How to photograph wildlife ethically
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Putting the well-being of animals first should be every photographer’s goal. National Geographic photographers share tips on how they do it.
BY MELISSA GROO
[Previously published by National Geographic on JULY 31, 2019]
Photographers have unprecedented tools, opportunities, and reach to find their animal subjects.
At the same time, wild animals are facing unprecedented threats to their survival. Habitat loss, climate change, the illegal wildlife trade, overfishing, and pollution have caused the catastrophic decline of birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians over the last few decades. A recent United Nations report found that one in four species faces extinction. In addition, modern society’s disconnect from nature presents its own threat, one of a culture of indifference. We lead virtual lives, plugged into devices instead of the outdoors.
Northern Harrier in Flight, Candor, New York
Wildlife photography has the power to turn people on to the wonder of nature. It’s an essential tool to inspire the desire to protect wildlife and spark real change. Photos can go viral on social media in mere minutes, bringing much-needed attention to wildlife in the throes of crisis.
At the same time, social media throws together those who seek to visually capture nature in honest, careful ways with those who take shortcuts at the expense of the subject, intent only on more likes and followers.
Viewers can’t tell the difference.
So what does it mean to be an ethical wildlife photographer?
“The ethics of photography are the same as the ethics of life, and all revolve around respect,” says National Geographic photographer Beverly Joubert, who has spent decades photographing African wildlife. There are few one-size-fits-all rules and lots of gray areas. What is ethical to one may be unethical to another. We must be guided by compassion and conservation and put the welfare of the subject first.
Though there is no guidebook, there are a few basic principles that can help make the way clearer.
1. Do no harm
Do not destroy or alter habitat for a better view or scene.
Let animals go about their business. Do not seek their attention or interaction.
Take special care at breeding season.
Know the signs of stress of your subject species.
There’s no question we have an impact when we venture into wildlife’s territory. We seek or stumble onto their roosts and dens, their feeding and gathering places. Does that mean we shouldn’t ever get out there and raise our cameras? Absolutely not. Nature needs our stories, now more than ever. But nature also needs us to come in with a heightened level of awareness of our effects.
National Geographic Photo Ark founder and photographer Joel Sartore emphasizes that the first principle must be “do no harm.” On a basic level, it means not destroying habitat to make for a more picturesque scene. It means not causing wildlife to stop hunting, eating, and resting, or to threaten or charge you.
Breeding season requires special care. Avoid actions that might result in driving parents away from the young, which leaves them open to predators and the elements. Never alter vegetation around nests or dens, as it provides critical camouflage as well as protection from sun, wind, and rain.
We must continuously observe animal behavior and realize when we need to back off or walk away. Reading up in advance and being educated about wildlife behavior is the best means we have to recognize alarm or avoidance in a particular species.
2. Keep it wild
Be cautious about feeding wildlife.
Avoid habituating wild animals to humans’ presence.
The kindest thing we can do for wild animals is to honor their wildness. The quickest way to compromise that wildness is to offer food so we can get a photo. Yellowstone National Park’s website plainly states: “A fed animal is a dead animal—good or bad, the Park Service will destroy animals that are habituated to human contact and food.”
Predators such as foxes, coyotes, wolves, bears, owls, and other raptors learn rapidly to associate humans with food. They may get comfortable approaching humans for food, and if they get too bold or aggressive, wildlife agencies often kill them. Animals may come also to haunt roadsides, as many people feed them from cars, putting them at risk of becoming roadkill. (Learn more about problems associated with feeding wildlife.)
What of the wild bears, wolves, and wolverines in places like Romania and Finland, offered food near blinds for photographers within? This has become big business in eastern and northern Europe. The only downside observed so far is that it’s more manufactured than reality: Those photos of bears and wolves hanging out together as “friends” is only possible because they simply happen to be near so much food they don’t come to blows over it.
So when is it OK to use food to lure photographic subjects? There’s no straight answer, but these questions can help guide you.
Is feeding this animal likely to change its behavior in harmful ways? If it lives in or migrates to an area where it’s hunted, feeding it may habituate it to humans and make it an easy target. Or it may become too bold in approaching people for food, which might lead to wildlife managers killing it.
