Friday, July 12, 2019

Wildlife photography ethics: Doing what's right!

Muskox at Renodde, Scoresby Sund, GreenlandA few years ago, I was traveling in Greenland. We landed ashore at Renodde, off Scoresby Sund, a large fjord system on the east coast of Greenland. It's rugged terrain there. Renodde is known for its muskox. Muskox are Arctic hoofed mammals of the Bovidae family. They're large, with adults averaging 4–5 feet high (1.1–1.5 meters) and weighing about 330–880 pounds (150–400 kilos), yet around humans, they're timid.

I was in the first group from our small ship to take a zodiac to land on Renodde. We hiked inland and climbed up to the top of a ridge. We noted the wind in order to stay downwind of any muskox we might encounter below the ridge. We put our cameras on silent mode and told those with us to stay low and speak in whispers.

As we slowly edged our heads above the ridgeline we were greeted by a male muskox on the large plateau below us, less than 150 feet (46 meters) away. To have one that close is a major treat. It was part of a four muskox herd. The others were about 1,000 feet (0.3 kilometers) away. The topography of the ridge made photographing the muskox difficult. Using my experience, I carefully moved to a better shooting position, bringing two others with me to the cutout where we could still remain hidden. I was able to make about a dozen images when it happened.

An inexperienced and unthinking group member, upset with his position, thinking the muskox wasn't paying attention to the ridge's edge, stood erect. His entire six foot frame was visible. Within seconds the muskox galloped a quick retreat. For the remainder of the time we were on Renodde, the closest anyone got to a muskox was about 2,000 feet (0.6 kilometers). It only took a second of foolish and disrespectful behavior to ruin the day for most of the ship's passengers and it put the muskox under great stress.

Muskox are herbivores. Climate change is making it harder for them to get food. An article in Scientific Reports last year explained what's going on there. If enough people behave like the man in our group, they could permanently frighten the muskox away from this critical area of food on Renodde on which they depend.

In wildlife photography, ethics matter. They matter a great deal.

It's a matter of respect for the animals and habitat, for all flora and fauna, as well as respect for ourselves, for other photographers, for everyone today and in the future. Without respect for our amazing natural world, much of it will cease to exist for future generations. Even today, we see a lack of respect causing major destruction of the natural world. So, if for no other reason, photograph wildlife ethically to preserve it for yourself.

Here's my guide of ethical wildlife photography principles.

Garbage in, garbage out:
Leave no trace of yourself in the wild. Whatever you bring in, take out with you. Even food wrappers and refuse of any kind should be packed out and properly disposed of, back in civilization.

Leave no trace:
It isn't enough to leave nothing behind. While in the wild, photographers need to be aware of their surroundings at all times to ensure they don't damage or disturb any of the habitat through which they travel and in which they photograph. Even small actions like removing branches near nests, or clipping a few stalks of wildflowers to get a cleaner shot should be avoided as they can be disruptive and harmful.

Never trespass:
Obtain permission to enter a wildlife area when required. When appropriate, inform managers and others in authority of your presence, plans and purpose.

Know the rules and follow them:
Rules in wildlife refuges, national parks and forests, as well as other wildlife areas have been well thought out. They are meant to protect and conserve their wildlife. Obey them.

When you are in a wildlife area, you are a guest. Use your commonsense and best judgment to act like the best of guests.

Safety is an imperative for animals and people:
Risky behavior is unacceptable when doing wildlife photography. Animals are often unpredictable. When photographing large animals it's a matter of the photographer's safety, but most of the time, the photographer is the threat, to flora, fauna, habitat and environment.

Clothing and gear choices matter:
Many animals' vision is different than humans and in some cases is superior. Felines in the wild have significantly better peripheral vision than we have. Birds see color far more intensely than humans. What we wear matters. Poor choices in clothing can easily cause an animal's “circle of fear” to enlarge and as we approach them, even from afar, put them under stress. Camouflage outfits help, but aren't essential. Our clothing choices are. We need to wear clothing that blends in with our surroundings.

Never endanger or stress wildlife to make a photograph:
To endanger or stress wildlife by pursuing it, cornering it or impeding it to make a photograph is unprincipled. Such behavior as advancing on birds to induce them to fly to photograph them in flight is selfish. In fact, if you flush a bird to flight, you were too close. If you do approach an animal, do it with great care and knowledge of the animal's behavior. Never get so close that you put the animal in stress or you in danger. Steer clear of nests of all kinds, from birds to turtles. Use appropriate lenses to help you respect the wildlife you're photographing.

Never interrupt natural phenomena occurring in the natural environment:
It's important to not interfere with animal life cycles, as it will cause stress and harm the animals' lives. Learn the patterns of animal behaviors to avoid such interruptions and interference. Beach nesting birds for example have routines and an environment that is extremely delicate. Respect animal routines. And no selfies please. They are invariably disruptive and too often unsafe.

