The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

This week BirdsNZ – the Ornithological Society of New Zealand – released a set of guidelines for bird photography.

It’s a really good document that covers the welfare of both birds and people. It also covers the use of drones for photography, which I think is extremely important. Drones are quite helpful for monitoring populations of some species of birds, but they also pose a disturbance risk that is being well investigated. Guidelines like these are good, but there has to be room for flexibility, because every species is different. You can’t state a fixed distance to maintain from wildlife, because what’s too close for a House Sparrow is completely different to a proximity that will stress out a Reef Heron.

A Little Egret dodges the surf pounding the rocks while fishing in tidal pools.

The ethics of wildlife photography, and human-wildlife interactions are things I feel very strongly about. I’ve grown up with an intense fascination for the natural world, which has led me to explore it through studying biology. Biological research can be quite invasive – my own project currently involves taking blood samples from wild birds – so justifying why and how we do our science, and meeting ethical guidelines is extremely important. It’s our goal to do as much as possible with minimal disturbance. I maintain a healthy respect for wild places and creatures, and ultimately, that’s what the ethics of wildlife photography and these guidelines boil down to. Respect, and knowledge.

Australasian Gannets re-unite at their nest to swap incubation duty for foraging time.

To make our best images, we as photographers need to keep the wellbeing of our subjects as our highest priority. No image is worth putting an animal at risk. It means doing our best to avoid disturbing the animals we photograph. This is sometimes easier said than done, and it’s something that varies a lot between different species. It relies on us having the knowledge of their behaviour to understand what will cause them stress, and how we can approach photographing them.

White-necked Ravens harry a Cape Vulture, one distracting it while the other pulls a beakfull of tail feathers.

I’m definitely guilty of over-enthusiastically pursuing kingfishers along rocky shores, which will have impacted their feeding behaviour. I’m not perfect, and I’ve sometimes let excitement overtake my awareness of how my behaviour impacts the animals I’m photographing. It’s something that I try to be intensely aware of now, and it’s a work in progress. We make our best images when our subjects are free from the stress of being watched and perform their natural behaviours. So this awareness is a win-win – better for the birds, and better for us.

A Pukeko bathes in the shallows of Western Springs, Auckland.

So be slow, quiet, and watch. You’ll see and photograph more this way than any other. You’ll understand the animals that you are photographing as you see their natural behaviours. Become part of the landscape instead of an intrusion upon it.