Bears are one of the most sought-after animals in Yellowstone National Park. Each year thousands of photographers visit the park in hopes of the perfect bear sighting or photograph. “Bear jams” are a regular occurrence. When someone finds a bear, suddenly 30 cars show up and surround the animal, everyone jumping out and acting like the paparazzi. A few years ago, a large group of visitors got too close to a mom and her cubs when she decided to chase them. Fortunately, this situation ended OK, but there are other stories with not so happy endings.
Wildlife photography ethics is a hot topic. An ethical photographer follows some basic guidelines for the safety, respect, and well-being of the subject and the environment. Most importantly, respect for wildlife comes before getting the perfect shot.
Unethical practices in wildlife photography
Recent news of photographers baiting owls with mice is an example of an unethical practice. As the name suggests, baiting is about offering up a free meal to an animal in the hope that they’ll come out into the open for your photograph. Often their goal is to have the owl fly directly to them for a shot. What seems like an innocent thing to entice an owl can have dire consequences for the animal. Baiting can change the behavior of these birds in ways that are harmful to them. The biggest reason not to feed wild owls is how quickly they can become habituated to humans. Feeding them can cause them to associate humans and food. This isn’t worth it just for a photo!
Technology has also come into play with modern day ethics. When people see a photograph, they expect that it’s real, but editing software now means that it’s possible to manipulate a dull image of a green field to be full of roaming wildlife, which is misleading. It’s acceptable to clean photos up, adjust contrast and color and do similar global adjustments, but editing can easily cross the line of being unethical if a photographer decides to add a couple of extra wolves into a picture. This gives viewers a false sense of that environment — it’s essential to be honest with your photography.
One of today’s most significant issues is photographers crowding wildlife to get the perfect shot. Many photographers push the limits, jeopardizing the wildlife they adore. Not only is this unsafe, but it also causes tremendous stress and disrupts the animals’ natural behavior, such as hunting, feeding, and courtship. Too many people or vehicles crowding around an animal in a sanctuary or National Park, or people deliberately going too close can provoke a charge. In June of this summer, a woman was gored by a bison in Yellowstone. She was taking photos within ten yards of the animal.
Do your research before you go on a wildlife photo trip.
Photographing wildlife can be a challenge, but doing some preparation will help. Before you head out to shoot in the field, it is essential to learn about the animal, the animal’s behaviors, and the environment.
You can start with the National Park Service websites. All of their sites provide education on wildlife and safety. For example, the Yellowstone National Park website suggests the following: “Always stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards away from all other animals, including bison and elk.” Another excellent source is The North American Nature Photography Association’s Ethical Field Practices guide which offers additional practical tips. National Audubon Society also provides some guidelines to help you get the shot you want while protecting the birds. Learning about your subjects and their behaviors takes time and effort, but will pay off in the long run.
Use appropriate lenses to shoot wild animals.
Never put yourself or your subject in danger while trying to get the perfect shot. When setting up a photo, be alert and keep a safe distance. Using a long lens, you can make an image look like it was taken a few feet away when in reality you may have been a few hundred feet away. I was able to get a great shot of a bison while shooting in Yellowstone National Park this winter. It appears that I was too close to the bison, but I used a 500mm lens to shoot from a safe distance.
Don’t forget to show an animal’s environment. Back off and use wide-angle lenses to give viewers an idea of where the animals live. If you’re with others who aren’t respecting the animal’s proximity, ask them kindly to back away. Report to authorities or document the abuse if you are not able to stop them.
Be a fly on the wall.
Sometimes, in the quest for a perfect picture, our enthusiasm can get the best of us. However, when moving around an area, it is important to be quiet and discrete. If you are photographing wildlife, and it appears that the animal is stressed, back away. Photographers should make every effort to minimize the disturbances that could occur before shooting, during shooting, or even after shooting is done.
When photographing in a group, use quiet voices and take great care to approach quietly and not disturb your subject. Last summer I attended a workshop in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Our leaders and guides took excellent care always to ensure that we slowly approached the wildlife in a line. If ever it seemed like we could be stressing the bears, we eased backward.
Amy’s wildlife photography gear
F-Stop gear bag: With 50 pounds of gear on your back for hours on end, your pack is easily the your important piece of equipment. I’ve had 10 to 15 camera bags float through my house over the years, but I’ve settled on F-stop bags. I have two versions, a large one for when I carry my two larger telephoto lenses and a medium one for traveling with lighter loads.
Gitzo Traveler Series 2 carbon fiber tripod: A high-quality, lightweight tripod is as important as a great bag. Most wildlife is active in early morning and early evening, so make sure to get a bag that will support your largest lens.
Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead: All my cameras and lenses have Really Right Stuff quick-release plates mounted on them for quick transitions.
Nikon D5: With the solid build and ruggedness, I feel like I don’t have to be too careful with it. It has an amazing dynamic range and works great in difficult lighting situations. It is weather sealed, durable, and can fire-off shots rapidly in continuous mode.
Nikon D750: Super backup camera and great when I need something lighter.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR: By far one of the most dependable lenses. It’s my go-to for bear shots for its insane sharpness.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR: When I need to handhold for a shot or weight is an issue, this is a great telephoto lens, and more compact than the 500mm.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II: This lens is superb for portraiture and wildlife, works great with a teleconverter, is It’s fast, easy to carry, and always sharp.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED: Can’t leave home without it! A workhorse for most landscape photographers.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED: This is one of the sharpest lenses ever made by Nikon. It produces beautiful colors, is super-fast, and has a highly useful focal range.
Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E III: This teleconverter increases the focal length of almost any lens by 1.4X.
Storm Jacket by Vortex Media: Between snow in Yellowstone National Park and rain in Lake Clark National Park, camera covers are a must.
Black Diamond spot headlamp: A must for nighttime photography. This headlamp is waterproof, lightweight, and has a red LED option, essential for staying undercover during night photography.
G-DRIVE external hard drive: You can’t travel without a dependable external hard drive. I back up at the end of each day and travel home with my cards and hard drive in different bags, just in case. This one with its rugged bumper is designed to go with you everywhere.
Ethics is an essential part of being a wildlife photographer. While it’s impossible to list every type of unethical behavior, one’s conscience and common sense are the best guides. If you believe that something you are about to do may cause stress to your subject or damage its environment, back away. The single most important factor in changing behavior is to set a good example and lead the way in wildlife photography ethics. With so many new wildlife photographers coming into the field, it’s essential to be a good role model. Amazing photographs of wildlife are possible without making choices that compromise animals or the integrity of our work.
All photos by Amy Ames
Check out the July/August 2018 issue of Click Magazine for more amazing wildlife photography from Amy Ames. Also in our feature on National Parks, you’ll find awe-inspiring landscapes and outdoor photography tips from Kristen Ryan, advice on heightening your compositions from Erica Everhart, stories from Renee Hahnel, Sonja Saxe, Christina Adele Warburg-Hon and more. Plus, the regulations of National Park photography from lawyer, Evan Andersen. And gear. Lots and lots of gear. Buy a digital copy or subscribe now.