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


Camera trap photography

A more recent controversy is the use of remotely controlled cameras, or camera traps. The basic concept is quite simple: a camera is set up where an animal is likely to visit and, when it trips a pressure plate or infrared sensor, it takes its own picture.
One of the main concerns about camera trapping is a feeling that if the photographer isn’t there to press the button, it’s cheating. It certainly makes a mockery of the old adage that the only camera setting you need is “f8 and be there”. But ‘being there’ is an impossible dream, or at least a luxury, when it comes to many rare and shy species. And just because the photographer was sipping coffee in his or her tent when the picture was taken doesn’t make it any less ‘real’.
Great camera-trap photos are definitely not the result of simple blind chance. The success rate is amazingly low. The photographer needs to have enough field skills to be able to predict where and when an animal is likely to pass, and how it might trigger the camera shutter, as well as advanced technical knowhow to make it all happen. Creativity is important, too – the best camera-trap shots are all envisioned in advance and then carefully planned.
True, many of the best camera-trap images have been taken with the considerable financial and technical support of National Geographic, but bear in mind that you have to be a top-notch photographer anyway to get this kind of backing.
Besides, simple camera trap set-ups are on sale for less than the price of a new lens – and their potential is huge. There’s also no doubt that camera trapping can produce some exciting results. It offers a privileged glimpse into the natural world that would otherwise be almost impossible to achieve with traditional photographic techniques, while causing little disturbance to the animals and their habitats.
Individual integrity
In the end, ethical wildlife photography is largely a matter of individual integrity. We should be free to do whatever inspires us creatively, so long as it causes no harm to the animals or plants we are photographing, to other people or to nature photography as a whole.
But it’s more than that. It’s also about a responsibility to the audience – and honesty. Unattributed digital manipulation or passing captive animals off as wild is lying, plain and simple.
Once the honesty has gone – and some days I don’t think we’re all that far from losing it – the power of nature photography has been lost forever.
Using bait to photograph wildlife
Almost everyone has baited wildlife at one time or another – even if it’s merely putting out food on a bird table. But doing so for photography comes with great responsibility, because animals can become habituated to humans and may end up dependent on your artificial food source.
By following these rules, you will reduce your impact on your wild subjects:
  • Provide only organic food that is part of the animals’ natural diet.
  • Be wary of live bait. It is probably OK to offer mealworms to songbirds, but providing mice for birds of prey is a step too far.
  • Try not to leave the bait out too long.
  • Don’t feed large species that are potentially dangerous.
  • Don’t use sounds as bait if they are likely to cause unnecessary stress.
  • Use the waterholes and feeding stations already provided in nature reserves.
  • Stress in the caption that you used bait.


Wildlife photography code of conduct
Some photographers are prepared to do almost anything to get the shot they want, so conservation groups and photography associations have published a number of codes of conduct for wildlife photography. Most of the recommendations are common sense – the welfare of the subject is more important than getting the photo. Here are a few key points to remember:
  • Always photograph animals from a safe and respectful distance.
  • If an animal shows any sign of stress, move further back or leave altogether.
  • Be patient and never try to force an animal to do something. Remember that the impact of many people is cumulative: you might be the 100th person that day to yell “Hey moose” while the poor creature is trying to feed or care for its young.
  • Never encroach on nests or dens during the breeding season.
  • Treat the habitat with the same regard that you have for the animals themselves.
  • Respect local cultures and customs when you are working abroad.
  • Check published recommendations, such as the excellent code produced by the Nature Group of The Royal Photographic Society
  • Finally, always be honest and truthful when captioning your photos.


To see the amazing images that accompanied this article, why not order a copy of the February 2010 issue

To visit Mark Carwardine's website, click here




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