What is a natural photograph?

Photo by Vic Berardi

Photo by Vic Berardi

Sometimes as nature photographers, our minds focus too much on getting a good photograph, instead of just enjoying nature and being there to capture some of the light we come across.

It’s important to keep nature natural, and I’ll tell you a story to help illustrate what I mean. It’s about the ethics of attracting animals by “baiting” them–feeding them in an effort to get them to come closer to you, so you can get a photograph.

Journey of the Snowy Owl

A few species of owls, in particular the Snowy Owl, Great-gray Owl and the Northern Hawk Owl, migrate down into the lower 48 states during the winter months and occasionally take up temporary residence in urban areas. This is true for other birds of prey including hawks such as Rough-legged Hawks and Western Red-tailed Hawks.

As many photographers know, capturing photos of wild birds is quite difficult and capturing spectacular photos is near impossible unless you have unlimited patience and the right techniques.

Why do you take photographs?

Most people take photos for that final spectacular shot to show that they’ve achieved something. We do it first for ourselves, then we share that photo with others.

However, it’s the “what” we do that doesn’t seem to cross our minds. The lure of a wild owl migrating down from the arctic or some remote region to the north ignites something in all of us. It’s the wilderness coming to us instead of us going to it. But is it?

Think of that Snowy Owl that migrates down from the arctic. Most that do are juveniles less than a year old. Most of the adults stay in the arctic. When we take a photo of a Snowy Owl near a city on an empty corner lot that isn’t exactly what I would call a shot taken in the wilderness. It’s a shot taken of an occurrence, an illusion of the wilderness.

The use of “bait,” such as live mice or a chunk of chicken liver, increases the chances for this illusion and it fools everyone. Most importantly though, it fools the owl. Ethics are traded for aesthetics.

Sure, many will find justification in what they do and many others will compliment them for their final result. But, I need to know one thing. Why do we want to tame a wild animal? For any reason other than to take away something it has and we want?

There is nothing natural about these methods–only deception. Evolution and the natural process are abated and replaced with urgency.

How to take natural photographs

For those who want good photos from a naturalist point of view, a few things need to be kept in mind:

  • Why are you taking the photo in the first place?
  • For money?
  • For accolades?
  • For personal records of what you’ve seen?

Answer these questions first and you may find out more than you think.

To get truly natural photographs, you need to have:

  • Patience
  • Persistence
  • A very good knowledge of the subject’s behavior and habits

This all takes time–sometimes lots of time. But, the reward for taking photos this way is far greater than the shortcuts many take to achieve what they alone think is acceptable.

The photo at the beginning of this article is of a dark morph Western Red-tailed Hawk, and was taken over the course of 20 plus hours of observation and patience. I won’t go into the long details, it may even take 20 hours to explain, but this particular hawk did something predictable based on those observations and I happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Completely natural and the bird never knew I was there. Neither did its evolutionary soul. That is a natural photograph.

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vicbAbout the Author: Vic Berardi is a raptor lover that lives in the Midwest. He is the founder of the Illinois Beach State Park Hawk Watch and every weekend of the year you’ll find him searching for hawks and photographing them. Several of his photographs have been published in a leading raptor journal and in articles he has written. During the year he gives presentations teaching others about hawks and hawk migration. Vic also photographs dragonflies and wild flowers and is always respectful of nature and its creatures..


  1. Vic Berardi says:

    Thanks Crista, glad you enjoyed the article! Keeping wild things wild is what the Photo Naturalist is all about. I visited your site and really like what you’ve done with wildflowers, nice photos!

  2. So glad you’re writing about this. It never occurred to me that people would bait animals to get a shot, but it makes sense. Thank you for advocating relationship first, photos second. I can’t help but think of Barry Lopez’s essay, “Learning to See.” While it’s not entirely relevant, if you haven’t read it, I think you might appreciate some of his philosophy.

  3. Vic Berardi says:

    Lene, glad you liked this article and thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  4. Siddharth Jain says:

    Dear Vic,

    Really appreciate your thoughts and vision. A downfall in the ethics has creeped in every section of life.

