Ethics in nature photography

Ask any nature photographer about ethics, and you'll get the same basic answer: Of course I'm ethical in my work. I have a very strict code of ethics. I'd never dream of doing anything unethical.

But if you dig a little deeper, you'll find that we each have our own definition of "ethical." To some, it means the old wilderness rule that we should "take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints." Some photographers would extend that rule to include having a deep understanding of ecology and animal behavior, in order to ensure that we do nothing that will unduly stress any animal, plant, or ecosystem. Others will argue that ethical nature photography means being careful not to portray any situation or behavior in our photographs that doesn't normally occur in nature. Or they may say it's unethical to photograph a plant or animal anywhere except its natural habitat, claiming that shooting in a studio is not "real" nature photography. And still others will maintain that ethical photography, regardless of its subject matter, requires that we use only single exposures on "normal" film, with no post-exposure manipulation of the images, whether it's done digitally or using traditional darkroom techniques.

So, just for the record, here are some of my thoughts on ethical nature photography:

First, do no harm

Nature magazines, beginning with National Geographic and continuing through the incredible variety available today, have been invaluable in raising public awareness of environmental issues — in fact, I don't believe there would have been an environmental protection movement without them. As part of that movement, it's important for photographers to respect natural systems, and to minimize our own impact on those systems.

We can start by recognizing that we do have an impact, whatever our intentions. When you see a beautiful photograph of a deer looking warily at the camera, you know that — for at least a few seconds, and possibly quite a bit longer — that deer's attention was distracted from foraging, and its stress level was elevated. From the deer's perspective, each photographer is another predator to be avoided.

The best way to avoid putting too much stress on an animal or ecosystem is to learn as much as we can about the lives of our chosen subjects. We need to understand their needs, and know how to recognize when it's time to leave them alone. That's a subjective judgement, of course, but the more we know and observe, the easier that judgement will be.

Manipulating behavior

But wait a minute. I specialize in photographing small animals — lizards, frogs, snakes, bugs — what does it mean to respect their needs? It's just about impossible to approach a reptile or amphibian close enough for a photograph without influencing its behavior. In some cases, just putting a camera or reflector within shooting range has the effect of trapping the animal, closing off its most obvious escape route.

Fortunately, reptiles and amphibians have an effective way of ensuring that photographers respect their needs. If you try to approach a snake, frog, or lizard without an understanding of how it reacts to other animals, it won't stick around long enough to be photographed. And if you corner one, you may get a photo but it won't look "natural."

So I try to approach my subjects in a way that tells them I'm just another part of the landscape — bigger than they are, but essentially harmless. And the only way to do that is to study and understand their behavior. Still, I have to admit that I'm having some effect on them, and I use that fact to my advantage when making a photo.

Captive animals

Sometimes the best way to get a natural-looking photo is to use a captive animal. (As I'm writing this, there are three bullfrogs in an aquarium on my kitchen counter, getting ready for a starring role in my next production.) When I photograph a captive animal, my goal is to portray its natural behavior in a natural setting, with the appropriate plants, rocks, and background. I don't think this is necessarily the only ethical way to photograph animals, but it's the right one for me — especially because most of my clients are factual publications such as textbooks and nature magazines. Occasionally I'll shoot something that's obviously not natural, such as isolating the animal against a plain background, to achieve a particular design or visual effect.

Legal issues

It should be obvious, but I'll say it anyway. Some plants and animals are protected by various state and federal laws, and it's illegal to capture or harm them — or in some cases, to approach closer than a specified distance. It's important for photographers to know which species are protected, and to stay within the legal restrictions. (Those bullfrogs in my kitchen present an unusual situation. It's legal to catch bullfrogs in California, but, since they're not native here, it's illegal to release them.)

Digital manipulation

Manipulation of an image begins with the choice of which film to load in the camera (or which of a hundred settings to use in a digital camera) and includes decisions about the lens, filter, shutter speed, depth of field, and exposure — and that's before you even get to the darkroom, where choices are made about chemicals, paper, exposure, and development. In Photoshop, we have a digital darkroom with an unprecedented variety of tools. Defining an ethical use of those tools can depend on how the photograph is used or presented. Some photos are obviously intended as jokes — even if not everyone gets it. And in advertising photography, we really don't expect reality. On the other hand, some manipulated images can be misleading, and in the worst cases can be fraudulent.

The debate over appropriate manipulation of nature photography will probably never be settled. Sorry, I don't have any general answers. In my work, as I've already stated, I try to show natural behavior and habitats, even when the process of making the photo seems unnatural.