gray fox kit

How to take better, more ethical wildlife photos

gray fox kit
Gray fox kit. (Photo by Sarah Killingsworth, @skwildlifephotos)

Wildlife fascinated me long before I started photographing it. I’ve always been intrigued by animal behavior: what motivates them, the bond between them, how they raise their young, and how human behavior affects their survival. The wildlife I enjoy photographing — such as bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and badgers — are sentient creatures, with family ties, impulses, and instincts. A photo like this, which I took of a young fox kit, looks like I just stepped into its life and pressed the shutter button. But in fact I spent many hours observing this family of gray foxes from a distance, learning their habits for determining when a kit would likely be in a good light spot. A recording like this was made possible by my interest in and respect for the animal.

Developing empathy for wildlife means understanding that a particular animal is not just there to entertain or perform for us. Capturing the beauty of their natural behavior is the essence of my photography.

For the wildlife we ​​photograph, every moment is about survival. Their waking hours are spent feeding, reproducing, and rearing young. Human presence is in itself a disturbance, which can lead to an apparent tension. Wildlife photographers – whether professional or amateur – want to capture an unforgettable photo. And it is typically images that evoke emotion that create the most impact. Still, we care about our photo subjects and want to intrude as little as possible on their lives.

In thousands of hours in the field, I’ve had the chance to not only practice my own skills, but also observe what works and what doesn’t for other photographers. I’ve found time and time again that an ethical approach increases your chances of a memorable photo.

How you behave around wildlife determines the degree of disturbance. Slow, calm movements – avoiding direct eye contact or walking directly towards the animal – while keeping a good distance is best to avoid startling an animal. I try to stay low to the ground and stay still. Taking a quiet look without taking a picture also helps, because the shutter sound is another disturbance. The cumulative impact of multiple disturbances in a short period of time — car stopping, door opening, person approaching, and shutter clicking — will often cause an animal to run away.

Approaching a place or animal with curiosity helps to cultivate patience. You really never know what behavior will unfold (I’m often surprised). Sitting back and waiting gives a photographer the best chance of seeing something unique. While sitting with an animal, I look at that animal and simultaneously scan for other changes in the environment such as other animals entering or leaving the area, bird activity including vocalizations, and changes in light or weather that would affect my camera settings.

By learning the behavior of a particular species, you can anticipate interesting behavior and also recognize signs of stress in the animal. For example, bobcats about to pounce will often crouch low, flatten their ears, and twitch their tails. Coyotes on the hunt will tilt their heads back and forth when listening to a gopher, and just before jumping forward to kill, they will rock backwards a bit. Wood jays sound the alarm when a predator approaches, so listening for a jay is a good indication that a fox or bobcat is approaching.

If you look closely at an animal’s eyes, ears and body position, you will get clues to the level of fear, in addition to listening to sounds. Running away or hiding is an obvious sign of a stressed animal, but before an animal does, it often shows its discomfort in other ways. Badgers try to make themselves look bigger and intimidating by standing up and showing their teeth. Initially, bobcats will flatten to the ground in an attempt to hide; owls will widen their eyes. A gray fox barks at a perceived threat to its kits. Wildlife generally uses the minimum energy required to avoid a perceived threat. By understanding a particular animal, you can recognize subtle cues and then withdraw or go away altogether.

When an animal is relaxed, it will exhibit behaviors such as hunting, grooming, or napping. Parents who feel safe return food to their young, but a parent who perceives a threat may stay away from a nest or den and delay feeding young. If you see a parent circling but not coming in, it’s best to leave and let them feel comfortable enough to reunite with their offspring. Seeing babies of any kind requires extra patience and a calm demeanor, as offspring tend to be more skittish than adults.

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Every photographer has to decide what feels comfortable in the field. For me personally, it’s important not to intentionally manipulate animal behavior. Every action of an animal burns calories that they have to replace. Research shows that attracting predators or birds with carrion (live or dead) can cause behavioral changes that are detrimental to the animal and may also expose the animal to disease.

Ethical Photography Resources

Audubon Ethics Page

North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) Ethical Practices

Some photographers use bird song playback to draw a particular species into the area so they can take a photo or video. I also don’t feel comfortable using bird sounds. Using bird call “playback” in bird apps to obtain pictures or videos of a bird is a complicated topic as the impact of using calls has not been extensively researched. At least one study suggests negative implications for the bird. Audubon’s ethical guidelines refer to “sparing” use of photography/videography calls, with some considerations and limitations when appropriate. Audubon guidelines state that calls should never be used on endangered or threatened birds, or for birds during their nesting cycle, which could leave eggs or chicks vulnerable to attack if a parent investigates the source of the call.

Related to wildlife ethics is etiquette toward other photographers. A photographer who can photograph an animal may have worked hard and waited many hours to get to the right place. Joining them to shoot when uninvited can startle an animal and ruin their shot. Being respectful means waiting to shoot until that photographer waves you in or leaves.

Social media creates other ethical issues. Public sharing of specific locations should be avoided, especially with sensitive subjects such as nests, burrows and babies. Too much human pressure can prevent a parent from tending or feeding the young; it may also cause the fry to move, and the next hiding place may be less secure.

Even with the best of intentions, we all make mistakes. I’ve shot many over the years – whether I didn’t see a photographer in the field or turned a corner and found an animal closer than I expected, it surprised us both. As in all areas of life, we can use mistakes in the field as opportunities to learn and grow. Talking to other photographers and going into the field with ethical guides are great ways to learn. While it may seem intimidating to contact someone you don’t know, my experience has been that wildlife photographers in general are a warm and encouraging group, eager to discuss ethical issues and the best approach.

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