    Coming to wild life, humans tend to forget that this earth can go on without us but not without these animals who are much so important for the natural balance. The people who don’t agree with me may have a look at the present state of ecosystem which is nothing but the human interference with the normal course of nature.

    People who snap the wilderness in a round about manner, please don’t call yourself nature photographers.

  5. Vic Berardi says:

    Thanks Siddharth, your comments are much appreciated!

  6. Pepe Guitarra says:

    Thank you, I want to be a naturalist photographer. You explained very clearly.

  7. Vic Berardi says:

    Thank you Pepe! Good luck in your endeavors!

  8. Dr.Varun Kumar says:

    Hi Vic,

    Thanks for writing such useful and inspiring article. In fact, most of us go and shoot with a hope to capture the best but only those succeed, who are present at the right place, at right moment and only with the ‘right attitude’ towards nature. Please keep writing.


  9. Hello Vic, Good message. One has to be at the right place & at the right time. Not only that but one should have studied behaviour of moving objects like birds set the camera at right aperture and at right shutter speed. The photo at the beginning of this article is of a dark morph Western Red-tailed Hawk, is excellent!!! Will u pls. inform ASA, Aperture and shutter speed. We will try catching birds around our home with those setting. Thanks for sharing your knowledge as it is only knowledge that can be shared

  10. Yes,very good ,such a really very nice post by steve,i totally agree with steve,

  11. Thanks very much for promoting this stance. I don’t bait animals, and don’t agree with baiting — the owl’s sake, for the sake of the mice, and because of the environmental intrusion. I’m always skeptical of those prize-winning owl shots, particularly when you consider an owl’s natural behavior and how, often, the owls are flying toward the photographer in flight patterns that suggest landing right in front of the camera. It’s a shame that those who engage this behavior cast this shadow over raptor photography.

  12. wow… why would anyone ever think of “baiting” wild animals….
    I have to agree with Len, that concept never even occured to me. Unfortunately, now I will look at some “Nature” photos with new {maybe a bit suspicious?} eyes.
    I go out on the trails every day with hope of just seeing some cool wildlife, and possibly being allowed to make a great photograph. Most of my Nature photos are just lucky shots. Such as this Roadrunner I saw on the trail one day…
    It was just right there in front of me… wow oh wow… I didn’t even know what it was… then when it went into the brush, I thought that photo session was over… but noooo… it came back out and showed me it’s prize. I felt really bad for the little lizard, because I love photographing lizards, but I guess that is the circle of life.
    thanks for this great post.

  13. Vic Berardi says:

    Thanks, glad you liked the post!
    Great Roadrunner pics!!

  14. Thanks Vic.
    I appreciate you taking the time to view them.
    On my hike today, I saw a red tailed hawk teaching her fledgling? how to fly. I guess that’s what they were doing. Sadly I did NOT get any photos, but did enjoy watching them.
    I also saw a red winged black bird that I did not even know were in California. Photos on fb soon 😉


  15. Hey, the hawk probably noticed you but decided that you were no threat because you were just sitting there.

  16. Beate Curran says:

    Vic, I couldn’t have said it better myself. I totally agree with your comments. It would never occur to me to bait wildlife for the sake of getting a picture. Spending time in nature is as enjoyable & important to me as getting ‘the’ picture. When I do get that picture it’s a bonus and on the days I don’t I’m just getting an extra good workout carrying all that camera gear around. 😉

  17. Vic Berardi says:

    Thanks Beate! Glad you enjoyed the article/post! The important thing is spending time with nature, photos are just the bonus part 🙂

  18. very nice post !!! would look forward for more by you like thsi

  19. Patrick O'Connor says:

    I’m of two minds concerning this topic. Part of me agrees with you and think it’s worthwhile to study animal behavior and get the natural shot. The other part recognizes that not everyone has the time to do this. Some of us have a LOT of other demands on our time. Do we throw up our hands and say, ‘Oh well…no wildlife photography for me.’?
    While I’ve taken photos in both scenarios, I’ve never done it out of any sense of achievement. I like looking at wildlife through the lens of my camera. I don’t always even take the picture.
    And, in those cases where I have baited, I’ve not done so in a way to the detriment of the wildlife in question.


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