safe as the original.
  • Call-playback to attract birds, especially during the breeding season, can distract the birds from courtship, defending territories and nest guarding.
  • Nocturnal animals such as owls and lorises have extremely sensitive eyes. They can become temporarily blind due to the exposure of bright flashes and torches. While it is suggested to leave nocturnal creatures alone, one can still use a night vision video camera to shoot them if necessary.
A great horned owl spotted in Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa
A great horned owl spotted in Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa
  • Chasing animals or birds for the ideal shot can decrease their energy and cause extreme stress.
  • Reptiles and amphibians that reside beyond the protected areas are treated the worst by photographers. Many such photographers enter the natural habit and disturb them. Furthermore, they are also refrigerated by so-called wildlife photographers in order to slow down their movements for photography. This can lead to detrimental effects and even death of these reptiles.
An iguana in the wild
An iguana in the wild
  • Baiting can alter the wildlife’s behavior and even result in attacking livestock or humans.

How to be a more responsible wildlife photographer?

Although it is common sense to maintain distance while photographing wild animals, these safe and imaginary boundaries are different for each photographer. Similarly, ethics also differ from person to person, wherein wildlife photographers cross the line repeatedly and disturb nature.

Presently, there is no one to monitor or set rules for regulating ethical nature photography. But there are certain ways one can decrease the practice of unethical photography.

For starters, veteran wildlife photographers can set an example of being good role models. If you are seen as respectful and careful towards nature, rookie photographers will mirror your behavior and learn the correct method of photographing in the wild. Moreover, one can even conduct workshops with a focus on wildlife photography. The workshops can help educate those who were unaware of the problem and force others to change their behavior when they see the far-reaching negative impacts of unethical photography.

Here are some rules wildlife photographers must follow:

  • Animals and the natural environment must come first before photography.
  • Strictly avoid manipulating the natural habitat for the perfect shot and instead, keep wildlife conservation in mind. Manipulation can include forcing animals into certain positions, restraining or trapping them.
  • The wildlife photographer must do his or her research about the natural history, flora, and fauna of the environment they are visiting.
  • Common, endemic, migratory, or rare- every animal species must be treated with equal respect.
  • The wildlife photographer must be thorough will all the rules and guidelines of the national parks and sanctuaries they are visiting. The typical regulations for tourists in wildlife sanctuaries or parks are maintaining a safe distance from animals, keeping silent at all times, avoiding flash photography, not feeding animals, and not overspeeding.
  • The photographer must ask for permission to shoot at a location, especially if it is a private property.
  • Along with wildlife photographers, various other professionals may work in the field. Be careful to not disturb them and be mindful at all times.
  • Give space to other wildlife photographers that are shooting in the same area as yours.
  • Avoid wearing bright colors and opt for camouflage outfits to reduce visual distraction.
  • If you are shooting in an unfamiliar location, it is recommended to bring along a trusted guide who knows the natural surrounding well.
  • If a certain species of animal or bird is endangered or considered to be a target of poaching, avoid publishing its photographs. Refrain from sharing when and where the image was captured so that poachers steer away.

Today, wildlife photography has created a threat to the same species it desires to celebrate. While there are no solid guidelines laid out, a wildlife photographer must distinguish between ethical and unethical practices. It is up to the wildlife photographer to act responsibly and build compassion towards nature.


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