Are You An Ethical Nature Photographer?

Oxford Dictionary defines ethics as:

“Moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity. Ethics are closely related to morals, and both refer to how we behave in situations.”

One of my college instructors referred to ethics as how we behave when no one is looking. I think that definition is especially relevant in the context of nature photography, which is so often a solitary activity. While there is a subjective element to ethics and morals, I'm sure we can all agree that ethical nature photography would respect and protect the creatures and environments being photographed. So, how do your ethics hold up, when you're out shooting in the wild? Take this quiz and find out!

My reward for waking up at 5 AM. This fawn, out for an excursion with mom and older siblings. Photo by Tracy Munson.
  1. While staying in a campground, a black bear enters your campsite. You:

a/ retreat to your car, a nearby cooking shelter or a safe distance. The bear will pass through your site because there is no food or cooking equipment left around to attract it. Take a few photos, with a telephoto lens, if you are able to do so safely.

b/ maintain a safe distance from the bear, and take lots of photos with your telephoto lens. You can always Photoshop the bear into a better scene, later.

c/ throw things at the bear and make lots of noise. Watch in dismay as he trashes your tent…maybe you shouldn't have stored the bacon in there.

d/ make a trail of food, trying to lure the bear into a spot with a better composition. You don't want the tent and picnic table in your background!

2. You are photographing the incredible spring songbird migration on Point Pelee, in Ontario. It's early morning and colorful birds are flitting all around you. Wait a minute, is that a rare, Violet Bunting (not a real thing) you see over there? You just have to get a good shot, your birding friends will be green with envy. You:

a/ set up your tripod, double check your settings, hunker down and wait. Hopefully, it will come closer to the path in its own time.

b/ wait a few minutes and continue on your way. You got a few awesome photos of an Indigo Bunting earlier, you can just change the color in Photoshop and no one will ever know the difference.

c/ leave the trail and follow the bird deeper into the woods.

d/ use your phone to play the bird's calls at high volume. That ought to bring it your way!

3/ Hiking near the edge of the forest on a summer afternoon, your dog stumbles upon a tiny fawn, hidden in the long grass. You:

a/ quickly leash your dog and leave the area, hoping mom didn't see you and get scared off. Maybe you'll come back without the dog, early some morning and watch from the treeline. What a treat it would be to get photos of the doe with her fawn at sunrise!

b/ hold the grass down a bit and take a few quick photos, but then skedaddle before mom comes back. Tell a couple of your closest photographer friends where the fawn is, so they can see it, too (but only the ones you know for sure will not harm the fawn or behave irresponsibly).

c/ think “holy cow”, this fawn is abandoned! Take a bunch of photos and then bundle up the fawn. You'd better take it to your local animal shelter, you'll be a hero!

d/ remove the fawn from its nest and spend the next few hours photographing it in various locations and compositions. Once you're done taking photos, you can take it home for your kids, it'll be a fun pet for them. When it gets too big, you can just release it in the woods, somewhere.

4/ You're a landscape photographer, on a dream trip to the Rocky Mountains (or maybe the Dolomites) in Springtime. You have hiked for hours to the perfect wildflower meadow, with an amazing panoramic view. Sunset is looking promising, you:

a/ set up your tripod on or near the trail, or look for an easily accessible flat, rocky area where you can move around a bit without trampling the fauna. Before you start losing the light, you look around to see if there are any other spots that might give you a different composition without causing any damage. When the light is all gone, you turn on your headlamp and head back down to your camp.

b/ behave just as above, but make sure to get lots of bracketed shots, different focal lengths (for focal length blending) and shots of just the sky – that sunset was awesome, and you can use those to replace the sky if you have a shoot with great foreground, but less amazing light.

c/ spend lots of time walking around, off the trail, looking for the absolute best compositions. This is going to be awesome! When sunset is done and you're ready to pack up and go, you pick an armload of flowers to take back to camp. You can present them to your partner for major bonus points, but they're really for you, to get some cool macro shots when you can better control the lighting.

d/ try out a bunch of different compositions. When you're done in each spot, you make sure to trample down the flowers in the foreground. You've worked too hard for this, nobody else is going to get your composition!

