Ethics in wildlife photography

As the digital revolution opens up a new world of possibilities, Mark Carwardine considers the rights and wrongs of wildlife photography.

Ethics in wildlife photography article spread


So confessing sins in the caption may ease a photographer’s conscience, but it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem.

As nature photographers, we should strive to represent our subjects as faithfully as possible. This means minimal tampering and never trying to misrepresent what we are doing. My own view is that it’s OK to straighten a lopsided horizon or brighten the sky, for example. Just occasionally it might be acceptable to remove a distracting branch or blade of grass – though this does feel like straying into dangerous territory.
How about removing a ring from a bird’s leg? Many photographers believe this to be acceptable, especially professionals who know that images of tagged animals rarely sell. A lot of British red kites have wing tags, for instance, but how often do you see them in photos?
Have all the tags been digitally removed or do people photograph only the kites without tags? I know honest professionals who really do wait until the untagged kites come along, but there are many others who just clone them out in Photoshop. Is it important who does what?
So it’s largely a matter of degree. Most photographers use image-editing software to enhance their photos. I do myself. The point is that we all have to decide which lines we are prepared to cross. And, in making those decisions, we have a responsibility to all of our nature photography colleagues and to everyone who sees our pictures.
Captive subjects
Whether it is right to photograph animals in captivity is another subject that’s guaranteed to ignite heated debate. Even well-travelled pros sometimes work in zoos, because it provides an opportunity to take intimate portraits of shy or endangered animals that are seldom seen in the wild. Surely there’s no harm in it? Well, yes and no.
Some people couldn’t give two hoots how a photograph was taken. They’re not bothered if the photographer spent weeks sleeping rough in a mosquito-infested swamp to get the shot, or merely an afternoon at the local safari park. They’re just interested in the end result: is it a great photo? Many others, meanwhile, still want to believe in the romance of the intrepid photographer.
Either way, I think you can often recognise a zoo animal in a photograph – it’s too fat or out of condition or simply doesn’t display the right ‘jizz’ (the characteristic behaviour of the species). Many captive mammals have facial expressions that just don’t look like those of wild individuals.
Some people choose never to photograph animals unless they are completely wild and free. Partly, this is because they believe that working in a zoo takes the ‘wild’ out of ‘wildlife photography’ – they want nothing less than to photograph a genuinely wild animal in its natural surroundings. But it’s also because they don’t like to support the keeping of animals in captivity.
A much more controversial aspect of photographing captive animals is the use of trained individuals, or models. A tame mountain lion, for example, can be hired for anything from a few hours to several days and moved to a suitable location by truck or helicopter. The photographer takes pictures from a few metres away while the animal is made to run through the snow, jump over a gate or drink from a pool. To all intents and purposes, it will look wild and free – but, of course, it is not.
Advocates of this popular form of nature photography often argue that the animal models are well looked after, if for no other reason than photographers demand healthy and happy-looking subjects. However, I have heard lots of horror stories suggesting that many of the animals are badly mistreated and kept in tiny cages.
Some photographers also maintain that, if it weren’t for animal models, certain rare or elusive species would hardly ever be photographed, and therefore would never be brought to public attention. Siberian tigers are a classic example – there are very few images of them in the wild. The vast majority of Siberian tiger photos feature models or animals that live permanently in captivity.
One could argue that, given enough time and effort, any animal could be photographed in the wild. That’s true to a certain extent, and taking pictures exclusively in the wild is without doubt a noble goal. But do we really want hordes of photographers out there, causing untold disruption and disturbance while they try to get that elusive shot?
Opponents of the use of animal models claim that it’s a lazy form of wildlife photography. Personally, I am against it because the underlying pretence – that the animals are wild and free – is entirely wrong. I also believe that keeping an animal in captivity purely for the benefit of paying photographers is totally unethical.
What’s worse, photographers may hire animal models, pass them off as wild and even concoct elaborate stories about how they spent weeks or months in the field to get their shots. This is unforgivable. Moreover, pretending that captive or restrained animals are wild can have serious credibility consequences for the organisations that publish the images without knowing the truth about how they were made.
There are few straightforward, black-and-white answers to any of these issues. There are no absolute rights and wrongs. But there’s one rule on which most serious wildlife photographers agree – the audience has a right to know whether a picture was taken under controlled conditions or in the wild. Again, it comes down to honesty and truthful captioning (a categorical ‘captive’ should be used to avoid any confusion).


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