Never harm or stress to habitat:
Wildlife's ecosystem is fragile. Flora and fauna depend on their habitat. Stay on trails whenever possible, as they exist to lessen the impact of visitors in wildlife areas, including photographers. Don't bend wildflower stalks to get a “better” images or pick wildflowers or berries. Leave them for the animals and insects.

Do not bait an animal to make a wildlife photograph:
For some, baiting is controversial, but in my judgment, the use of a live animal as bait is without question, unethical. In fact, for me, any baiting of animals for the purpose of wildlife photography isn't ethical. Store bought bait may transmit pathogens or parasites to animals. Bait and deny, can dehydrate animals through excessive salivation. Artificial bait if accidentally eaten can cause severe digestive problems or even blockages. General feeding of wildlife animals isn't appropriate. The operative word is “wild.” Wild animals are meant to be wild. Baiting interferes with their life cycle. It can habituate animals to a dependence on humans for food, which will have dire consequences.

Leave your dog at home:
It might seem like a great idea to take your dog on a stroll while you photograph wildlife, but it's awfully hard to pay attention to your dog and photography simultaneously. Hopefully, your dog will only be a distraction, but on a number of occasions I've observed, they've trampled on wildflowers and petrified wildlife. Leave them at home.

Don't lure animals with recordings:
Many wildlife photographers, for example, have birding apps on their smartphones with the ability to play bird calls loud enough to lure birds into the open to photograph them. Don't do it. In particular, when a bird leaves its nest to pursue or defend their territory from a “perceived” rival or enemy, they are leaving their eggs or chicks open to predators or weather. It's better to learn about their habits and habitats and find them through your knowledge.

Beware of attaching GPS information to your images:
Unfortunately, GPS information embedded in photographs can assist illegal hunters and poachers. I geotag all my images when made, but strip the information before posting most of my wildlife images on the Internet, particularly when they involve animal species that are typical poacher victims, or ones showing easily stressed animals or nests.

Avoid flash use when shooting animal life:
I've heard this statement often. “While I know that the use of a flash in completely dark or near dark situations may cause an animal to have a brief vision loss, my photos have educational value, so it's okay.”

While I can't dismiss that statement for everyone, I question its frequency and who's saying it.

As a professional photographer, I've made many images of animal wildlife which are regularly used for educational purposes. The thing is, it's unlikely that more than 0.001% of all the animal wildlife photographs claimed to made for educational purposes are actually used for educational purposes, even once. Moreover, from what I've observed over the years, many photographers shooting in darkness with a flash, use it at full power, rapidly snapping multiple images. The constant flashing most definitely puts the animal in serious, uncalled for stress.

Treat others with courtesy when engaging in wildlife photography:
If others are photographing in the area, be aware of them and their sight-lines. When in a group of photographers, minimize any disturbance and ensure each has a chance to make great photographs by yielding space as needed.

If you see inappropriate, dangerous or harmful behavior:
Don't confront anyone who's being disrespectful, dangerous or harmful in the wild. Confrontations with such people can turn out poorly. For some, this may be a problem, but I believe that instead of a direct confrontation, do your ethical duty by reporting their actions to authorities. Let them handle the situation. It's important that each of us take responsibility to protect others and the wildlife, but we need to accomplish that safely.

Respect those viewing your images. Don't manipulate them. Produce images that capture special wildlife moments in time that are real, not manipulated. We already have too much visual artifice. Show the world of wildlife through your eyes, not via setups or digital tools. Edit your photographs only so they will display the realistic color, balance and sharpness you saw when making them.

Be honest in your captions. If your photographs were made in a zoo, instead of the wild, for example, say so.

To me, wildlife conservation should be an important aim of every wildlife photographer. We should be working hand in hand to protect wildlife and its habitat for the person or group on the trail behind us and for future generations. As wildlife photographers, we depend on everyone else who's in the wild to protect it for us, so it's incumbent on us to do the same.

Each of us needs to be a role model who first and foremost does no harm.


Janice-Miami said...

Maybe I'm picky Ned, but do I ever agree with you on that one sentence line about captions. I've seen so many shots of wildlife made in a zoo or in a preserve where the animals are literally behind fences to make it easy to photograph them, but photographers try to pawn them off as if they've been to Africa or some other exotic place in the wild. This article is great work. Thanks. I hope it influences more of us to lead by example.

Steve-Denver said...

Ned, I'll admit it. I've used that line in the past about my wildlife photos being educational to justify my flash to get shots at night of owls. I don't use a flash for wildlife shooting at night any more, not since an owl on a nest I photographed (Yes six quick shots in a row ... do you have the old me pegged.) become disoriented from my flash and graze a tree trunk when it flew off as I was shooting. And yes, I obviously put it under stress. By the way, I knew where it would likely be from GPS info in daytime shots posted on the Internet.

