An Ethical Guide to Wildlife Photography

Ethics of Wildlife Photography

There are few things better in life than getting outdoors and experiencing the natural world. It’s even better when you have a camera with you, and can capture moments in time to share with others. It is no surprise then, that wildlife photography is fast becoming one of the most popular forms of photography to date.

With this in mind, it is important to remember that we share our planet with a huge number of different organisms. It is essential to be respectful of your environment and understand the ethics of wildlife photography. The following quote encompasses what this entire article is about:

Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.

– Unknown

The following points should be adhered to whenever you are photographing or watching wildlife.

#1 Do Not Disturb

When moving around an area, it is important to be quiet and discrete. Not only does this increase your chances of actually seeing anything, but it reduces disturbance to the area’s furry or feathered occupants. It is not just the animals that you can disturb, as countless times I have heard photographers complaining about having waited for hours in a public hide, only to be joined by someone who feels that they must talk at full volume to be heard. Showing respect to your peers is also important.

#2 Respect the Law

There are laws in place to protect wildlife, and they should always be obeyed. They apply to everyone, however careful you think you may be. Anyone who would even consider illegally approaching the nest of a protected bird, for example, is very unlikely to be able to spot the signs of distress that they are causing. The laws are there for a reason, and to ignore them can cause great damage to a species.

In the UK, one of the most well-known laws is the protection of Schedule 1 birds. All the species on this list cannot be disturbed at or near their nest site without a license. We have published an entire article looking at the laws around Schedule 1 protection.

#3 Be Careful with Tape Lures

Similarly to the above point, the use of tape lures (recorded bird song and calls being played to attract birds) can disrupt the natural behaviour of birds. Some photographers and naturalists say that you should not use tape lures at all, as they cause birds to behave differently to normal and that is unethical.

Whatever your views are on the above, you should never use tape lures during breeding seasons as this can disrupt a bird’s normal patterns. For example, when a male should be defending its territory from real intruders, it may instead spend its time trying to fend of the non-existent bird you are imitating.

#4 Do Not Use Live Bait

Personally, I see no problem using dead bait (as long as it is ethically sourced e.g. voles that are killed for other reasons and would be wasted otherwise) as long as it doesn’t put the animal in any harm. In fact, it can be beneficial to provide supplementary food through the winter to certain animals.

However, live bait is a big no, no. Whilst animals kill other animals naturally, it is not our place to sacrifice one for an image. This practice is greatly frowned upon in the photographic community. It is not worth doing, and an ethical image is far more rewarding than an unethical one.

Further Reading: Should We Use Bait to Attract Wildlife?

#5 Do Not Interfere With Nests

It is sad that I have to write this point into this article, but there have been images floating around photo-sharing websites that make it necessary. Some photographers have been known to remove baby birds that are far too young to leave the nest, and position them photogenically on perches. The mother then comes to feed them outside the nest, and they capture what they believe is an incredible photo. To me, and many others, it is a disgusting photo that shows blatant disregard for the well-being of the birds.

#6 Look Out for Signs of Distress

If you are photographing an animal, and it appears to be distressed, don’t continue to do so. A perfect example of this is when you spot a bird in a tree, and move closer to capture some images. If it begins to fly around you calling, it is likely you are near a nest and causing distress to the bird. Back away, and move on to elsewhere. Many birds can be legally photographed at the nest, but disturbing them to the extent they waste much energy chasing you is still unethical.

Instead, maybe you could position a pop-up hide at a distance from the nest. Leave it there for them to get used to, and quietly sneak into it after a week or so. You are then most likely to be able to photograph at your leisure with undisturbed birds.

#7 Use Common Sense

If you have an idea on how to capture an image and you’re asking yourself questions about whether or not it is ethical, then it most likely isn’t. Putting wildlife first is of the utmost importance. An image is not worth the disturbance, or even life, of an animal.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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