Is the food appropriate and safely provided? For example, providing bird feeders means taking on the responsibilities of cleaning them regularly to avoid the spread of viruses and parasites, placing them at the prescribed distance from windows to avoid strikes, and keeping cats indoors.
Does feeding this animal violate any laws? It’s illegal to feed wildlife in national parks. Most states have laws prohibiting the feeding of certain wildlife, such as deer, bears, and moose in New York. Even local municipalities may have their own ordinances. Penalties range from fines to imprisonment.
3. Follow the laws
Laws vary by location and species.
Laws vary depending on the purpose and method of photography.
It’s crucial to learn and heed laws and regulations in local, state, and national parks, such as how much distance to keep between us and particular species. These exist to keep us and the wildlife safe. There’s no shortage of news stories about tourists who ignored national parks’ rules on distance and got injured. In many cases, the animal must be put down.
In any park or other protected area, if we plan on making commercial photography, guiding workshops, or deploying camera traps, we’re required to obtain the necessary permits. This includes marine protected areas.
Use of drones around wildlife is a controversial topic, and laws vary widely. They're not allowed in U.S. national parks, wilderness areas, and nature preserves. And for those places where they are allowed, we must still consider their effects on the wildlife. A well-known 2015 study documented the effect of drones on the heart rates of black bears in Minnesota. Though there were no outward signs of stress, bears’ heart rates rose as much as 123 beats per minute above the pre-flight baseline when a drone was present. (Learn the dark truth behind the "inspirational" bear video that really wasn't.)
4. Consider the captive
Scrutinize opportunities to photograph wild animals in captivity.
Know what makes a legitimate sanctuary or zoo, and avoid places where wild animals are exploited for profit.
Captive wildlife photography is a popular pursuit, especially for people who may not be able or willing to travel to far-flung places to see wildlife in its element. A wide range of facilities offer opportunities to photograph exotic animals, including zoos, sanctuaries, rescues, reserves, game farms, wildlife centers, refuges, adventure parks, and safari parks. Living conditions for captive wildlife run the gamut from sordid to exemplary, just as the reasons for their captivity run the gamut from greed to compassion.
The world of captive wildlife is a massive, lightly regulated industry. Facilities can call themselves anything, and so-called “pseudo-sanctuaries” abound. In the U.S., they need only a USDA license to display wild animals to the public.
In some cases, captive wildlife may have been injured and rescued from the wild. Well cared for, they serve as ambassadors for their species. In others, they may have been confiscated from a facility that mistreated them and are living out their days in a safe, quiet refuge. Or they may be displayed in a roadside zoo for profit, their lives spent in a tiny cage with a cement floor.
In some cases, captive wildlife may have been injured and rescued from the wild. Well cared for, they serve as ambassadors for their species. In others, they may have been confiscated from a facility that mistreated them and are living out their days in a safe, quiet refuge. Or they may be displayed in a roadside zoo for profit, their lives spent in a tiny cage with a cement floor. Then there are photography game farms. These are captive facilities that cater expressly to cameras. These places, most located in Montana and Minnesota, promise spectacular images of exotic wildlife such as Siberian tigers and snow leopards, and native, elusive species such as wolves, lynx, and bobcats. These genetically wild animals, by instinct wired to hunt and roam over great distances, may live in small enclosures except when performing for clients’ cameras, coaxed with treats and prods by a handler just out of the frame. They surge through snow head-on, or freeze perfectly within the crook of a tree. Sometimes they’re trucked to other states to pose in alternate settings, like the red rocks of Utah. They are impeccable, showing no signs of dirt, ratty coats, or lean times.
Game farm owners defend their operations, saying animals that are born in captivity don’t have the same drives or needs as animals born in the wild, or that they live longer because they have reliable sources of food and protection from predators and the elements. But animal consciousness expert Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, argues that “It’s not just existence that matters. A person can live in prison in good health for a long time. What matters is quality of life. Different institutions and establishments vary widely in the quality of life experienced by creatures under their care.”
