Ethical Nature Photography is Authentic Nature Photography | Light Stalking

Ethical Nature Photography is Authentic Nature Photography

Recently the Natural History Museum and the Audubon Society published their award winning photographers for 2015. As I visited the Natural History Museum's traveling exhibit here in Detroit, Michigan, I was held captive by the beauty photographed by many talented photographers. On January 6, 2016 Audubon published their 2016 bird photography contest information. At the forefront was the article: Audubon's Guide to Ethical Bird Photography.

As a bird and wildlife photographer, it is encouraging to see leading organizations, their followers and many professional photographers take a positive stand in the protection, safety and well being of the subjects that bring us so much joy.
~ They are wild. ~ They are beautiful. ~ We need and want them to flourish. ~
At the same time, that there are some unethical photographers and even some photography groups who are quite frankly, selfish. These are the few that work to ‘get the great shot' by taking actions that puts the bird or animal at great risk.
When you don't have ethics, you don't have authenticity.
Consider the beautiful snowy owl that had an eruption (flying outside their normal range) in the United States a few years ago. Bird photographers (including me!) were giddy with excitement. Beautiful images were captured from many photographers. While many photographers were getting terrific photos ethicially, that's when I became more aware of the few photographers that would bait snowy owls (and other wildlife) to get great shots. While bating is not the norm, it does occur.

Baiting with food for a photograph, luring artificially, capturing for studio photography are all examples of bad ethics. For more information about the harmful effects of these activities, read Nathaniel Smalley's article: An Observation of Ethics.
I'm not implying that the majority of individuals are unethical. Quite the contrary, I believe that the majority of nature photographers are interested in preserving and protecting nature. This is simply an opportunity to promote ethical and authentic nature photography.
Great photos of birds and wildlife happen every day. The three tips below offer ideas on how to get great bird shots that considers the birds (and animal's) safety.

Finding Birds to Photograph:

Local hotspots, nature preserves, nature conversation and protected lands:
There are many areas where common and uncommon birds can be found at photographic distances. The immature horned owl below was taken at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Preserve in Austin, Texas. Near the entrance is a breeding pair that nests there each year. The location and visibility was terrific. The birds were safe, not stressed and many people had the privilege of seeing these babies grow in their natural habitat.
Nature viewing areas and boardwalks, national and state parks are abundant. Photographers can get close, detailed photos without impacting bird's safety or habitat. Check with your local Audubon Society, Department of Natural Resources, eBird and Nature Parks for recent sightings.

Destination locations:
Each year, migration season fills the trees with migrating birds that fly thousands of miles to nest, breed and raise their young. Your location will determine which birds you'll see. There are birding hotspots across the states and geographic regions. In the midwest, it's Magee Marsh. In Florida, it's coastlines and wetlands. There's the Texas Birding Trail that takes you through diverse birding habitats.
In Your Neighborhood:
Bird photography can also be as close as your own back yard, neighborhood parks and areas where birds are used to people. When visiting my parents in Arkansas, a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker flew in – thankfully the camera was on my shoulder. When out and about, keeping your camera gear with you is one way to help ensure you take advantage of your local bird photography opportunities.

Non-profit Organizations that Rescue Birds:
There are Rescue Organizations that have rescued and rehabilitated birds for release – some of these may allow a few photographers to take photos of the release in action. Some rescued birds have sustained injuries where they can't survive on their own. They are cared for daily by these rescue organizations. Because they are handled frequently and become used to human interaction, these birds may be used for local education and small photography workshop opportunities. If taking photos of these birds and posting/publishing, always note that it was a captive bird. Another suggestion is to include the non-profit's name in case others want to donate as these groups are in need of support.


While ‘not scaring the bird' may sound obvious, how not to scare the bird takes patience and there are never guarantees that the most guarded of steps will get you in photographic range.
I watch the bird for a few minutes to determine if it sees me and is relatively calm or if it's a bit jiffy (hopping from limb to limb a lot). Is it approaching me or going away? Birds are naturally curious. They may jump around but a lot of times they come back to the same limb or nearby spots.
If an area is a hot spot, such as Magee Marsh near Oregon, Ohio, staying in one spot for a period of time has its rewards. Within a 30 minute time frame I photographed a Pine Warbler, Black-throated Blue, Chestnut-sided warbler and a Catbird. For more information about this area and migration, The Biggest Week in American Birding is a bird photographer's destination. Sure it's crowded, but the birds don't mind.
Related article: Birding the Warbler Capital of the World, Magee Marsh


Photographing Birds With Safety and Ethics in Mind:

Invest in a telephoto lens to get the reach. Nikon, Canon, Tamron and Sigma produce telephoto lenses that are affordable and deliver quality. Kit lenses such as the 70-300, 55-300 are sold bundled with DSLRs. They are lightweight, relatively fast in good light. Tamron, Sigma produce 150 – 600mm for Canon, Sony and Nikon at an relatively affordable price. Nikon's 70-200 f2.8 with a 1.4III teleconverter is another choice for birds that are closer in proximity as is it a bit shy on reach. The bird photos in this article were taken with these aformentioned lenses.
Related articles:

Many of you have your own ways photographing birds and wildlife that ensures their safety and yours too, sharing is welcomed. A photograph is never worth putting you or the subject in danger.
And lastly, when something doesn't seem right, it typically isn't. If you see something that isn't right, report it to Park Rangers, Visitor's center, authorities, etc.
Here's to a great and safe year of bird and wildlife photography!

About the author

Sheen Watkins

Sheen Watkins is a conservationist, wildlife photographer, instructor, author and photography writer. You can follow her photography on Facebook, Instagram and her website.


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