5/ Sitting on your own back porch one Saturday afternoon, in late Spring you notice a small bird hopping around in your yard. As you approach, you notice that it doesn't seem to be able to fly, it is more or less fearless and is chirping loudly. You:

a/ retreat immediately and make sure all pets are safely inside. You know this bird is a fledgling, learning to fly from the ground up and still totally dependent on its parents for feeding. If you keep your distance, you may be treated to some shots of the parents feeding it, and that would be cool.

b/ take lots of photos of the little bird, from a safe distance. You know better than to pick it up, but your daughter will be tickled when you Photoshop it onto her shoulder or into her hands in photos. It'll probably go popular on 500px, too!

c/ assume the bird is injured, so you take a few iPhone photos to post on facebook and then put the bird in a box, so you can take it to the vet.

d/ don't want a photo of a bird on the ground, so you pick it up and move it onto a branch. Then, you think of a really nice composition at the park, down the street, where that little tree has the pond behind it. Sunset is coming, so you grab your new model and head off to get the money shots.

6/ As you walk out your front door one morning, you notice a huge spider's web, sparkling with dewdrops. Darn it, you are running late already and don't have time to take photos. When you get home, later on, that evening, you:

a/ set your alarm for half an hour earlier the next morning. Hopefully, the conditions will be similar and you can get your shot.

b/ get out your macro lens and ring flash. Start tapping the web gently to see if you can get the spider to come out for some close ups!

c/ get totally grossed out and tear down the web with a broom handle. You don't want to run into the spider large enough to build that web, thank you.

d/ spray the web with water droplets to recreate the morning dew. If the spider comes out, you can kill it and get one of those really cool macro shots of its eyes! Super close up and focus stacked (with water drops, of course).

7/ For the longest time, you've dreamed of capturing the perfect shot of an owl in flight. Now, you've received a hot tip from a birding friend, about a field on a rural road where snowy owls have been hanging out. When you arrive, the snowy owls are there, but so is another group of photographers. You soon realize that they are baiting the birds, releasing mice into the field! You:

a/ go look for owls elsewhere. You heard there were a couple hanging out a few county roads over, you'll try there.

b/ decide to go to the conservation area, two towns over. They have a couple of captive snowy owls, you can get some shots of those and Photoshop them one of your winter landscapes – no one will know the difference.

c/ don't participate, but hey, you'll hang around and take advantage of the situation to get some great shots. It's your lucky day!

d/ chuckle to yourself. You can't believe those suckers paid for live mice they can only use once! You whip out your trusty (and convincing!) cat toy mouse on fishing line and start casting into the field.

8/ You're staying in the most adorable ski village in the mountains and during summer months, the town is just overrun with deer. The deer are fearless and quite tame – tourists obviously feed them (despite signs telling them not to). You:

a/ think you'd better drive carefully at dusk and dawn! It would be sweet to capture one on camera outside of town during magic hour though…you start planning for likely locations.

b/ get some nice, clear shots of the deer in town, from a safe distance. You're a Photoshop master, you'll worry about the background later.

c/ feed the deer some carrot sticks and apples from your car and get some fun shots. You had to switch to your iPhone because they were so close! Everyone else is obviously doing it, and at least you're feeding them something healthy.

d/ feed the deer whatever you have handy; hot dogs, hard candies, used napkins, they'll eat anything. Try to get a photo of your toddler sitting on a deer's back, but the deer ain't having it. After you wasted your last hotdog on them, those ungrateful jerks.

9/ Now that you're at Grand Prismatic Spring, in Yellowstone National Park, you realize that all the compositions you can get from the trail have been done a million times. Feeling frustrated, you:

a/ decide to return at night and try some long exposures and light painting, you should be able to come up with something that hasn't been done to death. Next year, you'll try and travel somewhere a little further off the beaten path.

b/ take some shots, anyway. Once you're done adding the Milky Way and Northern Lights, your photos won't look anything like the billions of tourist snaps.

c/ loiter around for awhile, hoping for the crowds to thin out so you can try flying your drone out without drawing too much attention.

d/ say “see ya suckers”, and walk off the trail for a better composition. Those footprints you leave behind in the mud will guarantee you get the only good shots of the day…and many days to follow.

10/ While driving a rural road in the evening, you spot a fox, trotting across a meadow. You pull over and grab your camera from the back seat, barely daring to hope the fox will still be around by the time you're ready to take a photo. Much to your surprise, the fox starts coming towards you and ends up stopping right in front of you, looking expectant. You can barely zoom out enough to fit him in the frame. It seems like people must be feeding him, so you:

a/ are thankful for this opportunity that fell into your lap. You take some lovely photos, but when the fox starts to show signs of leaving, you stomp your feet and yell. Maybe he'll think twice about approaching the next person.

b/ take loads of photos, from as many different angles as possible. This fox is going to be showing up in a LOT of your compositions, for a long time to come!

c/ grab the bag of dog treats from the back seat. He's tame already, so you might as well encourage him to stay while you get your photos.

d/ don't have much food in the car, but rummaging around produces a chocolate bar and some salami. You feed him those by hand, so you can take close-up photos with your wide angle lens, for a cool distorted effect. He was a pretty good little model, so as you're leaving, you find an old bag of potato chips and dump out the crumbs out at the side of the road, next to your car as you drive away.

