Ethical Wildlife Photography Tips From National Geographic

Ethical Wildlife Photography Tips From National Geographic

We all want to get that stunning animal-in-the-wild shot but it's not always possible or easy to do so. That's when many photographers take shortcuts, and it's not always the best idea.

Coming in a deep dive with information from National Geographic, photographers such as Beverly Joubert and Joel Sartore, as well as scientists such as Carl Safina, the experts offer their take on the dos and don'ts of ethical wildlife photography.

There are some real surprises here, such as information from a study in Minnesota that documented how the heart rates of bears rose upon hearing a drone even though the animals didn't appear stressed from the outside.

Of course the magazine addresses the ethics of some of the common-but-questionable tactics that photographers use in the course of wildlife photography, such feeding animals or photographing them in captive and sometimes unnatural environments. There is a legitimate difference between a true zoo or sanctuary versus a game farm that is exploring captive animals for the benefit of photographers.

One of more important things the article talks about is captioning. As more photographers are making increasingly questionable shooting and editing decisions, the writer makes an excellent point that underscores the whole ethics question: If you are uncomfortable sharing the information behind the shot, was it really captured in an ethical way? (And in the name of full disclosure, the photo of the gorillas above was taken at the Bronx Zoo). Above all, the biggest takeaway is to do no harm in your wildlife photography.

It's a long read, but National Geographic offers a lot more to think about when it comes to ethical wildlife photography in their article here.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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The article is spot on. But the public face of NG and its backend do not seem to work on the same premise.

At one time I was a reasonably popular poster on their One Shot site. One time a shot of an owl that had been taken at night with a strong flash got awarded the "Photo of the Day".
Flashed owl shots are usually a big no-no in wildlife photography.

I called it out...
I got banned...


Side note - the person who posted the owl picture at one time boasted that he could get a POTD any time he felt like it. He had one other photo in his portfolio - surprise, surprise ... that too was a POTD.


Is that a consideration with owls only, all birds or all animals? When I bought a Better Beamer I had first done some research and found the community somewhat split about whether birds were generally disturbed or not. Granted all the articles indicated being respectful if the animal shows signs Of being disturbed, and if I recall night time shooting was generally viewed as less appropriate. I would appreciate professional opinion of this subject. My intent is to get it right for the animals.

It seems NG didn’t take issue? You can see why amateurs may be confused.

Yes there is a lot of conflicting opinion but the general consensus is one should err on the side of caution. For example owls - at night the eyes are one of their defenses and one of the means to target food. Even momentary blinding can lead to unfortunate outcomes. Nothing is worth harming a living thing simply for the sake of a picture. But we live in a world that is getting really weird. .

When I do come across "flashers" I don't confront them but just make a passing remark like "wonder what it would be like to flash a baby child in a pitch dark room?". I get snarky remarks of course. On later days, either I don't see them or they are without the flash. haha

That’s an interesting way of interacting with another fellow photographer.

According to some in the Audubon Society encroachment by humans is much more stressful to owls than a flash which makes both of you harmful regardless of who is using flash. You see the dilemma.

Interestingly the Audubon went on to say that they allow limited flash with photographers that participate in their field studies as they feel the educational value outweighs the potential harm, especially when coordinated by a animal expert.

They also suggested that a single flash is less harmful than multiple flashes from a group or someone strobing. These Audubon members did caution though that owl eyes were very similar to human eyes In relationship to light sensitivity and were fearful of a mis-timed flash during flight or feeding.

We would both agree that caution should rule the day and photographers should be wary of overuse of sensitive environments whether a location or animal. However, we should be semi careful to judge others since there does seem to be appropriate situations. You and I both know that many photographers haven’t thought it through to this degree, but we also cannot over assume. Maybe the guy you lectured was Moose Peterson; does that change the equation?

There is a lot of rationalising that goes on about the use of flash and with owls in particular. But the real question is why is there a need to rationalise? Is'nt rationalising defending something so that one can feel better about doing something?

I will recount something that put me off flash use forever. In my beginning year I used to shoot macro. Just butterflies and insects. Since a lot of macro people use flash I wanted to see how that works. So I setup an off camera flash and try to shoot a sitting butterfly. Flash goes off and the insect twitches. Hmmm, eyes must be playing games! Tried it again - the butterfly twitches again. Flash back into bag and never used for wildlife every again. My belief now is that if I cannot get a shot I want in the lighting conditions that I want then I am not trying hard enough. Patience, determination and perseverance always works out better in the end.

Noisy yes... ISO 20000. No flash.

Or did it twitch because it could smell your cologne from 2 feet away. Seems to me that there is a lot of rationalizing to be spread around here. When I was a college student there was a Bloom County comic strip where one of the characters decided that he could no longer eat hamburgers because it was made of cow. He then rationalized that he couldn't walk because he would be killing innocent ants. The he rationalized that he couldn't breather otherwise he would be killing airborne organisms. He dangle from a tree with a rope around his waist holding his breath. When he cannot stand it any longer he exhales. His friend Milo comes by and asks "Have you figured out there are no moral absolutes in life?" He responds, "Except that I absolutely want to have a slice of pizza."

Maybe the nature of man is to be inquisitive and destructive, compassionate and predator in equal doses. You condemn photographers in a carpeted fashion, but at the same time you are equally self serving and destructive. You call this rationalization but I think it is acceptance of our evil and good which then leads to choices that are not held in a vacuum of purity or absolutism. And maybe from this perspective we start using words like co-exist rather than territorial loss, conservation rather than environmentalism. In Tucson builders must create wildlife corridors to build houses; a compromise no less but an acceptable one at least. I reject your moral absolutism.

Apologies for the late reply.
Let us leave this at "we agree to disagree". :)

Not all of us can go on safari to get those big cats or elephants. I sell prints of big cats I shot at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and tell the customer that such is the case. Matter of fact, I have a customer coming in about a half hour to pick up two B&W prints of a tiger and leopard.

Just north of here, the town of Churchill, Manitoba has a thriving industry of taking visitors/photographers out in rather large tracked vehicles to see/shoot the local polar bear population. I haven't been yet, but it's certainly in my plans to get there at some point. Ethical? Who's to judge?

I always trot out and get a signed release from any animal I photograph. The hospital bills are easily cheaper than a lawsuit.

Well played Terry.