Confessions of a Once Unethical Wildlife Photographer

When an animal stops its natural behavior to look up, you are too close.

Like many enthusiasts, I unintentionally stressed the wildlife I sought to promote and preserve. 

Here is what I learned from the Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Photography and Videography. 

In the excitement of the moment, it’s easy to approach a foraging or nesting bird so closely that they become agitated.  I confess that before I read the Audubon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography, I was such an offender.   

The birds suffered and my photos suffered as well.

You may have similar images: Egrets, Herons, Spoonbills and Anhingas peering straight at the camera, hunched into an aggressive posture and squawking with their bills wide open.

The goal of ethical bird photography is to capture the natural behavior of wildlife without stressing the subject.

Animals behaving naturally make much better photos. Now, during mating and nesting season, January through May it is particularly important to keep 25 to 50 yards away from nests, use a long telephoto lens and hike only the trails prescribed by the park rangers. 

In the last decade, we Floridians have learned well to protect Sea Turtles.  We don’t bring a flashlight to the beach to shine on nesting Loggerheads, and we would not think of touching a hatchling that is scrambling for its life across the sand toward the Atlantic.  

Keeping your distance creates more interesting photos by including the subject’s habitat.

Using a flash to capture that “hard to see” owl is an equally bad idea. 

I confess that I did this once, and was called out by a more seasoned birder. I’ve learned my lesson: Its tempting to post Owl photos on social media as they are so rare and beautiful., but now I know its best to not disclose the location and create a “Owl Crowd”. Again, this is something I have done in the past, and will not do in the future. 

A fledgling Barre Owl, photographed in natural light (no flash) from across a pond with a 600mm lens. Audubon’s Ethical Guidelines for Photography and Videography suggest not posting on social media the location of Owl nests–so as to not create an “Owl Crowd” of photographers.

Each fall, I travel to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks to give landscape and wildlife photography workshops.  We seek out and photograph bears, bison, elk and moose amid dramatic backdrops of fog shrouded rivers and sunlit mountain ranges.  It would not cross our minds to get close to large animals such as these. Now, I know that lesson applies equally to nature’s smallest creatures. 

Check out Florida Audobon’s Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography at