Ethics of Wildlife Photography

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

One of the very first articles we published here on PhotoNaturalist was about the ethics of baiting owls to get a good photograph. It’s a great article written by my father, Vic Berardi (if you’re new to PN, I highly recommend reading it, as it represents one of our core beliefs here at PN). In the post, my father makes the point that any photo that was captured as a result of baiting an animal isn’t really a “natural” photograph—it’s an illusion of the wilderness.

Sadly, baiting owls is still a problem. And, it looks like we have a new form of baiting to worry about: smartphone apps. Yes, there really does seem to be an “app for everything” these days.

Apparently, there are a few apps that mimic birdsongs which attract birds—allowing you to get a closer shot of them. Of course, using recorded birdsongs to attract birds is nothing new—but, with the growing popularity of smartphones and the ease of using apps, these birdsong apps are causing problems in a few nature reserves.

The problem with these apps is that they can potentially endanger the lives of birds. Using recorded birdsongs to attract birds may draw them away from feeding their young and breeding—something that’s especially important for endangered species.

One of the important things to remember about wildlife is that they spend their entire day looking for food and a mate. And, sometimes finding food is hard—they can’t just go to the grocery store down the street. So, anything that detracts them away from that (such as using a birdsong to attract them to a false mate) can potentially endanger their life.

As nature photographers, I believe our role should be to observe. Instead of trying to attract wildlife, we should sit and wait patiently, observing the world around us—or learn from the coyote and take on a more “opportunistic” approach to nature photography. This approach minimizes our impact on wildlife.

Taking the role of an observer does make nature photography a lot more difficult, but it also makes it a lot more rewarding. You might have to wait for hours in a blind before a bird lands on that perfect branch for you to photograph it.. or you might have to get down on the ground and wait patiently until a butterfly lands on that perfect flower. But, as a result, your photo will capture a truly wild moment. And, that’s what we should strive for as photonaturalists :)

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.


  1. Nice job Steve.

  2. Great article. “Shooting in the Wild” is a book which might interest you. It is about the techniques (good and bad) used by wildlife filmmakers to establish and build shots.

  3. Thank you for raising awareness about problems I didn’t know about. Another misuse of technology. No shortcut allowed. Maybe we should add a little disclaimer, “no animals or birds were disturbed or harmed in the process of taking this photo.” The problem with animals is that they don’t hire lawyers to defend their case. We have to be their advocate, so thank you again for bringing up this animal harrassment issue.

  4. You have touched upon a very least-spoken-of issues in the world of wildlife photography, Steve, and I really appreciate it. I hope people find pleasure not in just shooting the bird, but in making an effort to shoot it.

  5. A very good article and interesting to read.
    Nowadays people are in too much of a rush so when they are out and about in the countryside they do not give themselves time to look and listen to nature.
    I often find that waiting and watching in a location is far more rewarding when you do capture that special moment rather than snapping away with app technology and forced sounds.
    A classic example is when I was waiting for the male heron to come back to the nest to feed his chicks I spotted a tree creeper and later on the Canadian geese led their chicks into the pond below.
    These thing can only be appreciated if you give yourself time to look and stop rushing around wanting that perfect shot straight away.

  6. Adrian O says:

    Excellent article! I’ve stumbled upon some of these “wildlife/nature” photographers websites where they try and justify baiting an animal/raptor. Watching, listening and being in tune with your and the animals surroundings…nothing like it. Thanks for the article.

  7. I can’t stress how much I agree with this philosophy! I know of “Wildlife Photographers” that even bait for snakes, especially rattlesnakes. Sure, if you leave a mouse in a cage the snake can fit into you can get extraordinary shots of the snake having a meal. But this is not wildlife photography. I liken it to special effects in Hollywood. It is illusion, not reality. I have been lucky enough to stumble upon a Whipsnake in the process of squeezing a lizard and swallowing it. I was unfortunate that I dislodged a rock which startled the snake and it headed for the brush, but I was happy it did not regurgitate the lizard as they often will when startled. Rather, it raced into the brush with the lizard about 1/2 to 2/3′s swallowed. It is those moments that make us “Photo Naturalists.” Observing nature, not creating a false nature for the sake of a good photo.

  8. Well said ,Steve!

  9. I find it interesting that this shows as a prime example that we live in a hurried world. Noone is patient enough to wait for anything anymore. The bird apps just assist those who are in a hurry. How can they then enjoy nature. If they want quick photos then perhaps they should visit a zoo.

    Thanks Steve

  10. I have seen the abuse of nature first hand and when brought to the cyberworld 95% agreed that what they are doing is wrong, however, there are still those that think they are masters at photography. Take away the digital camera and Photoshop and the likes and these so called photographers would be hard pressed to get a well exposed photograph. This past winter in Ontario the big attraction for them was to toss a live mouse on a gravel backroad, with the Snowy Owl would fly in for the kill and in the post camera they Photoshop in the beautiful snow covered background. This practice is so wrong, it sickens me.

  11. I agree with you 100% Rick! As a matter of fact I still use my “Old” film cameras on a regular basis. I am also more of a purist. Do I use Photoshop and other technical tools? Yes. But I try and keep it to a minimum. I try very hard to use these tools to only enhance a photo, not change its composition and/or execution. That is not to say that I don’t use those tools to intentionally change a photo’s composition to change the photo from its original state to say…something completely over saturated or over warmed or cooled. But that I usually reserve for landscapes, portraits and the like. My wildlife photography I try and keep as pure as possible. I am that “crazy” photographer that other picture takers see waiting in a blind behind vegetation waiting to photograph a heron or egret, wolf or fox. I’m the one that will sit near a hole in the ground for dusk to arrive and see if a snake or tortoise will appear. For me…those are a few things that separate a photographer from a picture taker.

  12. I am right there with you Steve. I am an “observe only” kind of wildlife photographer and am frankly appalled by the inappropriate use of birdsong apps. Thanks for pointing that out and for your attitude about wildlife photography.

  13. Hi Steve.
    Thanks for all your great tips. Regarding your views on wildlife photography, I fully agree with you, the closer to nature the better, and the greater the reward.
    Thanks again and keep up the great work.

  14. Hello Steve,
    The number one asset for nature photography is PATIENCE.
    In fact, it is an asset for all photography.
    Good article.

  15. Hi there – interesting article. Any kind of observation has am impact on the thing being observed. Be it a sub-atomic particle or a kingfisher. To say that we can observe and record without impact flies in the face of our understanding of the observer effect. Maybe we have to wait so long for the bird to perch on that perfect twig, not because the bird does not perch on the twig very often (and I doubt that we would pick a twig that we have not seen the bird on before) but because the bird has to become used to our presence in its habitat. In other words – until the impact of our presence reduces to a level that is tolerable to the bird. But this is very different from no impact at all.

    Clearly we should all seek to minimise the impact we cause to the things we photograph – and I agree the baiting and call loops are probably unethical – but we can never have no impact. (interestingly – is photographing birds at a feeding table in your back garden unethical?)

    The road to the high moral ground is often muddy, spiked with slippery rock and hard to find.

    But this does not mean we should not try! SM

  16. Great article! I think I will begin using a “no wildlife was enticed or otherwise manipulated to capture this image” statement with all my wildlife images.

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