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Wildlife Photography Etiquette

Nature Photography: Be a Good Guest in Nature's Home

Article by Donna Bollenbach

Wildlife Photography in Tampa Bay

How would you feel if every time you left your home to run an errand a swarm of photographers were outside your door wanting to take your picture? You are not a celebrity, you are not planning anything out of the ordinary, you just want to go to the grocery store and buy food to feed your family. After a while you may limit those trips to the grocery store. You may decide not to go at all.

Now, put yourself in the place of a family of owls. The owls have nested in the same tree for many years. They build their nest and raise their babies there. For a long time it was relatively peaceful. Few humans even knew about their nest and when they did come by with their cameras they never stayed more than 30 minutes or an hour.

But that was before digital photography and the internet. Now everyone seems to know where your nest is, and every day when you peer out from the safety of the nest cavity up to 20 big black eyes are pointed up at you and attached to each big black eye is a human. Many stay for hours, and when one leaves another takes its place. Whenever they catch a glimpse of you the silence is split by a rush of whirls and clicks. The children are hungry and want to get some fresh air, but you wonder, "Is it safe?"

There is no doubt that digital photography has changed the practice of nature photography. In addition to increasing the sheer numbers of photographers in our parks and preserves, it seems to have created a sport-like mentality among some photographers. People feel that to get the best shots they must stalk their subjects and get closer and closer (in-your-face) images.

By being faster and less expensive than film, digital photography has increased the amount of time each person spends photographing a subject. When photographing with a film camera the average hobbyist could not afford to fire-off a whole role of film on a single subject, so they were more careful with their shots and spent less time in front of their subject. With digital photography, the expense of developing film is no longer an issue, so I have seen groups of nature photographers spend hours firing off hundreds of shots of a single nesting bird.

So, as digital nature photographers, how can we minimize our impact on the wildlife we so love to see and photograph?

  1. Be a good guest: Limit the time you spend visiting any one subject, especially those that are nesting or feeding their young. By learning as much as you can about your subject's behavior, such as when they hunt and feed, you minimize the time you spend shooting while capturing the most interesting behaviors.

  2. Respect their comfort zone: If you feel you need to get closer to your subject (most of us cannot afford 600 mm lenses), remember that the newest digital cameras have lots of megapixels, so take the shot from further away, then crop and enlarge it later. I know, this rational goes against the way most of us were taught. We were told that we should frame the image in the viewfinder, with minimal cropping later. But, if cropping the image later minimizes the impact to wildlife, perhaps we need to rethink our practices.

  3. Look first, photograph later. Don't get so wrapped up in getting the image that you don't see the beauty of your surroundings. It seems since the advent of digital photography, nature photography has become less of a pursuit for love of nature, and more of a competitive sport. The focus seems to be more on in-your-face images of animals then environmental shots. These images tend to lack passion and originality.

For more information, check out these resources:

📂 North American Nature Photographer's Association's Principles of Ethical Field Practices (PDF)

» Audubon of Florida's "Tips for Successful Wildlife Photography" Video ∞

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