True story. This is that fox. He was actually play-bowing at me, like a domestic dog. Photo by Tracy Munson.

Scoring and Discussion:

If you chose:

Mostly A's

Congratulations! Your moral compass is well calibrated and points you in the right direction, every time. You have a deep love and respect for nature, and nature has little to fear from you. I'm not claiming all A's, even for myself 100% of the time, but this level of knowledge, respect, and moral high ground should be what we all at least strive for in our nature encounters.

Mostly B's

You love nature and would never want your actions to harm any living creature. Rather than interfere with nature in situ and risk causing damage, you'll create the photo you wanted in post processing. You take a more artistic than documentary approach to nature photography and the (more epic) sky’s the limit in Photoshop. This can certainly be one of the more controversial topics in photography these days, and it spans a great deal of gray area, between the clear-cut rights and wrongs. I often fall somewhere on this spectrum myself, and my personal moral code is concerned more with honesty and final usage than with the act of creating the image. Work that is obviously fantasy is exempt, as far as I'm concerned (for example, taking the spread wings from a photo of a snowy owl and transplanting them onto a horse). But what about creating photos that could be mistaken for reality? How will you use and present such photos, if you do create them? Are you a photographer, an artist, or both?

Early morning dewdrops, glistening on a spider web. It's one thing if nature does it, but spraying tiny creatures and their homes can damage them and should be avoided.

Mostly C's

You may have been inadvertently engaging in behaviors that endangered the plants and animals you were photographing. There's no shame in making mistakes, but make sure to read on and be better educated the next time you head out into the wild.

Feeding wildlife almost never ends well for the animal. Campground animals that become nuisances or threats may be relocated or destroyed. Animals that lose their fear of people and cars tend to wind up dead on the road – and even that can have a snowball effect as other wildlife is attracted to the road to scavenge the remains. Gross, but true. Seemingly harmless animals like deer can endanger humans if they are hanging out on the road and can be surprisingly aggressive if cornered or perceive a threat to their young.

Speaking of young, many prey animals like deer and rabbits hide their young in grass covered nests. The babies have no scent of their own and are virtually invisible. The most dangerous time for them is when the mother comes to feed them. That is when predators are most likely to be tipped off to their presence. Because of this, the mother visits only once or twice every 24 hours. These animals are rarely abandoned. Removing them, even to take them to a wildlife rehabilitator will often result in their deaths. Fledgling birds are in a similar situation, and before “rescuing” a bird that can't fly, you should take a closer look. Does it have shorter than usual feathers? Perhaps a little fluff on its head? If you stand back and watch for an hour, are parents coming to feed it? It is always best to consult with a wildlife center or at least your local animal control, before attempting to save any wild animal. Hanging around, taking photos and handling young animals could scare the parents away, and you will have been the cause of that abandonment. You may argue that ignorance has nothing to do with ethics, but we have a moral responsibility to educate ourselves on the creatures and environments we visit so that we can minimize our impact.

Many ecosystems are fragile and easily destroyed. Those wildflowers you picked won't go to seed to produce more flowers in that meadow next year. Some mosses and succulents may take decades to grow, even a very small plant. These can be destroyed by one careless footstep off the trail.

Mostly D's

Hopefully, this will apply to no one who's made it this far! You seem to have a blatant disregard for the welfare of wildlife, the fragility of delicate ecosystems, and the enjoyment of others who may visit a location after you. It might be better for everyone if you focused strictly on indoor and studio photography. If you don't get mauled by a bear, you may risk falling off a cliff after climbing a guardrail, or being arrested for defacing a National Monument. It is because of people like you that so many beautiful locations have to be marred by fences and guardrails.

Obviously, some of my examples were way over the top (at least, I hope they were). My aim is not to shame, only to encourage mindfulness and respectful discussion about some of the ethical issues surrounding nature photography. Let's make sure we all leave only footprints (on pathways, and non-delicate areas) and take only photos (from a safe and respectful distance)!

13 thoughts on “Are You An Ethical Nature Photographer?”

  1. Obviously it’s important to be ethical for photographers but not only for nature photography, I think it required in every sectors of photography. anyway, thanks for nice share.

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