What’s Wrong With This Photo?

Rough-legged Hawk / Photo by Vic Berardi

Rough-legged Hawk / Photo by Vic Berardi

This is a photo of a Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). It breeds in the arctic and migrates southward down into the far southern areas of western Canada and throughout much of the United States where it spends most of the winter. Its journey southward and back again is long and arduous. This particular photo was taken in southern Wisconsin in early March.

Before we get into what’s wrong with this photo, let’s discuss a few good things about it.

At first glance, this is exactly the type of photograph that gets the most attention on forums, listservs and social networks. It might even be a photo that could potentially win a photo contest. Why? Because it captures a dramatic scene that instantly makes the observer feel some kind of emotion.

Technically, the photo is good. It’s reasonably sharp overall. It’s also exposed properly, given the range of tones present (strong whites with deep blacks) and as I mentioned before, it offers some drama.

One might conclude that nothing is wrong with this image, right? Well, okay maybe the bird’s feet could’ve been a bit sharper if I used a faster shutter speed. But if I used a faster shutter speed, then that would’ve required either a wider aperture (which would’ve sacrificed depth of field), or I would’ve had to use a higher ISO (which would’ve added more noise to the photo).

What else? Maybe a look at the shots before or after this one might be better (technically better and artistically better with the same emotional effect). Nope, this is the only shot that came out reasonably well. By the way, the settings on this photo were ISO 400, f/8 @ 1/1000 second. The camera and lens I used was a Canon 7D, and a Canon 500mm f/4 (w/1.4X Canon Teleconverter), handheld with the IS set at Mode 1. The exposure was intentionally pushed to the right, roughly 2/3 overexposed, but more on that in a later post.

How about we look at one of the earlier shots I took of this bird:

Rough-legged Hawk / Photo by Vic Berardi

Rough-legged Hawk / Photo by Vic Berardi

Technically, this shot is equivalent to the first one: properly exposed and reasonably sharp. We might even say that it’s framed/cropped in an acceptable manner. But this one isn’t nearly as dramatic as the first one. The bird is perched and at rest. It might be a good photo for a bird guidebook, but it probably won’t get many “oohs” and “ahhhhs.” Birders and naturalists may enjoy looking at this image, but I think the general public would probably vote for the first one because it’s a much more dramatic image that shows the bird in some kind of action.

So what is it then? Why am I asking that very first question on the first photo?

Here’s why. This second photo shows the bird the way I saw it as I was driving down the road. It was either hunting for food or simply resting. But what happened when I stopped my vehicle to take a photo of it? It stayed in place for approximately 3 seconds and fled in a hurry as seen in the first photo. My presence disrupted its activity. Sure, I got a nice photo and everything, but is this behavior on my part acceptable in terms of the bird’s welfare? There’s a lot of public debate on this and that’s not the point of this post. I merely want to shed light on the fact that as photonaturalists we must take into account what our presence does to wildlife.

All across the world, in many cases, photographers disrupt the daily lives of animals. It can be argued that if the incident is isolated (as was the case when I encountered this bird), there may be little, if any, repercussions. But what if this bird was pursued all day, every day by several photographers or sight-seer’s? Wouldn’t that have a more drastic effect? Just something to think about…

Get more great tips in our free weekly newsletter.

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. Nikhil Sheth says:

    Nice article Mr. Berardi!

  2. Vic I think you’re right to raise the point, as a photographer of wildlife you very quickly become aware of your actions and how it can impact on the wildlife you’re trying to photograph. Wether it be the shutter accidentally flushing a bird (why can’t they be made quiter) or wether it’s some idiot chasing the bird around trying to get an image, sadly here in the UK birdwatchers don’t look to favourably at photographers because of incidents like you describe. I’ve seen it all too often with owls when people will not allow the bird to go about it’s business of hunting, I remember one case of a group of photographers chasing an owl around this field and everytime it tried to rest up on a fence post off they went and chased, it got so tired of all the attention it felt safer perching on a signpost on a busy road running the risk of it being hit by a car rather then the safety of a field.
    It has to be said though in the case you highlight it seems accidental rather then deliberate.

  3. Great Points!!
    I think we should be “very concerned” about our ethics as photographers, and be aware that the actions of a few sometimes have a long term affect on all of us. We have had access to many areas as photographers that hunters have not had, but that is changing due to unethical photographers.
    We have some of the National Wildlife Refuges that we could easily get a permit to access and take photos, but have now been restricted to shooting from the “observation areas” because of people purposefully harassing animals. I personally have watched on two different trips to the Smokies and Cades cove area, had disgraceful harassing of animals occur while I was out photographing deer.