Ned S. Levi said...

Hi Janice. Thanks.

When I put in the section about captions, I wasn't concerned so much about the effort it might have taken to make the image than about whether we were looking at a wild animal in their native habitat, engaging in normal behavior, or not. While many zoos and animal parks are doing as great a job as possible creating natural looking habitats for the animals it's still not the same as when they are in the wild where their behavior and conduct has been altered by their environment. Accuracy and honesty about that is imperative, as far as I'm concerned.

Ned S. Levi said...

Steve, thanks. We need more people to seriously consider how they're making wildlife photographs, if their techniques are ethical and if there isn't a better, more ethical way to make the photograph, like you have done.

Thanks for mention of GPS use. Geotagging is a marvelous thing when used judiciously.

Ed-Madison said...

Ned, seriously, is baiting really so bad that we shouldn't do it? I don't do it often, but when I do, I get results.

Ned S. Levi said...

I think it is Ed, and I understand much of the controversy.

I understand that baiting gets results. That's why so many engage in it. But do the results justify using baiting?

In discussions about baiting, I've been told that the "no-baiting crowd" is hypocritical. After all, they're putting out bird seed in feeders in their back yard, then photographing them there. (I had a feeder in my front yard for a time, but reevaluated that and stopped.)

While what they're doing in their back yard may or may not be the right thing to do, I think there are false equivalencies at play in that question which compares the two.

When we feed birds or any wild animals, or offer them food in any way, by baiting or feeding in the backyard, etc., I think we need to ask four questions: (1) Are we feeding to provide nourishment or for some other purpose? (2) Is the species at risk? (3) Is the food appropriate and safely provided? (4) Is the feeding likely to change its behavior in harmful ways?

What I've found in baiting for photographic purposes is that when we ask those four questions the baiting fails to pass the ethics test.

Baiting isn't providing food for nourishment. The food isn't really being provided because the species is at risk, but because the photographer feels they need help to get a great photograph. Typically, the photographer hasn't ensured the food is safe and I've never seen baiting provide food to an animal safely. If baited enough, an animal's behavior is likely to be modified and not for the better.

Hence, I don't believe that baiting should be part of wildlife photography.

Steph-Erie said...

Great article Ned. I was out in the Tetons on a photography workshop last month and we had one guy in the group from Denver who had never been with anyone who taught him anything about wildlife photography. He was a diehard Bronco's fan and had no shirts that weren't bright orange. Talk about not blending in (LOL). He borrowed shirts from everyone. He thought the description of the clothes the workshop leader sent to all of us was not serious. He knows better now.

Ned S. Levi said...

Steph, I get a lot of Phillies red on local wildlife photowalks I lead, despite making suggestions of what to wear on my NSL Photography Facebook posts and Tweets.

We all need to get the word out about clothing and wildlife photographer. It really matters.

Barb-Ames said...

I had no idea that my safari photos with location information could help poachers and trophy hunters. I'm taking down my images tonight, stripping the GPS data and then reposting. Thanks.

Will-Pittsburgh said...

Thinking back to when I took my retriever to the local forests to keep me company while I photographed birds, she did trample wildflowers last week. I'll leave her at home from now on.

Paul-NYC said...

I'm hoping that your article makes an impact Ned, but unfortunately, those who need to read it the most won't care.

Peter-San Francisco said...

I was out today in the Muir Woods and one person in the group kept walking in front of everyone else as we lined up some good shots ruining our chances. We finally told him that if he did it again we'd cut off his finger. He got the message, but it shouldn't have come down to that. Unfortunately, he wouldn't listen to casual hints at all. He should read your Blog and especially this article.

Yale said...

Ned, I never heard of what you said about birds being able to see color more intensively. Does wearing bright clothing or backpacks that are neon blue really matter?

Ned S. Levi said...

Yale, wearing bright clothing or backpacks that are neon blue really do matter.

Avian eyesight for color, in particular, is superior to human color vision. Wearing bright and/or neon colors will enlarge birds' "circle of fear" making observing and photographing the birds more difficult. Wearing muted colors that blend into the surroundings you're in will help you observe and photograph birds from a closer position. Read the below article I wrote about avian eyesight a while back for additional information.

Nature photographers' clothing and gear color really matter!

Pauline-Salt Lake City said...

So, Ned, seriously, if I report dangerous or harmful behavior to authorities, will anything really happen? You sound so positive.

Ned S. Levi said...

Pauline, in a word, yes. I've made reports and they were not only taken seriously, but in a few cases, it resulted in a ban for the offender. Positive action was taken in other cases too.

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