Much of the photo industry condemns game farms, and photos from them are prohibited in high-profile photo contests and most major magazines, including National Geographic. For every species held by a game farm, there is a conservation photographer who has carefully and conscientiously photographed that species in the wild, in its true habitat, exhibiting natural behavior. (Check out, for example, what it took to find and photograph the rare helmeted hornbill.)
We must recognize that the dollars we spend will validate and perpetuate the living conditions those animals have found themselves in, through no choice of their own.
There are organizations that can help determine whether a self-titled “sanctuary,” “refuge,” or “rescue” is really what it claims to be. Start with the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (GFSA). GFSA-accredited facilities must meet high standards of care and management. Another source is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Though some may debate whether every AZA-accredited operation offers the quality of life to a captive animal that we would wish, these places are held to high standards of care. (Note that the AZA is distinct from the ZAA—Zoological Association of America—a controversial coalition with a confusing acronym.)
5. Caption with honesty
Be transparent about how a photograph was made.
Ethical practice in wildlife photography doesn’t end when we return to the comforts of home. How we represent the truth of an animal’s life when we share our photos matters.
“Level with the reader,” Sartore says. “Tell them the backstory if there's something about how the image was made that isn't obvious just by viewing it. Be upfront if you're working with a trained animal, or if the animal took its own picture using a camera trap.” If it’s an exceptional or unexpected capture, with an important story to it, take a few words to explain how it happened. Brian Skerry, a longtime National Geographic photographer who specializes in marine wildlife, puts it this way: “If I’m taking a picture of a tiger shark and don’t disclose the use of chum to attract it, in the caption or when questioned, then I’m being dishonest. In the most basic terms, if the intent is to deceive the viewer, then it’s wrong.” This applies to processing our photos as well, he points out. Correcting color, for example, is fine. But if you alter the reality of a scene by cloning out or adding elements that weren’t there to begin with, you’re crossing a line in photojournalism.
Transparency in captioning is also a useful way to check in with ourselves. If we’re not comfortable sharing how we got the shot, maybe that’s a clue that we might not have made the best choice in getting it.
Reputation is everything
Word travels fast in the wildlife photography community, and fakery or harmful field practices can be readily exposed. These days, it’s not just editors and other photographers that are on the lookout; increasingly, viewers on social media are too, speaking up when things appear suspect.
“One of the things I tell young photographers at the end of the day is, never forget that your reputation is everything. If you want to take shortcuts, if you’re exposed, you will set everything back decades,” Skerry says. “You have to be above reproach. You have to do it right.”
“It’s also the responsibility of the photo editor to ask questions,” says National Geographic photo editor Kathy Moran. “It’s incumbent upon us to go back to the photographer to ask how the image was made, to ask to see a RAW file. We bear responsibility for maintaining integrity as well.”
Take the time to partner with scientists and researchers to make sure that what you’re posting is accurate, Skerry says. Bridge the gap between science and photography to add authenticity to what you’re doing.
These basic principles provide a starting point. It’s up to each of us to build common sense and compassion into our practice. We may not have all the answers, and we may make mistakes, but we can continuously strive to be empathic and aware. It’s up to each of us to use the power we have as wildlife photographers to act with great care for the animals that gift us with their presence. These are just about photos to us; but to a wild animal, every single moment is about survival.
Melissa Groo is a wildlife conservation photographer and writer, who considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as photographer. She seeks to capture unfolding stories in animals’ lives that evoke respect and compassion in the viewer. She writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer magazine, and is a contributing editor to Audubon magazine. Last year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology released Melissa’s masterclass course on bird photography.
Melissa advises numerous organizations, publications, and photo contests on ethics in nature photography. She is passionate about promoting ethical fieldcraft that honors wild animals and keeps their welfare and wildness paramount.
Melissa’s photographs and articles have been published in numerous print and online magazines including Smithsonian, Audubon, National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, National Wildlife, and Natural History, and she has received awards and honorable mentions in national and international photography competitions. Her fine art prints have been exhibited in numerous art galleries and museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. In 2017, the Melissa Groo Gallery was installed at Audubon Greenwich in Greenwich, Connecticut. Melissa is an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers.
Website: www.melissagroo.com Instagram: @melissagroo Facebook: /melissa.groo
Snowy Egret hunts at sunrise, Fort Myers, Florida.