    One thing I think as photographers we need to keep in mind. Any Ethical Hunter will tell you that Unethical use of guns to kill animals is called “POACHING” they are not “hunters”. But anyone with a camera is called a Photographer, ethical or not, we do owe it to ourselves to help police our own,


  4. GREAT point!!! My daughter and I stopped to watch a Golden Eagle a few months ago in a field. I didn’t have my full photo gear, so I was taking shots with a point and shoot just for my daughter’s scrapbook. Another person stopped to watch and then walked toward the eagle. Of course, minutes later we all lost when the eagle flew. It was so extremely frustrating that this person ruining the observation for the rest of us, much less clearly seemed threatening to the bird. Being mindful of the animals we watch and photograph is certainly important. Thanks for raising awareness of this.

  5. Vic: I agree with your article and the comments above. However, I think that we shouldn’t forget that capturing and sharing these inspiring images can also lead to an appreciation of these animals by those who may never see them and possibly help save them. Many people drive the same way to work every day and never look anywhere other than straight ahead. Safer I suppose but they sure miss a lot. If there weren’t images of baby seals for example, nobody would be touched and feel the need to help save them. I think we can all agree that balance and respecting the animal by keeping a certain distance is best. We don’t have to stop and watch every time especially if other photographers are already there. Sometimes, we can stop and just enjoy the visual without raising a camera to our face and clicking away. We have all experienced a bird that just sits there until we raise that big black scary object to our face, making it fly off. If you want a much bigger shot, save for a bigger lens and respect his personal space. Until then, shoot from a distance and enjoy the thousands of images available on the internet or go to your local zoo or rehab facility for a real close experience. Just my opinion.

  6. Vic: I am very reluctant to start down this slippery slope. Harassment is a very ambiguous term. I am getting reluctant to photograph in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park close to my home, because of this. Just as a example, If I am standing with my camera and tripod, weighting for a heron to feed, some case for harassment might be made, or not. Sitting in camouflage clothing watching a winter kill deer might be also, or not.

  7. Seshadri says:

    Thanks for putting this issue out. In India too, there is a lot of such photography happening and being encouraged, knowingly or un knowingly.
    Below is a URL to a study which was done to actually quantify the impact caused on birds and their habitat by photographers.

  8. Great captures!

  9. I was quietly photographing coyotes exhibiting breeding behavior last spring and someone noisily pulled up in their car, slammed the door and charged the fence line to snap a photo. Then she loudly exclaimed to me how wonderful it was to live in the country. The coyotes quickly departed. I didn’t say anything to her, just put up my camera. I should have said something. I will practice in my head what to say next time so that it will be educational but not too offensive. Everyone has to learn. I am remembering some irresponsible behavior I participated in a national park with bears many years ago. Later I thought about it and decided to never do that again.

  10. Well said, Vic.

  11. Brian in Whitby says:

    Thank you for raising this issue. Anyone who ventures in to natural world, should be aware of the stress they may cause to wildlife. Photographers need to be especially aware. However, properly approached, wildlife will adapt to the presence of humans in general and photographers in particular. We have been fortunate the past few years to have a couple of barred owls wintering in the local conservation area. These are probably the most photographed owls in Canada. They seem to be unaffected by the presence of photographers. Fortunately, photographers in this area come with the appropriate equipment. They use long focal length lenses and keep their distance. The owls seem to continue their normal activities having come to understand that humans do not pose a threat to them. They sit on their perch and wait for suitable prey to make an appearance. then fly down to catch it as if no-one was watching. In another conservation area nearby, a pair of great horned owls have successfully nested in the top branches of a white pine despite the constant parade of bird watchers and photographers that visit them daily. The key is to respect the animal or bird and not get too close to them. Think about their ‘body space and keep out of that area that makes them uncomfortable. Watch the behaviour of the subject, a little close observation will tell you if their behaviour changes. If is does, back off and give them a little space. If they are residents of the area, come back another day. If you do not have a lens with sufficient reach, you may be able to, over a period of days or weeks be able to approach them more closely IF you do so gradually.

