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Photographing Wildlife Up Close… the Right Way

Usually, my articles have a lighthearted note, full of photography wit and wisdom (bite your tongue, let me cling to my illusion.) But, I’m going to get a little serious in this one. I am a firm believer that to be a better nature photographer, you have to be a better naturalist – a continuous student and passionate observer of the natural world and all its creatures. To do so requires a core code of ethics; there are lines that you just do not cross in pursuit of your nature pictures.

With wildlife, it is very tempting to try to get closer and closer to completely fill the frame with whatever critter you are photographing. Partly, it is the enjoyment of having a wild animal accept you into their world for a moment. Partly, it is the opportunity to see them up close where you can make shots of behavior, markings, etc, which you can only achieve by being near them.  It can be a difficult and slow process, but a very rewarding one, when done right and with respect for the animal.

Two Rules

While there are a few more points to my personal code of nature photography ethics, this is where mine starts when it comes to wildlife observation and photography. When deciding whether to get closer or not, let these two rules be your foundation.

  • No photo is worth harming the animal or environment you are photographing
  • The most important thing about your photography trip is getting back home safely

I know I have said in other articles that the most important thing about rules in photography is knowing when to break them. But ignore that rule when it comes to this, and don’t ever break these two!

Should I Try to Get Closer or Stay Put?

Will getting closer stress the animal or pull them off their hunting/mating/nesting/etc.?

Let’s say it again, all together now: “No photo is worth harming the animal or environment you are photographing!”

If it will, there is no reason you should move closer. When you stress an animal, they are either going to flee or defend themselves, “fight or flight”. Either situation is not good, for the animal or you!

Start by making the most of the images you can create from the distance you are at. The best thing to do when you see an animal is to stay put and observe first. Patience is always the best approach to wildlife photography. Most animals display body language, some very subtle and some very obvious. Watching for this will tell whether they are feeling stressed about your presence, and what they are likely to do next. By simply being patient and observing, this also gives the animal time to decide that you are not a threat, quelling their “fight or flight” instincts.

Royal terns have a complex courtship ritual where the male offers a fish to a prospective mate. By first observing from a distance, I was able to learn the intricacies of this behavior, including the unique calls they would make to each other. Then I slowly eased closer to capture this photo of their interaction, without interrupting them.

 

Will getting closer put me in danger?

Too many times we can get so caught up in photographing an animal that we lose perspective of how close we have gotten, and the potential danger we have put ourselves in. Just how close do you want to get to a large bull elk during the rut? Those guys can get downright disagreeable during that season! Looking through the lens gives us a sort of tunnel vision that can give us a false sense of safety. Don’t put yourself in a place where you have no route out, or where you have cornered an animal, making them feel as if they have to defend themselves. Always let safety be your guide!

A bull elk is a very large, hormonal, and protective animal. His antlers alone are probably longer than you are tall, and he is a lot bigger and faster than you are. The last thing you want is for him to feel you are a danger to him or his herd. Respect, distance, and understanding body language are key to getting good images while staying safe!

 

What shots are you hoping to get?

In my article “9 Tips to Put More Life into Your Wildlife Photos” I introduced the concept of previsualization. Previsualization is being able to see the image in your mind’s eye before you press the shutter release. It’s a key skill for wildlife photography. While it is important to have these ideas, don’t let your desire for a particular shot drive you to get too close when it is not in the best interest of the animal or you!

As an example, if you are approaching a sandhill crane, and you want to photograph it launching into the air, realize you need much more room in the frame to get the full wing extension when they flap. If, however, you want bust type portrait photograph, you will have to get reasonably close. While you may be able to capture both types of images with a zoom, you have to be awfully fast to deal with the change in action and composition as it occurs. If you choose to use a prime lens, you will need to pick one situation over the other. If you want that rising into flight shot, just hang back and wait for it. It is okay not to be taking an image every second you observe an animal; be patient, read their body language, and anticipate the action from the right distance. This practice will often give you your best images.

If getting too close makes the shots you hope to get impossible with your given lens, stay put.

Obey the Law

Many species and ecosystems fall under protection laws or conservation acts. There often different rules specific to each place, like parks and refuges. Sometimes in a given ecosystem, you find an animal in may also be protected and off-limits.

Always obey the regulations in place for maintaining safe distances and avoiding disturbance. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. It is up to the photographer to become educated on these rules. If in doubt ask local rangers, biologists, other photographers, or local conservation groups for guidance.

Improper or illegal feeding of wildlife can be very dangerous for both you and the animal. Feeding can have unintended consequences. The saying in Florida is, “a fed gator is a dead gator”. By feeding alligators’ they become accustomed to people. They see us as a food source. They now expect each person they encounter to provide them a snack, which will most likely get the gator reported as a “nuisance” animal. This might result in their being trapped, removed from the area, and euthanized… no exceptions. While the initial person may have just thought it would be cool to see them eat, their actions will ultimately result in the death of that animal.

What if an Animal Moves Toward Me?

Many animals are simply curious, they may be as interested in you as you are in them. This can be a great opportunity to get some very different and intimate shots. However, you need to be mindful of any potential danger and make sure you have a way out of the encounter. Seriously, safety first, second, and third!

If I feel I will still be safe and I am obeying the law, I stay put. I always want to avoid causing an animal to feel stressed and kick into fight or flight mode. Letting the animal decide how close you can be is usually the best way to show them respect while staying safe.

I discovered this gray fox denning under an abandoned barn on a working ranch. Because she saw the ranch’s vehicles often, she was very comfortable coming out to hunt while I was photographing from my truck. When I left my vehicle, she became much warier. By using my truck as a makeshift “blind”, she allowed me to capture more intimate shots, without me causing her any stress.

Don’t Fault Your Focal Length

Being limited in lenses is not ever an excuse to ignore the safety of the animal or yourself. If your equipment limits the types of images you can get, you need to either change your gear, change your subject, change your composition, or change your technique. Too often I have seen people putting themselves in extreme danger because they didn’t have the right equipment, but justifying their actions because they want the shot. Yearly, people get injured or die from this practice. True story! This is no joke.

Mother grizzlies are some of the most fiercely protective animals on the planet. This image was shot from a boat where we could safely observe this mom and her cubs, without disturbing them or putting ourselves in harm’s way.

When it’s Time to Leave

Just because you got all the shots you want, doesn’t mean you may jump up and leave. Taking care in the way you disengage is just as important as your care in approaching an animal. Again, patience is key to great wildlife photography! Wait for them to leave, or ease out slowly and calmly. Cause as little disturbance as possible. Take this extra time to observe and learn. Every moment can teach you something new about them.

Be a Role Model, not a Cautionary Tale

I love being a photographer. I have more fun doing this than should be allowed. While I rarely take myself seriously, I do take quite seriously my role as a nature photographer by helping protect the natural world and communicating the importance of it to the public. Be a good example three ways: through your behavior in the field, by educating others, and by reporting inappropriate or illegal behavior.

Each of us represents the photography community when we are out with our cameras. You want the story about you to be “Hey, I met this really cool photographer…”, not “Hey, you won’t believe what this lunatic with a camera did….”

Resources

Below are some links for rules, regulations, and ethical wildlife photography practices:

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