Confessions of a Former Unethical Photographer

Thursday, March 2, 2023

 I have a confession - I haven't always been an ethical wildlife photographer. That hurts to say, but it's true. I used to get too close, too loud, stay too long, follow stressed animals around, and post locations of sensitive species on social media. You're probably asking yourself why I did these things if I knew they were wrong. I was new to photography and I was excited. But most importantly, I didn't know. Until one day, a couple experienced photographers called me out. And I was offended - boy, was I offended. How could I be unethical? I had been an animal lover my entire life! I didn't cut branches or destroy habitat, I didn't use playback, I didn't use flash, I didn't bait, and I would never intentionally harm an animal. But they were right - I was unethical

It all started with an entry-level digital camera and this guy right here, a Barred Owl.

Barred Owl preparing to fly

This Barred Owl was my "spark bird", the one who inspired me to pursue birding as a hobby and to take my photography more seriously. It was 2010 and I was 20 years old, I had just been gifted a DSLR after graduating college and I was excited to use it. This owl was the perfect subject. I spent a lot of time with him at a local conservation area - too much time. Though he was generally used to people, he gave me plenty of signs that he didn't want to be bothered: wide eyes staring at me, rigid & long body posture, head swiveling back and forth looking for an escape route, flying away. But I didn't take those hints, because I didn't know what he was trying to tell me. I'd often follow him when he flew so I didn't miss out on any action. He never went far, so I assumed he wasn't too bothered by me (I now know it's because Barred Owls have such a small territory and will get into disputes if they cross into another owl's area). I thought this was what wildlife photography was all about, and I was excited to experience it. There are some moments with that owl that I look back on fondly, where I would sit at a distance and just watch as he flew around without a care, or sleep in the afternoon sun. Those were truly meaningful moments that I gained knowledge from. The rest of the time I spent with him I regret, and I often wonder how many meals he missed out on because of my selfish behaviour.

After photographing the Barred Owl for a while, owls and raptors were the only things I wanted to photograph. This was for a couple of reasons, 1) they were fascinating to watch, 2) I had a very limited range zoom lens at the time and couldn't get close-ups of smaller birds unless they were very close. With large birds I didn't have to get as close to get photos of them - but as you now know, I did anyway.

I wasn't just unethical when it came to owls. Here's another example:

Osprey giving warning call

See this photo of an Osprey family? Momma Osprey was letting me know that I was way too close. Did I take the hint and leave? No, I stayed and took photos of an angry, stressed out parent trying to protect her kids. This wasn't because I didn't care about their well-being, I just didn't know any better. I didn't know how my actions could impact their lives. I didn't know that by me staying at that nest, clicking away that I was costing those birds a meal (or more).  I was on the ground, they were up high on a platform, so I didn't feel I needed to leave because I knew I wasn't a threat. But to her, I was. 

In the end, none of the photos I took in those early days were "good" photos. At the time I thought they were amazing, like most budding photographers do. Now all I see are my mistakes, both technical and behavioural. 

Barred Owl sleeping in the sun, taken at a safe distance with a 600mm lens

After coming to the realization that my behaviour while photographing birds and other wildlife was causing them stress, I took a step back from photography and really started learning about animal behaviour. The ironic thing is, the college program I had just graduated from was in the veterinary field. I knew domestic animals, but my knowledge didn't seem translate well to wildlife. The more I learned, the more I began to appreciate what wildlife have to go through to survive. Every minute counts for them, and sometimes a minute could mean the difference between life or death. 

I changed my entire approach to photography. I invested in a long range telephoto lens, I gave up on chasing rare species and focused on what was local to me, and I dropped my habit of taking only close up photos. I started going out just for the experience, not the photos. Not that the experience didn't matter to me in the beginning, but it all had a deeper meaning now. I was in it for the animals, to share their beauty, their journeys, to share what I had learned that makes them so important. Even now, over a decade later, I don't claim to be perfect. I certainly still make mistakes in the field and question my actions - but that is growth. My fumbles help me learn and further develop my code of ethics. 

Red Fox juvenile; photo taken at a safe distance with a 600mm lens, at ground level

In the field of wildlife photography, whether someone is an amateur or a professional, it's important to remember that we are dealing with living beings. They have their own plan for the day, their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. Their own families, friends, and enemies. They are not just "models" or "subjects". They are living beings. Our actions, no matter how insignificant they may be to us, have the ability to negatively impact their lives in ways we may not comprehend. Ultimately, I believe wildlife photography should showcase the natural world while interfering with it as little as humanly possible. To share with those who may not be able to experience it themselves, and to help make life better for the wild lives we coexist with.

If my story reminded you of yourself, don't be ashamed. Most photographers started out the exact same way, whether they've said it out loud or not. Have this conversation with other photographers and birders. Help the community grow into a safe space where we can be open about our mistakes and learn from one another. This is simply a case of "when we know better, we can do better".

We can do better.

Striped Skunk family; photo taken at safe distance with a 600mm lens

To learn more about ethical wildlife photography and viewing, check out some of my previous blogs:

- Shayna

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