  12. Thank you Vic for your post. My comment may seem a little harsh but from my observations we are the invasive species. Out of concern we set up reserves, and then make easy access for people. Duh. Professional photographers are competing for photo tours to get to the most remote, exciting and rare species. If they can’t do that then hone in on particular species at national parks, reserves n preserves. In my own photo club people want to go out for the sake of photos they might be able to compete with or sell. All of this can and does at times have unethical results.

    When I have a few people who wish to join me on an outing I remind them of whose yard we are in n to respect that area and creatures as they would their own and how they would feel if it were reversed. I also try to comment when I see any abuses whether photographer or visitor. It sometimes can be done with humor. If we act responsibly then we lead by example and have an opportunity to educate.

  13. Vic Berardi says:

    Thank you all for all the wonderful comments on this post! I’m overwhelmed by this level of support!
    Both Steve and I couldn’t be more appreciative of this degree of interest in a topic that involves each and every one of us as nature photographers! Thanks Again!!

  14. Steve Rubelmann says:

    Insightful perspective that we often don’t think about when in the field. I see this in the Cade’s Cove area every time I am there. People will chase deer and bears all over the fields for a snapshot of an animal with their phone! From an opposite point of view, we people find this type of photography distasteful and call it paparazzi and flee from it; sometimes disastrously.

  15. Sally Bolton says:

    I’m gonna try to be more respectful of their spaces, I always wonder why some do tolerate me sitting in the car taking pics and some don’t at all. Good comments

  16. As a nature photography enthusiast, I appreciate being reminded to give the animals their space. I do not think the isolated incident is detrimental to the bird. Most wildlife photographers try their best not to disturb animals and do not harass them by pursuing them if they didn’t get the “shot”. I think as a group nature photographers are more respectful of wildlife than the general public. You’re always going to have a certain small minority that will do the wrong thing in everything people do. Most nature photographers want to preserve nature not destroy it. You have the heart of a true nature photographer because you did stop and think about it. Maybe your approach will change a little and maybe you will think about it a little more as will other people who read your article. This will only make you a better wildlife photographer and steward of nature as it will for each nature photographer that considers their approach to wildlife. Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  17. Natalie Titus says:

    Thanks for the comments. I am usually taking pictures of people, pets, plants and flowers, and so I hadn’t really thought about this aspect of nature photography. I will definitely keep this in mind should I come across an interesting animal subject.

  18. Vic Berardi says:

    Thanks again for all the favorable comments on this post!

  19. Brian in Whitby says:

    Along a similar line, a friend has suggested that using flash is detrimental to butterflies. What are people’s thoughts on that or on the use of flash in general on wildlife?

  20. I must say, I’ve been guilty once or twice of snapping shorebirds in their distractive behaviour when I’ve inadvertently got too close to their nesting sites, and perhaps unnerving one or two fur seals with my furtive approaches, but I do try not to disrupt wildlife too much, not that I really see much. We have a few forest birds, but Tom Tits and bush Robns are so inquisitive they will sometimes sit on your boot. I rarely see any other photographers on my travels, since I tend to explore off trail in relatively unpopulated areas, but I’m very conscious of my personal impact on the environment. The thing I have to watch out for the most is trampling forest seedlings & shrubs. That can be difficult in the dense forest I explore, but I do my best.

  21. Life is all natural, as are we. We are a part of nature and we will, no matter what, disturb the birds in some way.

  22. This is a brilliant article, so good to read and discuss, I am from Mid North Coast NSW Australia and member of my local bird club, I have just been asked to write an ethics article for our next newsletter and I must say I am on the verge of giving up photography and taking up binoculars full time, I am so cranky and upset at how photographers treat their subject matter and wonder where their so called love of wild life resides.
    There have been a number of ‘incidents’ in our club relating to the photographing of birds and I am so tired of it being all about getting the photo and nothing about the love of wildlife. I blame photography clubs, competitions and personal egos with the desire to look good amongst their peers. I have to give a talk to one of our local photography clubs soon and have made ethics a big part of it!
    I am so glad to see an article from Vic Berardi making the point that if you make the animal move then you disturb its natural behavior.
    I worked for the London Zoo in the education department when I was very young (now retired) and have a passionate concern for the terrible current state of our wildlife. I was hoping photography was being used as an asset for the plight of our wildlife, not a disruptive impact.

  23. Your points are well made and should have an impact on our activities interacting with nature. However, do we really think your points will have a positive impact on the professional nature photographer whose living is this type of photography???

Speak Your Mind


Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.