Getting off Auto - Ethical Photography

We’re at that exciting time of year again, when there’s lots of activity in nature that we all love to see. For many of us, that also includes trying to take pictures of the wildlife we’re watching and that’s when it becomes easy for people to get carried away and overstep the boundaries of moral, ethical or even legal behaviour.  This GoA thread is a bit different from some of the others in that it attempts to set out examples of good behaviour for everyone (not just photographers) to aspire towards and also call out some of the less desirable behaviours we see occasionally to encourage people to reflect on the impact they have on the wildlife they see.

Usual disclaimer about me using Canon terms as that is what I use, but the principles will apply to anything. Earlier GoA threads can be found by following these links to Settings, Exposure+, Post-Production, Choice, Extras & Impossible Pictures.

There is one key principle that all wildlife photographers should follow and you will find it repeated on every code of conduct ever written:-

The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.

This can never be emphasised enough and should be at the forefront of your mind at any time you’re not sure about going after a shot. This is particularly important for some species as they are protected by law from any sort of disturbance, especially when breeding.  Birds that have special protection are listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside act (1981), and you’ll frequently hear discussion about them in a hide.  It’s important to realise that it isn’t illegal to actually photograph a Schedule 1 bird, but it IS illegal to “intentionally or recklessly disturb” them whilst they are nest building, in, on or near the nest, or have dependent young.  So photographing an Avocet nest from within the hide is OK – there are people visiting the hide constantly, so the bird has obviously accepted the activity as normal and is not worried about it.  If you climbed out of the window to get a closer look, you’d be committing an offence as the bird would doubtless fly away.  Similarly, if you’re walking along a public footpath and frighten off a Dartford Warbler from a nearby bush, you can’t really be blamed if you didn’t know it was there and you were walking along the designated path.  However, if you leave the path and strike out across the heathland, you’d be “intentionally or recklessly” disturbing the bird and therefore in the wrong.

These examples are clear cut. Where it gets more difficult is when the decision about what to do is more ethical than legal.  A few weeks ago I spotted a Long Tail Tit nest being built in a bramble bush beside the path.  LTTs aren’t covered by Schedule 1, but I applied the same principles – was I disturbing the birds by watching?  In this case, I knew I was not – my attention had been drawn in the first place by the pair flying in to the bush with material for the nest and they happily stitched the lichen into the structure whilst I was only a couple of metres away.  Nevertheless, to get some photographs I backed away to 6 metres and moved around until I could get an angle through the brambles with my long lens.  I didn’t touch the brambles because, however annoying little branches can be, moving or trimming them would potentially interfere with the nest building so best avoided.

It’s not just birds we see on the reserve of course, there are plenty of other species that are fun to watch. The request to us visitors to stay on the paths is not to be authoritarian and restrictive, but because the wildlife is used to us being there.  That means the deer will often wander close to the paths through the woodland, safe in their experience that those funny two legged things don’t chase after them.  If too many avid photographers try to get closer shots, the deer will avoid the area and everyone will miss out.

Adders have been showing well for the past few weeks and they too get people excited about photographic opportunities. However, we have seen a number of examples where people are over-keen to get their images, climbing over the rope, clearing leaves from (and moving) favoured hidey holes and the like.  There’s no reason to take a different approach to photographing a snake than you would to a bird; they are just as prone to disturbance and just as vulnerable to predation.  By putting their photograph ahead of the subject’s welfare, the photographer has shown scant regard for the animal and likely made it harder for others to see these elusive reptiles.  As a general rule, don’t cross the rope – it gives the Adders space to bask without stress and allows every visitor to see them.  Use a long lens, don’t try and get close enough for macro – it’s not only unfair on the Adder but you risk getting bitten!

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Adders too have significant protection in law. The Wildlife & Countryside Act protects them from killing, harm, selling and trade; the Dangerous Wild Animal Act stops you taking one home for a pet and the Animal Welfare Act makes it clear that you’re not to cause unnecessary suffering should you be tempted by knowledgeable sounding articles on the Internet that explain how to chill a snake in the fridge before arranging it on an artistic background to get the best shots.  Are some people really that desperate for a photograph?  That rather feels like we’ve come full circle and we’re back to what is morally and ethically acceptable.  If you really feel the need to stage pictures of wild animals, perhaps you should take up still life instead!

So whenever possible, take the time to observe the subject of your picture for a while before you try and take the picture. Work out what normal behaviour is for the animal or bird and what’s likely to not cause distress or inconvenience.  With this Thrush, it was clear from the way it was tossing leaves around despite people walking past that it was comfortable with human activity, so I had no qualms about laying down on the ground several yards in front of it.  Slowly working towards me, it ended up inside my minimum focus before passing me by unconcerned.  The fact I knew absolutely that I hadn’t had a negative influence on the behaviour made the experience that bit more magical.

Finally, try to think ahead and make sure an animal has “low cost” options in case they do take offence at you. Don’t pin them against a wall for example.  I’d already seen the Stoat running along the path with a rabbit, straight past people sat on a bench, so I knew she wasn’t wary of humans, but I still parked myself in a position that would allow her to cut through a patch of nettles should she take a disliking to me – and that’s exactly what happened when she re-appeared with fresh prey.  A couple of other people had stopped to ask what I was waiting for and likely seeing a small group of people made her a bit more cautious, so when she got to within a few feet of us, she cut through the nettle patch before resuming her journey to the den


Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index