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Ethical Wildlife Photography: What You Need to Know

Posted by Teddy Wingo at Jan 08, 2019 12:30 PM |
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Wildlife photography is highly rewarding, but it's vital to respect the wildlife you're photographing. Photographer Heather Clark shares her tips.

Photos and story by Heather Clark

Several years ago, I worried that a camera would distract me from being in the moment when I was outdoors. I have found the exact opposite to be true. I am more engaged than ever, observing each sound, moment, and movement. I have become a terrible hiking partner for anyone who wants to get somewhere fast. Wildlife photography can be addictive. If you are heading down this path too, and are looking for tips, I have some to share with you. 

Here is a brief introduction to what you will need to get started photographing wildlife, including gear and techniques, as well as knowledge about wildlife and how to respect them.

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During nesting season, animals can become anxious if you approach their young — even if those babies are hidden from view. Photo by Heather Clark

Gear

If you want good quality images, you need to invest in good quality gear. A telephoto lens is a must in wildlife photography, as it will allow you to capture closeups of an animal without disturbing it.  I suggest a lens with a minimum of 400mm. My favorite lens is a 100-400mm. Sometimes, even that is not enough.

As far as a camera body goes, while mirrorless cameras are giving DSLR’s a good run for their money, DSLR’s still have a slight advantage with battery life, as well as a better selection of lenses to draw from. DSLR’s are also more likely to be weather sealed, which is important in wildlife photography. I reassure myself with these advantages since I am currently invested in a DSLR. I use a Canon 5DIV for most of my photography.

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Loud noises and sudden movements can put stress on animals. Using a telephoto lens will allow you to keep your distance while still capturing a high-quality image. Photo by Heather Clark

If you want to try and save a little money, consider buying gear second-hand; just proceed with caution and ensure it’s in good condition before you hand over your hard-earned money. Other items that will step up your game are a good tripod (using one will give you sharper images) and good photo editing software.

Technique 

If you haven’t already, start weaning yourself off the automatic setting on your camera. Learn about the exposure triangle of aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and how the various settings affect your images. Admittedly, it took me a long time to understand this (and I still have work to do).

The best way to learn is to get out there, practice, make mistakes and learn from them. Review your images periodically and make necessary adjustments. Try to keep the sun at your back, your focus on the eye of your subject, get down to their level if possible, and be patient with yourself.

While there are always exceptions given various conditions, I generally keep a wide aperture, use auto ISO and autofocus, and I use high speed continuous shooting (most animals I encounter are faster in their movements than I am on the shutter). Birds in flight will generally require a minimum shutter speed of about 1/1600, while slower moving animals can be captured successfully at about 1/500 in good lighting conditions.

Knowledge of your subject

While luck has something to do with it, and chance encounters have a magical quality, doing research pays off. If you have a particular animal in mind, learn what you can about them. Where are you likely to find them and at what time of day are they most active? What do they eat? The more you know about an animal, the better.

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Never lure or entice birds with food to get a good shot. Feeding wildlife can impact their behaviors and make them more susceptible to predators. Photo by Heather Clark

I find that early morning and late afternoon provide a great mix of good lighting and animal activity. There are always exceptions, however. For example, in shooting swallows in flight, I find bright sunlight in mid-afternoon to be helpful in achieving my desired images.

Approach

Both ethically, and physically, I cannot stress enough how important your approach is toward an animal. Avoid interfering with its habitat and well-being. This will require patience on your part. If you have done your research and you know where you are likely to encounter a specific animal, you may still spend hours waiting for it to appear. Sometimes you will come up empty-handed, and that is okay. It happens to all of us. Persistence is key. You’re in good company.

When you do encounter an animal, respect its space. A good telephoto lens allows you to get a good view of an animal, while maintaining a respectful distance. Look for signs of distress and retreat if you see those signs. While some of my photos look as though I am inches away, in reality it is much farther. I have a good lens, and my camera’s high resolution sensor allows me to crop a lot without losing too much detail.

Avoid interfering with an animal’s feeding habits. While it may be tempting to lure an animal with food, this is poor practice for numerous reasons. Resist that temptation.

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Trying to get a better look at wildlife may make you want to go off trail, but resist the urge. Leaving the trail can damage foliage and sensitive areas. Photo by Heather Clark

One final word regarding ethics in wildlife photography is about social media. Be thoughtful about whether to share information about an animal’s specific location. Others may not be as respectful as you are, and sheer numbers undoubtedly have an impact. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to leave no trace, and that includes our impact on the wildlife we intend to photograph.

If you travel down the path of wildlife photography as I have, I hope you will feel more engaged with your surroundings too, and that you find some of my tips to be useful. Be patient with yourself as you learn, and be thoughtful of the wildlife you capture with your camera. The images you create will reflect what you put into them. 

Ready to show off some of your outdoor photography? Take a look at our annual Northwest Exposure Photo Contest and enter your shots!

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