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The Ethics of Wildlife Photography

Wildlife and nature photography have been a game changer for me. It’s got me out of the house on days when I’ve felt low, it’s taught me new skills and encourages me to think outside the box, whether that’s about camera settings, composition or the subject I’m wanting to photograph. Photography helps me see things: the ladybird amidst a sea of green leaves, or the mother fallow deer with her young, backlit in setting sun. I love it, but I will always love the wildlife more.

pc. Jeni Bell

Most of the time for me, the photograph is an afterthought, a reached for memento after stumbling across something magical, and if I don’t get a shot - so be it. That’s not to say I haven’t used wildlife hides – I have, and I definitely think that well set up hides, whether on a public nature reserve or private land, are a fantastic way to capture images of animals in their natural settings, behaving in a natural manner.

For me that’s what wildlife photography is about – showcasing the regular behaviours of an animal with minimal disturbance. I try to be as conscious as I can of how my behaviour will affect an animal: am I stopping it from feeding? Am I blocking its path? Has it got young, am I stopping it from getting food to them? Is it a protected species?

I can only imagine that if I was coming home from a long day at work to find someone stood outside my door, looking shifty with a massive camera lens, then I would be reluctant to walk passed them. I’d probably do a few more laps round the block until they’d gone. I think most animals would do the same as well, probably to their detriment. If I’m looking to photograph a particular species then I always try to position myself out the way, down-wind, and well-hidden so as not to impose myself on a nervous creature.

Sometimes I get lucky, a lot of the time I don’t, but at least whatever I’m photographing can come and go as they please.

It’s a great excuse to learn more about field craft and how to get close to an animal without it knowing you’re there. I’ve really enjoyed my time spent out in the field, crawling around in the undergrowth, trying as hard as I can (and more often that not failing) to be silent and invisible. For me, it’s just as important as pressing the shutter.

pc. Jeni Bell

Although, sometimes, hanging around under a bush, in the mud, getting funny looks from passers-by, isn’t an ideal way to spend an afternoon. That’s why I like the wildlife hides at my local nature reserve so much. If you stay relatively quiet and don’t hang out the windows, then you can have some great encounters plus there’s no soggy sarnies (bonus!). I’ve happily watched deer, foxes, squirrels and plenty of birds going about their day to day business this way – all at a perfectly photographical distance.

Usually in these hide scenarios, particularly if there are birds around, they’ll have strategically placed perches which serve a great purpose for the birds, but also make some quite pleasing compositions for the photographer.

pc. Jeni Bell

So, when I saw on facebook, a group of photographers talking about moving the posts to better ‘shoot’ kingfishers, my heart sank. I know how stressed out I get when I head to the supermarket to the do the shopping, only to find they’ve changed the layout. I bet it’s even more stressful for a bird that relies on hunting in spots they know to be successful.

Surely, they’ve missed the point of wildlife photography?

Wildlife isn’t there for us to tamper with, or to dress it in a certain way that suits our needs or aesthetic preferences. It’s there to be enjoyed as it is, undisturbed and free. Free to make choices and to behave in a way that is natural for it in that environment, in a way that benefits its survival. As soon as we come along and start getting in the way in order to get the ‘shot’ then I think we have forgone our love for wildlife.

The subject is so important in photography and if it’s not comfortable should we really be trying to capture it? Is that a photograph you will look back on and feel truly pleased with?

Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in the moment; there are so many unexpected encounters and breath-taking scenes that it’s easy to snap the shutter first and think later. But I try my hardest when I’m out with my camera, to give back a little peace and space to the wildlife that has already given me so much.


Written by: Jeni Bell